The Middle Teton hike via Southwest Couloir is the easiest route up to the summit of the Tetons! Find out how to hike the Middle Teton in this blog.
Middle Teton – 43°43′48″N 110°48′41″W,
Elevation – 12,800 ft
A dream seen to reality.
6,000 vertical feet of gain
Hiking the Middle Teton has been on my to-do list for a very long time. The mere thought of reaching the Middle’s summit and seeing its grandiose views has had me drooling in daydreams. See, hiking the Middle Teton isn’t just any old hike in the Tetons. It is THE hike of the Tetons. It is only 2nd in glory to the pride and joy of the Rockies, the good old Grand Teton. But while Grand Teton may remain out of reach with its highly technical climbing requirements, that’s not the case for Middle. This is no hike, this is a journey, and I promise you, by the time you come down from that nearly 13,000 foot summit, you will be a new person.
IMPORTANT: Hiking the Middle Teton requires no rock climbing skills or ropes. While it is strenuous, it is also completely doable for any experienced hiker. I do recommend wearing a helmet for the last section though since there is a lot of scree and loose rock that may be dislodged from other hikers (accidentally of course). Read on to get the exact beta on how to hike Middle Teton.
So before I share all the important details on how to actually hike Middle Teton, I’m dropping a muse on why we even climb mountains anyway…but if that bores you, just skip this section with the table of contents below.
Table of Contents
Middle Teton Mountain Musings
There are few things I love as much as the pain and the risk and the challenge and the beauty of climbing really sharp, jagged peaks and the elimination of the insanity the world has come to be.
Unlike most things we do, people like climbing mountains because it reminds us that we’re nothing and it’s as simple as that. We don’t conquer mountains, mountains conquer us.
In the mountains, our egos can’t get in the way. We don’t have control nor much power in the scale of sheer mountain force. All we have is the ability to analyze, predict, and adapt. It prepares us for hard things. It prepares us for failure.
At hour 5, I thought we might not get to the summit. A snowfield stretched along the base of the scree slope that ascended toward the peak. And, in the way of the mountains, the weather was changing by the second. A dark cloud had rolled in and from our vantage point, we had no idea if it was the only cloud formation, or if it was the first of many.
I was preparing myself to accept defeat. I knew I was really quite powerless in that decision and it was out of my control.
Then, just as we reached the saddle between South and Middle Teton, a stretch of relatively clear sky lay ahead and the snowfield ended right alongside the Southwest Couloir Route.
Our legs were absolutely fried but an hour later, at the summit, they felt weightless.
And as accomplished as I felt in that moment, the pain of descent (arguably harder than the ascent) is where the absurd love of challenge comes in. Going back and forth between “Why am I doing this?” to “I love this sh**!”
I can’t help but think of Jon Krakauer’s words,
“In the end, climbing mountains doesn’t really prove anything.”
And that’s why I love it.
There are too many things I do in my life to try and prove something to no one in particular (and don’t we all), but when you climb mountains, it’s beyond the individual.
It’s impossible to see yourself and your life as anything but a gift to experience in the grand scale of trying to climb very large mountains🏔
✘ In the end, mountains are a gateway to an elevated life (pun intended) ✘
It’s a confrontation to balance all 7 chakras at once.
🏔 It grounds you into the earth.
💪🏽 You may not be strong in comparison, but it makes you feel strong and that’s all that matters.
✨ We are bold and brave and courageous in the face of fear.
💚 We love.
We love the earth and the people who summit these mountains beside us.
And we forgive, because we are so fulfilled in this moment.
✨ We speak clearly in this motion toward fulfillment.
👁 We see. We expand our awareness of what could be through the experience of what we’re capable of.
It makes us connected. Completely.
We are nothing, but we are this mountain.
For more of my musings, follow me on Instagram @gabirobledo_
Middle Teton Hike Stats
Distance: 6.5 miles each way (13 miles roundtrip)
Elevation gain: 6000
Difficulty: Strenuous, Class 3 Scrambling
Starting elevation: 6,732 ft
Summit elevation: 12,809 ft
Trailhead: Lupine Meadows Trailhead
Nearest city: Jackson, Wyoming
The Tetons are iconic for a reason. The sharp jagged summits rising steeply out of the Wyoming plains draw visitors from across the globe yet the vast nature beyond the roadside views offers so much more.
