A Guide to Hiking at Grand Teton National Park

By: Ed Grabianowski

The Grand Teton National Park is one of the beautiful and well-known hiking sites in the U.S. See more national park pictures.
Ron and Patty Thomas/Getty Images

Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is part of a huge protected natural area, a virtually untouched ecosystem that amounts to almost 18 million acres (7.28 million hectares) when you include the nearby Yellowstone National Park and larger Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Grand Teton itself is more than 300,000 acres (121,405 hectares) in size and contains part of the Teton Range and Jackson Hole [source: National Park Service].

The Teton Range is part of the Rocky Mountains; in fact, the name supposedly comes from French explorers who likened the mountains to breasts. ("Grand Teton" means "large breast" in French.) The tallest, most impressive mountains of the range, known as the Cathedral Group, are all within the National Park. Grand Teton is the tallest peak; at 13,770 feet (4.2. kilometers) -- along with the other peaks in the Cathedral Group -- it dominates the scenery in Grand Teton National Park. Virtually every hiking trail in the park has panoramic views of the stunning, snow-capped crags jutting from the landscape.

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There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the park. There are day hikes that take you out to breathtaking views. There are trails that circle lakes, climb peaks, stick to the valleys, skirt the Teton Range, or take long, looping paths across the entire park. Hardcore hikers can spend a week on the trail. Families can pack a lunch and still enjoy the scenery and Rocky Mountain air in an afternoon.

If you're planning a hike in Grand Teton National Park, this article will provide a good launching point. We'll direct you to trail maps, point out safety hazards, and mention some of the best hiking trails in the park.

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Grand Teton Hiking: Trail Maps

Grand Teton National Park is such a huge area criss-crossed by so many different hiking trails that you really need a map. Wandering into the park without a map isn't just foolish, it could be dangerous; take the wrong trail and you might find yourself on a much longer hike than you're prepared for.

Luckily for you, it's easy to find excellent trail maps. The official National Park Service website has trail maps for shorter hikes in several different areas of the park, with topographic details and notations for camping areas and distances [source: National Park Service].

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If you're looking for more detailed maps, or want to plan a longer backcountry hike, you should look to the Grand Teton Association. The association was created to provide information to park visitors, and the materials they provide are approved by the park service. You can purchase their maps and guidebooks within Grand Teton National Park. To plan ahead, visit their Web site and order the trail maps you need. They've got a wide selection, including some produced by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Using your trail map, you can plan your entire hike. Find where the trailhead is, and where you'll find nearby parking. Note that popular trailheads will be jammed in the summer months, so if you don't get an early start you'll have a hard time finding parking. If you're backpacking, plan to cover about two miles per hour. Each elevation change of 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) should add an hour to your trip [source: National Park Service]. If you're traveling light for a day hike, you might be able to move a bit faster, but stay conservative with your planning.

Don't forget to take a close look at the elevations on the trail map. If your hike will carry you into higher elevations, the temperature will be quite cool even in the summer, and even colder in the spring months. Overnight temperatures can approach the freezing point, so gear up accordingly.

Next, we'll explore some of the most popular day hikes at Grand Teton National Park.

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Grand Teton Hiking: Popular Day Hikes

Hiking Grand Teton could get a little crowded during peak tourist season, so plan carefully.
Hiking Grand Teton could get a little crowded during peak tourist season, so plan carefully.
Philip Nealey/Getty Images

There are plenty of opportunities to see the grandeur of Grand Teton National Park on a day hike. Keep in mind that these popular hikes are...well, really popular, especially during the peak tourist season. If you're looking to experience the quiet solitude of nature, you're going to have to head a bit deeper into the back country. But for a quick journey to stunning vistas, here are some of your best bets:

