Pros: Scenic, Lodging, Restaurants, Great Rock Climbing, Near Yellowstone, Backpackers Delight
Cons: July Bugs, Unpredictable Weather, August Crowds, Park Airport Without Affordable Car Rentals, No Public Transportation
Each time I visit a national park I try to find a single word that describes it and sets it apart from all our other national parks. On the second night of my visit during a ranger program, the female ranger described how she first learned about the park. Each student in her 6th grade class was assigned a state to describe to the class in a presentation. She wanted Wyoming more than anything, but a boy from her class picked the state from a hat and refused to trade with her (she picked Montana). For his presentation he simple took a picture of the Teton Range out of a box and showed it to the class, and this ranger said that when she saw the picture at that moment her life changed forever. She had to go there! The sheer and overwhelming beauty of the Teton Range mirrored so perfectly in the turquoise blue glacial lakes was so PICTURESQUE, she was entranced and determined to spend her life there. Grand Teton National Park is PICTURESQUE. No other park in our system makes an impression like Grand Teton with a single picture.
I spent two weeks in the park, and never even thought of visiting Yellowstone. If you only have time to do two activities in the Park and can never return, and if are in good health and adventurous, then I recommend #1 and #2. Here are TEN great things to do at Grand Teton National Park --
1) CLIMB THE GRAND TETON -- At 13,770 FT. the peak in the center of the Park is the highest in the Teton Range, though certainly not the highest in the Rockies. Two park approved climbing schools will lead you up the peak from July 15 through August 15, the prime climbing season for the peak. After taking a beginner's and intermediate class, the instructors will evaluate your skill and cardio fitness, and recommend or not recommend you for the strenuous climb. One of my fellows students was not passed, and was very disappointed. The instructor recommended an easier peak to climb instead of the Grand. But in retrospect, the guide's recommendation was, we thought, a good one. I climbed with Exuum Mountain Guides.
After two days of preparation, on day three you will climb to the base camp, which has a hut the size of two large closets where you will "sleep" with 15 other climbers until 3 A.M. when you "awake" (I heard a few people snoring but most of us just rolled around) you start up the mountain. Fortunately, the weather was good, and our individual group of four students and a guide arrived at the summit around 11 A.M. after 16 pitches of easy technical rock climbing. My partners were a young couple from Florida and a 50 year old who had returned after summiting 25 years earlier for one final climb if the Grand. It was by no means a "fun" experience. Far from it! It was exhausting, exilarating, exciting, and the hardest physical activity I have ever attempted at the age of 40 with very bad knees. But the view at the top was remarkable!
If you have weak cardio, are a flatlander, and want to have a "fun" climb, there are many other incredible peaks in this range that are easier for a group of beginners or "non-climbers." The climbing school will take you on a day trip to any of these. But if you pass the two days of classes, be confident that you can accomplish the summit, if you want. But you may also want to consider "bagging" an alternate beginner peak. The intermediate class include 5.6 climbs (i.e. easy technical climbing), while the Grand Teton climb is really all 5.5 (i.e. very easy technical rock climbing).
2) BACKPACK THE #1 RATED TRAIL IN AMERICA -- Backpacker magazine has rated the Teton Crest Trail the "most beautiful trail in all the United States". While I have enjoyed many equally beautiful trails, I have never experienced a more beautiful trail than this. Wow! Incredible! Start your 35 mile trek at the ski lodge aerial tram at Teton Village which takes you on a lift to the top of Rendevous Mountain on a 12 minute ride which would otherwise have taken you seven hours by foot. From Rendevous Mountain you have about 6 miles of hiking until you officially join the 35 mile long Teton Crest trail. These first six miles were actually my favorite for alpine meadow wildflowers. The Crest Trail ends after going north along the crest over Paintbrush Divide and descending to the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. You will get a closeup view of two of the parks shrinking twelve galciers along the trail.
If you have only one car, since it is a one way hike, you will need a taxi service. You can call "Teton Taxi" (Tim, the driver, was very nice and helpful and reliable, local phone 733-1506) to pick you up at the Jenny Lake Ranger station where you can leave your car where it will be waiting for you when you hike out. The cost was $50 for me and my hiking partner.
Intimate turquoise glacial lakes, 10,000 ft passes in the mountains, cascading waterfalls, glaciers, alpine flowers of incredible variety and beauty, lush meadows overflowing with Indian Paintbrush, Marsh marigolds, Lewis Monkeyflowers, White Orchids, Yellow Sunflowers, Bluebonnets, Pink Elephant Head, Purple Larkspurs, Red Penstemmons, and a host of others filled the meadows at every turn. Wow! Incredible! The huckleberries are also blooming and are delicious. The best flowers I have ever seen in a national park.
If you hike in early August when they are at their peak, you will miss one flower however -- the beautiful orange glacier lily which blooms by the thousands along this trail will have bloomed in late June and early July, but you will see them seeing in August.
I brought bear spray and put a bear bell on my hiking stick where it rang every time I moved my stick for each step I took. Do you need a bear spray. Not really. Few grizzly bears have been seen on this trail over the years, as they frequent the north end of the park instead. Just keep food in its proper place, and be aware of your surroundings. There has never been a life threatening human injury due to bears in the park's history. Only a few lightning death. We did see two black bears along the very end of the trail, and they totally ignored us even though we were very close. No bears were every spotted by us or others in the upper mountains along the crest trail.
