Awesome in their grandeur, the Tetons have captivated the imagination from the moment humans laid eyes on them. While their name is often ascribed to French trappers, another theory is that it was dubbed for the Thítȟuŋwaŋ band of the Lakota Sioux who inhabited the area long before.
The Shoshone were the primary tribe who summered around the Grand Tetons, though they too were forced onto reservations in the 1870s after the establishment of nearby Yellowstone National Park. The Tetons weren't formally mapped until almost two generations after Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery first saw these peaks. It was only in the final decade of the Shoshone's free presence on their ancestral lands that a series of surveying expeditions passed through, ahead of what would become a steady stream of white settlers.
The history of Grand Teton National Park
One of the men on those late 19th century expeditions was William Henry Jackson, a photographer whose documentation of the landscape helped raise public awareness of the Tetons with potential tourists and politicians back east. Over the next twenty years, influential figures like Presidents Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt took note and made early attempts to protect the Tetons from development, while climbers like Wyoming State Auditor William Owen started a long tradition of outdoor recreation in what was then the Teton Forest Reserve.
Despite the growing attention of nascent conservationists and the relatively sparse claims by ranchers and homesteaders, the Tetons weren't designated a national park in 1929. Much of the Snake River Valley was later donated to the park by John D Rockefeller, who acquired it through secret purchases to skirt the protestations of private land owners in the area who opposed the creation of a national park. Just a couple decades later, however, many locals had forgotten their animosity as a new generation of tourists trickled in via automobile, bringing business to Jackson Hole.
Highlights of Grand Teton National Park
Today there's more to see than ever in Grand Teton, whether you're passing through on the way to Yellowstone or planning to dive deep into this corner of the Wyoming backcountry.
Mormon Row is possibly the most photographed spot in the park – and for good reason. The aged wooden barns and fence rails make a quintessential pastoral scene, perfectly framed by the imposing bulk of the Tetons. The barns and houses were built in the 1890s by Mormon settlers, who farmed the fertile alluvial soil irrigated by miles of hand-dug ditches.
Just north of Moose Junction, head east on Antelope Flats Road for 1.5 miles to a three-way intersection and parking area. Landmark buildings are north and south of the intersection.
Crowning glory of the park, the dagger-edged Grand Teton (13,775ft/4199m) has taunted many a would-be mountaineer. The first white men to claim to have summited were James Stevenson and Nathanial Langford, part of the 1872 Hayden Geological Survey. However, when William Owen, Franklin Spalding and two others arrived at the top in 1898, they found no evidence of a prior expedition. So they chiseled their names in a boulder, claimed the first ascent, and ignited a dispute that persists today.
Jackson Lake Dam
This 1916 dam has scenic lake views and paved wheelchair-accessible trails at its southern edge. The Jackson Lake Dam raises the lake level by 39ft, and was paid for by Idaho farmers who still own the irrigation rights to the top 39ft of water. It was reinforced between 1986 and 1989 to withstand earthquakes.
Jackson Point Overlook
The best vistas in the area are at Jackson Point Overlook. William Jackson took a famous photograph from this point in 1878, when preparing a single image could take a full hour, using heavy glass plates and a portable studio. The viewpoint is a short walk south from a parking area.
The scenic heart of the Grand Tetons and the epicenter of the area's crowds, Jenny Lake was named for the Shoshone wife of early guide and mountain man Beaver Dick Leigh. Don't miss the Jenny Lake Overlook which looks out at the Ribbon Cascade from the tracks of an ancient glacial moraine.
Seven miles south of Signal Mountain, the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive branches west to begin Grand Teton's most picturesque parkway. The Cathedral Group turnout boasts views of the central Teton spires, known as the Cathedral Group. Interpretive boards illustrate the tectonic slippage visible at the foot of Rockchuck Peak (11,144ft), named for its resident yellow-bellied marmots (aka rock chucks).
String Lake is the most popular picnic spot, with dramatic views of the north face of Teewinot Mountain (12,325ft) and Grand Teton from sandy beaches along its east side. The road becomes one-way beyond String Lake, just before exclusive Jenny Lake Lodge.
Oxbow Bend is one of the most beloved spots in the park for tourists packing binoculars, cameras, and telescopes. It's a pretty corner full of wildlife at the foot of Mount Moran where moose, elk, sandhill cranes, ospreys, bald eagles, trumpeter swans, Canada geese, blue herons and white pelicans emerge every dawn and dusk.
Laurance S Rockefeller Preserve
For solitude coupled with the most stunning views that don't include the Grand, visitors should check out Laurance S Rockefeller Preserve, one of the newer sections of Grand Teton National Park. Once the JY Ranch, an exclusive Rockefeller family retreat, these 3100 acres around Phelps Lake were donated in full by Laurance S Rockefeller in 2001. His grandfather, John D Rockefeller, who donated some 33,000 acres of former ranchland to Grand Teton National Park.
