As much as I love hiking and exploring in general, sometimes I crave an exciting scramble to the top of a mountain that involves some exposure and is more than just a walk-up.
The Middle Teton in Grand Teton National Park is one of my favorite peak-bagging objectives. The standard Southwest Couloir is an outstanding 3rd class scramble featuring good rock quality, a healthy amount of exposure, and the most incredible view of the Grand Teton you could imagine.
This climb is not for the faint of heart — it involves off-trail travel, exposure, and daunting 6,000 feet of elevation gain. However, if you enjoy 3rd class scrambles and aren’t afraid of heights, then add this peak to your bucket list.
Difficulty and Skill Level
The Middle Teton’s standard Southwest Couloir route involves a Class 3 scramble, meaning that the use of hands is needed at times to ascend. There is a fair amount of exposure as well, especially near the summit. Ropes and technical rock climbing equipment are not needed for this climb.
Overall, the rock quality is good on this mountain, featuring solid Teton granite. However, when ascending the center portion of the couloir, there are still areas of small, loose rocks and scree, so it’s important to always watch your footing and to wear a climbing helmet in case anyone kicks down rocks from above.
I only recommend this route to someone who has prior off-trail and scrambling experience and isn’t afraid of heights and exposure.
If you don’t have any off-trail peak-bagging experience, then don’t attempt this peak unless you are traveling with an experienced party and are comfortable with exposure.
The route-finding ability for the Middle Teton is fairly straight-forward with a couple of minor exceptions.
Distance and Elevation Gain
Distance: Approximately 13 miles roundtrip or 6.5 miles one-way.
Elevation Gain: The total elevation gain from the trailhead to the summit is 6,072 ft. The summit elevation of the Middle Teton is 12,804 ft. making it the 3rd highest peak in the Teton Range behind the Grand Teton and Mt. Owen.
Estimated Time: Completing this climb in a single day will take most parties anywhere from 10-14 hours, including breaks. You can also split this climb up into 2-3 days by camping in the Garnet Canyon Meadows.
There are two good map options for this climb: the Trails Illustrated Grand Teton National Park Map and the Jackson Hole Trail Map from Adventure Guides. Honestly, both maps are great and you can’t go wrong with either one.
I tend to use the Adventure Guides map these days since it has a little bit more of a modern look to it and also covers other surrounding areas outside of Grand Teton National Park. So if I had to recommend one of the two maps, I would go with the Adventure Guides.
Multi-Day Backpacking Option
Should you tackle this climb in one long day or split it up into 2-3 days? That is a tough question and it depends on several factors.
Have you had sufficient time to acclimate to the altitude? What is your fitness level and experience level when it comes to peak bagging? Are you able to secure a backcountry permit?
Personally, I prefer the Middle Teton as a day trip with an early start because you can hike with a lighter pack. Also, you don’t have to deal with the headaches of securing a backcountry permit.
However, camping in the Garnet Canyon Meadows is a totally viable option, and there are some advantages.
For instance, you could get a head start on the morning from your base camp and summit early, which is especially nice if thunderstorms are in the forecast. Also, the multi-day option gives you a better chance to acclimate to the higher altitude.
Where to Camp: There are three different backcountry zones along this route, and your choice may be determined by what permits are available.
The Platforms and The Meadows are the first two backcountry zones, and the ones I would recommend if they are available. The Platforms is reached after hiking 3.8 miles and reaching an elevation of 8,925 ft. while the upper end of The Meadows camping zone is at 4.5 miles and 9,488 ft.
By camping at either of these locations, you’ve already covered a good distance but most of the climbing and route-finding lies ahead.
You can also hike higher up and camp in the Garnet Meadows South Fork Zone just below the Middle/South Teton saddle. However, I would not recommend this option as you would have to cover a lot of difficult terrain and elevation gain with a heavy overnight pack.
Also, this camping area is also more exposed to weather, including gusty winds that could keep you up at night.
Backcountry Permits: Grand Teton National Park offers advance reservations to one third of its backcountry permits from early January through May 15 each year.
To book a reservation in advance, visit the Recreation.gov website and search for Grand Teton National Park. It costs $45 to reserve a permit in advance.
After reserving your permit, you must pick your permit up from the Jenny Lake Ranger Station before 10am on the day of your trip, or else it will be released.
Walk-in Permits: The remaining two thirds of backcountry permits are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis no more than one day prior to the start of the trip. Walk-in permits cost $35.
