BACKCOUNTRY HIKING THE TETONS
Majestic snow capped peaks. Bear and moose sightings. Glistening alpine lakes. Sweeping valley views. This is what draws so many hikers each year to Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming for backcountry hiking and camping.
SOKO owners Steve Shriver and Ryan Sundermann, along with Ryan's son Jack, headed to the Tetons for a weeklong hiking and camping trip the week of June 15 this year. The group has traveled together before: “We’ve mountain biked, gone rafting down the Arkansas river. Steve and I have always loved doing that kind of stuff,” Ryan said.
Ryan’s son had always talked about wanting to go hiking in Colorado. In 2013 the three did a climbing-hiking-biking tour and summited two fourteeners. “Steve is a very experienced climber and mountaineer, so I knew it’d be a good opportunity for Jack to get a taste,” Ryan said.
On that trip, they would drive to a trailhead, complete their hike, and drive back to where they were staying. “We were not necessarily well prepared,” Ryan said, “but my son loved it.” They had been wanting to do another trip, this time a full-on backcountry camping excursion, fully prepared with the necessary gear.
Last year, Steve and Ryan went to the Grand Canyon on a SOKO Outfitters trip, and they were supposed to go to Patagonia on another store trip this past spring, but couldn’t because of COVID. So they begin looking into top hiking destinations in the country for a summer trip.
“Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Tetons - that’s the short list,” Ryan said. They had just been to the Grand Canyon, and Yosemite eats up more time in travel since it’s on the west coast. So they decided on Tetons and secured their backcountry camping permits.
“We had the dates picked out in advance, and the first day they opened the park to backcountry hiking and camping was the day we arrived,” Ryan said. “We were among the first six or eight groups to hike in the backcountry there this year.”
On Saturday, June 13, the group headed west in Steve’s camper van, of which he is particularly proud, according to Ryan. “The drive out there was an adventure,” Ryan said. “Even getting coffee is an adventure with Steve. He has lots of great ideas and he makes most of them come true. He’s a great travel companion. Jack is like me, boisterous and loud, and [on the road there is] no one to tell us to calm it down.” They drove 750 miles to Cheyenne, Wyoming, and stayed there for the night.
Climbing in Vedawoo, Wyoming
Wanting to get in a little practice for backcountry climbing, the next day the trio stopped in Vedawoo, Wyoming, a popular climbing destination. “It looks like people dropped school-bus sized blobs of cookie dough on top each other,” Ryan explains of the big, smooth rocks.
They did some practice rope work, climbing and belaying. “I was at bottom while Jack was at ropes on the top,” Ryan said. “I went to go get them afterwards and I realized how steep and treacherous it was… deep caverns between rocks that dropped down 40 feet. It made me hesitate to jump over the cracks.”
After climbing, the group drove to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which is right next to the National Park. Their backcountry permit was for Wednesday through Friday nights, so they got a hotel for the night. Once settled in, Steve shared that when they had taken off their shoes to take down their ropes in Vedawoo, he had sheared off a quarter-sized chunk of skin on the bottom of his forefoot. It would be hitting the ground every time he took a step. Ryan bandaged it up for him and they hoped for the best.
Jenny Lake Day Hike
On Monday morning, the trio headed into Grand Tetons National Park and went to Jenny Lake, a beautiful, picturesque lake with Grand Teton rising 13,500 feet in the background. One of the benefits of COVID was that the crowd was about half its usual June size.
The first thing they did was talk to the rangers, which Ryan strongly recommends on any backcountry excursion. “They hike canyons every day. They know which passes are good, bad, and what the trail and animal and water situations are like,” Ryan said.
Although they had done plenty of research prior to the trip on routes and route conditions for the time of year, nothing compares to up-to-date information from those on the ground. Since the backcountry had just opened for the season, the ranger recommended they speak to the high mountain rangers.
“We told them we were considering trying to summit Grand Teton or Middle Teton, and he looked at us like we were crazy,” Ryan said. “It’s as if he were saying, ‘If I don’t know you and haven’t heard of you, you’re probably not able to summit this time of the year.’”