Things to do in Grand Teton National Park
Some 12 imposing glacier-carved summits frame the singular Grand Teton (13,775ft). And while the view is breathtaking from the valley floor, it only gets more impressive on the trail. It's well worth hiking the dramatic canyons of fragrant forest to sublime alpine lakes surrounded by wildflowers in summer. This wilderness is home to bear, moose and elk in number, and played a fundamental role in the history of American alpine climbing. Rock climbing and fishing are also possible.
With almost 250 miles of hiking trails, options are plentiful. Backcountry-use permits are required for overnight trips.
Ultra-popular, this day hike scales to a gorgeous alpine lake via a gradual climb. From the Jenny Lake western boat dock, it's a 14.4-mile round-trip (18.4 miles without the boat shuttle across the lake) to alpine gem Lake Solitude, but you can turn around earlier and still soak in views.
The trail passes popular Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls before climbing Cascade Canyon to the Forks. Go right for Lake Solitude (9035ft). Be mindful of the moose and bear that frequent the area.
Teton Crest Trail
An epic 40-mile backcountry ramble over the lofty spine of the range, the Teton Crest offers jaw-dropping views and a fair share of high exposure. This classic four- or five-day route dips in and out of the neighboring Jedediah Smith Wilderness, with numerous "outs" via the canyons and passes that access the trail on either side.
Hikers must arrange for a shuttle or have two cars to leave at the start and end points. Camping permits are required. There are many options for starts and stops, but we suggest going in at the String Lake Trailhead.
Death Canyon is one of our favorite hikes – both for the challenge and the astounding scenery. The trail ascends a mile to the Phelps Lake overlook before dropping down into the valley bottom and following Death Canyon.
For a tougher add-on with impossibly beautiful views, turn right at the historic ranger cabin onto the Alaska Basin Trail and climb another 3000ft to Static Peak Divide (10,792ft) – the highest trail in Grand Teton National Park.
Rafting, paddling, and fishing
There are a number of rafting companies that operate on the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. National Park Float Trips out of the Triangle X Ranch offers dawn, daytime and sunset floats, plus a four-hour early evening float and cookout. Trips run out of Moose. Solitude Float Trips is a highly recommended rafting company which runs Deadman's Bar-to-Moose trips and sunrise trips, plus shorter 5-mile floats.
Canoes and kayaks
You can also rent canoes and kayaks to paddle Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake. Signal Mountain Marina on Jackson Lake and the Snake River rents canoes ($25 per hour), kayaks ($20), motorboats (from $42) and pontoon cruisers ($105); gasoline is extra. You can also hire a guide there for fly-fishing on the lake (half-day for two people $312) and scenic Snake River float trips (adult/child US$77/50).
Fly fishing and angling
Fishing is a Tetons draw, with several species of whitefish and cutthroat, lake and brown trout thriving in local rivers and lakes. Get a license at the Moose Village store, Signal Mountain Lodge or Colter Bay Marina. Anglers must carry a valid Wyoming fishing license. The Snake, Buffalo Fork and Gros Ventre Rivers are closed November 1 to March 31. In general, anglers are limited to six trout per day, with varying size limitations. Get a copy of the park's fishing brochure for details.
The Tetons are known for excellent short-route rock climbs, as well as classic longer routes to summits such as Grant Teton, Mt Moran and Mt Owen (12,928ft), all best attempted with an experienced guide.
Jenny Lake Ranger Station is the go-to office for climbing information. It sells climbing guidebooks, provides information and has a board showing campsite availability in Garnet Canyon, the gateway to climbs including the technical ascent of Grand Teton. An excellent resource and the spot to meet outdoor partners in crime, the member-supported American Alpine Club's Climbers' Ranch has been a climbing institution since 1970.
In Grand Teton National Park, much is closed for winter. Dates for service openings and closures vary greatly from year to year, depending on snow conditions. Get information on weather, road, ski and avalanche conditions from the Jackson Visitor Center. Spur Ranch Log Cabins, which stays open for most of the year, sits close to the center of Moose. There is limited tent and RV camping (December to April 15, US$5) near the Colter Bay Visitor Center, though tent sites may be on snow. On the eastern edge of the national park, the 1926 Triangle X Ranch has wood cabins at discount winter rates.
Cross country skiing
Between mid-December and mid-March, the park grooms 15 miles of track right under the Tetons' highest peaks, between the Taggart and Bradley Lakes parking area and Signal Mountain. Lanes are available for ski touring, skate skiing and snowshoeing. Grooming takes place two or three times per week. The NPS does not always mark every trail: consult at the ranger station to make sure that the trail you plan to use is well tracked and easy to follow. Remember to yield to passing skiers and those skiing downhill. You can find rental equipment in Jackson.
