Grand Teton National Park is known for its incredible views of the Teton Range, hiking, boating, wildlife and more. When it officially became a national park in 1929, the park only contained some of the major peaks in the range. Expansion of the park occurred in 1950 when Jackson Hole national monument was dissolved and the majority of the land was absorbed into the park. The Park is located about 10 miles south from its more well-known cousin: Yellowstone. Many travelers will plan to visit Yellowstone, then do a short excursion to Tetons and Jackson Hole. We think that this classification of Tetons as a silver-medal destination greatly underestimates the beauty and variety of options of things to do in the park.
In this post we’ll cover our experience in Grand Teton National Park in June 2019: getting a backcountry permit/camping, stocking up with equipment, bear safety, and a couple different hikes in the park.
Grand Teton National Park is located in northwestern Wyoming and contains ~310,000 acres of the Teton mountain range, portions of the Jackson Hole valley and various lakes. One of the major draws to the park is the Teton mountain range which is one of the youngest in the Rockies. The park covers the majority of all the peaks in the range, including its namesake: Grand Teton. To get an excellent view of the peak, you can drive up US 191 from the Jackson Airport (the only airport inside a national park) along the Snake River to Jenny lake, and get a glimpse across the water of the lake. In addition to hiking and mountain views, Tetons also provides visitors with the opportunity to see wildlife (Elk, Antelope, Grizzlies), boat, fish and more.
Kicking the Road Trip off Right?
Grand Teton National Park was the first stop of our National Parks Road Trip. We planned to do 2 full days of hiking and one night of backcountry camping at the beginning of the trip while our legs were fresh and while our spirits were high. Our trip was scheduled to start at the end of June, which we thought was best to avoid crowds and have the park to ourselves.
To start the trip, our itinerary had travel time slated for Thursday night (Tuesdays and Thursdays have generally cheaper flights which we recommend). Since the group was dispersed geographically, we had to do some planning to get us all to Jackson Hole. Alex and Laj were scheduled to land in Denver in the afternoon and meet up with Eric for a second flight to continue to Jackson Hole, but Mother Nature had other ideas. Due to a massive thunderstorm and a plane that was somehow low on fuel, Alex and Laj’s flight was diverted to Grand Junction, CO. They landed and were worried that their entire trip might be messed up if they couldn’t get into Jackson that night to keep the original itinerary.
They immediately called Eric, “Should we get on a late night flight to Idaho and have you pick us up? Should we drive to Jackson Hole when we land in Denver? Should we fly to Salt Lake and you pick us up there and we cut Tetons out completely?” We entertained all options, but finally decided that Alex and Laj would either make their flight out of Denver that night or they would find a different one to Jackson Hole the next morning.
We jumped into action. Next step – try to get a backup standby flight for the next morning. Like travel novices, Alex and Laj had booked their flights separately and had to try and find two seats on a flight in the morning and book them separately. If they had booked together, changing the flights could have been done with one click on the app… well, better luck next time boys. While they were frantically comparing flight options on their phones for the next morning, they were hit with some good news. The original flight to Jackson Hole was delayed by 1 hour and the current flight from Grand Junction was taking off and should only take 45 min to get to Denver. YES! It would be close, but they could just make it if everything went to plan.
What proceeded felt like the quickest flight in history. By the time we reached cruising altitude we were minutes away from descending into Denver. As soon as the plane touched down we hopped on our phones:
Alex: ”Eric, what’s going on? Will we make it?”
Eric: “The plane is just about to start boarding, I’ll stall them as long as I can.”
What followed, felt like the longest taxi in history. Perhaps this was karma. We’ve always had incredible luck with travel – often hopping on buses right before they leave, with exactly the right number of empty seats. Regardless, today was just not their day. As Alex and Laj’s flight’s doors opened, the flight going to Jackson Hole pulled away from the gate. What followed for Alex and Laj was a night of fun: trying to find a hotel room with the other 5,000 stranded travelers in Denver, trying to find an Uber to pick us up at the airport (talk about surge pricing), trying to convince that Uber driver to FOLLOW THE GPS and stop taking wrong turns to make our ride longer, trying to find any open restaurant at 10 PM on a Thursday near our hotel, and so on and so forth. Luckily, they were able to get on standby for a flight out at 8AM the next morning, and book confirmed seats on the 10AM to Jackson. Worst case, they’d be there for lunch time. Another plus: Alex had checked a bag and the airline was going to send it out on the earliest flight to Jackson, no need to wait for luggage in Denver. The next morning, Alex and Laj made their way to the airport and got on the 10AM to Jackson hole.
