One of two National Parks in Wyoming, the Grand Teton is singular in its majesty. While other mountain ranges are taller or larger in geography, the simplicity of the Teton Range focuses on the three peaks, which rise dramatically from the surrounding valley in a towering suddenness that takes your breath away. Add incredible landscapes, wildlife, and gorgeous lakes on “only” 310,000 acres and you have a memorable National Park visit that is not overwhelming and allows time to relax.
With its neighbor Yellowstone National Park only a thirty minute drive away and vastly larger, many people leave Grand Teton as the afterthought and plan one day to visit. I recommend at least two days to see the park and the nearby city of Jackson. If you are in a hurry, you could drive the main highway and see the majority of this park from your car and never enter the actual National Park boundaries. But don’t do that! If you are lucky enough to be staying in one of the two Parks, I suggest altering your visits between the parks for a nicer comparison and experience.
Facts about the Park
At 10 million years old, the Tetons are among the youngest mountain range in the world. The highest peak in the mountain range is the eponymous Grand Teton, rising 13,775 feet. Only Wyoming’s Gannett Peak is higher. In the valley below, you have the aptly named Snake River and several beautiful lakes, the largest being Jackson Lake.
Two main roads take you through the majority of the Grand Teton National Park – Highway 89/26 that takes you from Dubois, WY to Jackson, WY and Teton Park Road. Along Highway 89, several spacious turnouts give you multiple views of the Tetons and a great information on the area with the well-placed signage. You are guaranteed to see deer and bison in the meadows surrounding the road. We met a couple that even had a National Geographic moment when a bear chasing down an elk caught it right in front of them as they traveled down this same highway. They watched it capture the elk and drag it off the road for dinner.
You can travel along Highway 89/26 and Antelope Flats without entering the National Park boundaries (or paying a fee). Antelope Flats takes you to the famous Mormon Row and is a great place to spot moose and elk. After passing the historic houses, you can keep driving and turn right to get out to Gros Ventre Road and back to the Highway.
Of course, you should get closer and enter the Grand Teton National Park area. There are several entrances that lead you to Teton Park Road and many great areas to explore and get great views.
At the end of this article is an itinerary for several days in the Park, but here are our favorite spots:
Probably the most popular spot in the Grand Teton, this gorgeous lake was created by moraines left by glaciers. A great lake to hike around, you can also choose to take a ferry one or both ways. The ferry saves you about two and half miles each way of your trip. Once you get to the other side of the lake, you have several options for hiking.
We recommend doing the 1.1 mile hike up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. It is a steep climb, but doable with stops to catch your breath. HIdden Falls is just off the trail, offering cool shade and a incredible power. The climb gets steeper from there so, if that portion was too difficult, you might stay and explore that area. However, if you make it all the way to the Point, keep going. After a quick uphill to the next trail, you can hike into Cascade Canyon. Even if you only go a mile, it is worth the views.
Once private property of the Rockefeller family and donated fairly recently to be part of the Grand Teton Park, this area is lovely and quieter than other areas. Park at Laurance Rockefeller Preserve, a newer education center and start your hike. A much smaller lake, you will have beautiful views and likely solitude as it is less visited. After you hike through a lovely forest and cross a meadow, the path breaks through trees to open to a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains and trees. We were lucky to have the spot to ourselves for thirty minutes while we picnicked with some ambitious chipmunks looking for crumbs. Here, it was easy to feel like the first people to discover the area as it is so pristine. You can hike around this lake and even swim in the water.
Many folks just stop at the overlook for this area, but it is worth the drive down. Here, a mother moose and her calves make their home depending on the time of year and birds love the area. Plus it offers great opportunities for photography. You can drive down to the river to a small parking lot then take a short hike along an flat trail. Go pass a beaver dam area to a spot on the river with benches. Here, the mom moose and her twins came out to drink and eat several times as we waited for sunset. We left after sunset in semi-darkness and were frightened by a sound in the water a few yards away. Mom moose was bathing after putting the kids to bed. Luckily, she was not frightened and let us pass.
Towns Around Grand Teton
A visit to the Tetons is not complete without a stop in Moose, an incorporated area within the Park that is home to Dornan’s, an institution in itself. With multiple restaurants, shops and a gas station, this is a busy spot for lunch and dinner. But where else can you have a meal and adult beverage with a view up to the Grand Teton!
Also not to be missed is the town of Jackson. If you continue west on Highway 89/ 26 from Dubois, you will end at Jackson. Famous for its nearby ski resort, Jackson Hole, this town has a great deal to offer. Larger than many mountain towns, it caters to tourists and the wealthy. Downtown was always busy but the waits were not bad when we visited.
One must see stop is famous for its longevity and history, Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, is right off the square. With pool tables, live music and two long bars, it is a happening spot. You will want to stop by so you can say you saw it, but there are better spots to eat.
