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 July 2020: 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 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.
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. 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 hikes 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.
This year we got a campsite at Trapper Lake which is approximately 4 miles north from Leigh Lake. Some of the things we liked about this area is:
- Each individual site has convenient access to a bear box for food storage.
- This means that you don’t have to carry a bear canister for food
- This site was completely secluded, there were no people around for miles.
- Views of Trapper Lake and the mountains were gorgeous.
- There was plenty of firewood available surrounding the site.
- The sites had good flat spots for tents.
Some of the things we did not like about this site:
- The only way to get to it is via Leigh Lake trail, which is an in-and-out trail that only connects to other hiking trails to the south of the campsite. This means you’re going to be hiking the same trail a lot if you stay here.
- The mosquitoes were killer, the only thing that kept them away was the strong wind.
We stayed at this site for two nights and entered and exited using Leigh Lake Trail. This year, since we arrived in July, the park was much more crowded than [last year], but having a site that was so secluded was a major plus, other sites that we passed were much closer together and some were within 20 feet of each other. If you’re looking for a spot that’s further apart from others then I’d recommend you to keep an eye out for that when you’re booking.
We ended up staying two nights in Tetons this year which allowed us to explore a lot more of the park. We recommend at least two nights in Tetons because there is a ton to do between water sports, hiking, camping, and animal watching.
Day 1. Driving from Boulder to Jackson and Hiking to the Campsite
For this trip the group met up in Boulder before starting off our trek. See the [overall trip post], but we originally had planned to fly into Canada, and had to make back-up plans. There were some advantages to this: it allowed us to get a cheap car rental, save a night of a hotel or driving overnight, and allowed us to pick up any food or equipment we needed in Boulder instead of flying with it. On the night of our arrival we went to grab dinner at Ska Street, hit up a grocery store in Boulder for supplies and packed the car for the next morning before promptly falling asleep.
The next morning, we woke up at 4AM to start the 8 hour drive to Jackson. We chose to get up this early to ensure we could make it to Jackson with time to stop at the permit center and hike to our campsite before it got dark. This drive was fairly straightforward, none of the highways were particularly busy and we only hit traffic when we got close to Jackson. The biggest downside of the drive was that Eric drove the first 5 hours because he had to pick up the car before Alex and Laj arrived, so he couldn’t add them as drivers to the reservation originally. We stopped along the route at a rental agency to adjust the reservation, so we could split up the rest of the trip. Overall we’d give this drive a 6/10 for scenery, it took us through Fort Collins, CO and Rock Springs, WY and passed alongside farmland and antelopes. The most interesting thing you’ll have a chance to see is the random jogger who thinks running along the highway is a good idea. In general this drive was mostly unexciting, but doable.
As we rolled into Jackson we expected to see the quiet park town that we visited in 2019, but what we saw was completely different – previously empty streets and sidewalks were now packed with cars and tourists! This was not ideal for finding a place to eat, but it was manageable. After ~30 minutes we were able to get a seat and plan the rest of the day. We were hoping to stop at Snake River Brewing since we enjoyed it so much last year, but unfortunately it was closed that day due to COVID. Luckily there’s plenty of food options in the area. After eating our next stop was the Moose visitor’s center which is a good 30 min drive away from the town of Jackson.
There were no real surprises at the Visitor’s Center. To pick up your permit you need to have a copy of your reservation and they’ll print you a paper permit that you’re supposed to attach to your tent so rangers can easily verify that your reservation is valid. This year we had the option to camp in the forks of Cascade Canyon or to camp out at Trapper Lake. We originally had wanted to camp in the forks of Cascade canyon but decided that gaining a lot of elevation with our gear so early would have made the rest of the trip tiring. We chose Trapper lake because it was a much easier hike to our site. With that in mind, while Trapper Lake has amazing views and is completely isolated, it is not centrally located to the hikes that you’ll want to do. Choose wisely (and as early as possible) when picking a campsite so you can make your itinerary what you want.
To get to the site we had to hike along the world famous Leigh Lake Trail which has these views of the Tetons. When we arrived at the campsite we decided to walk down to Trapper Lake to explore a little. The lake is small, but serene with the mountain range in the background. The site was surrounded by trees on the back side and tall grasses that lead to the lake which made the campsite a quiet reprieve from the bustle around Jenny Lake. Trapper lake is really small so we don’t recommend trying to swim in it, but it is a perfect spot for spotting Sandhill Cranes and other wildlife.
The site came with a bear box, a pole for hanging packs, a fire pit and its very own animal mascot. We first encountered our four legged friend when Alex was putting food in the bear box – he bent over to put food and other odorants inside when he saw motion in the woods. Afraid it was a bear he reached for his spray and removed it from the holster but then he realized the animal was just a deer. PHEW! No chance of being eaten. The rest of the night the deer (which we named Felicity) was a maximum of 20 feet away from us at all times, we couldn’t even scare it away by yelling or clapping. Felicity managed to spook us a couple more times before we went to bed. The deer was practically silent and her eyes were glowing due to the reflection of our fire or flashlights in the dark.
When the rangers came by to check our camping permits we asked them why the deer was staying so close to our campsite and whether it would potentially lead a bear to the site. They assured us that attracting the deer was nothing that we did, the deer was looking for salt from urine (gross reason but it seemed logical and experiments did show this was the case) and that we should only be worried about bears if the deer suddenly disappeared. They also added that marmots similarly look for salt and will eat hiking shoes and packs if you leave them out of your tent at night.