Meanwhile – Eric had the list of things to do in Jackson: pick up the road trip vehicle, grab the rented backup gear, stock up on supplies and food, and get our Tetons camping permits.
Since this was our first stop on the Road Trip, we had to stock up on all the items that we needed for our trip that we did not (or could not) bring on the plane. Eric brought his camping gear on his flight, but Alex and Laj rented for this trip. We discuss our experience renting in our overall trip post. To make this process as simple as possible, we had our gear shipped to the hotel where Eric stayed the first night in Jackson. We picked up the rest of the things we needed in town.
If you fly to the first destination on your road trip (like us), you likely will not be able to travel with all the things you need. Whether you simply don’t have enough space in your bag, or are prohibited from flying with useful but dangerous items (see below), plan to hit the store before hitting the trail. Specifically, here are some items you will likely need to pick up:
- Food and other perishable items
- Beer (and water, if you’re into that sort of thing)
- Camping stove gas
- Bear spray
Bear spray? Some of you who have not yet been to bear country may be questioning what this spray is and why the heck you need it. Bear spray is powerful pepper spray/mace that is designed to deter a bear from attacking you once it’s gotten close enough to be sprayed. The vast majority of people will never have to use it, but if you do need it – you’ll sure be glad you have it. See our section on bear safety (below) for more information.
Eric’s mission was to get all of these things in Jackson before Alex and Laj arrived at the airport so we could hit the ground running. First stop: car rental. We decided to use Uber the first night and pick up the car as late as possible to minimize cost by reducing the number of days we had the rental. Eric hopped in an Uber and lucked out, his driver was a wilderness guide in the park who was full of useful information.
Eric: “Where do you recommend I go to buy some bear spray?”
Driver: “They sell that pretty much everywhere, but before you go to the store, you should check with your hotel or ask at the car rental place if they have any extras lying around.”
Driver: “Oh yeah, plenty of tourists buy bear spray, don’t use it, can’t bring it on the plane home and leave it in their hotel room or rental car. You might be able to save yourself $35.”
When Eric arrived at the car rental kiosk, per the Uber driver’s recommendation, he asked about bear spray and no kidding – they had 4 pristine cans. While free stuff is awesome and we totally took advantage of this, we recommend caution when taking any safety equipment that is not fresh out of the box. When evaluating the old can, check that the spray is not old or expired, the plastic cap over the spray lever hasn’t been removed (indicating that it might be used), and that the can is still generally in good shape before taking it. Always remember that it’s your own safety you’re taking into your hands, so if you have any concerns about the can you’re being offered, just go buy a new one.
The bear spray can we got from the rental car company had a belt holster for quick draw, and we designated Alex as the bear spray master because he was the only one with a belt. You should not put bear spray deep in your pack. If you need to use it you will want it to be readily available. Next time we are going to get a bear spray for each of us and we recommend you do too.
Now that Eric had bear spray and a rental car, he was able to venture into Jackson to pick up the food and camp stove gas we still needed. Jackson is not a large town – you won’t find any Walmarts or large grocery stores to buy food and gear. One of the stores that did have everything we needed was Dornan’s Moose Trading Post. Dornan’s is close to the Moose Visitor Center which makes it a good location to stop before entering the park.
Grand Teton National Park is home to both black bears and grizzly bears. While hiking you may encounter bears as many of the trails pass through bear habitats. We added this section for those of you who are not accustomed to being around bears and for those inexperienced with general bear safety. This info should be taken as a summary, a great resource for bear safety while in Tetons is provided by NPS here.
The first thing to remember is that bears are like the three of us: they are highly attracted to food. Bears have incredible senses of smell and human food or other items can attract them. With this in mind, ALWAYS lock up your food or odorants (chapstick, creams, toiletries, etc.) in a bear box or NPS approved bear canister. NEVER store food, toiletries or other things that may attract a bear in or near your tent.
As mentioned before, hiking in Tetons can put you through various bear habitats. There are several rules to follow to make sure you’re being safe while hiking.
- Don’t hike alone
- Pretty self explanatory and a good rule to follow in general
- Make noise while you’re hiking
- You do not want to surprise a bear, so making sure it’s aware of your presence can make it feel less threatened
- If charged, do not run or climb trees
- Bears can easily outrun/outclimb you and running may provoke them to attack you.
- Carry Bear Spray
- This will be one of your last lines of defense if the bear charges or attacks you.
If you do see a bear from a distance, proceed calmly away from it. Follow these instructions. Bear attacks are rare, so we recommend to follow the NPS suggestions to make sure you have a safe and enjoyable time while in the park.