The fame and beauty of the Tetons have long tempted climbers to want to reach their summits and summit them they shall. With dozens of different routes of the Teton Peaks and Moran, there is something for everyone including the novice trad climber and experienced hiker. And that my friend, is the draw of the hiking the Southwest Couloir. Climbing the Southwest Couloir is quite simply, the easiest way to reach the summit of the Tetons and see the stunning views of the alpine meadows beyond.
While this is the easiest route up the Tetons, it’s still long, hard, challenging, and not for the faint of heart. But when you finally crest the final rock crumble and find yourself standing on top of the sharp ridge summit of Middle Teton with grand views of THE Grand Teton itself, every grueling step will be worthwhile.
Related: Best Hikes Tetons
Southwest Couloir Hike Difficulty
Middle Teton is breathtaking. The views of Grand Teton and the Teton wilderness are heart warming, stunning, and out of this world. But here’s the catch: It’s absolutely brutal, painful, challenging, long, and steep as s**t.
Gaining 6000 feet in just over 6 miles, this trail is unbelievably steep all the way from the trailhead to the summit. On top of that, it’s not just a regular old trail. The difficulty comes in the 3-4 hours of boulder hopping required to get from the end of the trail to the saddle. Once you hit the saddle, it gets even steeper to the summit.
Then, once that’s all over you’ve got to do it all again on the descent, which is arguably harder.
In terms of technique, the Southwest Couloir route up the Middle Teton is technically considered a climbers route, however, it doesn’t require any ropes or climbing gear to ascend.
This trail involves Class 3 scrambling meaning hand over hand climbing is required, though it’s rare, and it contains some exposure. There are no sheer drops but the route features an ascent up a steep scree slope interspersed with some solid rock sections which means you will need to wear a climbing helmet.
The concern on the Southwest Couloir isn’t falling off a sheer cliff but rather, using caution to make sure you don’t cause a rock to fall to someone below you or vice versa.
Overall, the Middle Teton is basically a really strenuous hike, but please know that this adventure is technically considered a climbers route and should only be tackled by those with experience with scrambling and/or rock climbing and route finding.
Best Time to Hike Middle Teton
There is an extremely narrow window of opportunity to tackle the Middle Teton Southwest Couloir purely as a hike.
Snow climbing conditions typically run from June through mid July. During this time, you can still ascend Middle Teton but you’ll need ice axes and crampons. During this time of year, the boulder field will likely still be covered in snow which supposedly makes it easier than having to boulder hop for 3 hours straight.
Mid-July to mid-September is the best time to hike Middle Teton and it’s the most likely time for the route to be snow-free, however you do still need to work around thunderstorms.
You’ll have to keep an eye on the weather in September. Early season storms could affect trail conditions but it all depends on how many and how big the storms are. From mid-September through mid-October there’s also another season of possible light snow conditions where you’ll need experience with ice axes and crampons.
How Long Does it Take
Prior to hiking this for ourselves, we had heard that the trail would take 10-14 hours. Yet knowing this hike was a total of 13 miles, we thought there was no way it could possibly take more than 10 hours. Well, we learned our lesson, it can absolutely take 10 hours to hike 13 miles and for this particular hike, it will probably take longer than that.
The 10-14 hour range is pretty accurate. When we did this hike, we were very much the average pace. There were people faster than us and there were people slower than us. At this pace it took us just over 11 hours including rest time.
Water on the Trail
On a hike this long and hard, water supply is one of the biggest concerns. Fortunately, this trail gives you a lot of options.
At the very least, you’ll need 1 liter of water to get to the summit. Plus, even after you start descending, it’ll take you about 3 hours to get back down to where you can fill water from the river again. Each of the 3 of us in our group carried a 20 oz water bottle and didn’t refill until the way down and we really didn’t have enough water.
I’d highly recommend that you fill up your water at the sign for The Meadows camping zone. Here, there’s a river and even if you’re not running low on water, you should pre-emptively have a full bottle.
In the Trail Guide section of this blog, we’ll share other spots where you can fill water.
If you tackle the Southwest Couloir hike in the summer months of July through September, the weather is great. The only thing you have to account for are the almost daily afternoon thunderstorms.
For all except exceptionally clear weather forecasts, plan to be at the summit no later than noon. Depending on the weather forecast, you can modify this slightly but the main thing to note is that even once you’re back down at the saddle, you’re not fully in the clear. Your safe zone is pretty much The Meadows Camping zone and that takes 2-4 hours to get back down to after leavening the summit.
When we hiked the Middle Teton, The weather forecast predicted a 30% chance of thunderstorms afternoon so we planned accordingly. We left the summit around 12:30pm and got to the The Meadows at 3pm. The forecast was pretty darn accurate. We got rained on twice for brief 5-minute periods on the descent but no lightning to worry about.
