Updated: Nov 10, 2022
The western wildfires of 2020 have been like none I’ve ever seen before. Since late July, there have been twelve separate wildfires throughout Colorado, burning a total of nearly 300,000 acres. The Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction has burned over 139,000 acres, making it the largest fire in Colorado state history. The Cameron Peak fire northwest of Fort Collins has now burned over 100,000 acres and continues to spread. Three weeks ago, there was one day where Denver’s air quality ranked second worst in the world after Dubai.
A map of the western wildfires of 2020. Map taken from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/fires-map-tracker.html
These numbers are dwarfed by the historic conflagrations in California and Oregon. 33 people have now died and more than 3.1 million acres have gone up in flames. The August Complex fire recently became the largest fire in modern California history. It currently has burned over 875,000 acres, mostly in the Mendocino National Forest. The skies over San Francisco are an infernal orange and people are referring to the fires with words like “apocalyptic” and “cataclysmic.”
A NOAA satellite image dated from August 20th showing the smoke from the California fires drifting 600 miles offshore (GOES-17/NOAA)
All this happening now during the life-altering COVID-19 pandemic, widespread police brutality, the associated social protests, and a complete lack of administrative leadership in this country has me wanting to crawl into some alternative universe to hide from it all. Instead, we set our sights once again on a backcountry area that had been spared recent thrashings from the flames.
We set out to spend Labor Day weekend in Grand Teton National Park, an area we had driven through last year on our way to Yellowstone but never spent any serious time. We had felt a strong yearning to return to the Teton range and backpack across its jagged landscapes that rise up out of the sagebrush flats to seemingly impossible heights. With no foothills to impede the view, the Tetons strike a chord of wonder and awe I have never known before. Like the Park Service says, they are mountains of the imagination.
Entering the park in the late afternoon, we spent our first night car camping at the Gros Ventre campground. Waking up pre-dawn to the sounds of yipping coyotes, we packed up camp and got on the road before sunrise. To our surprise, there were already dozens of cars on the road, most making their way to the Jackson airport, the only airport located inside a U.S. National Park.
Sunset over the Tetons on our first night in the park from the sagebrush flats 7,000 feet below
We drove north past Moose Junction until we reached Antelope Flats road. This road leads to Mormon Row, a collection of rustic homesteads used by Mormon settlers in the early 20th century. We made coffee on our stove before the sun came up and we were quickly surrounded by cars in the parking lot. As first day’s light peeked over the horizon, we walked over to the T.A. Moulton barn, where we made several photos of this iconic symbol of Jackson Hole. Unfortunately, the fires had created a dense haze over the mountains, but we still managed to appreciate the area’s beauty.
The iconic T.A. Moulton Barn, used by Moulton and his sons between 1912 and 1945
Next, we drove through the park gate at Moose Junction and entered the Jenny Lake scenic drive loop. We stopped at the first scenic overlook, where Cascade Canyon could be seen opening up into the lake. The Grand Teton (13,776 ft) towered high above. This early in the morning, we had the view all to ourselves.
Sunrise over Cascade Canyon and Jenny Lake
We continued north towards Jackson Lake and stopped at the Jackson Lake dam to watch several common mergansers (Mergus merganser) fishing. The Oxbow Bend overlook provided great habitat for a number of ring-necked ducks (Aythya collaris) and American wigeons (Mareca americana).
The common merganser (Mergus merganser) fished continuously in the churning waters of the Jackson Dam
A ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris) and its reflection near Jackson Lake. A more fitting name for this species would be the ring-billed duck, for the ring around the bill is much easier to see than the ring around the neck
The American Wigeon (Mareca americana) eats a higher proportion of plant matter than any other dabbling duck thanks to its short bill designed for plucking grass and shorter vegetation with ease. The dark smudge on the eye and the white patch in the wing are good field markers for this duck that flushes easily if disturbed
Knowing that the crowds would soon be overflowing in the park, we decided to use a similar approach to what we did in Yellowstone. We would show up to the backcountry office early in the morning and try to secure a backcountry permit for whichever campsites were available. There is some risk in doing this, as there is always the possibility of everything being taken, but we’ve found that even on the busiest weekends, we are able to secure at least something. If you want to be sure you can procure a specific campsite, you need to make a reservation between January 8th and May 15th. After that, everything is first come first serve. One $35 permit will get you up to 10 consecutive nights in Grand Teton’s backcountry.
