One of many people's favorite places in Grand Teton National Park isn't actually in Grand Teton National Park. North of the Death Canyon Shelf, south of Hurricane Pass, and west of Buck Mountain, Alaska Basin and its rich fields of wildflowers, (which are generally at their peak in late July and early August), is squarely in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness.
The fact that Alaska Basin is in the Jed Smith Wilderness means it is your best bet for a last-minute backcountry trip in Jackson Hole. Unlike in GTNP, Wilderness areas do not require overnight camping permits.
Or, if you don't want to stay the night, you can just as easily take a day trip to Alaska Basin. Local trail runners can do a 20-ish mile loop in about four hours.
Here's how to do it both ways:
Alaska Basin By Day:
shortest route into Alaska Basin is up Death Canyon and then over the Static
Peak Divide. Static Peak Divide gives way to Buck Mountain Pass. Alaska Basin
starts on the other (western) side of Buck Mountain Pass.
Buck Mountain Pass, as well as Static Peak Divide, sometimes hold patches of snow later
into the summer than most any other section of hiking trails in the park.
Check with rangers for current conditions and, if rangers recommend an ice axe,
don’t take their suggestion lightly.
the Buck Mountain Pass saddle, which is just under 10 miles in and 4,500 (or
so) vertical feet up, a 4.7-mile trail loops around Alaska Basin. But if you don’t want to do the loop, you don't have to at all. Hike down into the uppermost reaches of the Basin—it undulates between 9,200 and 9,700 feet in
elevation—before turning around and returning the way you came.
A longer day trip option is heading to the back of Death
Canyon to Fox Creek Pass, turning north along the Death Canyon Shelf and
entering Alaska Basin down the Sheep Steps from the south and then looping out to Buck Mountain Pass and
Static Peak Divide.
If an out-and-back to Alaska Basin via Static Peak Divide is
20 miles (not counting the 4.7 mile loop around the Basin), this is somewhere
between 23 and 25 miles.
Or you could enter Alaska Basin via Buck Mountain Pass and
then loop out to the north, hiking/running over to Sunset Lake and Hurricane
Pass and descending the South Fork of Cascade Canyon. This option, although
gorgeous—the Schoolroom Glacier is one of GTNP's highlights (and
is actually in GTNP)—is less convenient because you come out at Jenny Lake
while your car is at the Death Canyon Trailhead.
Speaking from personal experience, hitching from Jenny Lake
to the Death Canyon Trailhead isn’t easy. I’ve ended up running/hiking six-some
miles along the Valley Trail from Jenny Lake back to the Death Canyon Trailhead
more often than I’ve been able to get rides there. If you get a ride from Jenny Lake, the total mileage for this
option is about 27 miles, assuming you take the loop trail down into the Basin
rather than merely skirting it. If you walk all the way to your car at Death
Canyon, it’s closer to 32 miles. At that point, you might as well just consider backpacking...
Alaska Basin Overnight Backpack:
If you’re heading into Alaska Basin for an overnight,
there’s no good reason to make it an out-and-back. Why not see fresh scenery
the entire trek? To do so, enter the Basin from the south and exit at Buck Mountain, or do the opposite.
Now you just have to figure out where to camp. There are so
many wonderful spots tucked all over the place. Ask Skinny Skis staff for some of their favorites. I won't try to describe
my favorites because I have too many, (and also because I don’t want to plan an overnight there only
to roll up to my favorite camp spot and find you pitching your tent there!).
Water is plentiful throughout the Basin. Opportunities to
hang your food to keep it out of the reach of animals are more variable. Some
areas of the Basin have plenty of options. Other areas have nothing but low-lying shrubbery. I've seen black bears—note the plural—in Alaska Basin. And
each of the four times I’ve seen them, the bears have run away from me faster
than I could say “bear spray.” Make sure to store your food so that this continues
to be the case.
You can access Alaska Basin via the west side too, but this entry is already too long. Stop in at Skinny Skis or Moosely Seconds and ask how.