2009 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  EXPLORING TETON CANYON & ALASKA BASIN

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 3

 
" . . . The forest opens up regularly to reveal the cliffs above. This stretch reveals much of its glacial past because of the large areas of smooth rock polished by the glaciers that once scoured these valleys. The forest thins as you gain altitude and is relatively sparse by the time you reach Alaska Basin, elevation 9,500 feet. This is a high alpine area that resembles the open tundra regions of Alaska. A group of small lakes can be found here called Basin Lakes . . . Alaska Basin is one of those magical places in the backcountry where you wish you would have to never leave."
 
- description of the upper section of the trail I took, from the Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide
 
 
Amen to that! I could have wandered around the basin today for hours, if I'd had the time.

In the last entry I showed views of the western side of Grand Teton and Middle Teton mountains from our campsite in Teton Canyon. Although Jim and I have been running and hiking on various parts of the Grand Teton Race (GTR) course, I've been itching to return to the trails heading up into the Tetons and the Jedediah Smith Wilderness from the valley. Today I got my chance while Jim was tapering for his race on Saturday.


South Teton Creek is pretty small near its source in the  Alaska Basin

Exactly two years ago I really enjoyed running on South Teton Trail 027 from its trailhead at the end of Forest Road 009 out 2.7 miles to its juncture with several other trails and back. It's an easy trail through beautiful pine forests and open meadows between wide cliffs. Click here to see some additional photos of this popular trail.

  
Scenes from the lower section of South Teton Creek Trail

I will show only a few more photos of that particular section today because I've got even better scenery to show you now!

TRAIL THERAPY

This time I wanted to go farther and explore one of the trails leading up into the high country.

I totally lucked out with my choice of the trail to Alaska Basin; it was just what I needed to distract me from some sad family news and help me sort out my feelings. I didn't have time this week to locate any good trail maps of the western side of the Tetons (internet time is severely limited) and I haven't talked to anyone who has been up this particular trail. I only knew the distance from the signage at the trailhead:

And the only map I had (below) was from that information board. Here's the relevant section of the wilderness I'd be hiking; but even in a more readable size it doesn't show the location of Alaska Basin:

The arrow in the middle (above) was my starting point. I followed the South Teton Creek Canyon Trail south and east to Alaska Basin. Grand Targhee Resort, the location of Jim's race, is the red dot above the arrow. The road that switchbacks up to it is Ski Hill Road.

You can see the trail route to Alaska Basin more clearly on the map below, which I found online after my trek up to the basin. (Ah! So that's where I went!). I found the map, some photos, and a good description of the trails in this area in the Greater Yellowstone Resource Guide:

I figured I could hike up 7.7 miles in less than three hours and run back down in less than two.

I was wrong. My GPS measured the distance a little longer than that, the trail was rockier than I expected, I took even more photos than I usually do (almost 200), and my knees hurt coming back down, limiting how much I could run. And I'm just plain getting slower!


One of the ponds in Alaska Basin

I had to cut my lollygagging time up in the basin -- I could have wandered around up there for hours -- and really push to get back down to the trailhead so Jim didn't have to wait and worry too long. As it was, it took me an hour longer to do this run/hike than I estimated, a total of 5:50 hours for 15.6 miles.

Of course he worried about me! I need to start overestimating the time I think it will take me to complete any run/hike in unfamiliar territory. I thought I learned that lesson on the Appalachian Trail.

UPWARD BOUND

Jim let Cody and me off at the trailhead at the end of FR 009 at an elevation of 7,000 feet. The entire 7.8-mile climb is pretty gradual, with a few little descents so it isn't all relentlessly uphill. The first 2.7 miles to the trail juncture are very runnable, even for a klutz like me. Then the trail gets a little steeper and more rocky (photo above), but some of it is really smooth (photo below).

I topped out at 9,546 feet where I turned around at the junction with the Teton Crest Trail in Alaska Basin. The descent is fast for someone more agile and with younger legs than mine. Without taking photos, Jim could easily do this in less than four hours.

When I got to the Devil's Staircase/Alaska Basin trail juncture (below) at 2.7 miles I turned left to go up to Alaska Basin. I figured if I was ahead of schedule, I could add in some mileage toward Hurricane Pass. That didn't happen, of course.

I wasn't sure whether it would be safe to take Cody up to the basin with me today. Two years ago when he was with me we arrived at this juncture right after a black bear tried to mooch some food from a couple who were taking a break. Although we couldn't see the bear, Cody's whole demeanor changed and I could tell he smelled it.

There are still signs at the trailhead warning hikers and equestrians about both black and grizzly bears in the wilderness area. Our campground hosts also verified their presence on the equally-popular trail to Table Mountain on the nearby North Teton Creek Trail.


