Given that the Tetons are more famous for technical climbs like the Grand, it’s easy to forget that you can still get that top-of-the-world feeling with no more than a good set of hiking shoes. Static Peak is one of the best options if you want to see the Tetons and Jackson Hole from atop a mountain without needing climbing gear.
Static Peak rises to 11,303 feet and lies on the south end of the heart of the Teton Range, south of the Cathedral Group and north of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Static Peak sits in the shadow of the taller Buck Mountain and is accessed from the highest point of maintained trail in Grand Teton National Park at Static Peak Divide, which crests at 10,790 feet. From the Divide, you gain an additional 513 feet to reach the summit via a steep but manageable social trail that peters in and out. The hike from the trailhead to Static Peak Divide is 8.1 miles.
I love this hike. The view of Phelps Lake from the overlook a mile into the hike is enjoyable, you get a good taste of Death Canyon, and the view from the top is tough to beat. But it’s more than just the views that have made this trip meaningful to me. Whenever I hike up Static Peak – or attempt to hike up Static Peak – something memorable tends to happen. The second time I made it to the top was on an idyllic Indian Summer day when I had the summit to myself. I may have experienced the most mindful hour of my life as I enjoyed the scene and my lunch; after a solid hour, I realized I better head back down the trail or risk a night hike. Another trip was in early October when two friends and I thought – naively – that we would have no problems squeezing one last alpine hike in before winter set in, planning a shuttle from the Death Canyon Trailhead to the South Teton Trailhead on the west side of the Teton Range. Much to our surprise, the situation at the top was full-on winter. We didn’t make it to the top of Static Peak, but we did complete our shuttle over Static Peak Divide and Buck Mountain Divide, through Alaska Basin and down Teton Canyon. One of my friends had stuffed a winter-grade parka and sleeping bag in his backpack to add extra weight for training; we could not have been more grateful to have something warm to huddle under while we ate our lunch in winter conditions beneath Static Peak.
The fastest route is via the Valley Trail, Death Canyon Trail and Alaska Basin Trail from the Death Canyon Trailhead at the end of the Whitegrass Ranch Road. Unfortunately, parts of the Whitegrass Ranch Road are extremely rutted, so it is easy to scrape the bottom of a car. (After a rainstorm, mud could also create a major problem). High clearance vehicles are recommended, but I have managed to get my car to this trailhead several times (although not without a few scars). Your mileage may vary. To get to the trailhead, turn west on the Whitegrass Ranch Road from the Moose Wilson Road north of Teton Village and south of Moose. Follow the road until it ends at the trailhead (or as far as your nerves will allow – there are numerous parking spots along the way. Fortunately, it is only the final mile that is particularly frightening).
From the Death Canyon Trailhead, you technically take a spur route for a tenth of a mile until you arrive at a junction with the Valley Trail. Turn left (west) onto the Valley Trail, which takes you to the Phelps Lake overlook in about a mile. From this overlook at 7,200 feet, you have a postcard view of Phelps Lake and the valley beyond its moraine. If you have guests visiting and are only looking for a short hike (about two miles round trip), the Phelps Lake Overlook is a good option.
From the overlook, the trail descends toward the lake. After less than a mile, you come to a junction where you can continue toward the lakeshore on the Valley Trail. Instead, take the Death Canyon Trail, which will lead you toward the gaping mouth of Death Canyon. At this point you are almost certain to be wondering how a trail was carved out of the canyon walls. Before long, you’ll begin gaining elevation as the trail switchbacks to a narrow point where you enter the heart of Death Canyon.
After about four miles, the trail levels off (briefly) and you come to an area where a stream slows down before beginning a series of small cascades. Long grasses and a babbling brook make for a serene scene and offer a perfect spot for a mid-hike snack. Enjoy yourself, then continue on the trail. Soon you’ll arrive at the historic Death Canyon patrol cabin and the junction with the Alaska Basin Trail.
Turn right and begin a relentless climb up a seemingly endless series of switchbacks that will take you up the northeast corner of Death Canyon. As you rise, you’ll have perfect views of the heart of Death Canyon and you’ll understand without question how the Death Canyon Shelf was named. You’re almost certain to dream about pitching a tent in the Death Canyon camping zone as you wonder if your heart is going to give out before you climb out of the canyon.
As you start to approach the end of the switchbacks, you’ll come to an opening along the crest below Albright Peak where you will have a view of Jackson Hole to the east. A short social trail leads to the south, where you have another gorgeous view of Phelps Lake. I highly recommend that you take this quick side trip and enjoy another snack here. One of my more memorable Teton moments came when we did the October shuttle. From this perch we watched clouds quickly forming in the valley below. It was one of the most unforgettable moments of a hike that was memorable from start to finish.
When you return to the trail, the work will resume. Once you finish the climb out of Death Canyon, you will be treated to another view of Jackson Hole, this time of the north end of the valley toward Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake, from a ridgeline where the sight of Static Peak dominates the view. As you will see, you still have some work to do. From this point, another set of switchbacks will complete the climb to Static Peak Divide as you leave the forests of Death Canyon.
After you finally arrive at Static Peak Divide (marked by a sign), you have the option of finishing with the scramble to the top; 500 feet of elevation gain stand between you and the summit. The slope is steep but manageable, as long as you stay far away from the steep western and northern faces. Social trails lead most of the way through the talus to the top, but do tend to fade in and out. Note that you should start the scramble to the top from slightly before the Static Peak Divide sign.
And, finally, you arrive at the summit. The view is awesome, and it is one of the most attainable peaks in the Tetons. To the north, Buck Mountain dominates the skyline and you will also see the heart of the Tetons, Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake. Sleeping Indian towers above Jackson Hole to the east. You can see miles of the Snake River winding through the valley, and you also have an awesome view of the Jackson Hole Airport. And perhaps the most unappreciated part of this view is the sight of Rimrock Lake, tucked into the southern walls of Death Canyon and just begging to be climbed to. Every time I see this lake, I dream about waking up along its shores. As you will see from the summit, that would be much easier said than done.
From the summit of Static Peak, you have several options beyond just returning to your car.
- One mile to the west is Buck Mountain Divide, and this makes a great side trip before you retrace your steps down Death Canyon. The hike to this divide takes you through an alpine area, directly below Buck Mountain. From Buck Mountain Divide, you have a good view into Alaska Basin.
- If you are really motivated, you can continue past Buck Mountain Divide into Alaska Basin.
- If you are able to arrange a shuttle or a key swap, leave a car at the South Teton Trailhead in Teton Canyon (accessed via Driggs, Idaho). The route from Death Canyon Trailhead, over Static Peak Divide and Buck Mountain Divide, through Alaska Basin, and down Teton Canyon is 19 miles.
Note: With winter around the corner, your opportunity to do this hike this year has probably passed, so add this to your Summer 2017 bucket list.