Comprehensive Guide to Grand Teton National Park: Can’t Miss Spots on your First Visit
May 5, 2021
Originally posted October 2020 ; Revised and migrated April 2021
Travel date July 2020
Grand Teton National Park is one of our favorite National Parks. The breathtaking Grand Teton mountain views combined with the abundance of hiking and water activities attract millions of visitors each year. In our comprehensive Grand Teton guide, we’ve consolidated the best things to do and the absolute can’t miss spots on your first visit.
Grand Teton National Park is best known for the often snow-covered mountain range with which it shares a name. The scenic beauty and serenity is why most people visit. Hiking and climbing are popular attractions in the area. The park’s lakes also attract boaters and fishermen during the summer months.
The Grand Teton Range rises well above the surrounding landscape. It dominates the backdrop from most locations in the park. I’ve been told by others they were moved to tears by the beauty of the area. For me, I found the area to be powerfully spiritual. Honestly, I couldn’t get enough pictures of the Grand Teton Range and would happily visit again. Grand Teton is a can’t miss National Park.
Why are they called the Grand Tetons?
The native Shoshone called the Teton Mountain Range “Teewinot” or “many pinnacles”. In the early 19th century, French fur trappers called the mountains “les trois tetons” which means “the three breasts” in French. The literal translation of Grand Tetons is large breasts.
Grand Teton National Park Basic Facts
Location: Jackson, Wyoming
Park Size: 310,000 acres or 485 square miles
Number of visitors annually: 3.4 million
Established: 1929 and boundary expanded in 1950
Admission: $35 for a 7-day entrance permit for private vehicles or an annual America the Beautiful National Parks pass
Visitor Centers: Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center, Jenny Lake Visitor Center, Jenny Lake Ranger Station, Colter Bay, Flagg Ranch Information Station
How to get to Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is connected to the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park. The 31-mile scenic John D Rockefeller Jr Parkway connects the two parks and is a wonderful drive. Grand Teton is located near the town of Jackson, Wyoming in the valley known as Jackson Hole.
If you are visiting Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton is a can’t miss location.
When is the best time to visit Grand Teton?
Summer is the best time to visit Grand Tetons unless you are interested in snow sports. We had friends visit in early May and snow covered the lakes in early summer.
How crowded is Grand Teton?
We visited the Grand Tetons in July and the park was very busy. Mid-day parking at popular areas was chaotic. We battled with crowds similar to West Yellowstone while at Grand Teton and chose our activities and timing based on avoiding crowds when possible.
You can’t miss all of the crowds but there are many peaceful, quiet spots at Grand Teton and Yellowstone. Overall we believe the parks are worth fighting the crowds. The Grand Teton Mountain Range was breathtaking and I couldn’t resist taking pictures from every angle and location we visited.
The National Park Service recommends arriving early to beat the crowds at popular spots like Jenny Lake and String Lake. We also found late afternoon to be less busy as many visitors wrap up their days and leave.
Taggart Lake trailhead was overcrowded every time we drove by. But we happened to pass by around 3 pm in the afternoon and saw multiple empty spots. Luckily we had our hiking gear with us and we decided to alter our afternoon plans to accommodate our parking luck. Flexibility and patience are key to managing the park’s crowds.
How much time do you need in Grand Teton?
You can drive the main Grand Teton park road in under two hours. However, two days at Grand Tetons allows enough time for a little hiking, biking, and kayaking.
The approach to Grand Teton from the north is a beautiful drive and we recommend pairing Yellowstone and Grand Teton into an epic one-week National Park road trip. Check out our simplified 5- day Yellowstone itinerary here.
Entertainment and Education: Gypsy Guide
The Gypsy Guide app is a GPS-based audio guide that works offline. Offline functionality is critical since cell service is non-existent in the majority of the park. We were impressed with the technology of the app. It knew what attractions we were approaching and would interrupt our music to share fun facts or give guidance on what to see/do while there.
The app shared different information and stories based on our direction of travel. The insights made the experience more fulfilling and informative. Gypsy Guides information helped us prioritize our stops.
With so many free apps available, I’ve never purchased a phone app before Gypsy Guides, and looking back the Yellowstone/Teton app is worth the $9.99 price.
Driving from Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park
After a few days in Gardiner, we headed south through Yellowstone National Park to Grand Teton National Park. Our travel day to Grand Teton was the first rainy day in weeks. The mid-week Yellowstone park roads were less busy than we had seen during our two weeks of sightseeing trips in the park. Pippi, our 37-foot motorhome, enjoyed the slow easy drive with the maximum speed limits at 45mph.
