A First-Timer's Guide to Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park

TripSavvy / Alisha McDarris

There are few parks in the country as dramatically perfect as Grand Teton National Park. What do we mean by perfect, exactly? The thing is, this spectacular slice of land—jagged granite peaks rising steeply from Jackson Hole Valley, with golden-green grasses in all directions—feels like it was tailor-made to be a national park. It’s pure geological drama, and it’s all waiting for you to explore.  

Grand Teton National Park: An Overview

Established in 1929 as a National Park by President Calvin Coolidge, Grand Teton sprawls across 96,000 acres—it includes the spiky, towering Tetons, six glacial lakes, the flowing Snake River, and the sweeping valley below. The park gets its name from the French trappers who came through the region in the early 19th century, while the earliest evidence of indigenous peoples in the area dates back more than 10,000 years, and the park is located on Shoshone, Blackfoot, Bannock, Gros Ventre, Flathead, and Nez Perce land. Astoundingly, the Tetons themselves have been around for as long as 10 million years, by some estimates. And today, millions of visitors come here every year to take advantage of the natural splendor that’s inspired people for centuries. 

One of the best things about Grand Teton is how accessible it is, and how easily you can customize your experience according to your version of outdoorsy fun. You can hike to backcountry lakes, float the Snake, watch for wildlife from your car, climb “the Grand” (the highest peak in the park, at 13,775 feet), picnic in peaceful alpine meadows, and go on a boat cruise or guided fishing trip—truly, there are trails and activities for all skill levels and preferences here.     

The visitor centers are Craig Thomas, Jenny Lake, Laurence S. Rockefeller, and Colter Bay. Not all the centers stay open throughout the entire year (see here for a list of hours and closures). While the park does welcome visitors on a year-round basis, and there are outdoor activities to enjoy no matter the season, the shift from summer to winter is striking. 

Weather Conditions and Best Time to Go

From mid-April to June, days are mild and nights are cool in Grand Teton, and snow and rain are fairly common—in fact, the valley trails are typically still covered in snow well into late May. Beginning in July and August, daytime temperatures start to climb into the 70s and 80s, with cool nights and frequent afternoon thunderstorms. In September, temperatures start to dip down to the 60s during the day, and into the 30s and 40s at night. 

The winters in Jackson Hole are long, cold, and rough. According to the National Parks Service site: “The first heavy snows fall by November 1 and continues through April; snow and frost are possible during any month.” Thus, the best time to visit the park is from mid-May to mid-September, when the weather is tolerable, and all the visitor centers, trails, and other park activities are open.

No matter what time of year you go, you should plan on dressing warmly: as in, gloves and mittens (yes, even in summer), sweaters, and wool socks. And, be sure to bring (lots and lots of) layers. 

How to Get There

Grand Teton National Park is located in northwestern Wyoming, north of the town of Jackson. It’s also just south of Yellowstone National Park. The closest airports to the park are Jackson Hole Airport and Jackson, Wyoming (JAC), followed by Idaho Falls Regional Airport, Idaho Falls, Idaho (IDA), and Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC). There are three major entrances to the park: the south entrance along US Highway 26/89/191, the east entrance at Moran Junction along US Highway 26/287, and the southwest entrance (Granite Canyon). 

Where to Stay: From Camping to Glamping to Lodging 

Most campsites in Grand Teton are first-come, first-served, and campgrounds typically fill (rather quickly) in this order: Jenny Lake, Signal Mountain, Colter Bay, Headwaters, Gros Ventre, and Lizard Creek. You’ll want to arrive as early as possible (see "Tips for First-Time Visitors" below for more info on this) to ensure that you get a spot. If the campgrounds are full, the NPS recommends contacting the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce for more info on private campgrounds in the area. Dispersed camping is also available at Curtis Canyon Campground near the town of Jackson, as well as Shadow Mountain Campground across Highway 191 from the park. (You do need to have a high-clearance vehicle to be able to access both of these.)

Not up for sleeping on the ground? Signal Mountain Lodge has several cabins with picturesque views of Jackson Lake, and Jackson offers plenty of five-star lodging and glamping options, if that’s more your speed. Select the “Glamping” option on Hipcamp when searching for sites in and around Jackson, for listings of vintage trailers, teepees, and cabins in the area. The Chamber of Commerce also has info on all the lodges, boutique hotels, and B&Bs in town. 

