Nestled just south of Yellowstone National Park; Grand Tetons provides a great alternative with a very different vibe for visitors. While Yellowstone is centered around driving from attraction to attraction, Grand Tetons offers many more options for travelers who prefer the hiking trail while still allowing for an abundance of wildlife. Grizzly bears, moose, wolves, elk, and cougars call this park home and can be found on many of the parks trails although maintaining a very safe distance is crucial as these are wild animals. The Tetons offers hikers several different options of hikes ranging from short trails that last 1 mile to longer multi-day hiking options. This park is named after the Teton mountains that it gets its name from with most hikes incorporating this mountain chain in various ways, whether it’s a ascent up the mountain to Amphitheater Lake or a trail circumventing the mountains such as the Cascade Canyon Loop Trail.
My first experience with Grand Tetons happened during college. I had enrolled in a field course that centered around Yellowstone and we spent a day exploring the Tetons and the nearby town of Jackson Hole, although I did not get to enjoy any trails on this excursion. A memory that vividly stands out to me is seeing the Grand Tetons for the first time. Driving towards the Tetons from the south entrance of Yellowstone, you pass miles of flat prairies before coming up the Tetons rising majestically in front of you. There is a popular scenic pullout many travelers use that showcases the full range of mountains that stands out among the surrounding flat grasslands. I wound up going back to the Tetons the following two summers for other field courses and was able to enjoy a few of the hikes on those adventures. The first hike that I was able to partake in was Amphitheater Lake. This hike travels up a series of switchbacks to the top of the central Teton mountain. Although, you are not able to summit the mountain with this trail, you are able to go well above the tree line and enjoy great views of the surrounding mountains as well as the plains and mountains far below. In addition to the panoramic views below, the primary attractions of this hike are two alpine lakes that are located near the mountain summit; Amphitheater Lake from which the trail gets its name as well as Surprise Lake less than a mile prior. Both of these lakes offer clear blue water that is snow fed and are surrounded by large vertical cliffs walls that add to their majesty. If you start early in the day, there is a high chance you will be able to reach these lakes by lunch time, making this an excellent location for an afternoon swim and lunch before descending back down the mountain. Funny story regarding Surprise Lake: careful taking impressionable youths hear as swimmers frequently leave swimsuits at home (Surprise!!!).
The other trail I was able to enjoy during my time in the park is a portion of the Cascade Canyon loop, albeit not as long a portion as I would have liked. This is one of the park’s most popular hikes and for good reason as it takes hikers past peaceful creeks and wildflower fields while keeping them in full view of the Tetons rising high into the sky. The trail also takes hikers around Jenny Lake and provide plenty of opportunity for mid-hike swims in this gorgeous lake (kid friendly, no Surprises to worry about this time). One memory I recall is spending a lunch on this lake and swimming out to a small island a bit from the lake shore and exploring.
On one my trips to Grand Tetons, I was able to enjoy a few nights of camping as well and this remains one of my favorite locations that I have camped in to this date. Many of the camp sites are within a short hike of Jenny Lake, which provides an amazing location to watch the sunset over the mountains from. Once the sun goes down, the stars come out and this is a treat on its own. Since the air in the mountains is generally dry and the park is located far from any major towns, the stars come out in full force, especially during moonless nights. The milky way is a common sight and seeing it rise over the mountains is something to behold. I recall spending hours laying on the shore of the lake, simply looking up in marvel.
The closest town to the Grand Tetons is Jackson Hole, Wyoming; which has become a very popular tourist destination on its own. Frequently used a ski town during winter months and a gateway to the Tetons the rest of the year; the town caters heavily to the tourist industry. Many interesting shops can be found in the town’s central region that ranges from art and photograph shops to restaurants that specialize in wild game local to the region such as bison and elk. One popular landmark of Jackson Hole are the elk archways that surround the central park in the town. Each gateway is around 10 feet in height and is made up of bundles of elk horn (they have been collected in an ecologically ethical manner) that have been bundle together and arranged in a large sweeping arch that visitors can pass under.
All three of my trips to Grand Teton National Park have been as part of a field class so I unfortunately did not have much freedom in terms of what or when I was able to see or how long I was able to enjoy specific features. I still immensely enjoyed my time in those parks and seeing the wonders of this park during my formative college years is a large reason why I have been so passionate about traveling as I continued to grow older. A goal of mine is to finally be able to return to this region in the near future in order to explore all that the park has to offer on my terms. But that will be a story for another day…