GET OUT: Phelps Overlook, Death defying

By on December 30, 2013
Death Canyon barn serves as a ranger post near the trail Photo grumpygrimble
Death Canyon barn serves as a ranger post near the trail Photo grumpygrimble

Death Canyon barn serves as a ranger post near the trail Photo grumpygrimble

Got snowshoes?
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – A fun winter hike in Grand Teton National Park is the easy jaunt to Phelps Lake, the park’s sixth largest body of water. Sure you’ve probably done this hike a million times but have you done it in winter? It’s totally different.

The hike to the overlook is 2.6 miles each way with a total elevation gain of about 730 feet. It’s a popular and easy hike in the summer. Be prepared to wait for a parking space at the Granite Canyon Trailhead in peak summer months. Right about now, you’ll have the place to yourself.

The trail begins with the Whitegrass Ranch Road. It’s here in this beginning stretch you may encounter a moose but little other wildlife will be around at this time of year. The cleared meadows of the old ranch are visible after the first mile on your right. Whitegrass first opened in 1919, becoming the valley’s third dude ranch. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

After 1.6 miles you should see a sign for Death Canyon trailhead. That means you have another mile to go until you are at the overlook (7,200′). You can probably skip the scramble down to water’s edge for the customary cool-off dip. Save that for another six months along with continuing on into Death Canyon from here. That might be something better left for warmer weather but the canyon itself is fascinating. First the name. The story goes that a member of T.M. Bannon’s survey party of 1899 wandered into the canyon and never returned. He was assumed killed by a grizzly or maybe Shoshone. But maybe he just passed all the way through to Idaho via the Teton Crest trail and came out through the Alaska Basin.

The U-shape valley is a clear indication it was carved by retreating glaciers (some 15,000 years ago) as opposed to V-shaped canyons which are generally cut by lava flow. When the canyon does tighten up some, the trail jumps up on the base of Albright Peak to your right. To the left, the wall is more shear up to the top of Static Peak.

About the coolest, if not oddest, feature of a Death Canyon hike is a chance to sample the park’s best root beer. I don’t know if he is still alive but Black George was handing out root beers a few years ago from the Death Canyon barn.

The barn was built in 1935 by the CCC. It was listed in the national registry in 1998. It’s about two miles up Death Canyon from the Phelps Lake overlook. The structure was used as a patrol cabin beginning around 1945. By the 1950s, a seasonal ranger was often posted there for the summer. That’s where Black George comes in.

George Simmons, a New Orleans native, was the park’s oldest volunteer in 2011. At age 87, George was still handing out root beers to parched hikers. His single-season record, according to a story in REI, is 575.

About Jake Nichols

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