Where to camp? There are no bad choices. I recommend the little known "reservations only" Outlier site for your final night. The campsite's location half way down the mountain allows you to see through the perfect "V" of the canyon a perfect sunrise over Jackson Lake. Have your camera ready throughout this incredible hike on your waistbelt.
One note -- I expected to hang bear bags, but when I arrived, I realized that an alpine trail has few trees! The ranger will give you a free rental on bear canisters, which we used. Be prepared for the extra 2.5 lbs and its bulky volume in your pack. My partner and I each needed our own bear canister for the amount of food we used for our three night/four day backpack.
If you backpack the trail, reserve your campsites as early as possible. I reserved Jan. 1 (the earliest date possible) for an August trip and received my fourth choice in campsite locations! I met alot of people who were turned down, and had to camp outside of the park boundary in the national forest (e.g. the Alaska Basin area) where there is free camping opportunities. Routefinding is not an issue, and the only place I lost my way was over the rocky fields in the Alaska Basin, but if you follow the cairns with patience, you will eventually find the Crest Trail path.
SIDE TRIPS -- If you hike the trail in three nights, you will just have time for one possible side trip, which I recommend if you and your partner have the legs. The extra 3 mile loop hike around Alaska Basin will bring you by the scenic and intimate Basin Lakes and the prime wildflowers of the entire basin. If you remain on the official crest trail and ignore the loop, you will miss many of the best wildflowers for which the Alaska Basin is justly world famous. Also, at the bottom of the Paintbrush Divide scree field, be sure to take the obvious short 2 minute path to the edge of the "O So Blue" glacial lake which you are seeing throughout your hike down the scree field. Most everyone hiking the path seemed to ignore it, but you will have a close up look and soak your feet.
3) HIKE THE JACKASS PASS -- Why? Grizzlies or at least their scat are often seen on this little used trail on the north end of the park. It can be done as a long day hike of about 26 miles or as a two or three day backpack. It includes not only a mountain hike around a mountain pass and Survey Peak (this is a "lollipop trail"), but you will also enjoy a long meander of incredible meadows along Berry Creek.
This is a trail for finding solitude. You will probably not see another soul, which cannot be said of any of the other hikes in the park. It took my friend all day from dawn to dusk to complete it, but he enjoyed an incredible day, he said. The trailhead where you leave your car is your beginning point and you ending point and is located just north of the park boundary in the John D Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway.
4) ATTEND A RANGER PROGRAM -- Our rangers are the best! At Colter Bay there are two programs every night. One on an animal in the park and one on a topic. Programs on coyotes, grizzlies, ravens, wolves, porcupines, pronghorn antelopes, bison, Lewis and Clark, the mountain men, were all educational and made our visit to the park all the more meaningful. Be sure to attend the Indian Ranger program at the Colter Bay Visitor Center at 4 P.M. through the Indian Arts Museum. For example, How the Indian used Porcupine quills for artwork and grizzly claws is fascinating.
5) HIKE TO THE TALLEST WATERFALL IN THE YELLOWSTONE ECOSYSTEM -- Take a boat across Jackson Lake and hike up Waterfalls Canyon to "Wilderness Falls", the highest waterfall in the worlds most famous ecosystem. There is no trail, and the downed trees and deadfall will make this 8 mile round trip a long one which will require a full day, but you will find solitude and can explore off trail safely, and see an incredible site which very, very few park visitors will every enjoy.
6) HIKE THE GROS VENTRE LANDSLIDE LOOP TRAIL -- This short 1 mile circular trail is located in the Bridge Teton National Forest just a few miles east of the National Park. You will find a small parking lot and interpretive signage (old signs are mostly legible) along the trail. You can see from many miles away that some time ago a large landslide removed a large park of the mountains face. It was the largest landslide in modern world history. You can observe up close the incredible damage and power of the slide which occurred on June 23, 1925. Worth a half day trip!
7) VISIT THE NATIONAL ELK REFUGE -- If you visit in the late Fall and Winter, the site of more than 10,000 elk is an incredible one. Though this animal is allowed to be hunted within this national park (which is unusual for a national park), they do have refuge and all gather here in the cold months. It will be a sight you will never forget!
8) FLOAT DOWN THE SNAKE RIVER -- There are about 8-10 float services that for about $50 will take you on a ten mile 2 hour float down the river that runs through the park. After floating the river for ten years our guide Colby with Solitude said that he has seen just about every bird and mammal along the river except for grizzly bears. You will likely see elk, eagles, bluebirds, and osprey like we did. We enjoyed the sunrise float which leaves at 6 A.M. for the brave early risers. While wildlife is usually more active early in the morning, our trip was lite on wildlife and friends told us the afternoon trip the day before was a wildlife bonanza. It is the luck of the draw!
9) VISIT ANTELOPE FLATS -- Here on the east side of the park meadows you will find hundreds of bison. And if you lucky, you may also observe the fastest mammals on the continent, the Pronghorn Antelopes (which are unfortunately decreasing in numbers). We never saw one in the park. Enjoy the bison wallowing in the dirt in their native habitat from the safety of your car.
10) CANOE AND KAYAK -- There are many lakes and small rivers to enjoy from a kayak. You can rent, but if you are close you may want to bring your own due to the high rental fees. Just beware of the afternoon winds, daily 1- 5 PM. lightning threat, and waves.
Be prepared! I changed clothes more often in this park than any other I have ever visited. The weather was totally unpredictable. On the first day of my visit, August 1, it snowed six inches! Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Forget about Yellowstone for two weeks, and enjoy her picturesque neighbor!