I grew up in a valley community, and the Blue Ridge Mountains encircled my hometown like big, safe shoulders. Despite living minutes from the Appalachian Trail, one of the best known hiking destinations on the east coast, I never even set foot on a hiking trail until I was in college. My freshman year, a professor led a small group of us up to McAfee Knob, a rock outcropping that juts out over the valleys below to reward hikers with an awe-inspiring, 270-degree panorama of Catawba valley, Roanoke valley, North Mountain and Tinker Cliffs.
That first summit was amazing. Anyone who's ever hiked knows the experience: the smell of damp earth rising from underfoot, the sound of snapping twigs echoing off the hills around you and finally emerging, breathless, to find the whole world spread out beneath you.
Compared to Buck Mountain, however, my 5-ish-mile (about 8-kilometer) hike to McAfee Knob was a bunny slope. At 11,938 feet (3,638 meters), Buck Mountain, located toward the middle-southwestern corner of Grand Teton National Park, poses quite a challenge. However, it does have several well-established summit approaches, most of which you can climb from the valley in a single day. For hikers who are eager to take their scrambling and climbing skills to the next level, Buck Mountain might just be the perfect 10,000-plus-feet (3048-plus-meter) starter destination. In summer, the terrain is green and gentle at the base of the mountain and grows rockier, with scrubby vegetation and year-round snow caps as you gain elevation. In fall and winter, the mountain is blanketed with heavy snow, and in spring, avalanche risk and wet conditions make hiking Buck Mountain unadvisable.
There are several different ways to summit the mountain, from a fairly moderate walkup on the east face to a truly difficult Class 5+ climb on the north-northwest ridge. Wondering which approach will best suit your skills? We tackle Buck Mountain's different summit routes next.
Buck Mountain Hiking: Summit Trails
In 1898, the Bannon topographic party blazed a route up Buck Mountain's East Face to complete the first recorded ascent of Buck Mountain [source: Ortenburger and Jackson]. Over the next century, mountaineers mapped out other more difficult climbing routes up the mountain. Today, there are five main summit trails on Buck Mountain:
- East Face: A Class 3 scramble, this challenging but relatively moderate 12-mile (19-kilometer) round-trip climb can be accomplished in about a day. Climbers who reach the summit will be rewarded with amazing views of the major Teton Peaks to the north.
- East Ridge: At times more difficult than the East Face approach, the East Ridge summit trail requires rock climbing as well as scrambling skills. Though this trail is classified as a Class 4 climb, it can be made more difficult by staying on the ridge. Or, to make it a little easier, climbers can hike slightly down and south of the ridge.
- Southeast Couloir: Be sure to bring rope on this approach, because this mostly Class 4 route has a few short, exposed sections that approach Class 5 status.
- Northeast Chimney: This Class 4 summit approach is very steep and, except in summer, generally blanketed in deep snow. Though the hike can be done in day, many climbers allow two days and camp overnight at the south fork of Avalanche Canyon.
- North Northwest Ridge: The most challenging of the five summit trails, this 7.2-mile (11.5-kilometer) one-way hike is rated class 5.7 and requires rock climbing experience as well as specialized climbing gear.
Novices will find any one of the summit trails on Buck Mountain fairly difficult. Even experienced climbers and mountaineers may find conditions challenging on the more advanced routes. Except on the relatively moderate East Face trail, you'll want to bring specialized climbing or mountaineering equipment as well as the usual day hiking gear.
Buck Mountain Hiking: Essential Gear
Grand Teton National Park, where Buck Mountain is located, has an average elevation of about 6,800 feet (2,072 meters). This is considered high elevation. At almost 12,000 feet (3,658 meters), the summit of Buck Mountain is at the extreme top end of what most consider “high” altitude. As such, basic altitude awareness and certain specialized gear are necessary if you’re planning to hike to the top.
According to the CDC, day trips to high altitude followed by a return to low altitude are much less stressful on the body than sleeping at high altitude. Unless you're planning to camp at altitudes above 9,000 feet (2,743 meters), you probably won’t have to worry about altitude sickness while hiking Buck Mountain. Nevertheless, expect to be affected by shortness of breath. Nausea and headaches can be early warning signs of altitude sickness; stop for a couple of hours to acclimate if you begin to feel these symptoms. If they persist, consider returning to a lower elevation.