Staying In the Park
While in Grand Teton National Park there are 3 main options for places to stay:
- Hotel/cabin-esque rooms provided by the National Park Service
- Designated campgrounds
- Backcountry camping
We would also like to add there are options for staying outside the park (hotel in Jackson, other camping, etc), but we won’t cover those here. We like staying in the park as much as possible.
Depending on what you are looking for in a trip and your experience level these are all viable options. The cabins available inside the park can all be booked online here. These rooms can fill up extremely far in advance. If you do want to stay in a place like Jackson Lake Lodge you’ll have to make sure you have your travel plans ready to go almost a year in advance. At the time of writing (5/2020) there were only ~7 days available in 2021. Another option is designated campgrounds. These will provide you with some level of feeling like you’re in nature, but will have some amenities like running water, RV parking etc. According to NPS, most of the designated campgrounds are first-come first serve. Smaller campgrounds like Jenny Lake can fill up early, but the larger ones such as Gros Venture will fill up more slowly. We recommend checking online for more information about your campsite here before the day of your trip.
We chose to camp in the backcountry: Grand Teton National Park is a gigantic park, so having the opportunity to feel like we were in the wilderness was definitely appealing. Beyond connecting with nature, backcountry camping has another advantage – it gives you the ability to split up longer hikes between multiple days. Many of the hikes in the park are 10+ miles and if you’re looking to do even longer such as Lake Solitude via Cascade Canyon and Paintbrush divide it may be closer to 20 mi. This could make for a (really) long day hike, or you can take the opportunity to camp in the backcountry and split the hike up over multiple days.
If you go the backcountry camping route, there are several things to keep in mind:
- There’s a limit on the number of backcountry permits that the park will give out
- The maximum duration of a permit is 10 consecutive days
- Only ⅓ of the backcountry permits are given out online in advance
- Online permits become available starting the second Wednesday in January through May 15
- The remaining ⅔ backcountry permits are available to reserve in person at a Visitor center on a first-come, first-served basis
For our trip, we decided to get a backcountry permit online before arriving at the park. To reserve a permit, you’ll need to know the dates you’re camping and the number of people camping when you go to reserve your spot. Since only ⅓ of the permits can be booked in advance online, they go quickly. With this in mind, we booked our permits in early January to ensure we got a permit. We recommend you book your itinerary as soon as possible as well.
When the day comes for your itinerary you must pick up your permit. Unlike other parks, the reservation you receive from recreation.gov is not the same as the paper permit they give you in the park. To get the permit, go to one of the 3 Ranger Stations in the park with a valid state ID such as a driver’s license and your confirmation number. NOTE: If you do not pick up your permit by 10AM the day of the start of the trip the Park Rangers may cancel your reservation and give it to a walk-in. To avoid this fate, make sure to call (307) 739-3309 to let the Parks Service know you’ll be late and they will keep your reservation until you arrive.
We were originally hoping to reserve a campsite in either of the forks of Cascade Canyon. This location is ideal if you’re looking to hike in Cascade Canyon, Paintbrush Canyon or up to Lake Solitude which are all top hikes in the park according to Alltrails. Unfortunately, the group sites in North and South Cascade Canyon were unavailable by the time we attempted to book. Instead, we were able to book the last available campsite at Bearpaw Lake which is about a 3 mile hike from the Leigh Lake Trailhead along the String Lake and Leigh Lake Trails. This location actually worked out well, given our shortened time in the park due to our flight snafu. Our campsite was located here south of Bearpaw lake. Some of the things we liked about this area is:
- Each individual site has convenient access to a shared bear box for food storage.
- This means that you don’t have to carry a bear canister for food
- The sites had some space between them which made them feel secluded.
- Our site abutted a small stream and pond which was very scenic.
- There was plenty of firewood available surrounding the sites.
We stayed at this site for one night and entered and exited using Leigh Lake Trail. As alluded to earlier in this post, the park was almost completely empty due to it being late June. Typically this would be a major plus for us, but the lack of other people was for good reason.
While we were hiking towards the site, the weather shifted from the 50s to 30s (F) depending on cloud cover. The site itself was under tree cover, so it was a little bit cooler than the shores of sunny Leigh Lake. We attempted to gather firewood so we could start to warm up, but our efforts were to no avail, as everything was soaked from snowmelt. The ground was even a little cold due to the dampness of the soil. Instead, we decided to simply eat, clean up, and go to bed so we could get an early start. Our meal for the night was tacos. Unbeknownst to Alex and Laj, Eric had packed a tube of ground beef for dinner for us to cook that night. As we’ve talked about bear safety in this article, you can imagine we were astonished that we survived hiking 4 miles through bear country with raw meat in our packs. While this is laughable now, we don’t recommend you strap a tube full of smelly, bear attracting beef to your bodies and hike out into the wilderness. When it came to cooking the ground beef on the camping stove we found it difficult because the beef stuck to the surface of the pot. A trick we figured out to make the job easier was to adding salsa to the meat which allowed us to stir it properly.