Important Considerations When Camping: The two most important things to remember when camping across these higher elevation zones in Grand Teton National Park are 1) Campfires are not allowed, and 2) A bear canister is required for food storage.
How to Get to the Trailhead
From Jackson, the Lupine Meadows Trailhead is about a 35-minute drive. You’ll take the Teton Park Road toward Jenny Lake, and take a left at the well-marked road to Lupine Meadows. From here, it is about 1.5 miles to the trailhead on a dirt road that is easily passable by low clearance vehicles.
Route Breakdown and Highlights
From the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, the trail starts out mellow before switchbacking up through a mix of forest and beautiful open meadows.
If you start this hike before dawn (which is advisable if doing this as a day trip), then you’ll be treated to a spectacular sunrise over the Jackson Hole valley and Gros Ventre Mountains to the east.
About 3 miles in, you’ll reach a trail junction with the Surprise/Amphitheater Lake Trail. Make sure to take a left here to stay on the Garnet Canyon Trail.
Shortly after, the trail will start to swing west into Garnet Canyon and you’ll catch your first view of the Middle Teton ahead of you.
Next, you’ll come across a convoluted boulder field to navigate through. Pro tip: don’t get caught going through here in the dark by headlamp, like I did once!
After the boulder field, you’ll then enter the Garnet Canyon Platforms and Meadows and enjoy good views of the Middle Teton ahead.
At the upper end of the camping zone, the trail will come to an end. From here, take a left and mentally prepare yourself to ascend toward the saddle to the left of the Middle Teton high above you.
This first section above the Meadows is the most challenging of the entire trek in terms of route-finding. You’ll first have to decide whether or not to ascend to the climber’s right or climber’s left side of the canyon around a large rock face.
I’ve tried both, and although neither option is great, given mid to late summer conditions with little snow I have come to prefer the left (south) side of the canyon to get around this first rock feature. That’s just my opinion, though, and may differ from others.
Travel up the canyon is more straight-forward past this first tricky area. However, you’ll want to shift your focus to traveling along the middle to right (south) sides of the canyon until you reach the saddle. There are various climbers paths and cairns to follow and it’s all Class 2 terrain.
After the long slog up this canyon, you’ll reach the spectacular saddle between the Middle and South Teton, with the Middle Teton located to your right.
Looking west, you’ll have an awesome view of Icefloe Lake below you with an expansive view west into Idaho.
This is a good spot to take a quick snack break before heading up the Southwest Couloir of the Middle Teton — the main feature of this climb, and the more fun part of the day now that the canyon slog is behind you!
This is also a spot to evaluate the weather conditions, as threatening storm clouds would warrant a turn-around here.
The saddle is located at an elevation of 11,450 ft. so by this point, most of your elevation gain is behind. Ahead of you lies the more exposed class 3 scramble to reach the top, but the route-finding is straight-forward.
The red arrow in the photo below shows the Southwest Couloir route from the saddle.
If you’re someone who enjoys a good scramble and is comfortable with exposure, then you’re going to have a blast on this route as you ascend the final 1,354 vertical feet to the top.
At the top of the couloir, you’ll take a left and then traverse across the final summit block before reaching the top of the airy summit.
The summit of the Middle Teton is absolutely incredible. The top itself is airy but the rock is stable and the view of the Grand Teton to the north is right in your face.
Enjoy the hard-earned summit, but remember, in this case going back down takes about as long as going up, until you reach The Meadows at least, so give yourself plenty of time to complete the descent.
The Middle Teton is a big day, but it’s one of my favorite summits in the Western U.S.
Best Time of Year to Climb the Middle Teton
The window to climb the Middle Teton with little or no snow to deal with is short — generally from mid/late July to mid/late September depending on the year. August is the one month of the year when you are least likely to encounter any snow.
For mid-summer climbers, the main weather issue to watch out for is thunderstorms as the upper portion of this mountain is very exposed to the threat of lightning, hail, rain, and wind.
If you’re doing this as a day hike, then getting a pre-dawn start is advisable to limit your risk of getting caught in a thunderstorm. It takes most parties 6 hours or longer to reach the summit, and then you still have a long way to hike down before your exposure risk significantly decreases.
The first time I climbed the Middle Teton, my friend and I got caught in a thunderstorm while descending from the summit. Luckily, the lightning was a few miles away from where we were, but trust me, it’s not a place I would want to chance it and get caught again!
The first meaningful snowfalls typically arrive sometime in September, and depending on how heavy and how frequent these early season snowstorms occur impact how late into the season this route is do-able.
