Snowcapped and with a sawtoothed profile that appears to be taking a bite out of the Wyoming sky, the Grand Tetons just look like what a mountain range is supposed to be. Hiking in the Tetons takes you beyond the range’s granite wall and into its varied world of mountain lakes, cascading creeks, and hidden canyons.
While the range rises to nearly 14,000 feet, numerous day hikes in Grand Teton National Park are accessible to hikers of all skill levels. But even though trails are just minutes from Jackson Hole, Grand Teton hikes explore surprisingly wild country.
Moose and elk are common and you should also familiarize yourself with bear safety measures before hiking here. That’s because the park is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and both grizzly and black bears are frequently spotted near Teton trails. With trailheads at roughly 7,000 feet, weather changes quickly and you should also pay attention to forecasts to avoid getting caught in lightning storms.
1. Cascade Canyon
Maybe the most diverse day hike in the Tetons, the trek into Cascade Canyon begins along the shores of Jenny Lake. Right away you have a couple of options: You can hike along the shorelilne for about two miles to reach access to the canyon or take the 10-minute shuttle boat ride across the lake. Because Cascade Canyon is the real highlight, I’d recommend that you save the miles and take the boat, which offers panoramas of the lake and the Tetons. Once you’re on the other side of the lake, the trail is quite crowded as it climbs rather steeply to the overlook for the not-so-hidden Hidden Falls. Fortunately most people turn around at the falls and in another half mile, you enter Cascade Canyon. As you hike along thickets of berries (watch for bears), meadows, and forests, you’ll pass ponds and get terrific views of 12,928-foot Mount Owen. Moose are common in the canyon and be sure to also keep your eyes and ears open for picas, a small rabbit-like animal with a sharp call that lives within rock falls. The trail connects deep into the Tetons but a popular turnaround spot for day hikers is the bridge over Cascade Creek for a 9-mile roundtrip.
2. Death Canyon
Sounds really appealing, right? But despite that intimidating moniker, this moderate 7.9-mile up-and-back hike into Death Canyon is filled with wildlife (we saw two moose in the first half mile), wildflowers, and views. The trailhead is about 1.7 miles off the Moose-Wilson Road. The trail climbs steadily up a forested moraine for about 450 feet in a mile to an overlook of glacier-carved Phelps Lake. From there, it drops 650 feet toward the lake before it reaches a junction roughly 2.1 miles from the trailhead. Go right at the junction to explore Death Canyon. The trail climbs along the rushing creek and into the steep-walled canyon, which in summer is filled with wildflowers and raspberries (it’s an active bear area). A popular turnaround spot is the patrol cabin nearly four miles from the trailhead. But you can also just explore the canyon for a bit and head back before reaching the cabin to reduce the miles and climbing.
3. Heron Pond and Swan Lake
I found this hike after I asked a veteran ranger about Teton day hikes that visitors often overlook. The mostly flat, 3-mile loop begins at the Hermitage Point Trailhead near Colter Bay Visitor Center on Jackson Lake but quickly leaves the marina and more developed areas behind. Stay right at junctions and the trail travels through lodgepole pine forests before reaching Heron Pond in a bit over a mile. With its lily pads and views out to Jackson Lake with 12,605-foot Mount Moran in the distance, Heron Pond is a gorgeous spot. The trail edges along Heron Pond and if you continue to the right, you can try a 9.2-mile loop (from the original trailhead) that leads to Hermitage Point, which reaches into Jackson Lake. To complete the shorter loop, turn left at the junction, and return along Swan Lake, which, as its name suggests, is home to trumpeter swans and other waterfowl.
4. Phelps Lake From Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center
One of the true jewels of the Tetons, the preserve opened to the public in 2008 after Rockefeller donated 1,100 acres to Grand Teton National Park in 2001. An 8-mile trail network begins from the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-certified visitor center along the Moose-Wilson Road. The easy 3.1-mile Lake Creek-Woodland Trail Loop travels along a creek and leads to the shores of Phelps Lake and terrific Teton views. For a longer hike, continue on the Phelps Lake Loop, which follows the shoreline to create a 6.6-mile roundtrip from the visitor center.
5. Taggart Lake Loop
This moderate 4-mile loop with about 500 feet of climbing visits a piedmont lake and explores forests, meadows, and glacial moraines. The trail begins from a parking area along the Teton Park Road north of Moose, then climbs through a more open, unshaded expanse that burned in 1985. Stay to the right at the first junction and along the way, you get views of the Tetons’ towering Cathedral Group as the trail parallels Beaver Creek. At a junction about a mile from the trailhead, you can extend the loop and reach Bradley Lake by staying to the right. But go left for Taggart Lake and you’ll get big views from a ridge before dropping to the shoreline. At the junction with the Valley Trail, about .8 miles beyond the lakeshore, turn left to complete the loop.