We were assigned to the middle fork and death canyon shelf camping areas for the two nights of our backcountry trip. This was the only option we had because everything else was full. These sites are located on the Granite Canyon – Marion Lake – Death Canyon loop trail in the southwestern corner of the park. The ranger advised us of a cold winter front that was forecasted for Monday night. Although snow was imminent, we eagerly accepted the assigned route and made our way to the trailhead.
The Granite Canyon trailhead is accessed via the Moose-Wilson Road, an 8-mile scenic drive between the Craig Thomas Discovery/Visitor Center and Jackson Hole Mountain ski resort. The caravan of cars sputtering along this overused byway had us longing for solitude. Finally, we arrived to the trailhead where we squeezed our relatively modest-sized sedan in between two rude and giant trucks.
We broke our hike into three segments: day one to Marion Lake, day two to Phelps Lake, and day three back to the Granite Canyon trailhead.
The backpacking loop in the southwestern corner of the park, showing day one (purple), day two (orange) and day three (blue)
In the first, we started out past a sign that read “Bear Attack: are you prepared to avoid one?” and I reached down to ensure I had not forgotten to strap my bear spray to my belt. We walked through the sagebrush flats some 7,000 feet below the towering granite peaks above us. The dramatic contrast between the high peaks of the Grand Teton and the sagebrush flats below is created by the 40-mile long Teton Fault. Still active today, the fault creates earthquakes that lift the mountain block skyward while dropping the valley floor below. In the 10 million years since the fault has been active, the total offset has been somewhere around 25,000 feet. Geologists have shown that the sandstone layer on top of Mount Moran is 6,000 feet above the valley while that same layer is buried roughly 20,000 feet beneath the valley floor (NPS 2020).
Fields of big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) surrounded us, along with antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), musk thistle (Carduus nutans), rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.), and dried up arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).
Big sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata) is not a sage at all. It actually belongs to the Aster family. Sagebrush ecosystems provide habitats for a multitude of species including pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana; the only ungulate able to browse sagebrush extensively), sage grouse (Centrocercus spp.), Brewer's sparrow (Spizella breweri), American bison (Bison bison), and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus). The sagebrush steppe is one of the most threatened ecosystems in North America, largely due to burning for agriculture and the encroachment of invasive species like cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).
Although beautiful, Musk Thistle (Carduus nutans) is a noxious weed in the park, aggressively competing for resources with native plant species. Not all thistles are noxious weeds, however. This is a great resource for differentiating thistle species in and around the park (https://tetonplants.org/2014/08/14/conservation-notes-thistles-in-teton-county/)
We noticed several languid shieldbacked katydids (Anabrus simplex) resting on the trail. Also known as mormon crickets, these insects are native denizens of the sagebrush flats that are known for their occasional population eruptions where thousands can swarm together at the same time. This phenomenon is still poorly understood, but scientists believe it has something to do with changes in weather and movement to avoid predation by conspecifics. Cannibalism is commonly practiced within this species.
The shieldbacked katydid (Anabrus simplex) is also known as the mormon cricket. It is named after the mormon settlers in Utah who described them as the plague destroying their crops in 1848. Some mormons recount an event known as the 'miracle of the gulls,' where seagulls miraculously saved their crops by eating thousands of these insects that same year
We entered a stand of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and I admired the bounty of berries overflowing in the understory. Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), Utah honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis), thin-leaf huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) were just a few. I learned on this trip that some parks, like Grand Teton, allow visitors to harvest a measurable quantity of berries for consumption. Up to one quart per species per person per day of fruits, berries, or nuts may be gathered by hand in the park. Of course, there are some species that can be deadly if ingested like western baneberry (Actaea rubra), which we noticed growing in many places. Snowberry is considered mildly poisonous, along with twinberry honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) and elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) if eaten raw.
Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia), also known as Saskatoon, is one of the most delicious forest berries. The apple-like pome tastes like a mix between blueberries, crab-apples, and Oregon grape. It can be eaten raw, dried like a raisin, or baked into pies, pancakes, or pastries
Like raspberry, blackberry, boysenberry and many others, thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) is in the Rose family and its fruits are aggregates composed of many small berries called drupes. Thimbleberry is a great source of vitamins A and C and can help boost the immune system. Native Americans made a tea from the leaves and roots that treated nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Its leaves would be my choice for best natural toilet paper. We saw thimbleberry in Colorado's Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness in July (https://www.wildernessismusic.com/post/backpacking-colorado-s-four-pass-loop)
Common chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is a shade intolerant shrub in the Rose family. Its fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked, but the hydrocyanic acid-containing pit should never be eaten unless it has been cooked or dried. All parts of the plant, with the exception of the berry's flesh, contain hydrocyanic acid and should be avoided unless cooked or dried
American red raspberry (Rubus idaeus var. strigosus) is a native perennial shrubby bramble that grows in sunny areas throughout the park. The berries are delicious and can be eaten raw. Some say that the leaves can be made into a tea that makes an excellent coffee substitute. I've never tried it, so I can't confirm whether this is true or not
Thin-leaf huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) grows abundantly throughout parts of Grand Teton National Park. With autumn's arrival, some huckleberry leaves were already turning a crimson red (see below). Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) and black bears (Ursus americanus) feed voraciously on huckleberries this time of year. Elk (Cervus canadensis), moose (Alces alces), and mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) will browse the foliage
Thin-leaf huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) leaves turn a brilliant red color in the fall.
Utah honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis) grows on moist slopes at moderate elevations. The berries grow in pairs and are edible raw or cooked
Rough-fruited fairybells (Prosartes trachycarpa) belongs to the Lily family and can be found in mesic forests, openings, and thickets from low to subalpine elevations. Dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus) are especially fond of the berries. To humans, they are mildly sweet to bland in flavor and have a mealy texture
Also in the Lily family, clasping twisted-stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) is also known as watermelon berry for the delicious flavor of its berries. The berry can be eaten raw or used to make jams, syrup or juice but caution should be heeded when the seeds are consumed: they are presumed to have a laxative effect. In Alaska, the young tender vegetative shoots are prized for their cucumber-like flavor
Greene's mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina) is not in the Ash family at all, but rather belongs to the Rose family. Also known as Rowan, this shrub grows on mesic soils in canyons and on mountain slopes. The berries are edible and can be eaten raw or dried for later use. Typically, they have a bitter taste until the first frost, at which point they sweeten and become more palatable. Some recommend bletting and cooking the fruit before eating it or storing it in a cool place until it is almost - but not quite - spoiled
Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) has an insipid to bitter taste. It is not toxic if eaten in small quantities but should be reserved as a famine food choice. The leaves, roots, and berries contain saponins that can be toxic if ingested in large quantities
White-fruited red baneberry (Actaea rubra neglecta) is named in reference to the toxic berry. Ingesting the berry can cause cardiac arrest
I read conflicting reports online regarding whether twinberry honeysuckle (Lonicera involucrata) was edible or not. I ended up trying a small bite of one and had to spit it out right away. These are definitely not edible, but are reported to be important sources of food for bears, small mammals, game birds, and songbirds
Ascending granite canyon, we crossed babbling brooks whose banks were cloaked with showy goldeneye (Heliomeris multiflora) associated with dozens of pollinating bumblebees (Bombus spp.). The lodgepole pines (Pinus contortus) yielded to Engelmann spruce (Picea engelmannii) and subalpine fir (Abies lasiocarpa), whose dense stands were broken by occasional mountain meadows brimming with western coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis) and prairie smoke (Geum triflorum).