Consider driving through Yellowstone as a scenic drive and part of the adventure. It will not be a quick jaunt to get to your next destination. Wildlife occasionally blocks roadways but they also cause traffic jams when cars stop to watch animals near the roadside. Additionally, summer is the primary season for road construction projects resulting in human-related delays.
Fun Facts about Grand Teton
The Teton Range is the youngest mountain range in the Rockies and has experienced very little erosion in its short life.
The highest peak of Grand Teton is 13,775 feet but there are eight peaks over 12,000 in the park.
Grand Teton is the only National Park with a commercial airport within its borders. The airport was constructed before the National Park designation.
There are 12 small glaciers among the peaks of the Teton Range. About half are found within the Cathedral group.
The average annual snowfall is over 14 feet (4.4 meters) in the valley and 37.5 feet (11.4 meters) in the mountains.
Grand Teton National Park has 152 miles of paved roads, 65 miles of unpaved roads, and 242 miles of hiking trails.
The park covers 310,000 acres with four entrances and five visitor centers.
History of Grand Teton: The Park that Nobody Wanted
President Coolidge approved the 96k acre park in 1929 despite extreme opposition from locals who didn’t want to lose access to the land they used for grazing and hunting. The original designated park area protected the Teton Range and six glacial lakes but not the valley of Jackson Hole.
Despite local protests, in 1943 FDR designated the valley as the Jackson Hole National Monument. Some believe this was prompted by pressure from John D Rockefeller Jr. In protest, local ranchers led a herd of 500 cattle across the protected land.
What did John D Rockefeller Jr do for Grand Teton?
John D Rockefeller Jr was a big proponent of protecting the land in northeast Wyoming after his visits in 1924 and 1926. Based on a request from Horace Albright, future director of the National Parks, Rockefeller knew he could help protect the valley adjacent to the National Park. He began buying the privately held land adjacent to the range. Previously, game animals were starving due to habitat destruction in the name of development.
He created the Snake River Land Company as a cover for his mission to buy as much land as possible in the area. Knowing locals would raise the price if they knew a Rockefeller was buying it, the Snake River Land Company kept his identity private from landowners. Over time, he purchased 35k acres of land for $1 million. During his 15 years of ownership taxes, maintenance, and other costs added an additional half a million more in costs.
Rockefeller purchased the land with the intent of donating it to the Federal government for protection. Due to the controversy over the unwanted park, his gift was refused by the government for 15 years. He wrote a letter to FDR threatening to sell the land to any satisfactory private buyer, prompting the creation of the Jackson Hole Monument in 1943. Rockefeller then donated his land to the federal government with the agreement they would protect it. It became part of today’s Grand Teton National Park.
Wyoming residents didn’t want the park. The state and senate both tried repeatedly to repeal the designation. But each time their request was vetoed. As a compromise in 1950, the national monument was added to the national park and special exceptions were made.
Local ranchers were allowed to keep their existing grazing rights, the elk herds were managed by the state which allows supervised hunting, and finally, the state of Wyoming was exempt from the Antiquities Act. This meant any new monument designations would require congressional approval rather than just a Presidential declaration.
Can’t Miss Things to do at Grand Teton
If you are limited on time, a few can’t miss things to do at Grand Teton are:
Visit the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center for great lake views and park information.
Explore Jenny Lake either on foot, by boat, or in your car along the Jenny Lake scenic drive.
Go to Mormon Row for the classic Grand Teton barn pictures.
Drive the Scenic Teton Park Road and stop at the overlooks.
Best Spots for Photos
Mormon Row for the famous barn pics
Snake River Overlook for the famous Ansel Adams view
Schwabacher Landing for sunset
Best Scenic Drives
Jenny Lake Drive for lake and mountain views
Signal Mountain for panoramic views
Moose Wilson Road for wildlife viewing
Best Things to do at Grand Teton
Grand Tetons National Park has a lot to do and it’s tough to narrow down to the best things. A few of the most popular options are:
Many people visit Grand Teton for the beauty and a lot of the sights can be viewed from your car. A few of the most popular scenic drives are:
Teton Park Drive – several great viewpoints of the Teton Range
John D Rockefeller Jr Memorial Parkway – wooded scenic drive from Yellowstone’s south entrance
Signal Mountain Summit – panoramic views of the valley, Teton Range and Jackson Lake
Moose Wilson Road – wildlife spotting possibilities
Jenny Lake Scenic Drive – gorgeous lake views including the Teton Range
Grand Teton is known as a great location to see moose and bear. We spent a week at the park and didn’t see either.