  • Jenny Lake – Scenic Jenny Lake is ringed by hiking trails. It runs 2.5 miles (4.02 meters) around the shorter side of the lake, so you can see beautiful Hidden Falls. The other side of the lake is a bit longer, if you do the full loop, but you'll still be back in time for lunch. Alternately, you can take the shuttle boat across the lake directly to Hidden Falls.
  • Cascade Canyon – This is a longer trail that you can take as part of a Jenny Lake excursion. Take the boat across Jenny Lake, then head down the Cascade Canyon trail, which goes right down the middle of the canyon and offers long views of the scenery. It eventually leads to another, smaller lake, Lake Solitude.
  • Paintbrush Canyon – The trailhead for Paintbrush Canyon is at the northern tip of Lake Jenny. This trail also leads, eventually, to Lake Solitude, although there are some elevation changes to get there. This means that you can combine Paintbrush and Cascade canyons in a single, large loop that will make for a memorable day hike (it will be a long and tiring day, to be sure).
  • Phelps Lake – From the Death Canyon trailhead, it's only a mile to an overlook with a great view of the lake, then another mile down to the shore. From there, you can extend your day playing in the water or on the trails that ring the lake itself, with plenty of views and pleasant shoreline locations to discover along the way.
  • Granite Canyon – From the Granite Canyon trailhead, you'll hike along the canyon, then loop around and come down Open Canyon, arriving at Phelps Lake. Another option is to take the aerial tramway from Teton Village to Rendezvous Mountain. A downhill hike will carry you to Granite Canyon, ending at the Granite Canyon Trailhead.

Up next, some tips for hiking and camping in Grand Teton National Park.

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Grand Teton Hiking: Hiking and Camping

If you're planning a longer hike -- one that will require you to camp for one or more nights in the back country -- you'll need to know some additional park regulations. You can reserve a permit ahead of time for a $25 fee, but the National Park Service has a clear policy on backcountry camping:

"All backcountry camping requires a permit. Backcountry camping permits are issued free of charge to walk-ins on a first-come, first-served basis. Permits can be obtained at the Colter Bay and Craig Thomas Discovery and visitor centers, and at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. Permits involving overnight camping while climbing or mountaineering may only be obtained at the Jenny Lake Ranger Station during the summer."

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Wildlife is a major draw at Grand Teton. However, it can also be a serious safety issue. There are more than 50 grizzly bears and a few hundred black bears within Grand Teton National Park, as well as a dozen wolf packs that range from a single adult pair to 12 adults and their pups. You can also find hundreds of moose and bison and thousands of elk, and these animals can be very dangerous if proper care isn't taken [source: Grand Teton Association]. The National Park Service requires that all backcountry campers take bear-proof containers with them. The park can provide bear-proof canisters if you don't have your own.

In addition to other regulations common to wilderness areas (bury human waste properly, carry out all trash, etc.), Grand Teton does not allow pets on trails.

Finally, be aware that the Tetons make for rugged country, susceptible to dramatic shifts in weather, unexpected snow storms, frequent rain, and very cold nights. Particularly at higher elevations, snow doesn't fully melt until late spring or even early summer. Be prepared with the gear and clothing to deal with a lot of variables [source: National Park Service].

For more information on hiking trails, explore the links on the next page.

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Author's Note

It would be tough to go wrong at Grand Teton. There's just so much amazing scenery and wildlife around that pretty much any trail will take you to great photo ops (and memories). I'd love to spend a week on the trail some time, and get to some of the really secluded areas of the park.

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Sources

  • Grand Teton Association. "GRTE Statistics." Accessed June 15, 2012. http://www.grandtetonpark.org/FAQs_s/13.htm
  • National Park Service. "Backcountry Camping." Accessed June 14, 2012. http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/back.htm
  • National Park Service. "Hiking." Accessed June 14, 2012. http://www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/hike.htm
  • Skaggs, Jackie. "The Creation of Grand Teton National Park." Accessed June 12, 2012. http://www.nps.gov/grte/historyculture/upload/5-2_Creation_of_GRTE.pdf

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