The Grand Teton National Park from A-Z

Grand Teton National Park
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The sweeping mountain vistas, pristine alpine lakes, and abundant wildlife make Grand Teton National Park and the Jackson Hole valley bucket list destinations for many hikers, backpackers, and outdoor adventurers. Rising nearly 7,000 feet (2,130 m) above the valley floor, the jagged peaks in the Teton Range are an awe-inspiring sight that attracts millions of visitors every year. Although it’s only a fraction of the size of its northern neighbor, Yellowstone, Grand Teton is one of the most visited national parks in the United States, with around 3.3 million annual visitors.

This article covers what you need to know when planning a visit to Grand Teton National Park, including some background about the park’s history, weather and climate information, what to do, where to stay, and how to get there.

History

Early History

Human history in the territory that is now Grand Teton National Park extends back over 11,000 years. According to historians and archaeologists, nomadic Paleo-Indians first came to the area after glaciers from the last ice age retreated. The tribes harvested berries and bulbs, fished in the numerous streams and lakes, and hunted animals during the summer months. As the harsh winters neared, the tribes would migrate out of the Tetons and Jackson Hole valley, following wildlife as they sought milder weather.

For many years, the park supported Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers seasonally, and later it became the home of the Mountain Shoshone and Shoshone people. Grand Teton’s majestic mountains and valleys had spiritual significance for the Shoshone and provided them with food and medicinal plants. According to park rangers, the Shoshone gathered and used as many as 125 different plant species that grow in the area. The Mountain Shoshone, ancestors of modern-day Shoshone people, lived in the region year-round and subsisted mainly on bighorn sheep to survive the severe winters.

Becoming a National Park

The first European-American believed to have entered the area that is now Grand Teton was a man named John Colter. Colter was part of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition but decided to set out on his own in 1806. In the winter of 1807-1808, he traveled through the Grand Teton area. However, there is no written record of his travels or experiences there, and little is known about what he encountered.

More people passed through the area throughout the early 19th century as explorers, fur trappers, and traders sought riches and resources like beaver fur. The park’s name traces its origins to this period. In the early 1800s, French trappers referred to the peaks in the Teton Range as “les trois tétons,” which means “the three teats” in English. Over time, this saying was shortened to just the Tetons.

The name Jackson Hole also comes from 19th-century fur trappers. A man named David Edward (Davey) Jackson trapped animals in the valley, and his trapping partner referred to it as Davey Jackson’s Hole in 1829. The name stuck, and it was eventually abbreviated to Jackson Hole.

As westward expansion increased in the US, surveyors, homesteaders, ranchers, and farmers began to arrive and settle in Jackson Hole in the late 1800s. Farming in this harsh landscape was difficult, and many people saw more promising revenue potential in tourism. By the 1920s, the area was known for its cowboy culture, and dude ranching (a type of ranching that focuses on tourism rather than raising livestock) was the primary industry. Wealthy people from the Eastern US would travel to Wyoming’s dude ranches to experience life in the West.

Development rapidly increased in Jackson Hole to support this budding tourism industry, with facilities like dancehalls, racetracks, cabins, and gas stations popping up all over the area. With this increase in development, many grew concerned about possible negative impacts on the pristine, wild landscape.

Formal conservation efforts began with a local meeting in 1923, and three years later, American philanthropist and financier John D. Rockefeller, Jr. visited the area with Horace Albright, superintendent of neighboring Yellowstone National Park. Rockefeller was enchanted by the area’s natural beauty and purchased land totaling around 35,000 acres over the next couple of decades. He later donated this land to the federal government.

Grand Teton was established as a national park in 1929, but it wasn’t until more than 20 years later that it became its current size. In 1950, Jackson Hole National Monument (created in 1943) was merged with Grand Teton National Park to expand the boundaries to their present location.

Today, Grand Teton is an iconic picture of the American West and has cemented its status as one of the most popular national parks in the United States.