Again, plan accordingly with the weather forecast and if thunderstorms are likely, get to The Meadows before it’s a threat.
Here are links to the most accurate weather forecast in the area. I’d cross reference both of these:
- Middle Teton
- The Meadows camping zone
- OpenSummit forecast (only lets you see 1 day in advance unless you pay for a membership)
Day Hike vs Overnight
Should you hike it in a day? In my personal opinion, yes, day hiking it is much better.
The logistics really work out much better as a summer day hike.
You wake at dawn and get to hike through most of the uphill before it gets really hot, the ease of trailhead access makes it easy to get an early morning start, and you don’t have carry a heavy overnight pack.
Avoiding heat should be a huge factor when deciding if you’re going to overnight. Even on our day hike descent, it was crazy hot and I couldn’t believe how many overnight trekkers were having to ascend the steep canyon in that brutal heat with heavy backpacks.
On the other hand, the pros of overnight hiking to the summit Middle Teton means you don’t have to tackle all 10-14 hours at once. You can also summit even earlier in the day if the weather forecast isn’t looking good.
How To Overnight Backpack Middle Teton
The Middle Teton hike can definitely be done as an overnight trek, however there are some logistics to think about.
Most importantly, all overnight camping trips in Teton NP require a backcountry permit.
You can either reserve your permit in advance or you get a walk in permit.
Unfortunately, reservable permits are usually sold out months in advance so unless you are reading this blog 6 months prior to when you plan on hiking Middle Teton, count this option out.
This leaves you with the walk-in permit option. The national park reserves one third of its permits for each camping zone for walk ins. While the competition for these permits are still high in July and August, you have a chance of snagging a Garnet Canyon permit at 6am the day before your trip at Jenny Lake Ranger Station.
Where to Camp
If you decide to go for the permit, you’ll need to know which camping zones are which. There are only a certain number of permits available for each zone within Garnet Canyon so you may get a permit, but it also might not be for the zone you’d prefer.
In Garnet Canyon, you can camp at either The Platforms, The Meadows, or South Fork.
First, camping at the Platforms is most pleasant as the camping area lies among one of the only patches of forest so it’s sheltered. The Platforms lie 4 miles in at around 9200’ elevation.
The Meadows is the most popular camping area. It doesn’t have tree shelter, but it does have a water source, it’s sheltered from winds, and it’s a bit closer to Middle Teton’s summit. It lies around 4.5 miles in at 9500’ elevation.
The last and most difficult option is the South Fork camping area. This option requires you to hike another mile from the Meadows on a much more difficult boulder terrain than what came prior. It’s steep and you also have to navigate the most slippery section of the trek with a heavy backpack on. The South Fork camping area is also near 10,000’ and it’s exposed. People end up in this camping area because it’s in a different camping zone than the prior two camping areas which means it’s easier to get a permit.
Overall, I still highly recommend this as a day hike unless you truly need time to acclimate. When we were hiking down in the afternoon, we passed so many overnight hikers coming up. It was scalding hot out at that time of day, the trail is so steep, and carrying such a heavy backpack must’ve been brutal. I was definitely glad we had hike that ascent at dawn with light day packs.
Getting to the Trailhead
Lupine Meadows Trailhead is just a mile or so south of Jenny Lake Visitor Center. Access the trailhead by heading north from Jackson, turn left on Teton Park road at Moose Junction, then turn left again onto a dirt road just before Jenny Lake at the sign for Lupine Meadows.
If coming from north, turn right at Moran Junction onto Teton Park road and right after passing Jenny Lake, look for signs for Lupine Meadows trailhead and turn right onto the dirt road.
Follow the dirt road for 1.5 miles where it dead ends at the parking lot. While it is a dirt road, it’s well maintained and totally fine for low clearance vehicles. (We had no problem taking our class C motorhome on it, but I wouldn’t take a trailer here since there isn’t a good turn around spot.)
How to Hike Middle Teton Via Southwest Couloir
You journey begins at the Lupine Meadows trailhead, which is the start to many popular hikes in the Tetons including Surprise/Amphitheater Lakes, Delta Lake, and Taggart Lake. We started at 6:15 am.
Weave your way up the forested and well-maintained incline and up through some switchbacks. Assuming you start at dawn, you’ll see an amazing sunrise as you ascend the switchbacks. We had hiked this part of the trail before and we really appreciated how gradual the hike is at this point knowing how much you have left to go.
