It’s hard to miss the three massive peaks rising from the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming in Grand Teton National Park. French trappers nicknamed them “The Three Big Breasts”—”Les Trois Tetons”—with the tallest as “Le Grand Teton.” And the moniker stuck.
Today, the Tetons provide a mesmerizing backdrop for everything from bald eagle spotting on a languid Snake River float trip to chaparral trail rides and fly fishing on secret mountain lakes. Everybody still yearns to experience a bit of America’s wild west. And it’s easy to see why…
- Getting There
- Must-Sees in Grand Teton National Park
- Grand Teton National Park Hikes: Jenny Lake
- Grand Teton National Park Hikes: Phelps Lake
- Grand Teton Tours: A Snake River Float Trip
- Grand Teton Tours: Horseback Riding
- Jackson Hole Wildlife Tours
- Kayaking in Grand Teton National Park
- Lodging Near Grand Tetons: Where to Stay
- Like this post? Pin it for later!
Grand Teton National Park is unusual in that the 40-mile long park remains a mix of public and private lands in a valley that has historically been known as Jackson Hole. In a series of complex political maneuvers designed to appease conservationists as well as local ranchers reluctant to sell, the federal government settled on a little bit of both.
In practical terms, that means that—for better or worse—visitors can fly directly into the Jackson Hole airport, which is located inside the national park. Alternatively, to save on air fare from points west of the park, Salt Lake City makes a convenient gateway, with a four-hour drive north into Wyoming.
Map of Jackson Hole (click on things to do, where to stay and eat)
Must-Sees in Grand Teton National Park
The beautiful thing about US National Parks is that they’re designed for everyone to enjoy. And, just as I did when we visited Volcanos National Park in Hawaii recently, I reflected on the legacy of those who set aside private lands for public enjoyment in such a generous and longstanding commitment to future generations.
As in many of the parks, it’s easy in Grand Teton to drive a loop through the center of the park that offers easy access to memorable views, plenty of wildlife, and loads of history. So families with children, those with disabilities, and older adults can take full advantage.
If you’re a hiker, however, one of the best ways to maximize your enjoyment while missing the crowds is to wake up at dawn—like the animals do—and head out with your binoculars for prime time viewing of wildlife. (Steve nearly bumped into a full-grown buck getting coffee early one morning!)
Insider tip: See the popular sites before 9 am. Pack a picnic lunch and then head up to a mountain lake for an afternoon hike. Crowds thin after 5 pm, making evening an excellent time for seeing more sites.
Grand Teton National Park Hikes: Jenny Lake
Scenic Jenny Lake is everybody’s favorite day hike in the Tetons. That’s why it’s so important to arrive early or late in the day (see Insider tip above). Otherwise, you’ll wait for parking.
Tip: Don’t miss the incredible four mile one-way North Jenny Lake Scenic Drive before or after your hike. The Jenny Lake overlook and Leigh/String Lake trailheads are picnic-perfect!
Start at the Jenny Lake visitor center to snap a photo of the current wildflowers in bloom. They’re all posted for easy identification on the trail. Then you can choose from a variety of short to strenuous day hikes around the lake. For $15 round trip, you can also zip across the lake in the shuttle as we did for a gorgeous day hike.
Wherever you hike in Grand Teton, bring your bear spray! On our hike to Inspiration Point, we rounded a bend to see two ears poking up among the huckleberry vines in a lush valley. We backed away and headed the other direction up to Hidden Falls.
But then, as we approached the falls, we came upon this incredible sight!
This guy was so busy gorging on berries that he didn’t even notice us gawking at him.
There were huckleberries everywhere at Jenny Lake. In fact, the air was perfumed with them. (Huckleberry season here is a delight…Think huckleberry lattes, huckleberry smash, huckleberry lemonade and huckleberry pie! If you’ve never had a huckleberry, you’re missing out!)
Bear Safety Tips
It was magical to see a black bear in the wild…especially since we were prepared if he approached. Bear spray is not optional for hikers in Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Park.
You can buy it in the park, but since it’s illegal to carry it on a flight home, consider renting it for $8 per day at one of the equipment rental companies inside Yellowstone or in the town of Jackson. (Or buy your own for extended hiking trips.) Keep it ready on your belt, not packed away in a pack!
Also, skip the bear bells. They just annoy other hikers and are not particularly effective with bears. If you see a bear on a trail, stop, stay calm and avoid sudden movements. Back slowly away using a calm tone of voice and never get between a mama bear and her cubs. Don’t ever turn your back. (You’ll be happy to know park rangers monitor bear activity quite closely here, working hard to keep tourists and bears apart!)
Grand Teton National Park Hikes: Phelps Lake
With 40 million visitors to Grand Teton annually, it’s incredible that you can still enjoy a mostly solitary hike to pristine spots like Phelps Lake. Phelps Lake—once home to a Rockefeller family retreat—is today part of the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve for all of us to enjoy.