In some years with only light early season snow cover, more experienced scramblers and mountaineers could do this in October with some traction gear such as crampons or microspikes.
In the early season, the Southwest Couloir route would make a fine snow climb in June and early July.
Ski mountaineering on this route is very feasible as well for those who are advanced, and is best done in May and June. Keep in mind that the shaded nature of the couloir can make for some variable snow conditions for skiing.
Wildlife, Bugs, and Water
Black bears, grizzly bears, moose, and deer are some of the larger mammals that could be encountered on this route. I’ve seen multiple black bears on the approach trail. If you are here in September, then you might hear elk bugling near the trailhead.
Most of the wildlife opportunities exist on the hiking trail prior to reaching The Meadows. Beyond The Meadows, you’re less likely to see much wildlife other than marmots and pikas.
I’ve never really had any bug issues here that I remember, though I would imagine that mosquitoes do hang around some of the wetter areas in The Meadows in July and early August.
There is plenty of water available in The Meadows, then things gradually dry out the higher you ascend toward the saddle. There are only a couple of minor water crossings in The Meadows.
Possible Side Trips
The South Teton would be the most feasible side trip option if you are also climbing The Middle Teton. This is an especially attractive option if you have a base camp in The Meadows, then you could bag the Middle Teton and the South Teton all in one go.
To climb the South Teton, you’ll head south toward the top of the peak from the opposite side of the saddle from the Middle Teton.
From the saddle, this route is Class 2 for most of the way but turns to Class 3 toward the top. If it weren’t for one move, I would say it’s no more difficult (and probably even a bit easier) than The Middle Teton, but there is a snowfield near the top that hangs around throughout the year in all but the driest years that must be crossed.
It’s not a horribly difficult snow crossing, but a slip would be bad news because a long tumble awaits below. Therefore, an ice axe is mandatory at a minimum, unless the snow is really soft with good steps kicked in, then crampons are advisable as well.
Pre or Post Hike Camping Options
The closest campground to the Lupine Meadows Trailhead is the Jenny Lake Campground — but as a popular first come, first serve site, don’t expect to find anything here after your climb.
In fact, all of the Grand Teton National Park campsites are first-come, first-serve, but some of the sites outside of the popular sections of the park, such as Gros Ventre, Lizard Creek, and Headwaters would likely have more available.
A more attractive option for car camping would be to the east of the park in Bridger-Teton National Forest, where numerous forest service roads are accessible from just outside the park and primitive free camping options are limitless.
A great non-camping option would be to stay at the Grand Teton Climber’s Ranch near the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, which offers hostel-style accommodations with bunk beds.
Nightly rates are only $21-33 per night depending on if you are a member of the American Alpine Club. Reservations are recommended.
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for the Middle Teton:
- Climbing helmet – for rockfall
- Ice axe – a good idea even if not expecting to encounter snow
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme InReach
- First aid kid
- 3 liters of water
- Extra layers
- Down jacket
- Ski hat and gloves
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
- Crampons or micro-spikes
- Water purification system
- Trekking poles
- Bug spray
Where to Find Weather Forecasts
Here are links to National Weather Service point weather forecasts at various portions of this hike and for the town of Jackson (for before and after your hike) that take elevation and terrain into account.
Keep in mind that there is a greater margin of error in mountain forecasts for remote areas, but the NWS point forecasts are one of the more reliable sources.
Another weather source that is well worth your time to check out is the OpenSummit website and app.
This app provides detailed weather forecasts specifically for mountain summits, and they will be expanding their offerings in the near future as well. Two-day forecasts are free and any forecasts beyond two days require at $19/year subscription, which also gets you access to OpenSnow ski area forecasts in the winter.
In addition, since this hike is in the Jackson Hole area, you can follow my local weather blog — Jackson Hole Weather Forecast — which is typically updated Mondays through Fridays, for more detailed written weather analysis in the area.
Post-Hike Food and Drink
The classic post-climb restaurant to stop at for a meal and a beer is Dornan’s, which is located near the Moose Visitor Center. There is rooftop seating with incredible views of the Tetons.
The Signal Mountain Lodge and Jackson Lake Lodge (Blue Heron Lounge in particular if you’re on a budget) are also excellent options for food, beer, and views within Grand Teton National Park. Note: Neither of these lodges will be open to dining in 2020 due to COVID-19.
There are tons of options in the town of Jackson as well if you are heading that way after you finish the climb.