A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
Grand Teton National Park boasts spectacular snowcapped peaks, their profiles reflected in fjord-like lakes and a slowly flowing river. No matter what the season, the parks present an amazing array of sights, smells, sounds, and outdoor activities.
Without much warning, the Grand Tetons rise 7,000 feet (2,133 m) almost straight up from the Jackson Hole Valley—serrated granite peaks so perfectly proportioned they seem born from the mind’s eye of a landscape artist rather than Mother Nature. Named by French-speaking trappers who ventured through the region in the early 19th century, they are the youngest mountains in the Rockies and certainly the most handsome, their gorgeous facades mirrored in six lakes and sinuous Snake River along their eastern edge.
The Hayden Expedition of the early 1870s that brought Yellowstone into the limelight also illuminated the Grand Teton through innovative photography and landscape paintings. But with settlement already underway in Jackson Hole, it would take more than a half century—and the substantial wealth of the Rockefeller family—to exert enough pressure on government officials and purchase enough private lands for the national park to become a reality.
U.S. Highway 89 runs the length of the park between the funky town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Yellowstone’s southernmost entrance. Along the way are numerous pull-outs with views of the peaks beyond the Snake River and Jackson Lake. Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center near Moose Junction provides a great overview of the area’s natural forces and human history with a high-definition movie about the park, various ranger-led activities, and the excellent Vernon Collection of local Native American artifacts.
Wildlife watching and water sports
This southeastern corner of the park boasts some of the best wildlife. Beaver, otters, and moose are a few of the creatures found around Schwabacher’s Landing on the Snake River; bison, antelope, and elk are some of the animals that frequent the sagebrush-covered area on the north side of the Gros Ventre River. There are also historical relics, like the photogenic Mormon Barns and the log-cabin-style Chapel of the Transfiguration in the Menors Ferry Historic District.
On the western side of the river, Teton Park Road and the adjacent biking/hiking path meanders through the heart of the park to divine Jenny Lake and its visitor center. Jenny Lake Shuttle provides scenic cruises and water taxi service to the western shore for short hikes to Hidden Falls or Inspiration Point or challenging ascents of the park’s highest peak: 13,770-foot (4,197.1 m) Grand Teton. Jenny Lake is also a springboard for day hikes to Paintbrush Canyon and secluded Leigh Lake.
Farther north, Jackson Lake offers paddle sports, sailing, water skiing, and windsurfing. Boat rentals, scenic cruises, and guided fishing trips are available at Colter Bay Marina. Landlubbers can trek the Hermitage Point Trail (9 miles/14.5 km) from the marina to a secluded stretch of lakeshore.
Grand Teton’s mountainous western half is roadless and best explored on foot along more than 230 miles (370.2 km) of trails with varying degrees of difficulty. A stroll through the lake district along the Lupine Meadows Trail and Taggart Lake Trail (7 miles/11.26 km one way) is relatively flat and easy and affords amazing views. Put some oomph into the hike with steep-ascent side trips to Amphitheater Lake or Garnet Canyon.
Snatch a glimpse of the back (western) side of the Teton Range on two of the park’s most challenging hikes: the trail up Granite Canyon to Marion Lake (18.5 miles/29.7 km return) and up Death Canyon to the Static Peak Divide (16.3 miles/26.2 km return).