Outdoors,  Travel

Exploring Grand Teton National Park

I will never forget the first time I saw the Grand Teton range pop up over a horizon of thick pine trees. I was crammed into the middle seat in the back of my friend’s old Ford. The windows were down due to the lack of AC, wind was tearing my hair in all directions, and laughter filled the car as the five of us joked around and told stories. As soon as the first shimmering peak made its appearance, however, we fell into a deep silence before erupting into cheers.

We had two days off and the plan was simple: drive the five and a half hours north to Grand Teton National Park as soon as we got off work and camp as close to the park as possible, so that we could wake up early on the morning of our first day off and hike deep into the backcountry. John and I recently adopted the same strategy for our trip to the Tetons in August, and while the adventures themselves were wildly different I couldn’t help but feel a pang of nostalgia when I saw the familiar welcome sign.

Visiting Grand Teton National Park is something that every avid outdoorist should do, especially if they’re near Wyoming. There are so many things to do and see, and so many different ways to get outside in the Tetons. Today I’ll share some things that I learned during my explorations in the National Park.

Want to read more about our four day trip to Northern Wyoming? Check out my Yellowstone travel guide!

Grand Teton National Park is surrounded by land owned by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which in most cases has free or cheap primitive camping. When we rolled up in the cramped Ford last season we didn’t even consider camping within the park property, and instead made a beeline for the nearest BLM spot we could. The main perk of camping on BLM land besides the low price is the fact that it’s almost always available; there are 18.4 million acres of BLM owned land in Wyoming alone, which means that there are plenty of opportunities to find a place to pitch a tent.

When John and I returned to the Tetons in August we opted for sleeping in the van as opposed to in a tent, because it meant we could get much closer to the park’s boarder; right outside of the park are numerous pull offs where a vehicle can stay for the night. If sleeping in your car isn’t your thing, you still can camp close to the park at a few designated campsites but keep in mind that these fill up fast. If you’re planning out your trip several months in advance, camping at one of the sites inside the park is definitely an option. The NPS website has a complete list of campgrounds within the park as well as information on how to reserve a spot online.

If you’re looking to fall asleep surrounded by nature, you can’t go wrong with camping in the backcountry. I’ll talk more about my experience backpack in the Tetons in the next section, but you truly would be hard pressed to find a more beautiful spot to fall asleep. Stop by a ranger station to learn more about which backcountry camping zones are available and to pay for your permit!

No matter how acclimated I think my Floridian lungs are to life at higher elevation, hiking in Grand Teton National Park is always a stark reminder that my body was built for breathing at sea level. The first time that I ventured into the Teton range I got my ass handed to me, and while my return visit wasn’t nearly as difficult as the first I still had to stop and catch my breath at times. If you’re coming from a lower elevation be sure to factor in the altitude while planning your hikes.

As far as day hikes go, you can’t go wrong with Cascade Canyon. This 9-mile out and back trail has fantastic views with only 1,099 feet of elevation gain, which sounds like a lot but is very mild by Teton standards. The trail starts at the Jenny Lake visitor center and from there you have several options that all take you to the trailhead for Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls; for a fee of either $10 one way or $18 round trip you can ride a ferry across Jenny Lake; you can hike 2.4 miles around the lake; or you can hike 4.7 miles around the lake in the opposite direction. From the trailhead you can then hike 4.5 miles through Cascade Canyon, a gorgeous trail that only has 992 feet of elevation gain. Hiking through the canyon gave us gorgeous views of the mountains in the distance, with pine trees littering the horizon and waterfalls cascading down to the river below.

Photo by John Miller.

As you can see in the picture, the trail through Cascade Canyon is very well established by the National Park staff. Since this hike is one of the more popular ones in the Tetons, be sure to start early if you want to avoid the crowds. John and I got slowed down by slow moving tourists during the beginning section that leads to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls, but as soon as we got past those photogenic spots and ventured into the canyon the crowds thinned out considerably. We hiked for long stretches of time without seeing a single soul, which is a rare find in Grand Teton National Park.

When we reached the end of the canyon we stopped to eat lunch, and as I rested against a cool boulder under the shade of a tall pine tree I could easily see why this trail is so popular among park visitors. For the duration of the hike we were either strolling under a canopy of trees or walking along the canyon ridge with several mountains looming over us.