In addition to standard day hiking gear (a backpack, sturdy hiking boots, layered clothing, water, sunscreen, etc.), you’ll also need to bring some specialized gear when you’re hiking a peak like Buck Mountain. The amount and type of gear you’ll need will depend on which summit route you plan to take. Fit hikers traveling the East Face trail may only need to add an extra layer of cold-weather gear for the wind and weather they’ll encounter at the summit. Rope will also come in handy. On the other hand, climbers who’ve summited via the more challenging routes recommend specialized rock climbing gear, including nuts, cams, aliens, slings and runners. If that sounds like Greek to you, then you’ll probably want to stick to the East Face trail.
No matter which trail you choose, you’ll need an ice axe, crampons and snow gear if you’re summiting in any season other than summer. Most Buck Mountain hikes can be completed in a single day. However, camping on the mountain, or lodging in Grand Teton National Park itself, can add an even more exciting dimension to your hiking experience.
Buck Mountain Hiking: Reservations and Lodging
- Tent Camping: Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park is the closest campsite to Buck Mountain. There are 49 individual campsites, including 10 sites designated especially for hikers and cyclists. Arrive early! This is the park's most popular campsite, and it generally fills up by 11 a.m. The Jenny Lake campsite is open from mid-May to late-September, depending on the weather.
- Backcountry Camping: There are also established campsites in the backcountry around Buck Mountain itself. These include sites in a large meadow near Stewart Draw on the East Face trail and sites on the Alaska Basin just outside the national park boundaries. You don't need a permit to camp in the Alaska Basin. However, if you're camping overnight inside the Grand Teton National Park boundaries, you will need to obtain a free permit from the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center in Moose, Wyoming. Backcountry camp sites tend to fill up quickly, so reservations are recommended. You can make your backcountry reservations January 5th through May 15th at http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/bcres.htm.
- Primitive Camping: A few primitive winter camp sites are available from December 1st through April 15th in the plowed parking lot adjacent to the Coulter Bay Visitor Center in Grand Teton National Park. As of 2012, these sites are $5 per night.
- RV Camping: Coulter Bay RV Park in Grand Teton National Park and Headwaters RV Site at Flagg Ranch both have full RV hook-ups, showers and laundry facilities. Advance reservations are advised.
- Cabins: The Jenny Lake Lodge at Grand Teton National Park is a beautiful, rustic, eco-resort experience. Breakfast, a five-course dinner, horse back rides and bicycle rentals are included.
Rates and details for day hiking, camping, RV sites and lodging are available at the Grand Tetons National Park Web site. Be sure to pick lodging you like; you'll want a comfortable place to rest your head after your hike up Buck Mountain!
When I was researching this article, I came across several ski and snowboard-related communities where people had posted photos and information about skiing Buck Mountain. I first went skiing with my church youth group when I was 14. That first trip, I had a blast cruising down the bunny slope. When we returned the following winter, I decided I was an accomplished enough skier to handle the intermediate slopes. As if! I spent the better part of a day tumbling head over heels down the mild slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That was the end of my skiing career.
I can't even imagine skiing Buck Mountain! Plenty of adventurers seem to do it, however. If you try it (or even if you just visit Buck Mountain), be sure to leave us a comment and tell us about your experience.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.“Altitude Illness." (May 22, 2012) http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2012/chapter-2-the-pre-travel-consultation/altitude-illness.htm
- Kalet, Brian. “Buck Mountain.” SummitPost.org. June 20, 2011. (May 14, 2012) http://www.summitpost.org/page/151386
- Maddison, Jamie. “Beginner’s Guide: Building a Trad Rack.” Climber.co.uk. July 30, 2009. (May 22, 2011) http://www.climber.co.uk/categories/articleitem.asp?item=273
- National Park Service, Grand Teton National Park. "Campgrounds." (May 14, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm
- National Park Service, Grand Teton National Park. "Fees and Reservations." (May 14, 2012) http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/feesandreservations.htm
- Ortenburger, Leigh N. and Reynold G. Jackson. "A Climber's Guide to the Teton Range." Mountaineers Books. Nov. 1, 1996. (May 14, 2012) http://books.google.com/books?ei=C5iyT_uNOc3kggfp1oWPCQ&id=Z-Y1tLw_YWgC&dq=climbers+guide+to+the+teton+range&q=buck+mountain#v=snippet&q=buck%20mountain&f=false