The ranger informed them that the peaks were still snow covered, and only one ranger had summited this year. It’s an amazing snowy summit, but very steep, and they’d need crampons, snow shoes, and ice axes. In August and September, when the snow is clear, anyone who is in good shape can do it. Early to mid-June is a different story, when temps are still high 20s, low 30s on the mountain.
So they decided to do a couple of preliminary climbs. On Monday, they hiked around Jenny Lake, which sits at 6,700 feet.
Yellowstone National Park Day Trip
After the Jenny Lake hike, Steve’s foot was raw, and their backcountry pass didn’t begin until Wednesday night, so they decided to take a day and head to Yellowstone National Park, only a about an hour drive north of Jackson. The park requires a lot of driving to get around, but the views are beautiful, particularly of Yellowstone Canyon and various mountain passes.
While Old Faithful was a bit of a letdown for the group, they enjoyed the Grand Prismatic hot spring and got some cool photos. Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and its beautiful colors are the result of microbial mats around the mineral-rich water.
Prior to camping in the backcountry on Friday, the group camped in various United States Forest Service (USFS) campsites. Often, the National Park campsites are full, but the USFS has plenty of campgrounds that operate on a first-come, first-serve basis and require only a nominal fee. “I’d encourage people to check with us forestry service,” Ryan said. “You can pull over on the side of the road and camp anywhere. But if you pay $12 you can get a firepit, bathroom, and access to water.”
They stayed in a USFS campground called Pacific Creek that night, and they were the only ones there. They saw gazelles, and grizzlies in the distance; cooked dinner over the campfire; and played some ukulele.
They woke up in the RV in the morning in what was basically a blizzard. For 20 minutes it poured ice snow and slush. “We’re like, oh man, we’re supposed to go into backcountry today.”While the road was muddy when they left and the snow was melting, the ranger told them there was a ton of snow in the hills.
Amphitheater Lake Hike and ATV Fun on the Forestry Roads
The ranger they spoke with earlier in the week recommended the Amphitheater Lake hike in Grand Tetons National Park as a good preliminary hike, so they decided to do a day hike due to the snow. The trail goes from 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet, where the lake is on the hike. You can make it up and back in 5-6 hours. They saw a mother grizzly and her two cubs on the way up.
When they started hitting snow, they lost the trail. “You could tell from tracks maybe only 10-12 people had been up there this year,” Ryan said. They used the All Trails app to keep on the trail - a tool he highly recommends. You can download maps for the area you’ll be hiking ahead of time, and the app uses GPS/satellite to locate you. It’s definitely a helpful tool in the backcountry to avoid getting lost.
At Amphitheater Lake, just below 10,000 feet, a huge rock bowl surrounded them. They practiced ice axe work and self-arresting, which is a technique for stopping yourself from falling on steep, icy slopes.
As they were leaving, they saw the top part of a rainbow. “Steve made a leprechaun joke at Jack and me, because we’re short,” Ryan said.
After a night at Atherton Creek Campground on Lower Slide lake, another USFS campground, they decided again to delay heading into the backcountry because they would have ended up sleeping on the snow, which “didn’t seem like the right scenario,” Ryan said. So on Thursday they rented a four-wheel ATV to use on the forestry service roads. They found a place with one vehicle left, but Ryan recommends reserving early and ahead of time.
“It was GREAT,” Ryan said. “We went from 5,000-9,000 feet onto a plateau on the east side of Jackson Valley, looking across as Grant Teton. You’re level with the clouds and see amazing views. You gotta have good gear because you’re going through mud and it gets cold quickly.”
After four hours of ATV fun, the group headed to a big RV park called Gros Ventre, close to the road so they could get an early start Friday morning as they finally embarked upon their backcountry adventure.