John and I took the ferry across Jenny Lake in order to get to the trailhead in order to save time, but for the hike back to our van we opted to take the 2.4 mile trail around the lake. In my opinion the hike around the lake had more elevation gain than the entire hike out and back in the canyon, and since this was day three of our vacation my legs were aching by the time we returned to the visitor center. I don’t regret the extra mileage at all though, because sitting on a rock and watching waves lap against the shore with towering mountains in the distance was one of the highlights of the trip for me. Swimming is prohibited in the lake, but we watched plenty of kayakers and paddle boarders skate across the water.

We took our time hiking back to the visitor center, but if you’re up for a longer hike you can take Cascade Canyon to Lake Solitude which only adds a few miles to the total distance. You can expect Lake Solitude to be crowded, even with the long uphill hike to get there, because the view is incredible.

Another popular day hike is the Amphitheater Lake trail, which is 10.2 miles roundtrip with 2,980 feet of elevation gain. When I backpacked in the Tetons the first time (which you’ll read about in the next section) we hiked to Garnet Canyon; at one point along the trail it forks, and you can either go left to continue on to Garnet Canyon or go right to reach Amphitheater Lake. Like Lake Solitude, the end of the trail has a great view of the mountains behind a shimmering lake.

If you’re looking for something longer than a day hike then I highly recommend talking to a ranger about the backpacking opportunities in Grand Teton National Park. I’ve wandered into the backcountry and spent the night among the mountains during both of my trips to the park, and while the hiking was a bit strenuous I thoroughly enjoyed every second of it. I’m not much of an experienced backpacker myself – I half-jokingly refer to myself as an “exploratory hiker” because I love to stop and smell the flowers, literally and figuratively – but I’m always down for an opportunity to immerse myself in nature and hone my backpacking skills.

The first time that I backpacked in the Tetons was rough to say the least; I had left my personal backpacking pack at home in Florida, so I had to borrow one that was way too big and not designed specifically for women; my unacclimated lungs protested the entire time; and I was hugely unprepared as far as gear goes. My friends and I hiked to Garnet Canyon so that we could sleep at the base of the Grand and attempt a climb in the area the next morning. Garnet Canyon is 8.4 miles roundtrip with 2,240 feet of elevation gain, and it is advertised as strenuous on the park’s hiking guide.

When we got to the snow covered campsite I just about collapsed in relief. Nobody in our group was even able to think about setting up camp or cooking some food; all we could manage to do when we first arrived was dump the beers up lugged up the mountain onto the cold snow, and then lie down on the ground with a rock for a pillow. Only after a relaxing break were we able to return to a state of functioning human beings. The next morning Vitor and I crawled out of our tents at 4:00am in order to attempt our climb. Our objective was the Teepe Pillar, a 200 foot high peak that summits at 12,266 feet. The trip didn’t work out as planned, but that’s a story for another day.

Despite the less than ideal outcome from a rock climbing perspective, the entire backpacking experience was something I’ll never forget. We hiked up along switchbacks through the forest and then scrambled on large boulders that surrounded the trail. The best part of backpacking in Garnet Canyon were the amazing views of the Grand Teton towering over us; we literally slept in the snow at its base.

When John and I went to the Tetons in August we knew that we wanted to backpack, but we weren’t sure where. After talking to a part ranger and buying our permits we drove to the Granite Canyon trailhead and started walking. The plan was to hike to the Upper Granite Canyon camping zone the first day, hike to Death Canyon for the next night, and then sleep at Phelps Lake the night after that before returning to the car in the morning. We hiked a little under 8 miles that first day, weaving our way up the canyon with imposing granite walls on either side of us. We crossed streams and hiked under the cover of large pine trees for the majority of the day, and as soon as we came to the Upper Granite Canyon section the trail leveled out and took us through blossoming meadows. Beautiful as it was, the hike was immensely strenuous because it was all uphill, and as soon as we set up the tent for the night and ate dinner I fell right asleep. The two pictures under the camping section are of our spot for the night, and it was breathtaking.