Snowshoers may use the park's Nordic skiing trails, too. For an easy outing, try Teton Park Rd (closed to traffic in winter). Remember to use the hardpack trail and never walk on ski trails – skiers will thank you for preserving the track!
From late December through to mid-March, naturalists lead free two-hour, 1.5-mile snowshoe hikes from the Taggart Lake trailhead three times per week. Traditional wooden snowshoes are available for rental (adult/child US$5/2). The tour is open to eight-year-olds and up.
Lodging in Grand Teton National Park
Demand for lodging and camping in Grand Teton is high from Memorial Day (late May) to Labor Day (early September); book lodges well in advance. Accommodations range from basic campgrounds to high-end lodges.
Jenny Lake Lodge
Worn timbers, down comforters and colorful quilts imbue these elegant cabins with a cozy atmosphere. Jenny Lake Lodge doesn't come cheap, but the Signature Stay package includes breakfast, five-course dinner, bicycle use and guided horseback riding. Rainy days are for hunkering down at the fireplace in the main lodge with a game or book from the stacks.
Jackson Lake Lodge
With soft sheets, meandering trails for long walks and enormous picture windows framing the peaks, the Teton's premier lodge is the perfect place to romance. Nearby, you may find the 348 cinder-block cottages overpriced for their viewless, barracks-like arrangement, though renovations have made them pleasant inside. The secluded Moose Pond View cottages feature amazing porch-side panoramas.
Even if you aren't staying here, you should stop in to appreciate the lodge's great room with its floor-to-ceiling windows and two massive fireplaces. Jackson Lake Lodge also has a heated pool and pets are allowed ($20 extra).
Started as a refuge for serious climbers and traditionally run by the American Alpine Club, the rustic log cabins of Climbers' Ranch are now available to hikers, who can take advantage of the spectacular in-park location. There is a bathhouse with showers and a sheltered cook station with locking bins for coolers. Bring your own sleeping bag and pad (bunks are bare, but still a steal).
Turpin Meadow Ranch
For a true wilderness getaway or some of the best Nordic terrain in the region, check out this luxury dude ranch offering acres of cross-country skiing right outside the cabin door, in addition to fat-bike touring and snowmobiling. In summer there's mountain biking, horseback riding, pack trips and wildlife watching. Turpin Meadow Ranch's cabins feature smart retro decor and fireplaces.
Camping inside the park is permitted in designated campgrounds only and is limited to 14 days (seven days at popular Jenny Lake). Most campgrounds and accommodations are open from early May to early October, depending on the weather conditions. The NPS operates the park's six campgrounds on a first-come, first-served basis. Most campsites get snatched up before 11am: Jenny Lake fills much earlier; Gros Ventre usually stays open.
Signal Mountain Campground is a popular base because of its central location. Colter Bay, Jenny Lake Campground, and Lizard Creek have tent-only sites reserved for walk-in hikers and ride-in cyclists (US$11-12).
Some lesser-known, first-come, first-served sites near the park may have fewer amenities, but they also have openings when NPS campgrounds are bursting, and charge a third to half of the price.
Secluded Sheffield Campground is a five-site USFS (US Forest Service) campground, 2.5 miles south of Yellowstone National Park's South Entrance and just south of Flagg Ranch. Cross the Snake River Bridge, then go a half-mile east on a rough dirt road from a subtly signed turnoff. Located 7 miles northeast of Kelly on the shores of Slide Lake, Atherton Creek Campground has 20 sites, drinking water and pit toilets.
Eight free, minimally developed, first-come, first-served campgrounds are strung out along the bumpy and unpaved Grassy Lake Rd, which begins just west of the parking lot at Flagg Ranch. The first (and most popular) campground is 1.6 miles along the road and has four riverside campsites.
Each of the next three riverside campgrounds, in the 1.5-mile stretch past Soldiers' Meadow, has two sites. The last four campgrounds, spaced out along the next 3.5 miles, are useful for hikes into Yellowstone's southern reaches. All sites have toilets and trash service but no potable water. Camping is only allowed in designated sites.
Tips for visitors
Park permits (hiker or bicycle $20, vehicle $35) are valid for seven days. Alternatively, you can purchase passes including an annual Grand Teton National Park pass (US$70) or the America the Beautiful (all national parks) pass ($80).
The map you get at the entry station provides a broad overview, but stop by Colter Bay Visitor Center or the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center for more detailed hiking and backcountry information.
Permits are required for backcountry camping, and can be reserved at Recreation.gov in advance (US$45) from January to May 15, or in person ($35) the day before your trip. Equipment can be rented or purchased in Moose at Adventure Sports or Moosely Mountaineering.