Lake in Grand Teton National Park

Key Facts about Grand Teton National Park

Size: 485 square miles (1,256 square kilometers)

Number of visitors: 3.3 million in 2020

Established on: 26 February 1929

Length of hiking trails: 242 miles (390 km)

Highest point: Grand Teton, elevation 13,775 feet (4,198 m)

Lowest point: Fish Creek, elevation 6,320 feet (1,926 m)

Other interesting facts about Grand Teton:

  • Grand Teton National Park contains eight different peaks over 12,000 ft (3,658 m) in elevation.
  • The park has six morainal lakes and over 100 alpine and backcountry lakes.
  • Grand Teton is located only 10 miles (16 km) away from another famous national park – Yellowstone. A 24,000-acre (97-km2) parcel of land known as the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway was dedicated by the United States Congress in 1972 and connects the two parks.
  • The Teton Mountain Range, one of the park’s defining features, is 40 miles long (65 km) and 7 to 9 miles wide (11 to 14.5 km).
  • The Tetons are an active fault-block mountain range, meaning they are continuing to be uplifted today by the Teton Fault as the Jackson Hole valley sinks. Although the rocks themselves are incredibly old, the Teton Range is one of the youngest mountain ranges in the Rocky Mountains and on earth.
  • Grand Teton sees extreme temperature swings. The highest temperature ever recorded in the park was 97°F (36°C), while the lowest temperature ever recorded was -63°F (-53°C).
  • The ecosystem in Grand Teton has been incredibly well preserved, with very few changes since prehistoric times. As a result, many of the wildlife species that call the park home today are the same species that lived there thousands of years ago. These include 22 species of rodents, 17 species of carnivores (including black and grizzly bears), 6 species of hoofed mammals, 3 species of rabbits/hares, 6 species of bats, 4 species of reptiles (none of them are venomous), 6 species of amphibians, 16 species of fish, and over 300 species of birds.
  • The park is also known for its diverse plant life. There are over 900 species of flowering plants and 7 species of coniferous trees. The diverse array of flowering plants makes Grand Teton an excellent place to view wildflowers in the late spring and summer.
  • The average annual precipitation in Grand Teton is 21.6 inches (55 cm), with an average snowfall of 173 inches (4.4 meters) in the valley.

Climate and Weather

Grand Teton has a semi-arid mountain climate with extreme weather and long, cold winters. Although summer temperatures often reach the high 70s or low 80s Fahrenheit (mid to upper 20s Celsius), snow and frost are possible in the park any month of the year.

Due to the substantial elevation change within the park, visitors should prepare for varying weather conditions no matter what time of year they visit Grand Teton. In general, you can expect temperatures to drop 4°F (2.2°C) for every 1,000 feet (305 meters) in elevation gain. Below, you can find more information about what to expect in each season.

Summer (late June to August)

Summers in Grand Teton are generally filled with warm days and cool nights. Although days are often sunny, a large portion of the park’s rainfall occurs during the summer months, and afternoon thunderstorms are common. The average daily temperature is 77°F (25°C) between June and August, with lows usually reaching the upper 30s Fahrenheit (2-4°C).

Fresh Summer day in Grand Teton National Park

Fall (September to October)

Fall brings cooler temperatures to Grand Teton, but the days are often sunny, with rain falling only occasionally. Daytime highs in September average 69°F (21°C), with nighttime lows reaching freezing. By October, highs only average about 56°F (13°C), while lows dip to 23°F (-5°C) overnight. Snowstorms become increasingly likely as the fall foliage begins to drop to the ground towards the end of September and into October.

Winter (November to early April)

November in Grand Teton marks the start of the winter season when heavy snowfall is likely, and facilities close down until spring. Winter storms bring substantial snowfall to Grand Teton. The average annual snowfall in the valley is 173 inches (4.4 meters), with the mountains receiving as much as around 500 inches (12.7 meters). In between these squalls are many cold, sunny days ideal for winter activities like snowshoeing and skiing.

Between December and February, temperatures almost always remain below freezing. The average high temperature during these months is 28°F (-2°C) and the average low temperature is 2°F (-17°C). Keep in mind that these are averages, and the actual low temperatures are known to dip much lower. In fact, the lowest temperature ever recorded in Grand Teton is a frigid -63°F (-53°C).

Grand Tetons in Winter

Spring (late April to early June)

Spring in the Tetons usually means mild days and cool nights with frequent rain and snow. The variable and often inclement weather makes spring a challenging time for outdoor activities in the park, but skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, and biking may be possible. By mid-May, temperatures begin to warm up and the snow on valley trails begins to melt, with highs in the low 60s Fahrenheit (16 to 18°C) and lows in the 30s Fahrenheit (-1 to 4°C). By June, the daytime highs reach the low 70s Fahrenheit (21 to 23°C), with nighttime lows remaining above freezing on average.

When to Visit

The best time to visit Grand Teton is between late May and late September, when most trails and facilities are open and accessible. However, the park is open year-round, and cold-hardy travelers may prefer a quiet winter visit.