After our filling meal and a game of Monopoly Go (#pleaseSponsorUs) we turned in for the night. What proceeded was the worst sleep any of us have ever had. The reason the park was so empty was that the forecast was for SNOW. Snow in June in Boston is basically unheard of, so we didn’t bother to check the forecast. In our [25 degree sleeping bags] we shivered through the night as it dropped below freezing for the entirety of the night. Laj had an extremely cold night as his sleeping pad deflated and he was resting on the partially frozen/wet ground. (Eric would like the reader to know that he was nice and warm because his bag was heavier…screw you Eric) In addition to not being able to sleep due to the cold, we were also terrified. Throughout the night we heard a scratching noise right outside our tents. Our sleep deprived state caused us to imagine that it was a bear — just a couple feet away– trying to get into the tent. In the end it just turned out to be the sound of snow and ice sliding off our rainfly.
Even though we had a tough time with the cold, we definitely recommend this site. The hike to the location is very accessible, and the views of the Teton range during the hike to get there are spectacular. The site felt secluded: you’re unlikely to have lots of people passing by your site on a hike, because only the people who have a reason to be out there are those who are camping near you. The bear box was great, because bear canisters are heavy and cumbersome to carry. With all of that in mind, we probably would recommend trying to get a site in one of the canyons (like we originally tried), but if you are looking for an easy site to get to or need a backup, the Bearpaw Lake site has some major pluses. Also, don’t go in June. It’s too early. You will freeze.
There are plenty of hiking options for all skill levels in Grand Teton National Park. If you’re excited for a long trek, you may want to look into an overnight hike into one of the canyons such as Cascade Canyon or Paintbrush Canyon. Unfortunately we can’t share any of our own photos of a trip like this, but we’ll update you with our experience doing one of these hikes in a later post! We’d also like to note that a trail like Cascade Canyon is an out-and-back trail that follows a fairly straight trail. We recommend to go down a portion of it, turn around and head back to Jenny lake if you’re not up for the full hike (~10 mi) and still want to get part of the canyon hiking experience. When you’re on a long hiking trip, there are going to be days where you want to hike a lot and some where you’re less gung-ho, so make your hiking itinerary flexible to your available time and energy level.
As discussed above, we originally hoped to tackle a longer hike (Cascade Canyon), but due to our shortened time in the park we had to make adjustments to our plan. Instead, we simply trekked to our campsite on a trail that borders Leigh Lake. This trail is extremely flat, only gaining about 200 ft in elevation and features great views of the Teton range across the water. If you do the full distance to our campsite at Bearpaw lake, the hike is about 8 miles round trip. Spoiler alert, you don’t need to do the full distance if you’re not camping there. The best views of the mountains across the lake are from miles 1 to 3. If you are day hiking, we recommend skipping the last mile and spending some time along the lake at one of the numerous, small beaches before heading back to the trailhead. When we were at the park in late June this trail had some spots that were flooded, but we imagine that this clears up later in the season.
During our hike out, the entire range was socked in. With fog everywhere, we could barely see 15 feet in front of us. We passed along a couple who was noticeably annoyed. One of them asked us “Is this Jenny lake?!?!?!” expecting to see the famed views of the Tetons that we’ve described here. We replied yes, indeed you are in front of Jenny lake, hope the fog clears up soon! Annoyed with their spouse for dragging them out in the cold, they stormed back to their car and drove away. However, not 15 minutes later, the fog broke and we had amazing views along our hike. Remember: mother nature does not care about your travel plans, be patient and plan ahead.
While we were still able to spend a night in the Tetons and will always have our memories of nearly freezing to death, we felt like we missed out on the optimal Tetons experience because we didn’t get a chance to hike into the Teton range. We’re going back in 2020 to go hike Paintbrush Divide and Cascade Canyon, and we will keep you posted on our take from that experience. With our limited exposure in mind, we learned a lot from this stop and want to share our lessons with you.
Tips for your trip:
- Go to Grand Teton National Park later in the season than June
- It snowed at low elevation during the last week of June.
- Some of the trails were flooded around Leigh Lake due to snowmelt.
- Check the weather, make sure you’re prepared in case of snow or rain.
- Be flexible and have a back up plan; mother nature can become unpredictable.
- Follow bear safety guidelines.
- Store your food in NPS provided bear boxes and always carry bear spray when hiking.
- Ideally you will want to hike in one of the canyons during your trip, but if you cannot, the views across Jenny and Leigh lake are still spectacular.