What to Do

Let’s go down the list of all the can’t-miss experiences of the park—of which there are several. Wildlife fans will undoubtedly want to check out the southeastern corner, where you’re apt to see all sorts of critters: At Schwabacher Landing on the Snake River, you may peep otters, moose, and beaver; and on the north side of the river, keep an eye out for the bison, elk, and antelope that congregate here. Oxbow Bend, Timbered Island, and Antelope Flats Road are all great wildlife-watching spots, as well, especially at dawn and dusk.

Despite the park’s small size (just 26 miles wide and 45 miles long), the landscape is teeming with wildlife—in addition to the animals already listed, grizzlies, black bears, mountain lions, wolves, marmots, muskrats, and dozens of other creatures call Grand Teton home. (Just remember: It’s important to appreciate the wildlife here at a distance. The National Parks site has awesome tips for how to be a responsible wildlife observer.)

The Tetons are popular with seasoned climbers, skiers, and snowboarders from all over the world. As far as hiking goes, park highlights include Cascade Canyon, a family-friendly 9-mile round-trip trail that starts with a lovely boat ride across Jenny Lake, then takes you through the lush forests and roaring waterfalls of the canyon. Death Canyon is a little more under-the-radar (Cascade Canyon is packed in the summertime), and offers a great introduction to the park’s geology. The hike to Amphitheater/Delta Lake may be a tough climb (3,000 feet of elevation gain, in total), but the views—pristine alpine waters rimmed by Middle Teton, Disappointment Peak, Grand Teton, Mount Owen, and Teewinot Mountain—are well worth it. And the 40-mile Teton Crest Trail is an iconic backpacking route, if you’re looking to do a longer trek. (Take a look at all the hikes in the park here.)

And lastly, for those itching to get on the water (and who wouldn’t, once you see those shimmering alpine lakes?), Jackson Lake is the water sports highlight of Grand Teton. Other aquatic must-dos include floating the Snake River and paddling around the impossibly scenic Leigh Lake. Check out Jackson Lake Boat Rentals and Jenny Lake Boating at Signal Mountain Lodge for more info on boat rentals in the park.   

Tips for First-Time Visitors

  • Get there as early as possible. We cannot stress this point highly enough. If you want to get a campsite and have the best experience possible, it’s crucial to get to the park early. We’re talking 5 a.m., not 10 a.m. The earlier you arrive, the better—on a summer weekend (and even during the week), the most popular campgrounds (Signal Mountain and Jenny Lake) fill up by 8 a.m., and the other campgrounds typically fill by late morning/early afternoon. Get. Up. Early.
  • Prepare for bear country. Happily, grizzly bears and black bears thrive at Grand Teton. This means that you’ll need to learn how to coexist peacefully with these beautiful creatures, aka, learn how to avoid encounters with them entirely—it’s definitely not uncommon to come across bears on even the most popular trails in the park, in which case, knowing how to react is key; we recommend checking out the National Parks site for more info on that. The most important thing to remember is that bears will almost always get out of the way if they hear you approaching, so while hiking, you should make every effort to be noticeable (either by talking, singing, or making any kind of noise, from time to time). And when you’re at your campsite, it’s extremely important to properly store food, drinks, and garbage (basically anything food-related, including cookware) in the bear-resistant locker at your site. And in case this wasn’t already abundantly clear: never feed bears (or any wildlife for that matter). 
  • Stop and enjoy the view. In a park as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Grand Teton, it’s no surprise that there’s an abundance of scenic viewpoints to check out. As mentioned, Schwabacher Landing and the Snake River Overlook are two of the most popular viewpoints, for good reason. Add to the list the Jenny Lake Overlook, along the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, and Moose-Wilson Road, which offers excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife from your car. 
  • Give yourself the gift of time. Many people who go to Grand Teton make the mistake of spending just a night or two here, in favor of spending more time at nearby Yellowstone National Park. And while we’re certainly not knocking majestic Yellowstone, we are advocating that you spend at least three or four days in Grand Teton, if you’re able to—there are so many adventures to be had here; ideally, you’d have at least a week to drink them all in.
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