We would recommend one of several craft breweries in Jackson. Our favorite was Thai Me Up. The owners of this Thai restaurant decided to serve beer and started crafting their own at the restaurant. It become so popular that they moved most of the operations offsite to start Melvin Brewery. The food was very good (especially the drunken noodles) and the beers were great. We also enjoyed the Snake River Brewery which boasts a huge outdoor area and The Roadhouse Pub and Eatery on the town square. There, we were surprised to learn that beers like the Drie Fonteinen Hommage, a Belgian Fruit Lambic, can cost $114 per glass. We stayed with the local beers.
If you are looking for more action, several outfits in Jackson offer white water rafting, kayak rentals and hot air balloons. We did a white water raft trip on Snake River with Barker-Ewing that was very cold and lots of fun. The guides were excellent and gave us great confidence in our ability to paddle. Word of advice – if you are offered a wetsuit, take it! You will definitely get wet on the river and the river is cold so you will want it. By the end of our trip, the only dry part of me was my feet because I only took the wetsuit shoes!
The Grand Teton National Park offers wonderful experiences and memorable views. While I hold many great memories and gorgeous photographs of this Park, perhaps my favorite day was my son’s last day with us. He and I decided to take it easy and just appreciate the beauty of the Grand Teton. We drove up to Signal Mountain for an amazing view of the valley, then went over to Chapel of the Sacred Heart. The church was closed, but we walked down to the beach for a view of Jackson Lake and sat on its shore. With no one else there, the peace and calm of the lake with its clear water was soothing. We sat, read and just enjoyed the peace and calm. How lucky are we in America that these places still exist and that people took time to preserve them so that we can all enjoy them!
Suggested Three Day Itinerary for Grand Teton National Park
- Get your bearings and drive along Highway 89/26. Stop at all the turnout and read the signs to learn more about the area. Two to make sure you visit are the Snake River Overlook for a panorama of the Tetons and Schwabacher’s Landing. Drive down to the Landing, and walk along the flat trail past the beaver dam to an area with benches for a view of Tetons and Snake River. Watch for wildlife.
- Take the turn off highway for Moose and go to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center to get your national park pass stamped and see a topographic map of the park. This will help you “see” the park in full plus get great suggestions on sites for photography and or to see wildlife.
- Leaving the Visitor Center, if you are hungry, stop by Dornan’s for a snack.
- Otherwise, head back to the main highway and over to Antelope Flats. Walk around Mormon Row and keep an eye out for wildlife. If you have time, drive further down the road and turn right to Gros Ventre Road. Stop to swim in Kelly Warm Springs or drive to Lower Slide Lake.
- Leaving Kelly, head back to Highway 89 and west to Jackson. On your way into Jackson, stop at the National Museum of Wildlife Art and see the amazing art. A short hike around the museum takes you past some lovely sculptures. Depending on the time of year, keep an eye out for herds of elk across the highway from the museum at the National Elk Refuge where you can take sleigh rides at certain times of year.
- As you enter Jackson, stop at the Visitor Center to pick up great information on the area as well as a free Jackson sticker, part of Wyoming’s program with key cities in the state (see our blog on the state of Wyoming to learn more).
- End your day in Jackson for dinner and walk around to see the shops or get ice cream near town square. Venture a little off of the square to visit some great shops including the Valley Bookstore in Gaslight Alley. I can also vouch that Atelier Ortega’s has beautiful and tasty chocolates and sweets.
- Walk around the square and take a picture of the famous antler arches. If feeling less inclined to walk, there is also an old stagecoach ride that you can catch at town square for a tour.
- Stop in the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and snap a selfie.
Depending on where you are staying, you can take one of several ways to enter the Park and get on Teton Park Road. Depending on your entrance, you might want to move some of the following around to fit your route. Also consider when you want to hike to arrange your schedule. This route assumes you enter at Moran Junction.
- Drive towards Owbow Bend Turnout and stop to admire the view. Plan to return around sunset to see if you can catch some wildlife and a great view of Mount Moran at dusk.
- Turn onto Teton Park Road and drive up to Signal Mountain to get a sweeping view and unique perspective. Watch along the winding road for wildlife as you climb to 7,727 feet and park. Walk up to the summit for a view that seems to go on forever and gives you a sense of how the valley tilts to the west as the mountains rise up. It is a great spot for sunsets and also your best bet to get a great cell signal in the park!
- Before getting to the visitor center as you travel this road from Moran Junction, you will see the signs for the one-way Jenny Lake overlook drive. Drive around this and stop for some great views before heading to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. There you can hike around the lake or take the ferry. The full hike is about 3 – 4 hours round-trip if you hike like me (lots of stops), but you can cut off over an hour if you take the ferry. From the ferry, you hike up (and it is is up) 1.1 miles to Hidden falls and Inspiration Point. Inspiration Point offers great views and lots of rocks to sit on so consider bringing a picnic or snacks. Just beware of the chipmunks who have been trained to come out the minute they see people eating and can be pretty persistent. For the best pictures, make sure you are up at the Point after 1 p.m. so the sun is better positioned to allow you to get great pictures of the entire lake.
