It’s true, Grand Teton is much more amenable to auto touring than Yellowstone: Park roads connect many attractions, and it’s a much more manageable size. But as jaw-dropping as the views of the Teton peaks are from the roads, the park’s most stunning scenery is in its backcountry. Sticking purely to the car would mean missing out on that unique Teton magic. You need at least 2 days, and preferably 3, to do this park up right. Save 1 day for a longer hike or paddling trip, 1 for lounging and exploring at Jenny Lake, and 1 for checking out Jackson Lake or hitting up off-the-beaten-path historic sites and viewpoints.
This section kicks off at the northern end of the park, but you could just as easily start exploring from the southern end near Jackson. From Jackson, it’s about 13 miles to the Moose Entrance Station, then another 8 miles to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, another 12 miles to the Jackson Lake Junction, and 5 more miles to Colter Bay.
Jackson Lake & the North End of the Park
Technically, Yellowstone and Grand Teton don’t border each other; they’re separated by a sliver of federal land called the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway. As you head south from Yellowstone, you’ll cover 8 miles of this forested preserve—watch for blackened trunks from the Berry Fire, which forced the evacuation of Flagg Ranch in 2016 but thankfully didn’t damage the structures. The Flagg Ranch hub has lodging, dining, camping, gas, and a general store. The other important feature here is Grassy Lake Road, a remote road granting access to some of the Tetons’ wildest, least crowded canyons and free primitive campsites.
The road crosses into Grand Teton National Park and quickly hugs the eastern shoreline of Jackson Lake ★. Glaciers gouged out its 400-foot-deep lakebed 10,000 years ago, and melting glacial ice filled it to form the park’s largest lake. Though it is a natural waterway, the construction of Jackson Lake Dam (finished in 1916, before Grand Teton was a protected park) to provide irrigation for farmers in Idaho’s Snake River Valley raised the lake 39 feet. The Snake River pours into its northern tip, then exits east of the dam. Today, Jackson Lake is the place for sailing, powerboating, windsurfing, waterskiing, and paddling—and swimming, if you’re brave enough to face the, er, brisk water.
After passing the Lizard Creek Campground (a good bet for late arrivals), a few pullouts, and picnic areas (Lakeview Picnic Area, with its sandy beach and aspen groves, is especially nice), you’ll come to Leeks Marina. You can launch your own boats here, but no rentals are available. There’s a casual pizza and ice cream joint open in the summer.
The busiest outpost on the north side, Colter Bay Village, is just south. Get oriented at the Colter Bay Visitor Center ([tel] 307/739-3594), most notable for its free Indian Arts Gallery ★. Visiting Native American artists display and sell their handiwork during the summer. You’ll also find an auditorium showing park programs, an info desk, and a bookstore. Water lovers will appreciate the swimming beach and marina here; rent a kayak, canoe, or powerboat or sign up for a boat cruise or guided fishing outing. A general store stocks groceries. On the hiking front, Hermitage Point trail connects Colter Bay to a network of trails through sagebrush meadows and lodgepole forests near the lakeshore. Looking to stay the night? Your options include cabins, an RV park, and Colter Bay Campground.
Continuing south, the next major attraction is the stately Jackson Lake Lodge, a National Historic Landmark with a picture-perfect view of Jackson Lake and the Teton peaks. Even if you’re not staying here, swing by to check it out. The upscale lobby, with its 60-foot windows framing Mount Moran and the Cathedral Group and cozy fireplaces, makes a wonderful spot for coffee or a cocktail. Several restaurants line the lobby, including the fancy Mural Room with its historic namesake paintings, and boutiques round out the offerings. This area is also the jumping-off point for some excellent, lesser-traveled trails in the park’s northeast region. Circle Christian Pond on an easy, 3.3-mile loop, or connect to the longer trails around Emma Matilda and Two Ocean Lakes. You can also hike (or drive) to the Willow Flats Overlook, a beautiful spot to scope for moose—especially in the fall, when the abundant willow bushes turn gold.
Just beyond, you’ll hit Jackson Lake Junction. Turning east brings you to the Moran entrance and an alternate access point to Emma Matilda and Two Ocean Lakes. Going south from there traces the Snake River along U.S. 26/89/191 on the eastern edge of the park. But doing so would skip far too many inner-park sights, so turn right to follow Teton Park Road. You’ll cross Jackson Lake Dam and soon reach the resplendent log church, Chapel of the Sacred Heart ★. If you’re religious, the 1930s-era Catholic chapel holds services from June to September; if not, the church’s rustic architecture is worth a look, and it’s a peaceful place for a lakeside picnic.
Press on south to reach the hub of Jackson Lake’s south side, Signal Mountain. The lake side of this junction holds a lodge, a couple of restaurants, a gas station, a general store with surprisingly healthy snack options, and the Signal Mountain Campground. Park concessionaire Forever Resorts also runs guided fishing trips and rents boats (powerboats, canoes, and kayaks) from the marina here. Across the street, Signal Mountain Road winds up the side of 7,727-foot Signal Mountain ★. Don’t miss this short detour to drink in views of the lake and the shockingly vertical Tetons to the distant Absarokas, Gros Ventre, and Yellowstone Plateau, all the way across Jackson Hole. About 3 miles from the base of the hill, before you reach the summit, a paved path leads to Jackson Point Overlook, the spot where photographer William Henry Jackson shot his famous landscapes of Jackson Lake and the Tetons in the 1870s.