Dawn and dusk are the best times to see wildlife. A few of the most popular spots for wildlife sightings are Schwabacher Landing and Moose Wilson Road. Bear or moose sightings can’t be guaranteed in Grand Teton but don’t miss these scenic spots.
Sunset at Schwabacher Landing
The access to Schwabacher Landing is via a short dirt road on the east side of Grand Teton National Park. It is a popular spot along the Snake River used by fishermen and river rafters. Around sunset, you might get lucky enough to spot a moose or bear getting a drink of water from the river. At the least, you’ll be treated to great sunset views over the river at Schwabacher Landing.
Drive Moose Wilson Road
Moose Wilson Road is an eight-mile scenic drive from Teton Village to the town of Moose, Wyoming. The road is unpaved and does close occasionally for weather or wildlife. Narrow section of the road winds through aspens forests in the southeast corner of the park. The roadside is lined with chokeberry and hawthorn bushes. It weaves through wetlands and hillsides. There are several pull-outs along the road including a designated moose habitat.
Before becoming a National Park, the Jackson area was inhabited by many homesteaders. Their homes and barns are still available to educate and entertain visitors.
A few of the most popular historic destinations at Grand Teton are:
Menors Ferry History District
Mormon Row and the T. A. Moulton Barn
Chapel of Transfiguration
Biking Grand Teton National Park
Many visitors bike from the town of Jackson to the south Jenny Lake area of the park using the multi-use paved path. We saw people parking in less busy areas and taking their bikes into the overcrowded parking areas around Jenny Lake. Bikes are a convenient way to get to Jenny Lake. It also seems like a great way to slow down and really enjoy the Teton views along Teton Park Drive.
Hiking at Grand Teton National Park
NPS rangers say that 90% of national park visitors never get more than 100 feet from their car. I am not sure the actual figures can be supported by facts but I support the premise. Many visitors breeze thru National Parks quickly and don’t get far from their car.
I understand many people don’t have much time to see a park and want to fit in as much as possible. However, you can’t fully experience Grand Teton from your car and it’s better to miss a park than try to fit too much into one trip.
You need to get out into the park to experience everything these natural spaces have to offer. We loved hiking in Grand Teton and would recommend both Hidden Falls and Taggart Lake trails for anyone with average mobility and time for a hike.
Hike Cascade Canyon
Starting at the Jenny Lake Trailhead, the Cascade Canyon hike has a few fairly quick payoffs including Hidden Falls, a 200-foot waterfall, and Inspiration Point, a viewpoint with sweeping views of the lake and surrounding areas. The trail is usually very busy especially the first mile to Inspiration Point.
Cascade Canyon trail was just over 10 miles and we started at 7 am to avoid crowds. We decided to save ourselves a few miles by taking the privately run Jenny Lake ferry to the trailhead rather than walking 2-miles around the lake. Check out this section to learn how we got a 72% discount on the Jenny Lake Ferry.
Cascade Canyon is known as a good area for wildlife including moose and bear. Other hikers told us they saw moose along the trail ahead of us but the only large wildlife we saw on the trail was an equestrian and her horse. The only wildlife we saw was a single deer feeding by the river before boarding the ferry at 7am.
By 11 am we had completed the hike and we were returning to the ferry dock, the trail was much busier than I enjoy. Even though I don’t like waking up early, I was thankful we got up early for the 7 am ferry.
The Cascade Canyon hike was very scenic and not too strenuous. The elevation flattened out after Inspiration Point and was fairly easy forest walking despite the double-digit mileage.
The return ferry wasn’t crowded for us at 11 am. But based on the number of people at Inspiration Point there are sure to be wait lines later in the day. We enjoyed lunch along the river with our tired feet soaking in the cool water before surrendering our precious Jenny Lake parking spot to one of the many waiting cars.
Other Hiking Options for Cascade Canyon
We saw several hikers continue past Cascade Canyon onto Solitude Lake for a 14 mile roundtrip day hike. But we chose to only do the 10-mile Cascade Canyon option.
People who don’t want to pay the roundtrip ferry fare, pair the one-way ferry ride with a 2-mile section of Jenny Lake Loop trail back around the lake, making the trip 12 miles total.
Hike Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point
Visitors who want a shorter hike, take the Jenny Lake ferry and only walk the first mile of the trail up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, and then ferry back. Hidden Falls is the only accessible waterfall in Grand Teton. The 200-foot falls are fed by snowmelt.