Start your hike at the Preserve Center and then choose from an easy 3 mile loop (the Lake Creek and Woodland Trail), a longer 5.8 mile loop (Aspen Ridge and Boulder Ridge) or the 6.3 mile Phelps Lake trail loop.
All three of these trails meander through sun dappled forests and sagebrush meadows to arrive at the lake for this view…
For a more extensive list of popular hikes in Grand Teton, go here.
Grand Teton Tours: A Snake River Float Trip
Ansel Adams brought the Snake River to fame with his famous shot of the Snake River overlook…You can see it for yourself on a turnout within the park. (Also, don’t miss beautiful Oxbow Bend, just one mile east of Jackson Lake Junction in the park!)
Look for moose, beaver, river otters, osprey and American white pelican here at dawn and dusk particularly. Mount Moran provides a beautiful backdrop for photos.
But to really get the feel of the river, head out on a sunrise or sunset float trip as we did. We booked our three-hour float trip through Signal Mountain Lodge, where we stayed. It was quite the experience to see nearly a dozen American Bald Eagles standing sentry on the tops of lodgepole pines dotted all along the river as we floated.
We also saw our share of flat-tailed beavers busy at the river’s edge and learned they are “crepuscular,” i.e., most active at twilight. During the day, they hole up and sleep it off in their elaborate beaver “lodges.”
Grand Teton Tours: Horseback Riding
Get your cowboy on! If ever there were a spot to get out on a trail ride, it’s in Grand Teton National Park. It had been more than a decade since the last time I perched on a saddle, but this horseback ride through the morning mist clinging to the forest was incredible!
In fact, the horses were both gentle and responsive. Maybe that’s because they are so obviously well-loved. According to our wrangler and guide Caroline, the outfitter that owns them (and manages all the horses in Teton and Yellowstone) can name every one of his 2,000 horses and something about the way each of them rides.
Over the course of our two-hour ride, we crossed the willows, climbing up to Emma Matilda Lake and eventually to this panoramic view, before heading back to the barn where we fed them special horse cookies!
Jackson Hole Wildlife Tours
What wildlife can you expect to see in Teton? I’m happy to report that in August—which is actually the very worst month for wildlife spotting— we saw elk, pronghorn antelope, buffalo, deer, black bear, bald eagles, beavers, swans, and osprey…in addition to the usual chipmunks and squirrels.
What really helped on our wildlife viewing endeavor was heading out on a jeep tour with a guide at sunset through EcoTour Adventures. We learned that pronghorn antelope, for example, are surpassed only by the cheetah among mammals for speed (and that their closest relative is a giraffe)!
Male elk can bulk up to 700 pounds and shed their antlers annually when their testosterone drops. And those horns are heavy! (We lifted a rack for ourselves in a visitor’s center.) I’d love to come back to the park in fall and do a snowshoeing adventure to see wolves.
Kayaking in Grand Teton National Park
Of the many incredible activities we enjoyed in Teton, our favorite was perhaps kayaking Jackson Lake. In fact, after our experience this year kayaking Doubtful Sound in New Zealand, Moorea in French Polynesia and then Jackson Lake, we finally broke down yesterday and bought our own double ocean kayak for paddling closer to home in San Diego.
It’s easy to rent kayaks right at Coulter Bay within the park. And if you arrive early or late in the day, you’ll enjoy a blissful paddle past the bird sanctuary and across the lake with only the sound of a honking goose breaking the vast silence as clouds float by. (Don’t forget to wear a personal floatation device when you go!)
“The trees, the animals, the streams, the flowers, preserved as much as possible in their natural state of beauty, will in turn help preserve our most precious resource—the human spirit.”
—Laurance S. Rockefeller
Lodging Near Grand Tetons: Where to Stay
Be strategic when choosing lodging. For quick access to sights with fewer crowds, consider booking a few nights at the south end of the park and then a few nights at the north end of the park.
Grand Teton Lodge Company offers a range of accommodations for every budget at Jackson Lake Lodge, Jenny Lake Lodge, Coulter Bay, and Headwaters Lodge. (And the lodges have excellent restaurants!) We stayed at Headwaters at the north end of the park for easy access on our visit to Yellowstone National Park.
We especially loved our stay at the rustic and renovated 1920’s cabins lakeside at the independently run Signal Mountain Lodge in the park. But the double beds are on the cozy and small side so be ready!
Nearby Jackson also makes a good base for the south end of Grand Teton National Park. Be aware that Jackson is packed with tourists, however, which also makes it pricey. (But if you are in Jackson, be sure to pick up world-class sandwiches for your next picnic at Pearl Street Market!)
After our drive from Salt Lake City, we spent our first night a bit in the boonies at a lovely Airbnb in tiny Victor, ID and then our final night before heading back in the cutest ever tiny house in Irwin, ID.