Ranger's Secrets: Grand Teton National Park
After 37 years in Grand Teton National Park, Park Spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs continues to be moved by the unique splendor of the area.
“This landscape never fails to make me emotional,” she said. “No matter what someone chooses to do, they won’t be disappointed. Unexpected beauty [and] unexpected surprises by charismatic wildlife or delicate wildflowers make the experience here such a wonderful adventure.” And that’s not to mention the mountains that earned this park the nickname "The American Alps."
“There’s a strength and a permanence to these massive peaks that gives you pause,” Skaggs said.
As you plan your next trip, you can stick with the most popular activities…or you can heed Skaggs’ years of experience and try out a few of these less-visited parts of the park.
See the Grizzlies in Willow Flats
“When I moved here 36 years ago, it was rare that you would come across grizzly bears,” Skaggs said. “But now we are every bit as much a grizzly park as Yellowstone or Glacier.” Thanks to a successful management program, the bear population in the Grand Tetons has regained its footing.
While you may see these animals anywhere in the park, certain areas offer a greater chance of a sighting. During the month of June and July, for instance, the grizzlies concentrate in and around the Willow Flats where the elk are calving. Elk go to this area so they can give birth under the shelter of the trees, while grizzlies go in hopes of catching a newborn elk calf.
Early Morning Hike To Leigh Lake
One of Skaggs’ favorite trails is the path to Leigh Lake. This easy, level hike begins at the String Lake Parking Area andwinds its way along String Lake and through a lodge pole pine forest. Along the way are views of the piedmont lakes at the base of the Tetons.
Once you arrive at Leigh Lake, head to the east shore where can take in views of Mount Moran—the fourth highest peak in the Teton Range—while you relax on the lake’s (relatively) white sand beach. This area is an ideal for spot wading or swimming.
If you start early, you have a better chance to see wildlife, such as elk or black bear. On your way back, the shaded trail will shield you from the hot afternoon sun. The round trip journey is about six miles.
Watch the Sunset at the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River or Signal Mountain Summit
Located in the heart of the park, the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River gives you enough distance from the peaks for a truly panoramic view, while the slackwater reflects the colors of the sunset and the mountains. This section of the river is along Highway 26-287.
If you’d prefer a 360-degree view of Jackson Hole, Jackson Lake and Grand Teton National Park at sunset, drive 30 minutes from Teton Park Road to the top of Signal Mountain. While the road to the summit is just five miles, it’s very curvy and gains 700 feet of elevation.
Challenge Yourself on a Hike to Surprise and Amphitheatre Lakes
Skaggs describes these lakes as “little jewels surrounded by craggy spires.” Located on the flanks of the Tetons themselves, this hike will take you into the alpine zone for amazing views and a chance to see unique animals and wildflowers. On the trail you may find pikas, marmots, and birds such as grey-crowned rosy finches and Clark's nutcrackers.
Keep in mind that you’ll have to work hard for these rewards. The trail to Amphitheatre Lake is 4.8 miles each way with 2,958 feet of elevation gain (when you reach Surprise Lake, you know you’re half a mile from your final destination).
You can access this hike from Teton Park Road. Turn in at Lupine Meadows and drive the dirt path to the trailhead parking area.
For more information on any of these activities or locations, visit the visitor’s center in Grand Teton National Park. Skaggs recommends that each person or group spend one-on-one time with a ranger to help plan a safe and fun trip.