Summer and early fall are the best times for hiking, backpacking, and camping. Many trails are covered with snow through late May or early June, and in higher elevation areas, the snow doesn’t melt on trails until late July. As a result, you’ll have the best selection of trails if you visit in August or early September. The summer months are the most popular time to visit the park, so expect higher accommodation prices, traffic jams on park roads, and crowded trails.

September sees fewer crowds and cooler temperatures compared to the summer months, but still has pleasant weather suitable for a wide range of outdoor activities. If you want to see stunning fall foliage, plan your visit around the third week of September when the colors are at their peak.

October is a bit of a gamble when visiting Grand Teton in terms of weather and your overall experience. The weather could be mild and pleasant, or you could get stuck in an early snowstorm. By mid-October, many facilities, lodges, and campgrounds in the park begin to close for the season, and snowfall becomes more likely.

From November to March, many roads and all visitor centers, campgrounds, and lodges within the park are closed. The main roads in the park (Highway US 89/191 and Highway US 26/287) are plowed and remain open for winter travel. There are few crowds this time of year and ample snow, making this an excellent time to visit for winter sports enthusiasts, photographers, and those seeking solitude. Winter is truly a magical time in Grand Teton and the best time to see elk at the National Elk Refuge, but you’ll need to prepare for frigid temperatures, icy and snowy roads, and limited services.

April and early May are still chilly, with many roads and facilities closed until the snow cover melts. New snowfall is possible, but this is no longer an ideal time for winter sports like snowshoeing and cross-country skiing. As a result, you will have very limited activity options if you visit in the early spring.

By mid-May, wildflowers begin to bloom in lower elevations, and visitor centers, lodges, roads, and campgrounds begin to open in the park. The summer visitors don’t start flocking to Grand Teton until mid to late June, making late May and early June ideal times to visit for those who want a balance between nice weather and fewer crowds. Keep in mind you’ll have a more limited selection of hiking trails – especially in the backcountry – due to snow that has yet to melt.

Snow Covered Mountains in Grand Teton

Recommended Gear

A trip to Grand Teton National Park doesn’t require any special or technical gear. Your packing list will be highly dependent on the time of year you plan to visit and what activities you want to try while you’re in the park.

Even in the summer, you’ll want to bring plenty of layers and rain gear to prepare for afternoon thunderstorms, cold nights, and cooler temperatures in the higher elevations. If you’re visiting between May and September, be sure to bring a solid layering system, including a breathable base layer, a rain shell, an insulating layer like a fleece, and a warm but lightweight jacket. For more detailed advice on what to take with you when heading into wild spaces like Grand Teton, read our backpacking checklist.

 

You should also plan to bring bear safety gear since Grand Teton National Park is home to both grizzly and black bears. This includes bear spray (make sure you also know how to use it) and a bear-resistant food storage container like a bear canister. Prior to your visit, it’s a good idea to check the National Park Service’s guidelines and recommendations for bear safety to ensure you’re up to date on all the park’s rules and protocols. To learn more about what to do if you encounter a bear or other animal in the wild, read our wildlife safety article.

If you’re planning to visit in the late fall, winter, or spring, you should pack the following items in addition to the usual cold-weather outdoor essentials:

  • Insulated, waterproof boots and gaiters to protect your feet from the cold and snow
  • A high-quality cold-weather layering system, including a mid to heavyweight moisture-wicking base layer, insulating mid-layer(s), and a water-resistant and wind-resistant shell
  • Waterproof pants and an insulating layer to wear underneath
  • A winter emergency kit and shelter
  • Trekking poles for better balance on icy and snowy trails
  • Traction devices or crampons for your hiking boots to avoid slipping on snow and ice
  • Snowshoes to help you navigate areas with deep snow more easily
  • Chains for your vehicle since roads in Grand Teton are usually covered with snow from November to April

What to Do in Grand Teton National Park

Hiking and Backpacking

Grand Teton is a hiker’s paradise thanks to its stunning mountain vistas, alpine lakes, and jagged peaks stretching up toward the sky. Day hikes in Grand Teton do not require a permit, but you’ll need one for any overnight camping and backpacking in the backcountry (cost ranges from US$35-45). More information about permits is available from the National Park Service here.

While there are trails to suit hikers of all skill levels, it’s important to note that hiking and backpacking in Grand Teton are known to be challenging. The rocky terrain, high elevation, and extreme weather mean hikers and backpackers in the park should be prepared for sudden weather changes, altitude sickness, and physically demanding hikes.