- If you are feeling good, continue the hike into Cascade Canyon. You can make a full day of it and head to Solitude Lake, but even if you only hike on for a mile or two, you will be rewarded with less crowds and spectacular views.
- After returning to your car, continue towards Moose and stop along the way at Menor’s Ferry and the Chapel of Transfiguration
- Finish up the day in Moose and get some dinner and beverages while you sit out on picnic benches in the shadow of the Tetons
- Visit Laurance Rockefeller Preserve if it is open, then hike up to Phelps Lake. This is a really easy two mile round-trip hike (a little longer from the parking lot). The views along the way and at the end are wonderful. Bring snacks for a nice picnic at the top or be prepared to get wet if you want to go down to the water.
- Go to Colter Bay and rent a kayak to get out on the water or if still up for hiking, take an easy 2 mile hike along Lakeshore Trail.
- Talk to other visitors to find out where they have seen wildlife, then head over at dusk to wait and watch.
- Travel to Owbow Bend Turnout to view the sunset. Bring binoculars to spot wildlife like beaver along the water.
- Take the one hour easy hike near Leigh Lake for great views of Mount Moran
- Visit Willow Flats to search for moose
- Rent a boat and get out on Jackson Lake
Camping (we were unable to stay in the campgrounds so cannot give personal reviews)
- Several campgrounds are in the Grand Tetons as part of the National Park. Colter Bay is probably the largest and has the most activities and amenities including a large laundry room, store with groceries, and restaurants. Several take reservations and some are first-come, first-serve. All are full most of the season.
- Boondocking is available nearby on BLM, some that gives you marvelous views of the Tetons as well as some further out past Jackson.
- Admission – If you don’t already have a National Park Pass, this is a great time to get one. You are definitely going to visit both National Parks while here and each has separate admission, so why not make it easy and get the $80 annual pass. You will also get 10% off in some of the stores with your pass and sometimes they offer lanes for pass holders so you bypass some of the traffic.
- Traffic – parking lots at Jenny Lake and along Teton Park Road fill quickly so get out early. If you get out before 8 a.m, you will beat the crowds and have a better chance of seeing wildlife.
- Bring binoculars and bug spray when you plan to look for wildlife. At dusk at most of the turnoffs where you can view wildlife, it gets very buggy.
First and most importantly, be smart and give wildlife a safe distance. We all want to see these amazing creatures as close as possible, but be aware and remember they are NOT used to people. They are wild so give them space! And NEVER feed them, please. Animals that get used to people food are euthanized as they can be dangerous.
Second, be ready to stop abruptly. Whether you see an animal or the car in front of you does, it is natural to hit the brakes. If you ever see a lot of cars pulled off to the side, pull off safely so you do not block traffic and go take a look. It is always an animal spotting!
Since they are wild and don’t know we expect to see them, animals tend to be behind trees so keep your eyes out and bring binoculars. While they also roam freely, here are some of the areas where they are expected to live:
- Bear – Grizzlies are usually found in the north portion of the Grand Teton Park on the way to Yellowstone. They are often seen off Pacific Creek Road or near Two Ocean Lake. Black bears are more often found south of Jackson Lake Lodge. We were lucky to see a momma bear and two cubs near Willow Flats.
- Moose – The female moose that we saw at Schwabacher is apparently an annual visitor to this area with her calves. Moose are also known to be along Moose Wilson Road and Antelope Flats area.
- Bison – There is a herd off Highway 26 at the north entrance, but you will see many more roaming freely in Yellowstone.
- Elk – These are more plentiful and easier to spot as they tend to be in herds. We saw them in a meadow close to Owbow Turn and they often are found near Mormon Row or Jackson Lodge.
- Pronghorn Antelope – They are everywhere around the Park, but quick to move so keep a sharp eye out.
- Sunrise is the best time to capture the iconic images of the Tetons as the sun rises across them. The three most popular images are from Mormon Row with the barn in the foreground, the Tetons reflected in Snake River at Schwabacher’s Landing, and at Oxbow Bend (walk down to the edge of the water to get nice reflections of the mountains in the water).
- Check on the full moon schedule. It sets behind the Teton range and, based on timing, might set as dawn breaks, creating a great image.
- Sunsets can be lovely at Oxbow Bend Turnout and at Signal Mountain. On Signal Mountain, stop at the Jackson Lake Overlook before you get to the top. It’s a very short hike to a beautiful view of Jackson Lake and the Teton mountains.
- Get there early to set up as many folks will be doing the same.
- Make sure to dress warmly and bring layers, binoculars, & bug spray.
See our other blogs on Wyoming for further information on a trip to this great state.