The next morning John and I laced up our hiking boots and hit the trail again. Luckily our hike to Death Canyon had a considerably less amount of uphill compared to the day before, and the views that I was swooning over on day one were magnified on the second day. Entire meadows covered in flowers stretched before us, and when we eventually crested a large hill we saw the Grand looming over the horizon.

Since the trail was notably easier than it was the first day, we reached our camping spot in Death Canyon by the middle of the day. Instead of waiting around until nightfall, John and I decided to push ourselves and hike all the way to Phelps Lake and back to the car that same day; the entire day ended up being a little over 16 miles. Returning to the car with some light still left in the day, knowing that we were two days ahead of schedule was such an amazing feeling, and even though my legs were tight and sore it felt good to know that I pushed my body.

Post Heading // Forest Tourist

If the thought of wandering around a trail deep in the wilderness for a few days sounds intriguing to you but you don’t know where to start, fear not – I’ll be sharing a backpacking 101 post sometime soon. As far as backpacking in Grand Teton National Park goes, there are some park-specific tips that make the entire process easier.

You register to get a backpacking permit at one of the ranger stations, and if you aren’t sure where you want to go the park rangers are more than willing to tell you about all of the spots. Come prepared with answers to questions regarding what you’re interested in and capable of, questions like “how many miles can you hike each day?” and “are you okay with elevation gain?” Being honest with the park rangers will help you end up on a trail that you’ll enjoy. That being said, be ready to ask them questions in return. Is there a specific view that you want? Do you prefer hiking around lakes or being high in the mountains? Having an idea of what type of trail you want to spend the next few days on will help the ranger pair you with one.

If you approach the ranger station with a specific trail in mind, try to go early in the day in order to avoid the permits no longer being available. I recommend having a few trails ready on the back-burner, because if you’re drawn to a hike in particular odds are other people are too. Be sure to bring your wallet and a form of ID to the ranger station with you, and if you don’t already know it by heart then take a picture of your license plate. Luckily when we went we had everything with us and there wasn’t a line for permits, but in the past I’ve had to risk losing my permit because I had to rush back to the car to get something that we forgot.

Lastly, having a rough idea of your capabilities as a backpacker will make your trip more enjoyable. John and I didn’t talk much beforehand about our individual experiences backpacking or how much we wanted to do each day, so we mentally prepared for a slow pace and planned our trip accordingly. Since we managed to do the entire hike in two days as opposed to four, we ended up hauling around a bunch of food and clothes that we didn’t end up using. It’s definitely ideal to be over-prepared instead of underprepared, but I would have much rather hiked without the extra weight.

When visiting the Tetons, it’s good to be prepared for a number of wildlife encounters, some good and some bad, and bear safety is a big deal within the park. While backpacking, you have to carry a bulky bear bin to store your food and toiletries, and day hikers are advised to never leave their packs unattended, even for a second. The ranger station has bear bins that you can borrow for free during your adventure, but in my opinion they aren’t nearly as nice as the one that John and I brought with us; they were too bulky, and are shaped in a way that isn’t necessarily conducive to storing large quantities of food. We also took bear spray with us since we knew we would be backpacking in a less trafficked area of the park, but this typically isn’t necessary.

It’s super important in wild areas to never leave food unattended, to always pack out your trash and store it in a safe container, and to make noise while hiking. If you do see a bear, back away slowly and stay calm.

Surprisingly, we saw more animals in Grand Teton National Park than we did in Yellowstone; we shared the trail with a moose early on our second day of backpacking, a family of deer approached us as we hiked in Cascade Canyon, and we saw numerous marmots, American pikas, and chipmunks. Looking out for animals can make a hike more enjoyable and is a great reminder that we’re sharing this land with other creatures.

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Exploring Grand Teton National Park this year and last year has been such a rewarding experience. The park has humbled me, pushed me out of my comfort zone, and shown me that I’m capable of more than I thought. I’m not sure how much long I’ll be able to call Wyoming home, but I do know for certain that my adventures in the Tetons are far from over.

Have you been to Grand Teton National Park? What was your experience like? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at indiaclaire.ft@gmail.com. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption.

I'm a climber, dog mom, and a hater of plastic. I like seeking wild adventures and sharing them with people.

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