A two-form bumblebee (Bombus bifarius) flies off of a showy goldeneye (Heliomeris multiflora) near a stream bank in the Granite Canyon
Fields of western coneflower (Rudbeckia occidentalis) leave seeds on cone heads that provide ample food for songbirds
Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) is named for the appearance of its wispy seedheads. They are pink at first, but then fade to a silvery white
After nine miles of hiking with the weight of full packs growing heavier every minute, we were overjoyed to reach our first campsite on the Teton Crest Trail near Marion Lake. We were greeted by a few common goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula) - drab in their non-breeding plumage - diving for their evening meals. We fell asleep early, but were awakened in the pre-dawn hours by a noise outside our tent. Whatever it was, it sounded big. I announced our presence by clearing my throat, and the animal moved off into the distance.
Despite it being Labor Day weekend, we shared Marion Lake (9,239') with no one. Several common goldeneyes (Clangula bucephala) and an unidentified pre-dawn camp intruder were our only companions
In the morning after filtering lake water, we noticed bear tracks in the sand near the shore, several hundred yards from our tent. We also realized that we had accidentally forgotten to remove a bag of peanuts from my backpack which was inside the tent with us. Did the bear smell the peanuts? We remembered to put our sunscreen, chapstick, and every other scented item into the bear bin but simply overlooked the peanuts.
Gathering our gear, we briefly crossed into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness where we passed two boisterous mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and ascended into a wide-open high alpine meadow, dominated by views of the Grand Teton to the north. Some late season plants were still in bloom, including the vibrantly purple tundra aster (Oreostemma alpigenum), western Indian paintbrush (Castilleja occidentalis), and alpine sorrel (Oxyria digyna), all being pollinated by a myriad of colorful butterflies including the orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme) and Rocky Mountain parnassian (Parnassius smintheus).
Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) were common along the trail. These two individuals showed little concern for us as we walked by them on the trail
As we headed north, we were provided our first view of the Grand Teton along the Granite Canyon - Death Canyon trail
The tundra aster (Oreostemma alpigenum), or alpine aster, was the most abundant wildflower still in bloom in the high country
The orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme) is also known as the alfalfa butterfly because its caterpillars are known to sometimes become pests to alfalfa (Medicago sativa) crops
The Rocky Mountain parnassian (Parnassius smintheus) is a member of the Swallowtail Family. Its caterpillars feed primarily on spearleaf stonecrop (Sedum lanceolatum) in subalpine and alpine meadows
We approached the turnoff to the Death Canyon upper shelf while watching a Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni) soar in the distance. Its hooded appearance with dark trailing edges to the wing gave it an unmistakable appearance.
“I think we better head down Death Canyon and scrap the shelf idea” suggested Angie.
She was right. Snow was in the forecast for the evening and it would be prudent to camp at a lower elevation closer to the trailhead.
The remainder of the day, we hiked the entirety of Death Canyon, occasionally stopping to rest our aching, sweaty backs. Among some of the more notable natural curiosities were a single Lewis' monkeyflower (Erythranthe lewisii), a Western dwarf mistletoe broom (Arceuthobium campylopodum) parasitizing a Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziensii), and several mixed foraging flocks that included red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis), golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa), ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata), American three-toed woodpecker (Picoides dorsalis), cordilleran flycatcher (Empidonax occidentalis), mountain chickadee (Poecile gambeli), and dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis).
Lewis' monkeyflower (Erythranthe lewisii) is a perennial herb that grows along stream banks at higher elevations in montane areas of the American west. Named after the explorer Meriwether Lewis, this species serves as a perfect model for pollinator-based reproductive isolation. Although this species is entirely interfertile with its sister species Erythranthe cardinalis, the two species remain reproductively isolated in areas where their ranges overlap due to pollinator differences (E. lewisii is pollinated by bumblebees while E. cardinalis is pollinated by hummingbirds)
A Western dwarf mistletoe broom (Arceuthobium campylopodum) parasitizing a Douglas Fir (Psuedotsuga menziesii). There are 21 dwarf mistletoe species endemic to the United States, all parasitizing trees from the Pine and Cypress families. Considered a serious forest-borne disease agent, these plants parasitize many commercially important species, sometimes resulting in their death
We walked through majestic stands of two to three-hundred-year-old Douglas Firs (Psuedotsuga menziesii) and then, about halfway down Death Canyon we heard the unmistakable howling of a wolf. Unlike the yapping and squealing of a coyote, the howl had a rich, low timbre and lasted several seconds. Never before have we seen or heard wolves in the wild, so this experience was one we will certainly never forget.
