Generally speaking, I consider myself to be a traveler as opposed to a tourist. Semantics you may be thinking. Well, not exactly. For me, travel is about experiencing a place – its culture, history, cuisine – not simply a superficial visit of the sights. Going deeper than the surface provides a richer experience and promotes personal growth. We evolve as people through travel experiences.
But I digress – as I prepared for our trip to the rugged landscape of Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I researched all the things to do and see. Obviously, hiking the trails in the Park is something that is high on the list of musts when in the area. After all, it is about experiencing the great outdoors. The flaw in my logic is that I believed it was not necessary to stop by a local outfitter to purchase all the latest hiking gear. We were ONLY doing little day hikes. I wore running shoes and running shorts. My tiny backpack with a bottle of water and minimal first aid kit were all that we should need….right?
Following a delicious and scenic lunch at Dornan’s, we headed up Moose-Wilson Road to the Death Canyon Trailhead – yep, Death Canyon not to be confused with Death Valley. After exiting the nice smooth paved Moose-Wilson Road, we traveled about a mile in our rental car down the very rough dirt road before reaching the trailhead.
Our goal – and the only reason I agreed to this hike in the first place – was to reach the Phelps Lake Overlook. At exactly one mile from the trailhead, we arrived at the Phelps Lake Overlook. As we gazed down to the 750-acre, glacially-carved lake that lies 567 feet below, we realized (because the sign said so) that we had reached an elevation of 7200 feet. For a Louisiana girl, this is over a mile higher than my house! Needless to say, there was some heavy breathing during the moderate ascent. We soaked in the outstanding panoramic views and the surrounding old-growth Douglas firs nearby before Greg thought we should go a little further…
We proceeded down the trail beginning the 567 foot descent to Phelps Lake . This trail is made up of seemingly endless switchbacks albeit with gorgeous views of the Lake below and waterfalls above. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we had reached the mouth of Death Canyon at the 1.7 mile point in our hike. At the junction, we turned to the left and made our way down to a small sandy beach along the shore of Phelps Lake.
Unfortunately, less than 200 feet from the beach, I stumbled on a rock, rolling my ankle and landing on my bare knee. Good thing I had that first aid kit with me! We made it down to the beach and found the perfect log bench to rest and tend to my wounds. I quickly removed my shoes and walked into the lake – yes, it was cold – it’s an alpine lake after all! I cleaned and bandaged my knee before I realized that we had to go BACK.UP.THOSE.SWITCHBACKS. Our simple two-mile hike had turned into a bear of a 4 miler. (Did I mention that Death Canyon is bear country? Yep, apparently so).
I tried to wrap my mind around the idea that we only had one mile of climbing 600 feet before reaching Phelps Lake Overlook and the descent to the car. Mind over matter just did not work. Maybe I was about to learn firsthand why it was called Death Canyon? My legs were wobbly. We ran out of water. I was gasping for breath. I kept asking Greg, “Are we there yet?” like a child on a vacation road trip. Every time I spotted a shaded area, it was time for a rest. The entire switchback portion of the trail was in full sun! Talk about adding insult to injury. But, alas, we made it to the beautifully scenic Phelps Lake Overlook. It was even more amazing the second time around!
We rested for a hot minute before beginning our descent to the car some 1 mile away. It was all downhill from here! This trail, through the dense lodge pine forest, was quiet and peaceful with very few other hikers around. I began thinking that this was a great area for a bear to be spending his afternoon. It was then that I recalled that I had forgotten our bear bells in the hotel. But, thanks to all my research (I became a bit obsessive about the possibility of a bear encounter), I recalled that we should talk and sing as we walked along the trail. This would at least give the bear the heads up that we are nearby. Hopefully, the bear is happily eating huckleberries and is not hungry for something more substantial!! About half way down the trail, we both heard a growl snort sound from the thick brush. I am no expert, but I feel certain that this particular bear was letting us know he was nearby!!
We safely made it to our car without any wildlife sightings. I had regained use of my legs as they were no longer wobbly. In fact, I felt invigorated after completing a 4-mile hike! But, my lesson of the day is that all of that hiking gear is not just for looks – it is extremely useful. My first purchase will be hiking boots with ankle support. Then, the list includes Camelbak packs (no more running out of water); good socks; trekking poles (these would have been wonderful when my legs felt like rubber); and bear spray!