Trailhead: The trail begins at Teton Campground in Grand Targhee National Forest on the Idaho side of the Tetons. To reach the trailhead from Jackson, Wyoming: take Highway 22 west over Teton Pass to Victor, Idaho; turn north on Highway 33 and travel 8 miles to Driggs, Idaho; at the main intersection in Driggs, turn right onto “Little Ave” (look for a sign pointing to Grand Targhee Ski Resort) and proceed 6 miles; make another right onto the unpaved road marked “Teton Campground” and continue five more miles to the end. Look for the trailhead sign marked “North Teton Trail” at the far side of the campground.
Distance: 12 miles (round-trip).
Elevation Changes: Table Mountain stands 4,100 feet above the trailhead. Good Luck!
Time required: 8 hours.
Difficulty: Very strenuous.
From the campground, the trail quickly climbs 400 feet in the first half mile, then levels a bit as it parallels the north fork of Teton Creek. Soon, you cross into the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area, created as part of Grand Targhee National Forest in 1984. Jedediah, one of the most interesting figures of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era, answered an 1822 St. Louis newspaper advertisement calling for “enterprising young men … to ascend the River Missouri to its source, there to be employed for one, two or three years.” He quickly grew in stature. As a mountain man he was unsurpassed, successfully leading trapping parties through perilous territory. As an explorer he excelled, forging the first passage over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. A deeply religious man, he did not swear, drink, or use tobacco and he always carried his Bible. Jedediah lost part of an ear to a grizzly and eventually lost his life to a Comanche spear, but he never lost the respect of his men or his faith in God.
Just past the 1 mile mark, look for moose in the open meadows and among the tall, shrubby willows which thrive near the creek to the right. The tender leaves and twigs of the willows make up a large portion of the moose’s diet. In fact, the name “moose” comes from the Algonquin Indian term meaning twig eater. At the 2.5 mile mark the trail crosses the creek on a small footbridge. Black bear are often seen in this area. Bear cubs are born in January when the female is still asleep in her den. A newborn cub may weigh as little as just 8 ounces, which is remarkable when compared to its mother’s weight of 150 to 250 pounds. Healthy females usually give birth to one or two cubs every other year. Just ahead on the left, you will find a large granite outcropping which is a nice spot to rest. At this point you have climbed 1,000 feet. To the southeast, you can now see gently sloping Table Mountain rising another 3,000 feet to its distinctive box-shaped top.
As you near the 3.5 mile mark, the trail bends to the right and enters a series of 9 switchbacks which climb 1,000 feet in less than a mile. Early in the season snow can be a problem in this area. Later in the summer, hikers on the lower switchbacks are treated to a beautiful display of wildflowers including: the prominent pink Lewis monkeyflower; the well-named monkshood, with its distinctive purple flowers forming a hood-shaped structure; the fiery red-topped Indian paintbrush; and the delicate mountain bluebell, with its clusters of tiny blue flowers hanging down from long stems. As you climb the switchbacks, you begin to see the mighty summits of the Teton Range as they peek over the ridge to the east. First you see the Grand (13,770′) then to its right, the Middle Teton (12,804′) and to its left, Mount Owen (12,928′). Finally, far to the right you see the South Teton (12,514′). From this western vantage, the so-called “back side” of the Tetons, one can understand how the lonely French fur trappers, upon seeing these majestic peaks silhouetted against the sky, allowed their minds to wander and fondly dubbed them “Les Trois Tetons” (the three breasts).
The elevation at the top of the ridge above the switchbacks is 9,944 feet. Here, the summer growing season is short and the winter conditions are severe. The only trees that can survive are the gnarled whitebark pines and even they cannot grow much further up the mountain.
The climate is cool, moist and often windy. The soil is scant and supports a sparse population of shrubs and flowers. This is the biotic community known as alpine tundra. From here, the top of Table Mountain looks deceptively close. Actually, it’s almost two miles away and another 1,000 feet up. As you continue up the broad, sloping meadow, try not to step on anything green. These plants struggle enough against the elements without also doing battle with your feet.
The box-shaped top of Table Mountain, which gives the mountain its name, is made up of sedimentary rock. Millions of years ago, many layers of sedimentary rock formed an unbroken horizontal blanket covering the older Precambrian basement rocks beneath. Approximately 9 million years ago, the Teton Range faulted up, exposing these hard basement rocks, which today make up the core of the Tetons. Subsequent erosion stripped away much of the sedimentary rock, leaving relatively few areas, like Table Mountain, exposed. Be very careful as you make the final ascent through this sedimentary rock. It is really just a consolidated accumulation of sand, rock and shell fragments and therefore, is brittle, crumbly and difficult to climb.
From the top of Table Mountain you feel as though you are standing shoulder to shoulder with the clouds. No words can describe this breathtaking view. Suffice it to say that in 1872, famous photographer William H. Jackson, searching for the perfect spot from which to make the first photographs ever of the Tetons, chose Table Mountain as his vantage. If you think it was tough getting up here, imagine how difficult it was for Jackson, who traveled for nine days without benefit of a blazed trail, leading his mule, “Molly,” packed high with bulky cameras, lenses, tripods, glass plates, chemicals and a makeshift darkroom. But it was all worth it. Even with the crude photographic equipment of the day, the images that Jackson captured from the top of Table Mountain remain unsurpassed!
Before descending the mountain, closely survey the landscape for bighorn sheep. This is one of the few hikes in the Tetons where you have a fair chance to view these beautiful animals. Although related to domestic sheep, the bighorn has a coat of hair, not wool. Both the male (ram) and the female (ewe) have horns that are never shed.