 

July and August are widely considered to be the best times for hiking and backpacking, but September is also an excellent choice. Hiking in April, May, and October is possible, but you’ll have a more limited selection of trails due to snowfall.

Unless you have previous winter hiking experience, hiking is generally not recommended in Grand Teton in the winter months. If you plan on hiking in Grand Teton when snowfall is possible, take a look at our winter hiking guide for tips on how to prepare and stay safe on the trail. We also suggest you consider using a hiking app (see our recommendations here) to help you navigate and remain safe.

Hiking Trail in Grand Teton National Park

Best Hikes in Grand Teton National Park

  • Cascade Canyon Trail: Cascade Canyon is one of Grand Teton’s most popular hiking areas. This 9-mile (14.6-km) out and back trail is of moderate difficulty and includes views of a 200-foot waterfall called Hidden Falls, rugged peaks, and Jenny Lake. Hikers who want more of a challenge can continue on to Hurricane Pass and Lake Solitude or link this trail with Paintbrush Canyon.
  • Jenny Lake Loop: This 7.5-mile (12-km) moderate trail wraps around picturesque Jenny Lake, with views of the surrounding rocky summits. With only around 620 feet (190 m) of elevation gain, this trail is suitable for hikers of all skill levels. Head up to Inspiration Point (additional 1.8 miles/2.9 km) for an even more gorgeous view. This hike is best from June to October, but it is possible in the winter with snowshoes when conditions allow.
  • Taggart Lake Loop: Despite its short length, Taggart Lake Loop trail (3.8 miles/6.1 km) doesn’t skimp on the views. In addition to taking in serene Taggart Lake, hikers will enjoy views of the park’s three tallest peaks. The trail is accessible to all hikers and is also used by bikers and horseback riders.
  • Teton Crest Trail: This 40-mile (64.4-km) trail makes for one of the most stunning backpacking trips in the United States. Most of the trail lies above 9,000 feet (2,743 m) in elevation. It is an excellent place to experience the beauty of high elevation environments in the Teton Range, including rocky peaks, canyons carved by glaciers, mountain passes, diverse wildlife, and alpine tundra. Most people require 3-5 days to complete the trail, and it’s best to plan your trip between July and early September.
  • Holly Lake Trail: Located in Paintbrush Canyon, this challenging day hike is 12.4 miles (20 km) long with 2,625 feet (800 m) of elevation gain. The out and back trail passes through coniferous forests and alpine meadows with gorgeous views of Grand Teton’s lakes and rocky mountaintops. The trail is less crowded than many other hikes in the park, making it a great choice for those seeking a more peaceful outing.
  • Death Canyon: Despite the ominous name, Death Canyon is a gorgeous, serene part of Grand Teton National Park. Day hikers can hike a moderate 9-mile (14.6-km) trail to the Patrol Cabin, while backpackers may choose to do the full 25.5 mile (41 km) Death Canyon Loop. Highlights include the Phelps Lake Overlook and beautiful views of the Jackson Hole valley.
  • Alaska Basin Trail: Located on the western side of the Tetons, this trail’s remote location within the park makes it challenging for day hikers to reach. As a result, you’ll have a quiet, serene experience if you make the trek to Alaska Basin. The 16-mile (26-km) trail is challenging but well worth the effort. Hikers will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views of the Teton wilderness and have many opportunities to see wildlife like moose and possibly bears. Don’t forget to bring bear spray with you on this trail.
  • Signal Mountain Trail: Enjoy unforgettable views of the whole Teton Range, Jackson Lake, and the Snake River from the summit of Signal Mountain on this moderate 8.3-mile (13.4-km) trail. There is a road to the summit that is open from May through October, so it may be crowded at the top.

Camping

Staying at one of Grand Teton’s seven campgrounds is an incredible way to experience the park. All of the campgrounds operate seasonally, with most open from mid-May to mid-October. The spots fill up quickly, with reservations needing to be made as much as six months in advance. In addition to camping at a front-country campground, you can pitch your tent in the backcountry if you have a permit.

Orange Tent in the Banks of the Gros Ventre River Valley, Grand Teton

Rock Climbing and Mountaineering

Scaling the jagged peaks in the Teton Range is an exciting activity that draws many climbers to Grand Teton every year. Various guiding companies are available to take you on a vertical adventure in the park, or you can climb on your own if you have prior experience and the required safety equipment.

