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 the Grand Teton mountains “The Three Big Breasts”—”Les Trois Tetons”—with the tallest as “Le Grand Teton.” And the moniker stuck. Today, there are so many things to do in Grand Teton National Park! (And yes, you should also visit in winter.)
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…
Things to Do in Grand Teton National Park
Where are the Grand Tetons? The Grand Tetons are in Wyoming. To be more specific, Grand Teton National Park is in northwestern Wyoming. One of the things people often ask is: “Is Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park? The answer is yes! The 40-mile long park (310,000 acres) is unusual in that it 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 airfare from points west of the park, Salt Lake City makes a convenient gateway, with a four-hour drive north into Wyoming.
Wondering what to pack for Teton? My Yellowstone packing list works great! Check out this list of 23 essential items to bring.
Also, you can save on your parks visit when you get the America the Beautiful Pass.
This is your ticket to freedom! For $79.99, the pass gives you a whole year of access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, including national parks nationwide.
It covers entrance for a driver and all passengers in a personal vehicle or up to 4 adults at sites that charge per person. When you buy through REI, they donate 10 percent of the sale to the National Park Foundation.
Map of Jackson Hole
There are so many incredible things to do 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 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 the evening an excellent time for seeing more sites.
Without further ado, here are the top things to do in Grand Teton (your Grand Teton itinerary):
1. Hike Jenny Lake
If you’re not sure what to do in the Tetons, start here! Scenic Jenny Lake is everybody’s favorite day hike (although there are plenty of beautiful hikes in Yellowstone, too!). 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.
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 tasted 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!)
Where to Stay in Grand Teton National Park
Be strategic when choosing Grand Teton lodging. The park is huge!
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 as we did. (See map above for locations.)
Jenny Lake Lodge (south end of the park) is rustic cottages perched at the edge of super scenic Jenny Lake. (My favorite spot in the park!)
Check price and latest availability at Jenny Lake Lodge here.
Headwaters Lodge (north end of the park) looks like a cabin but feels more like a hotel room inside and offers a nice onsite restaurant.
Check prices and availability at Headwaters Lodge here.
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!)
2. Hike 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. It’s one of the best hikes in Grand Teton.
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.
3. Take a Grand Teton Tour: Snake River Float Trip
A Snake River float trip is one of the best Grand Teton tours you can enjoy here. 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.”
4. Go 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!
5. See wildlife.
Wildlife is one of the top Grand Teton attractions! What can you expect to see here? 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.
6. Kayak Jackson Lake.
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
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