Death Canyon Trailhead
National Park: Grand Teton
Despite its name, the Death Canyon Hike is one of the most scenic, calming hikes in Grand Teton National Park. Relatively untrammeled and remote, this trail takes you deep into the heart of the Canyon’s towering rock walls. The farther you hike, the more you feel immersed in its rugged power.
The trail begins with a gradual ascent to the Phelps Lake Overlook, a gorgeous deep blue lake that draws stark contrast to the surrounding forests. You then descend toward the Lake through a series of switchbacks that cut through flowering shrubs (prime bear habitat). You reach a fork that gives the hiker an option of continuing toward Phelps Lake or venturing into Death Canyon.
As you slowly climb into the Canyon’s valley, you begin to hike alongside a rushing creek that supplies a constant source of water for the valley. The result is a dynamic landscape peppered with forest, meadow and boulder fields created by annual avalanches. A couple rigorous miles take you to the pass that overlooks the Canyon. It is from here that you can relax and enjoy the view or continue on to a number of trails that take you even deeper into the Teton high country.
The hike is also remarkable in its opportunities to see wildlife. One day on the trail afforded me up-close views of a (friendly) black bear, moose, a great gray owl, many marmots and even the rare and elusive pika* (see below for more information on these amazing animals)!
Death Canyon is a strenuous hike but rewards the hiker the entire way with beautiful views. The hike can easily be stretched from half-day to an entire day wilderness adventure of 10+ miles round trip. An excellent hike to end a trip in the Tetons after you’ve become acclimated to the elevation and difficulty of hiking in the mountains.
*Some information on the fascinating Pika: Commonly referred to “Rock Rabbits”, these are very picky creatures that live in high elevation boulder fields called talus . They never hibernate so they have developed a number of unique adaptations in order to survive the harsh alpine winters. First, they spend all spring, summer and fall gathering vegetation, storing what is not eaten in a multitude of haypiles situated under large rocks in the talus field. These haypile locations are meticulously chosen because, come winter, the pika must be sure snow will not block the sub-rock passageways between its life-saving food sources. During the winter months, the pika will never leave this underground network, enjoying the insulating effects of the deep snow that towers above. If the pika runs out of food, it has one more trick up its sleeve- it can recycle nutrients by re-ingesting its feces. Might not be pretty but it helps the pika occupy an incredibly unique and relatively uncontested niche in mountainous environments.
So, the pika needs the following three things: rock fields with boulders large enough to maintain winter passageways, an environment that provides thick snowfall, and an area abundant in summer vegetation. These particular demands and its inability to migrate far make it supremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Park Service scientists pay close attention the health of this species as its population has been facing some uncertainty. If you make it to a park with some alpine environment, be sure to take a moment and look for these adorable creatures hopping from rock to rock in talus fields.