This is the hike I swore I’d never write about. But then I have this problem where I want people coming to Jackson Hole to see and experience the best this valley has to offer. Numerous things I’ve sworn to keep secret have been revealed in this way. And so it goes for Crystal Butte.
What Makes It Great
Crystal Butte is almost exactly opposite Snow King. Where Snow King faces north, Crystal Butte faces south. Where Snow King is the social hub of the valley, summer and winter, you’ll see less than a handful of hikers on Crystal Butte at any time. The hike up Snow King is 1,500 vertical feet. Crystal Butte can be anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 vert, depending on where you turn around. The hike up Snow King is on a service road. Crystal Butte is all single track. The majority of the Crystal Butte trail is in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
Why isn’t Crystal more popular? There are a couple of reasons: First, there is no option of riding a lift down Crystal like there is on Snow King. Crystal Butte is steep. And by “steep” I mean steep enough to make the trail up Snow King look fairly flat. The Crystal trail is loose and dusty, making the steepest sections fairly tricky on the way down.
Really, those are the main reasons. As someone who hikes Crystal 4-5 mornings a week all summer long, obviously I don’t think they’re reason enough to eschew Crystal in favor of the King. If you’re worried about the steepness, use hiking poles.
At the top of Crystal, well, there’s no definite top of Crystal. There’s one really, really long switchback heading east across a hillside so populated by wildflowers you’ll be stopping to take photos every few steps. That switchback takes you to a bit of a point where the trail begins heading north up a well-defined ridge. Many people stop here. At this point, you’ve climbed about 1,400 vertical feet and one and a half miles. You can continue northward on the ridge for another 600 vert though. Twenty or so minutes after heading north from the point, the trail disappears into thick trees. You can make your way through them and continue climbing another 500 feet, but I usually turn around just below these trees.
FYI, if you do decide to poke around the in trees and continue heading north, a canister of bear spray is advised. I’ve seen some serious signs of bruins in those woods.
Who is Going to Love It
Snow King has beautiful views down on the town of Jackson and out towards the Tetons. Crystal Butte has the same and, in my opinion, they’re better. Although you do have to hike to the top ridge to get the Teton views.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
The Crystal Butte trail starts at the Nelson Drive trailhead. Only one trail heads east from the parking lot. It is the obvious main trail in the area. This bottom section is actually the Putt Putt trail and is very popular with mountain bikers. About 10-12 minutes up from the parking lot, the Crystal Butte trail splits off to the north. It is signed. Once you leave the main trail, it’s just hikers. The trail quickly enters Wilderness, where mountain bikes are not allowed.