The Inspiration Point trail requires some elevation gain and some rough natural stairs, which I wouldn’t recommend for those with mobility issues. If physically able, I’d classify Hidden Falls as a can’t miss a hike in Grand Teton.
Hike Taggart Lake
Taggart Lake is one of the most popular hikes in Grand Teton National Park. From the trailhead to Taggart Lake is one and a half miles one way. The trail offers a variety ranging from streams and open meadows to aspen groves. It is a very scenic walk with a view of the Tetons along the way. We wanted some more mileage and did the Taggart Bradley Lake Loop.
The Taggart Bradley Lake hike was 6 miles and we started the hike after lunch. We lucked upon several open parking spots around 3 pm and thankfully had our hiking gear with us. Every other time we’d driven by, the lot was overflowing with cars waiting for parking spots. Taggart Lake is a popular trailhead at Grand Teton.
I had read of bear sightings on this trail within the past few days but we didn’t see any bear. We did see some fairly fresh scat. I had my head on a swivel because it felt like a bear could be around any corner or watching us from the forested area surrounding the trail. The views of the lake were nice during the hike. Our timing was perfect as an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in just as we returned to the car.
Lakes at Grand Teton
Grand Teton National Park was very pretty with several lakes. Within the park the Jenny Lake area was the busiest and the northern lakes were the least busy.
Jackson Lake is the larger lake option in Grand Teton. The Signal Mountain Marina offers pontoon rentals and the lake allows motorized boats, sailboats, water-skiing, wakeboarding, and windsurfing. We made a brief visit to the Jackson Lake Lodge and enjoyed the lake views from the back porch. The views from Jackson Dam were equally gorgeous.
The Jenny Lake area contains several smaller lakes that allow non-motorized boating. String Lake is the most popular and parking in this area is very competitive.
Jenny Lake is smaller than Jackson Lake but is incredibly gorgeous. Kayaks are available for rent at Jenny Lake.
Even if you don’t have time to get on the water, go either early in the morning or late in the day to see the lake. Drive the Jenny Lake scenic drive or even better get out of your car and walk along the edge of the lake. When the ferry stops running and the water is calm, the mountains reflect off the surface of the lake. It’s beautiful.
The Jenny Lake Ferry saves hikers the 2-mile trek around the lake and delivers them closer to some of the most popular hikes in Grand Teton. Popular hiking options from Jenny Lake include Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, Cascade Canyon, and Solitude Lake.
Jenny Lake Ferry Deal – How to get a 72% discount
The 7 am Jenny Lake ferry is $5 cash roundtrip for adults versus the $18 regular price. I was skeptical since this isn’t widely publicized but it’s true. We arrived around 6:45 am and joined others in line for the ferry. We were on the first boat but there were at least three boatloads of passengers in line by the time our boat shoved off the dock.
The early bird Jenny Lake ferry deal is legit. Arrive before 7 am to save $13 per adult on the roundtrip ferry ride. As an added bonus, you’ll have your choice of spots in the usually full Jenny Lake parking area. Finally, the trails are much more enjoyable before the hordes of visitors arrive. Save yourself some cash and headache, by arriving before 7am for the early bird Jenny Lake ferry deal.
If you aren’t interested in hiking, the ferry ride is a nice way to get a different perspective of the park from the water. However, I’d recommend renting a kayak for more time to enjoy the beautiful blue lakes of Grand Teton.
Boating at Grand Teton
The fee system for boating at Grand Teton is set up with locals in mind. It doesn’t really make financial sense for short-term visitors only planning to boat once or twice while at Grand Teton.
A boating permit is required to use any personal watercraft over 10 feet long at Grand Teton. Our two-man inflatable kayak is 12 feet long so some one-man inflatable kayaks might not require a permit.
In 2021, the non-motorized permits are $17 or $56 for motorized vessels. The permits are valid for the whole boating season in Grand Teton. Permits can be obtained at the Craig Thomas or Colter Bay park visitor centers or on recreation.gov. Online orders are mailed so allow at least two weeks for delivery.
Additionally, all watercraft must be inspected for invasive mussels before launching. To get an inspection, Wyoming requires a boat inspection permit which is very affordable for residents. It only costs WY residents $5 (non-motorized vessels) or $10 (motorized vessels) for a year. However, rates are triple for non-WY residents. We paid $15 for our inspection permit and then we were required to get an inspection before each launch. It was an expensive hassle.
We really enjoyed kayaking at Grand Teton but next time we’d either rent kayaks to avoid the permitting fees, enjoy a shore-based lake day, or just float the Snake River. Rental boats are available at both Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake.