We were impressed by the size and splendor of the Douglas firs (Psuedotsuga menziesii) in the higher parts of Death Canyon. In places, we felt like we were standing in ancient redwood or sequoia groves
The Death Valley Patrol Cabin was originally built as a barn by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. It later became a patrol cabin in 1945 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places
We passed a remote ranger patrol cabin and pressed forward, trying our best to beat the rain. Clouds billowed as we descended the switchbacks of the canyon, lush with the drooping orange berries of Greene’s mountain ash (Sorbus scopulina). The view opened up in front of us, revealing the picturesque glacial valley and Phelps Lake at its mouth.
Ominous clouds began to circle above as we hiked through the heart of Death Canyon
Phelps Lake is a quintessential glacial lake, formed by the melting glacier that formed Death Canyon some 50,000 to 12,000 years ago
As we approached the lake, we were stopped in our tracks by a giant bull moose (Alces alces) who seemed to have no intention of leaving the trail. He browed on willow shrubs (Salix spp.) as a cold rain began to fall and after 15 minutes, we decided it was time to move on and set up our camp. Clapping our hands and talking loudly, we slowly moved down the trail, letting the moose know we were aware of him. A bit too close for comfort, we sneaked past and realized he was accompanied by a female and her calf. All three moose went about their business, unconcerned by our presence.
A bull moose (Alces alces) browses on willows (Salix spp.) near Phelps Lake. In the summer, moose feed on willow, aspen, cottonwood, and sub-aquatic vegetation in lakes. Before the heavy snows, they move to the sagebrush flats where they feed primarily on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata). When the snows become too heavy, they move to the creeks and browse on twigs. The name moose comes from the Native American word Moosu, which comes from the Narragansett language meaning "he who cuts or trims smoothly." Check out our video below to see more of our moose encounter.
We made camp not far from Phelps Lake and prepared our evening meal just as the rain was turning to snow. Upon entering our tent to eat our meal, we realized we had sprung a slow leak in our sleeping mat, which Angie quickly patched up with materials from our first aid kit. Throughout the night, we woke up several times to pump more air into the mat. Fortunately, we managed to stay dry and warm throughout the night.
The next morning was frigid. The forest was cloaked in a frosty glaze and many trees had been blown over by the strong winds. As we hiked out in the morning, we navigated around dozens of downed trees and looked back at the lake, noticing a distinct ring around the lake where snow had not accumulated. A lake effect!
Notice how the trees near the shore of the lake did not retain any snow. This is likely due to the greater specific heat of the water, which stays warmer throughout the night because its temperature changes more slowly. The warmer air generated from the surface of the water could have created warmer temperatures near the shore of the lake
Finally, we arrived at the trailhead where we saw several other backpackers who had survived the night. One guy told us they had a small tree fall on their tent and that their three-mile hike took them the better part of the day due to the many trees that had fallen on the trail.
Feeling grateful for our trusty camping gear and for each other, we drove into Jackson Hole and enjoyed a hot meal and a beer at the Snake River Brewing Company.
The famous elk antler arches in the Jackson Hole town square have been there since 1969. The antlers need to be replaced every 20-40 years, so many are provided by the local Boy Scouts who collect them from the nearby National Elk Refuge
Check out the video below to see some highlights from our backpacking trip.
National Park Service. 2020. Fishing. Accessed October 12, 2020. [https://www.nps.gov/grte/learn/nature/geology.htm]