Not gonna lie: I felt like a pansy for sleeping in a hotel after abandoning our campsite. I felt weak, I felt soft, I felt very un-wildernessy. I couldn’t face one of my biggest fears which made me feel like I wouldn’t experience this magnificent place in a natural way.
But honestly? All those feelings dissipated the morning after I woke up in that hotel in Jackson.
I felt like an entirely new person. I popped out of bed at the sound of the 6 a.m. alarm, packed up all our food for the day, and corralled a still-pretty-sleepy husband out the door—all in 45 minutes. We had a sunrise to catch!
Well, we mostly caught the sunrise. The sun was pretty high in the sky by the time we made it to Antelope Flats. The site was already crowded two dozen amateur and professional photographers. This historic Mormon community site is on the south side of the Grand Teton National Park, and the barns provide a quintessential sense of rustic living with the Teton range behind them. Photos of these barns show up all over the place if you Google Grand Teton. Even though it’s a little too “tacky postcard,” I’ll admit that it’s a pretty cool aspect of the park.
Even so, the barns weren’t our main objective (shocking, actually, if you know me). Hiking was our primary goal and we wanted to get on the trail. Since we skipped the main Moose Junction visitor’s center the first two days in the park, we stopped in and asked about trail conditions for Paintbrush Canyon and Death Canyon: both recommended by Ryan, our Teton-insider friend.
Paintbrush still had a lot of snow and ice in the upper parts the trail, so that was off-limits to us. However, the ranger confirmed our rental Altima could handle the rough two-track drive to the Death Canyon trailhead. Death Canyon it is.
The road was a little bumpy, but we made it close to the trailhead and set off into the woods. It was quiet and we were alone for the majority of our hike even though there were a few dozen cars parked along the road. As we found out later, this is a popular trail leading to a lot of backcountry sites for those looking to see the wild side. For us, it would just be a steady uphill day hike.
A mile in, we were surprised by a positively stunning overlook of Phelps Lake. We weren’t expecting this and the view astonished us. The visibility seemed infinite, and the sapphire water perfectly reflected the world bordering the lake. We caught our breath at the overlook for a few minutes, as it was an uphill climb to this spot, and then we began descending down towards the lake we just admired.
At the bottom of the hill, there are two choices: head left to the shore of Phelps Lake, or head right and start climbing into Death Canyon. We ran into two travelers from South Africa who took a different route along the lake and they said it was pretty nice. Even so, we had our sights set on climbing up, up, and up.
And up, up, up we did. Holy CRAP, did we climb. We wound up switchbacks tight against the mountain face, flipping back and forth as we gained serious elevation in not a lot of time. The trail was pretty rocky, which was already tricky going up, so we knew it would be a lot harder coming back down as we tried to find footing. Even so, we couldn’t think about going down yet, because we still had a long way to go up.
We tried hiking in 20-30 minute increments before stopping to catch our breath. The views of the canyon were some of the most incredible scenes I’ve ever seen. We could see back out over Phelps Lake, and down into the rolling river below us. We could also see across the canyon to the sheer, craggy mountains opposite where we were hiking. I tried to minimize my photo taking because it was too much to capture. I knew it wouldn’t translate to photos, but I had to try.
Eventually, the trail flattened out and we found a remarkably beautiful spot for lunch. There was a grassy patch right alongside the rollicking river, dotted with large boulders for sitting and tall trees casting a cool shade despite the sweltering heat. It was like something out of a dream. We plopped down, ate lunch, hydrated as much as possible without depleting our water supply, and marveled at the scene around us.
Turns out, we stopped for lunch only a few minutes away from the trail junction we’d set as our turnaround destination for this hike. We hiked faster than anticipated and had only planned on doing this hike today. While deciding what to do next, a fellow hiker passed by and told us the wildflowers in the canyon’s valley were astounding, so we thought we’d go on a bit further.
As we entered this section of the trail, we were glad she’d given us the heads-up: everything was in bloom. The flowers and lush greenery around us played in the light breeze under the steep, monotone mountain walls. We could see waterfalls descending from high up in the mountains, falling hundreds of feet towards the ground where we stood. Birds darted around and filled the air with song. I couldn’t stop thinking that this, truly, was the most beautiful place I’d ever been in my life.
After a long stroll deeper into the canyon, we decided to turn back. We’d already hiked five miles or so, and we knew the route back had some steep ascents despite being a primarily downhill trek. The expansive landscape filled our vision on the way back down the canyon, just as it had on the ascent, and we did our best to remember every bit of it.
As we noticed on all our hikes, the trail was considerably more crowded with people going up as we made our way down. Starting at 8, 9, or almost 10 a.m. always seems late to early risers like us. Apparently, we were still ahead of the crowds. By the time we’d climbed the strenuous path back up to the Phelps Lake overlook, we’d easily passed fifty people heading up into the canyon or gazing out at the lake. It was early afternoon when we made it back to the car, thoroughly exhausted yet spiritually fulfilled.
There was one request I had after a sweaty, physically-demanding hike: a lake shower. We drove nearly an hour to the north side of the park, to a picnic area at Jackson Lake. Stripping down to our skivvies, we waded out into the crisp, glacier-fed lake. It felt just like an August dip in Lake Michigan: a quick jolt of cold shocking my lungs followed by an immediate calming of my mind and soul as my body eased into the water’s cradle.
It was the perfect way to end our day.