Oh, look -- there's a little black bear! 
Naw . . . it's just Cody-Bear sniffing around in the flowers.

Three local trail volunteers with a dog were gathering up their equipment from their vehicles in the parking area and were preparing to hit the trail. I asked them if they knew of any current bear activity. They hadn't heard of any recent grizzly sightings and weren't much concerned about the black bears. Black bears are common in this area and are used to people on the lower part of the trail. I had so much fun seeing black bears on the Appalachian Trail several years ago that I was secretly hoping I'd spot one here. (But don't tell Jim. He already worries too much about me!)

I'm glad we decided it'd be OK for Cody to go with me; we didn't see any bears (just some scat) and he was great company on the remote miles between the junction and basin.


Cody scouts out the trail ahead of us.

The only folks I saw on the way up were those those three volunteers and two others who were doing trail work in the first three miles. There was also a lone male hiker coming back down about half a mile from the basin. I was glad to see him because he verified that I was on the right trail. There weren't any "confidence" signs after the main junction and I wasn't sure I was still on the correct trail to Alaska Basin. I just kept going on the main trail and didn't take any side trails except to see some views.


A side trail leads to this scenic camping area for equestrians and their horses.

However, I was having so much fun and seeing such great mountain scenery that I could have been going totally the wrong way and it really wouldn't have mattered! The views on this trail are magnificent. They became increasingly distracting, and panoramic, as I gained altitude. Here are some more shots in the last mile before reaching the basin:

 

 

 

 

There are lots of interesting rock formations and convenient outcroppings, some of which make great vantage points for photos back down to the valley or up toward the peaks in the Teton Range.

The trail is 99% dirt but goes over and around several large expanses of rock that were smoothed by glaciers. Here are two views of the largest area of scoured rock that the South Teton Trail crosses:

 

The trail to Alaska Basin follows South Teton Creek most of the way up to the basin, on one side or another. There are several places to ford the creek and its tributaries, as well as bridges and boardwalks across areas that are wet after storms or spring snowmelt. Today the areas around the boardwalks were dry:

If you have as much trouble balancing on a log as I do, you might get your feet wet at this crossing about half way up:

When I come to one of those, I just walk through the water and don't take the risk of falling off! Cody followed me through the creek on the way up but he crossed the log by himself on the descent. In the spring that part of the creek might be too deep to safely ford.

Most of the feeder streams were quite dry today but South Teton Creek provided plenty of water for Cody to drink and some pools deep enough for him to swim.

Above and below:  Cody is all Lab! He likes to swim as much as he likes to run.

There are several interesting waterfalls along the way, too. They aren't real dramatic this time of year when the water is low but they are pretty and make soothing sounds. This series of cascades is about five miles up from the trailhead, on either side of the pool shown above:

 

The flowers were beautiful  today. I saw many of the same kinds I've been seeing all summer in the Rockies farther south of here. That didn't stop me from taking more photographs of them however.

 


Cody patiently waits while I take yet another picture . . .

I was captivated on this date two years ago by the fluffy fireweeds along the valley trail but they weren't that far into autumn mode this time.

There are already a few touches of fall, however, such as this brightly colored plant growing along the trail through the valley. In some places it covers large areas and almost looks like flowers blooming.

 

As you can see in the photo above, the aspen leaves haven't begun to turn their beautiful golden color yet. I'd like to see what this trail looks like in two or three weeks.

Cody and I had great weather today, mostly sunny and in the 40s-60s F. Halfway back down we ran into a few minutes of sleet. At that point I was warm enough from running that I didn't need to get out any of the warm clothes I was carrying in my Camelbak HAWG. Pretty soon it was sunny again, and quite warm at the trailhead and our campground down the road a bit.

My choice of shoes was good today: Montrail Highlines with grippy soles and mesh that drains water well. Too bad I'm on my last pair and they aren't made any more. The rocks in the upper ten miles of trail would have been too punishing on my feet in my lighter weight Asics 2130 trail shoes, although they would probably be adequate for Jim to wear.

SO MANY TRAILS, SO LITTLE TIME . . .

I really enjoyed this trail. The terrain and plant life are very diverse, the scenery is gorgeous on a nice day, and the trail isn't overly challenging for my deteriorating knees. My only regret is that I didn't have more time to spend wandering around the basin.

 

 

On future hikes I want to go another three miles to Hurricane Pass on the Teton Crest Trail. I'd also like to talk Jim into going up there with me. The views are almost as magnificent as those in the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado, our country's best answer to the Alps.

There are some additional photos of this run-hike on our Picasa photo-sharing site ("Grand Teton Western Slope")..

Next entry: training runs + photos of the Grand Teton Race course

Happy trails,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the Ultra Lab

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2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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