grand teton national park

best day hikes and trails


 
Mount Moran sunrise, Grand Teton National Park
First light on Mount Moran, viewed from the eastern side of the range on a stormy fall morning in the Tetons
 

Hiking in the Tetons

The view of the Tetons from the east, unobstructed by foothills, is one of the best mountain vistas in the US. On my first forays to Jackson Hole I enjoyed the well-known hikes on the eastern side of the range, that include the outstanding Paintbrush-Cascade canyon loop and other good trails. On my most recent visit, though, I tried hiking from the west, and it was a revelation. The trails on the western side are not as instantly gratifying, but they access equally spectacular locations and are much less crowded. I now rate the Tetons as having some of the best trails for a week or more of memorable day hikes.

Paintbrush Canyon / Cascade Canyon loop hike

 

East side

Trailhead: String Lake, on the eastern side of Grand Teton National Park

Route: The loop is almost certainly best done anti-clockwise, climbing first through Paintbrush Canyon before descending to Lake Solitude and returning to the trailhead via Cascade Canyon and around Jenny Lake

Distance: Depending on your exact route back along the shore of Jenny Lake, this is a 19-20 mile loop, with 3850 feet of ascent to the high point along the Paintbrush Divide

 

The best day hike in the Tetons - and one of my favorite trails anywhere in the western US - is the loop through Paintbrush and Cascade canyons. This hike offers varied but always engaging scenery, including two interesting canyons, a beautiful backcountry lake, and a high alpine section, along with decent chances to view wildlife (only somewhat diminished by the guaranteed sightings of plenty of other hikers). It's that rare species of trail, a true loop that is outstandingly scenic for virtually every step of a 20 mile-long day.

The hike starts at String Lake - normally mirror-like and very photogenic in the early morning light - and the first mile or so is a gentle stroll along the lake shore. It doesn't matter whether you follow the trails on the east or west sides of the water. Quite soon you reach the entrance to Paintbrush Canyon, and commence a long but consistent ascent to the Paintbrush Divide. You can't see the main Teton peaks from here, but the canyon is impressively rugged, and as you climb higher the views back out toward the plains improve. Above 10,000 feet the hiking gets harder, as for most of the summer you'll have lingering snow fields to cross before attaining the Divide and the loop's high point at 10,700 feet. The Divide (shown in the still from the video above) is spectacular, and marks the start of the best section of the hike as you descend steeply to reach Lake Solitude. The trail here follows open slopes and (briefly) the ridge at the head of Painbrush Canyon, with views in all directions to the Grand Teton, Cascade Canyon, and Mica Lake. We savored these couple of miles, before reaching the half-way point and a logical lunch stop at Lake Solitude.

 
Lake Solitude, Grand Teton National Park
Approaching Lake Solitude after descending from the Paintbrush Divide, with Grand Teton and Cascade Canyon off to the left
 
 

After leaving Lake Solitude there's still 9 or 10 miles more hiking to do, but the gentle downhill grade and in-your-face views of the Grand Teton lessen the effort. Cascade Canyon is a popular out and back trip for hikers who take the boat across Jenny Lake, but it's still possible to see wildlife along the way. On a couple of trips my brother and I saw deer and a large-ish bull moose bedded down next to the trail, and bears also inhabit this part of Grand Teton National Park (we didn't see any, but carried bear spray). Approaching Jenny Lake the trail divides. The left fork is the quickest route back to the trailhead, but for a mile or so of extra effort it's possible to tack on a visit to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, which offers an overlook of Jenny Lake. These are worthwhile but not unmissable side trips if you have the time and energy.

I've seen this described on the web as an "epic day hike", but as long as you're in shape to contemplate 20 miles on foot it really isn't that hard. The trail is in good condition, and although there's almost 4,000 feet of climbing it's both gradual (7 miles of pretty consistent grade) and at the start when the legs are still fresh. With a reasonably early start there's ample time to stop and enjoy the scenery - or shoot a video of the hike - during a long summer day. If you really want an epic outing there are other canyon loops in the Tetons to consider, though the best of them - the 34 mile complete circumnavigation of the Grand Teton - works better as a backpack or trail run than a conventional day hike.

 

 
Tetons from Table Mountain
Panorama of the Tetons from the summit of Table Mountain. Cascade Canyon is just left of center in the image.
 

Table Mountain trail

West side

Trailhead: The easiest approach is via the North Teton trail, which starts at a parking lot just shy of the end of Teton Canyon Road (from the lights at the center of Driggs, head 6.6 miles east through Alta before reaching the turnoff).

Distance: 12 miles out and back, with about 4,000 feet of climbing.

 

Table Mountain is my most highly recommended hike on the west side of the Tetons. The 11,000 foot peak, despite being not much more than a bump in a ridge, is readily seen from the valleys east of Driggs. It offers the best view of the main Teton summits that's accessible by trail, made all the more impressive by the fact that the spectacular vista remains completely hidden until seconds before you reach the top.

 
Table Mountain hikinh trail
The final stretch of the trail above treeline. Table Mountain is the obvious hump left of center.
 