Make sure to stay right 1.8 miles in at the first trail junction, heading toward Surprise and Amphitheater lakes. At the next trail junction, at mile 3, stay left toward Garnet Canyon.
Soon after passing the second junction, you’ll slide around the mountainside and the massive peak of Middle Teton and Garnet Canyon will appear ahead of you (1.5 hours into the hike for us). Savor the last 30 minutes of smooth trail because soon the boulder hopping will begin and your feet will crave the easy terrain of the trail that came before.
Around mile 4, you will reach the official end of the maintained trail which is also where the first camping area, The Platforms, will be located. Beyond this point, you’ll experience your first difficult rock scramble of the day. Fortunately, this scramble only lasts 100 yards before you’re back on a trail that runs parallel to the creek.
As you slowly make your way closer to the towering Middle Teton area you’ll see the long and intimidating boulder field stretch on ahead of you.
You’ll reach The Meadows camping zone, the most popular camping area, at mile 4.5, which took us 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach.
Take a rest here and be sure to refill your water here. You’ll need at least 20 ounces of water to reach the summit and get back down to this point again.
Cross the river and continue on through The Meadows camping area and begin the route finding section of the trek by following cairns. Now is a good time to clarify the route you will be taking up the boulder field. See photo reference.
The boulder field may seem confusing at first, but the key is just to know where you’re headed. There are technically many ways to navigate this section but this is the way we went.
Aim slightly left to head up and around the year round snow patch. Don’t head toward the large rock face. As you get closer, the route will become more obvious. Once you reach the start of the snow, you can either stay high on the ridge to avoid the slippery terrain, or you can stay right along the snow patch for a more direct route.
After this section, you will reach a sign for the South Fork camping zone (if you took the high route, you may have traversed around the sign). This is just under 5 miles in, hour 2.5 for us. Super helpful to know at this point is that you still have 3 hours to go.
At this point, the route finding gets easier. Just head toward the saddle. Typically, you’ll want to stay toward the right side of the canyon as you head up.
4 hours in (based on an average speed), you’ll reach the Saddle and your breath will be taken away by the absolutely stunning views of Icefloe Lake. This is seriously one of the most beautiful views in the entire Teton range so savor it while you rest your legs for the final push.
At this point, you’re in the home stretch. You’ve only got about 500 feet to go and instead of dreaded boulder-hopping, the terrain turns more into legitimate rock scrambling with only a few scree sections.
Before you begin the last ascent, make sure you put on your helmet if you don’t already have it on, scout out your route, shown in the photo below, and evaluate the weather. If there are significant storm clouds rolling in, you should not attempt to summit.
While the next stretch is still steep and challenging, you’re rewarded with constantly breathtaking views of the Idaho Tetons the entire way up. 1-2 hours later (1.5 hours for us), your legs burning with lactic acid, you will finally crest the summit boulder and stand along the sheer ridge of Middle Teton’s summit at 12,809 feet.
Views of the Grand Teton, the vast expanse of meadows and mountains to the west, and sheer ridgelines surrounding you will make the journey worth every painful step.
After you enjoy the feeling of accomplishment at the summit, the actual hard part begins: the decent. Backtrack the way you came.
Overall the ascent took us about 6 hours and the descent took us nearly 5 hours.
Middle Teton Pack List for Summer
- Headlamp – For pre-dawn start or in case of emergency late night finish.
- Helmet – This is essential, hikers ahead of you will knock some scree
- Bear spray – This is the Tetons, duh.
- 16 ounces of watahhh (can you tell I’m tired of writing at this point?) – Lots of water.
- Water filter – Muy importante. Don’t forget it.
- Puffy jacket – The summit is really cold/windy.
- Packable rain jacket – Those thunderstorms, yo.
- Sunscreen – Alpine sunburns aren’t fun.
- Beanie – Could be necessary even in the summer
- Optional: Gloves
- Shoulder season: Ice axe – Check conditions, might be necessary even in mid-July
- Shoulder season: Crampons/Microspikes
- Shoulder season: More warm layers
Woohoo, you made it! Boy, that was a mouthful, but I do truly hope that answered all your questions about hiking the Middle Teton’s Southwest Couloir route. Might be legitimately the best climb/hike I’ve ever done. It’s unforgettable and I hope you get to experience it!
Got questions? Let me know in the comments and don’t forget to follow me @gabirobledo_ or our blog @nomadswithapurpose on Instagram for more climbing inspiration!
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