Backcountry Camping in the National Park
They headed back to Jenny Lake on Friday morning. From here, there are several popular and picturesque routes into the backcountry. The original plan, when they planned to camp in the backcountry for three nights, was to go up Paintbrush Canyon, past Solitude Lake, and down the North Fork of Cascade Canyon. However, it was Friday and they now had only two days and one night so they had to choose, so they decided to go up Cascade Canyon and camp in the South Fork for one night, then come back down the way they came. Plus, Paintbrush Canyon was still closed at the top due to snow; no one had hiked through there yet this year.
So, they took a ferry across Jenny Lake to the base of Cascade Canyon, which saves an extra hour and a half of walking around the lake (which they had hiked on Monday). They started off hiking 4.5 miles from Jenny Lake up through Cascade Canyon, to where the North and South Fork meet. They passed a beautiful waterfall, plenty of scenic lookouts, and two moose deep in the bushes. Ryan said this would make a gorgeous day hike if you’re not heading into the backcountry.
They headed into South Fork for a couple of miles, and they found “the most stunning campsite you can imagine.” They wanted to camp before the snow started getting deep, and at this site you could get in the water, there was a panoramic view of the South and North forks going up, and “marmots everywhere... Red, brown, spotted ones, sniffing us out, checking out our food,” Ryan said. “We set up our camp, ate lunch, poked around, sat by the stream, took a bath in water… and when we realized we had two to three hours of daylight left, we told jokes and stories and had a rock stacking contest.
They all three slept in a three-person tent for the night. “The three of us laid in our tent, packed like sardines, and watched two episodes of The Office that Steve had downloaded to his phone.”
In the morning they wanted to see how high they could get, so they went up South Fork another half mile, and the trail became completely snow packed. There was 6-8 feet of snow in places. The trail followed Cascade Stream, and there was lots of marsh on either side so the trail veered from the stream in places. They again relied on the All Trails app to keep them on the trail. Ryan cautions that while it is really helpful and shows your location within 10-15 meters accuracy, you shouldn’t absolutely rely on it - definitely have paper maps and someone who knows how to read them. Nat geo maps are a great option.
“We did put on snowshoes at one point, we were hiking up the snow, and out of nowhere this guy runs toward us in shorts, a t-shirt, running shoes, and a hip pack. No one had passed us all day. He said that last week he camped at the base of the canyon and ran over to Idaho, and now was running back to his car. He said he loved it this time of year because he didn’t have to stick to the trail, he just had to follow the river. So we just followed this trail runner’s footprints up another mile, 2.5-3 miles up, and then turned around.”
They had a 5-hour hike down to Jenny Lake yet, and they were planning on leaving back to Cheyenne that night. So they walked all the way back downstream on a bluebird day, past beautiful waterfalls, and past their campsite.
When they got back to the point where South and North Fork meet, they started seeing people again -- and animals. The wildlife viewing was incredible on the way back down Cascade Canyon. They saw a female moose right on the trail, which ran away when Steve went to get his camera out; a black bear; and a huge bull moose with velvety antlers. They saw all three animals within 15 minutes.
Ryan said if they had encountered a grizzly, they were prepared. They had a big can of bear spray, and a bear canister for food. If you get a backcountry pass, you are given a bear canister, but they got a nice lightweight one from SOKO that was easier to carry.
They got back to Jenny Lake, took the ferry back across, got to their car, and made phone calls to let people know they were back. As they were leaving Jackson Hole, they saw a gigantic herd of bison all along the highway. They headed back to Cheyenne and stayed there Saturday night.
“And then we hightailed it back home on Father’s Day and had a steak dinner when we arrived.”
Ryan talked about the importance of good gear on the trip, especially in the backcountry.
“The higher you get and more dangerous you get, the more time you need to build in in case of bad weather. You can find great places to hike that are not as strenuous as backcountry. But if you’re going up there, you better have all the right stuff.”
In particular: “Have the right pants, shoes, socks, emergency blanket, cooking gear - if you don’t have it you’re at risk of getting stuck. You gotta pay attention. Mother nature gives you the warning you need.”