Kayak String Lake
The String Lake parking area is fairly large but it was full when we arrived midday during the week in July. There was a ranger letting one car in when one left. The line of waiting cars was about 10 deep when we spotted someone leaving nearby and quickly took their spot a little farther from the lake.
Our two-man inflatable kayak is fairly lightweight so we didn’t mind carrying it a few extra hundred feet to get to the water’s edge at String Lake.
String Lake was small but had many sandy beaches. Families were set up for the day with chairs, tents and tables in every available spot.
String Lake is the shallowest lake in Grand Teton park which naturally makes it the warmest water. Even on a warm July day, the water was only in the high 60s. It was too cold for me to swim. But people were on floats, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, and even just frolicking in the water. String Lake was a popular spot.
Despite being crowded, kayaking String Lake was a really nice thing to do at Grand Teton. We even saw a bald eagle fishing for dinner on our return trip.
Kayak Leigh Lake
After enjoying String Lake, I was surprised to see the number of boaters leaving and making the journey to Leigh Lake. I didn’t think many people would be willing to portage (carry their boats) from String Lake the quarter-mile path to Leigh Lake. We saw families with camping gear in their canoes headed to Leigh Lake’s waterfront backcountry campsites.
Once we got to Leigh Lake, we understood why people were willing to go through the extra effort. The lake was much larger and fairly remote (not accessible by car) with amazing views of the mountains over the lake. It was the experience of being in Grand Teton without all of the crowds.
We met a few locals who hiked to Leigh Lake with their pool floats and beach towels. The 1.8-mile one-way walk seems like an easier option than finding parking at String Lake and paddling to Leigh Lake.
Fly Fishing at Grand Teton
Fly fishing is very popular in Wyoming. We saw several people each day trying their luck in the rivers. Wyoming fishing licenses are required and most areas require catch and release. Additionally, as with boating permits, non-resident fishing permits are substantially more expensive than resident permits. Daily, weekly and annual permits are available if you can’t miss the opportunity to fish at Grand Teton.
Free Camping Near Grand Teton National Park
Based on the NPS website, Grand Teton campgrounds were operating on a first come first serve basis. Also, campsites were filling before 8 am so we decided to head to a nearby BLM dispersed camping spot called Lower Teton Views.
Dispersed camping is a great option in Grand Teton if you can’t arrive before 9 am and will miss the time window for getting a coveted first come first served campsite. To find free dispersed camping sites, we use Campendium, iOverlander, and FreeRoam.
Camping at Lower Teton Views
Due to overcrowding in the area, the National Forest Service limits camping at Lower Teton Views to 5 days. The spot is less than a mile from the park border and was very crowded.
We parked between two other similar-sized motorhomes in a dirt lot at the bottom of the area with a view of the Tetons from our dining room.
The upper section of the BLM area had about 20 designated campsites with unobstructed views of the mountains but they were constantly full during our stay.
The dirt lot was not intended as a campsite but since we were not impacting vegetation, we were allowed to stay. Park rangers were concerned with the stay limit and visited regularly to enforce the rules.
The road was so rough leading into Lower Teton View that one of Pippi’s slides slid out about a half-inch along the ride up. Luckily nothing was permanently damaged on the rocky, potholed road. We saw many people drive in near sunset for the night and leave near sunrise each day to explore the park.
We took full advantage and stayed for five days at the free campsite at Lower Teton View before relocating to Gros Ventre campground inside Grand Teton National Park for two more nights.
Camping at Grand Teton
Grand Teton National Park has several campground options. But at the time of our visit they were all either fully booked or the first-come sites were filling before lunch. Campgrounds near Grand Teton are:
Headwaters Campground & RV Sites
Lizard Creek Campground
Colter Bay Campground
Colter Bay RV Park
Signal Mountain Campground
Jenny Lake Campground (tent only)
Gros Ventre Campground
In addition to five free nights at Lower Teton view, we also stayed at Gros Ventre campground for two nights. The camp host at Gros Ventre told us the first come first serve park always had vacancies in prior years. But in the summer of 2020, the park was filling up before lunch each day. We arrived at Gros Ventre around 8:30 am and were able to secure a spot. If you can’t arrive before 9 am, you may miss getting a first come first served Grand Teton campsite for the night.
Summary Grand Teton National Park
We loved the week we spent at Grand Teton National Park. The snow-capped Grand Teton Mountain Range is visible from numerous spots and we found the views mesmerizing. We hope our comprehensive Grand Teton guide helps you find all of the can’t miss spots on your first visit.