The most popular time to rock climb in Grand Teton is late July through mid-September when ice and snow are less likely on the routes. However, with the right equipment and skillset, climbing and mountaineering are possible throughout the year.

Mountaineers in Grand Teton

Boating and Rafting

The Snake River runs through Grand Teton National Park, creating many opportunities for boating, rafting, and floating down the river. The river is hardest to navigate in the spring, when snowmelt creates fast, cold, and muddy rapids. Many of the lakes in Grand Teton allow kayaking, boating, and stand-up paddleboarding. The best time for these activities is June through September. Please note that you’ll need to purchase a permit before heading out on any of the park’s waterways.

Fishing

The rivers and lakes in Grand Teton are also ideal for fishing, but you’ll need a Wyoming state fishing license to partake in this activity. The licenses are available for purchase at several locations within the park and in the surrounding area. More information about fishing in Grand Teton is available here.

Skiing and Snowshoeing

Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing are the best ways to experience Grand Teton National Park in the winter. From 1 November to 1 May, the Teton Park Road is closed to motorized vehicles between the Taggart Lake Trailhead and Signal Mountain Lodge. The road is an excellent skiing and snowshoeing route and allows visitors to explore parts of the park that are inaccessible to vehicles this time of year.

For downhill skiers, Grand Teton offers amazing backcountry skiing opportunities, with several companies running guided backcountry skiing tours. There is also world-class downhill skiing and snowboarding at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort just outside the park’s boundaries.

Wildlife Viewing and Bird Watching

Grand Teton is home to large wildlife like grizzly bears, black bears, bison, elk, wolves, and moose, making it an amazing place to view these creatures in the wild. The park is also home to 300 species of birds and is therefore a popular destination for bird watching. From late spring through the fall, you’ll be able to view the widest variety of wild animals. Winter visitors will still have a chance to see some of the park’s wildlife – the winter months are the best time to view thousands of elk on the National Elk Refuge.

Brown Moose in Grand Teton

Where to Stay

If you’re visiting Grand Teton National Park between mid-May and mid-October, the most convenient place to stay is within the park itself. There are seven different campgrounds and various lodges, cabins, and ranches to choose from. Accommodations inside the park fill up quickly, so make sure to make your reservations well in advance of your trip. Some visitors who plan to combine a trip to Grand Teton with Yellowstone National Park choose to stay in Yellowstone or in Flagg Ranch (located within the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway) for easy access to both places.

If you are visiting between late October and early May, you’ll need to find lodging outside the park since all facilities within the park’s boundaries are closed during the winter months. There are many different options for accommodation outside the park. The town of Jackson, Wyoming, and Teton Village are excellent choices that are conveniently located near the park’s Moose entrance. There are also a few inns north of Jackson toward the National Elk Refuge.

Jackson is an adventure hub with plenty of things to do and places to go when you’re not exploring the park. With many breweries, steakhouses, and saloons, there are numerous places to refuel after a day of adventuring. The summer also features a rodeo in town and shootouts reenacted in the Town Square.

Teton Village is perfect for downhill skiers and snowboarders visiting Grand Teton in the winter who want to be close to the slopes. However, there’s a lot to do in Teton Village throughout the year, with opportunities for hiking and mountain biking at your doorstep. The town of Jackson tends to be busier in the summer, while Teton Village is more lively during the winter. If you prefer a resort area compared to a bustling town, then you’ll be happier in Teton Village.

cabin in the Grand Teton National Park

How to Get There

Visiting Grand Teton National Park is easiest by car, but there are a few airports nearby if you plan on flying in and then renting a car. Jackson Hole Airport (JAC) is located less than ten minutes away from the Moose entrance, while the Idaho Falls Regional Airport is about two hours west of the Moose entrance. The closest major international airport is Salt Lake City (SLC), located about five hours away by car.

It’s best to have a vehicle when visiting Grand Teton and the surrounding area. There are taxis and public transportation options in Teton Village and Jackson, but service is infrequent. We strongly recommend renting a car if you’ll be flying into the area. If visiting in the winter, make sure you have a four-wheel-drive vehicle with chains for your tires.

Conclusion

The dramatic, breathtaking landscapes of Grand Teton National Park are remarkable places filled with endless opportunities for outdoor adventures. Whether it’s spotting a moose while backpacking on the Teton Crest Trail, taking in impressive wildflower blooms in alpine meadows, or just staring up at the towering, serrated peaks against the clear blue sky, this wild place will leave you with incredible experiences and memories.


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