The hike starts by following good trail into and along the North Teton Creek valley, full of Fall color when we did this hike in mid-September. The trail gains elevation at a steady pace up until the point where you cross the creek, and reach the crux - an ascent of about 1,000 feet up the valley wall to reach the ridge line. It's not too bad, but in the height of summer the section above tree line could be hot work! On reaching the top (see photo to the left) the route to Table Mountain becomes obvious, and the trail contours above the cliffs across open terrain with excellent views to the south and west. The final push to the summit is dispiritingly steep at this altitude, but the reward is truly amazing views of the Grand Teton and Cascade Canyon far below. It's possible to make the hike into a partial loop by descending on a steeper trail to the trail head at the end of Teton Canyon Road, but the North Teton Creek valley is nice enough that we were happy to return the way we came.

 

 

Rendezvous Mountain to Granite Canyon

Trailhead: Take the aerial tram from the ski area at Teton Village to the summit of Rendezvous mountain. From the top, head left along the ridge and a service road before joining the trail proper.
Distance: 13 mile loop, almost entirely downhill, with 4,000 feet of net descent (my GPS recorded 800 feet up, 4,800 feet down)

 
Rendezvous mountain trail, Tetons
Looking west descending Rendezvous mountain, before dropping into Granite Canyon
 
 

I'm not generally a big fan of cable car assisted hikes, in part because I'm not that keen on cable cars but mostly because the best views on such hikes are invariably right at the start. Which is a shame. That said, I did this loop a couple of days after a marathon 28-miler in the Wind Rivers, when the last thing I wanted was a stiff march uphill, and greatly enjoyed it. You get to see the high country at the south end of the Teton range, and another attractive canyon, on a varied and pretty easy hike.

The hike starts at the top of the aerial tram, where, in common with all ski areas in summer, there's a veritable maze of trails and service roads. It's less than a mile, however, before you leave the ridge that marks the southern boundary of the park and find the trail that connects to the Teton Crest and Granite Canyon trails. The next three or four miles are the highlight of the hike, as you head mostly westwards through the valley which is here backed by high cliffs (it looks very similar to the best part of the Alaska Basin hike described below). Depending on how long a day you want, you can either continue all the way to the Teton Crest trail and Marion Lake, or, as I did, take the first connecting trail to the right and drop down into Granite Canyon. Once in the canyon, after about 5 miles of hiking, you have 5 or 6 more miles before exiting north of the starting point at Teton Village. Although the expansive views are lost along with the elevation, Granite Canyon makes for pleasant hiking. I made a lot of noise while hiking down the canyon - the berries here in September were as bountiful as I've seen anywhere and surely a tasty buffet for any bear in the vicinity! I didn't see a bear though, in fact the only wildlife I saw was a female moose whose appearance enlivened what is otherwise a routine walk south from the canyon mouth to the parking lot at Teton Village.

 

 
Hiking in Alaska Basin
Hiking the trail above treeline in Alaska basin
 

Alaska basin hike

West side

Trailhead: Alaska basin trail, which starts at a parking lot at the end of Teton Canyon Road (from the lights at the center of Driggs, head 6.6 miles east through Alta before reaching the turnoff).

Distance: 17 mile partial loop, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain

 

The Alaska basin hike follows the canyon of South Teton Creek up to a high plateau dotted with a number of attractive small lakes, and can be used as the start of a west-to-east crossing of Grand Teton National Park. The hike starts at the end of the Teton Canyon Road, and the first three miles are a pleasant walk along a rolling trail through the lower reaches of the canyon. Just before the three mile mark you reach a junction with the trail coming down from the Devil's Stairs (which will close the partial loop later in the day). Stay left here and follow the trail up to the junction with the Teton Crest trail in Alaska Basin, 8 miles in at 9,500 feet. By now you'll have put in the bulk of the day's climbing - some 2,500 feet - but the trail is well graded and we didn't find it to be particularly hard work.

 
Alaska basin trail, Tetons
Following the Teton Crest trail south-west through Alaska basin
 
 

Alaska Basin is an attractive destination, somewhat reminiscent of the Beartooth Plateau north of Yellowstone. We stopped to eat lunch here at one of the small lakes (which turned out to be an old reservoir with a small concrete dam). The best part of the hike, however, lies ahead. Following the Teton Crest trail south, you climb the Sheep steps to reach an open shelf that stretches to the west above Teton Creek canyon, and a junction with the trail to the Devil's Stairs at the 10 mile mark. From here, there are 3.5 miles of hiking along a great trail, backed by massive cliffs and with expansive views, to reach the top of the Stairs. A short, steep descent then closes the loop part of the hike and drops you back onto the valley floor to complete the day.

 

 

 
Amphitheatre Lake, Tetons
Amphitheatre Lake, Grand Teton National Park
 

Amphitheatre Lake

Trailhead: Lupine Meadows, on the east side of the park
Distance: 10 mile out and back hike, with 3,100 feet of elevation gain

The above hikes will all take the better part of a day. For a slightly easier option, I recommend the out-and-back to Surprise Lake and Amphitheatre Lake. This is a pleasant trail, mostly through forest, that climbs high enough to afford great views across the plains and hills east of the Tetons. Do make sure to continue past Surprise Lake to Amphitheatre Lake, which has much the more impressive situation of the two in a barren, rocky cirque.

The even more photogenic Delta Lake is accessed starting by starting along the same trail, though reaching Delta requires some scrambling along an unmarked trail. I haven't done it yet. Perhaps next time!