Day 2. Hike To Cascade Canyon
This day we woke up and hiked from Trapper lake up to Cascade Canyon. Our trek started on the Leigh Lake trail, then crossed over to the western side of Jenny Lake via String Lake trail and finally up to Cascade Canyon. As always, we tried to get up and on the trail as early as possible. Getting up around 7AM gave us a couple advantages: the trails were pretty empty and there were no bugs because it was so cold!
The views across Leigh lake were beautiful, but repetitive. When we got to the junction of String Lake and Leigh Lake we had the choice of doing a shorter, steeper hike up Paintbrush Canyon or a longer, more gradual hike up Cascade Canyon. We chose the hike up Cascade Canyon for a couple reasons: the pictures we saw online looked more lush where Paintbrush Canyon looked pretty barren/exposed, we thought we would have a better chance at seeing wildlife, and Paintbrush Canyon still had ice/snow on the trail and we would have needed ice axes and crampons to properly hike on it.
The hike up Cascade Canyon was well marked and had good views of the peaks on both sides of the canyon. Since it’s an out and back trail, you can decide how far you want to go up the trail. We decided a good stopping point was the junction before going up to Paintbrush divide. We recommend stopping earlier than that if you are not doing the entire loop because there is really nothing to see more than halfway up the trail into the canyon. The trail exceeded our goal of seeing wildlife – throughout our day we saw multiple bald eagles, a young moose and evidence of a bear.
In retrospect, the right call for our long term endurance on the trip probably would have been to do fewer miles and hike up Paintbrush canyon so we could have saved our legs for the next day at Yellowstone. On our way down we decided that we were too tired to cook dinner so we went into town to get pizza and then drove back to the park to camp for the night. We made reservations at Hand Fire Pizza and were really happy with how good the food was. There were plenty of options for different types of pizza. We went with meat heavy pizzas, the BBQ pork and the italian sausage and were not disappointed. We’ve found in towns outside National Parks the food can be hit or miss because of the captive audience which allows mediocre places to stay in business, but Hand Fire Pizza really made our day after such a long hike. We highly recommend this restaurant as the pizza was excellent, the prices were reasonable and the service was friendly and prompt.
After eating we still had to hike back into our campsite (a slight oversight), but it was definitely the right decision. Since we ate on the early side we had plenty of sunlight and could take a slower pace to get back to our campsite and explore a little. Sweaty from our hiking (and eating) we were drawn by the lake’s siren call. After staring at the water of the past couple days of hiking we just had to take the plunge. The ice cold glacier fed water was incredibly refreshing. We contemplated swimming out to an island, but then decided that we should probably save our energy for hiking back to the campsite. If you want to experience swimming in the Tetons (which was amazing) we recommend packing a bathing suit and camping towel, they came in handy.
We set back out to the campsite and started making a fire to sit by before turning in for the night. The mosquitoes were particularly bad this night, the bug spray we brought wasn’t enough to keep them away and the fire did nothing either. The only relief we got was when the breeze picked up for a minute here and there. This was major foreshadowing for our experience in Yellowstone. We cannot recommend this more: BUY A BUG NET. You will save your experience by not having to swat around your face the entire night and you will actually enjoy your time under the stars in Tetons. Eric and Laj made the rookie mistake of not having one and wanted to rush into their tents ASAP while Alex was protected and was much happier.
After this day was over, we felt like we really got our “Tetons Experience”. We hiked in Cascade Canyon, and swam in the lakes with mountain views in the distance. If you are planning to follow our itinerary and try to day hike Cascade Canyon trail, we recommend taking the ferry across Jenny Lake which drops you off near the start of the Cascade Canyon trail, saving you a couple miles of hiking for a small fee. Make sure to plan time for swimming too if you’ve got the time.
Day 3. Hiking out of the park
The last day we spent in Tetons was spent packing up our campsite and hiking back out to the car so we could drive to Yellowstone. We said goodbye to Felicity and left back out on the Leigh Lake Trail AGAIN. At this point, we were hiking the Leigh Lake trail for the 6th time (2 in 2019 and 4 in 2020) and now know every turn of that trail. While it has some of the best views in the world and some of our best photos have been taken there, we’re pretty tired of it and probably not going to camp in that section of the park again. Once we arrived at the car we set off north on the John D Rockefeller Highway for about an hour to the Yellowstone south entrance and started our Yellowstone portion of the trip.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Tetons this year in July, but there’s always room for improvement! Below is a summary of what we recommend you do for your own trip.
Things we might recommend you do differently:
- While our site was incredibly isolated, hiking the Leigh lake trail multiple times in a day ended up getting routine
- Bring a bug net! The mosquitoes were oppressive.
- Watch out for the heat, it was surprisingly hot near Jenny lake for the majority of the day.
- Take a rest day after hiking out of Tetons before hiking into Yellowstone.
- Consider traveling closer to shoulder season so you can avoid crowds.
Top Experiences From our Trip:
- Being able to see the different wildlife: moose, bald eagles, sandhill cranes, deer, marmots etc.
- Cascade Canyon. Finally getting up to cascade canyon made us feel like we had the real Tetons experience.
- Swimming in Leigh lake, there’s nothing quite like jumping into an ice-cold lake after hiking.
With these points in mind we wish you happy travels for your own trip to Tetons.