Looking for a hideaway? On the right (west) side of the road between Signal Mountain and North Jenny Lake Junction, approximately 2 miles south of the Mount Moran turnout, is an unmarked, unpaved road leading to Spalding Bay. It’s a sheltered little backcountry camping area and boat launch area with a primitive restroom. It’s a great place to be alone with spectacular views of the lake and mountains. If you decide to camp, a first-come, first-served backcountry permit is required (even though it’s accessible by road). An automobile or SUV will have no problem with this road, but speed had better not be of the essence to you. Passing through brush and forest, you might just spot a moose.
Jenny Lake & the South End of the Park
Driving in the Tetons is like starring in your own car commercial—all winding roads looping beneath super-scenic peaks—and nowhere is that more true than the Jenny Lake area. At North Jenny Lake Junction, turn right to access a one-way drive skirting the trailheads for Leigh and String Lakes, two mountain-ringed lakes that make top-notch day hikes. Continue past Jenny Lake Lodge to trace the northeast shore of Jenny Lake ★★. Named for a Shoshone woman married to a prominent 1870s mountain guide, this bucolic lake tucked between Teewinot and Rockchuck Peak has been a favorite travelers’ destination since the early 1900s.
The scenic drive pops you back out on Teton Park Road just north of the bustling South Jenny Lake Junction. Here you’ll find the newly remodeled Jenny Lake Visitor Center (slated to open in 2018), a general store, a backcountry office—and very limited parking, so arrive early if you don’t want to circle the lots. The park’s best campground, Jenny Lake Campground, is also here; show up first thing in the morning for the best chance at a site. This is a spot for (somewhat polar-bear) swimming, boating, fishing, and hiking. The flat, 6.8-mile Jenny Lake Trail circles the lake, or you can hike it partway to reach Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. Or take the Jenny Lake Boating (tel. 307/734-9227; www.jennylakeboating.com) shuttle straight across the lake to the Cascade Canyon trailhead; round trips cost $15 for adults and $8 for children.
Farther south, the Teton Glacier Turnout gives you a peek at one of the few park glaciers visible from the road. Teton Glacier grew for several hundred years until, pressured by the increasing summer temperatures of the past century, it reversed course and began retreating. Just beyond that is the turnoff to Climber’s Ranch, a dorm-style lodge run by the American Alpine Club (tel. 307/733-7271; www.americanalpineclub.org/grand-teton-climbers-ranch). It caters to climbers staging attempts on the Teton’s most prized peaks, but anyone can bunk here for $25 night ($16 club members); it’s one of the best lodging deals for miles around. Another stone’s throw beyond that, the Taggart Lake Trail leads to a beautiful tarn at the foot of Avalanche Canyon.
If you’re curious about what life was like in Jackson Hole before it became the recreation mecca/glitterati hotspot it is today, stop at the next attraction down the road: Menors Ferry Historic District ★. Homesteader Bill Menor operated a simple ferry across the Snake River and a general store here in the 1890s and early 1900s, and today you can see reconstructed versions of both. The general store is half historic exhibit, half actual store selling local honey and jam; there’s also a smokehouse, icehouse, and 1917 cabin furnished in pioneer style. Nearby, the 1925 log Chapel of the Transfiguration ★ is a sought-after wedding venue; Episcopal services are still held on summer Sundays.
By now you’ve reached Moose, the southernmost entrance to the park. The Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center offers a treasure trove of info on the area’s human history, ecology, wildlife, and geology: Check out historic wagons and Native American arrows, watch the park movie, and peruse the wall dedicated to the development of modern mountaineering, or just pick up maps and chat with rangers. Just across the road you’ll find Dornan’s, a complex with lodging, restaurants, a grocery store, gift shop, wine shop, and places to buy fishing and climbing gear or rent kayaks.
The East Side of the Park
The 18-mile outer park road, U.S. 26/89/191, is usually a faster trip through the park, and it grants panoramic views of the Tetons from its more removed vantage point. But if you’re coming up to the park from Jackson, consider turning east at Gros Ventre Junction, just south of the airport, instead of beelining north. The less-busy Gros Ventre Campground’s sites line the river of the same name, just north of that is Mormon Row ★. Mormon settlers from Utah homesteaded here in the 1890s, and a couple of quaint old barns still stand imposingly in front of the Teton tableau.
For an interesting side trip, continue east on Gros Ventre Road past the tiny town of Kelly into the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In 1925, a mile-wide slab of Sheep Mountain broke free and poured into the canyon, blocking the Gros Ventre River with 50 million cubic yards of rock and debris. The landslide dammed the river and formed Lower Slide Lake, but the dam failed in spring rains 2 years later and flooded Kelly almost into nonexistence. Interpretive signs at the site point out remnants of these geologic events.
Otherwise, Antelope Flats Road will take you back to the highway. Less than a mile down U.S. 26/89/191, on the left, Blacktail Ponds Overlook offers an opportunity to see how beavers build dams and the effect these hard-working creatures have on the flow of the streams. Two miles farther along U.S. 26/89/191, you’ll reach the Glacier View Turnout, which offers views of an area that 140,000 to 160,000 years ago was filled with a 4,000-foot-thick glacier. Then Schwabacher Road gives you your first access to the Snake River: Drive the 1-mile dirt road to Lower Schwabacher Landing to launch a raft, try your hand at fly-fishing, or just enjoy the view of the peaks reflected in the Snake. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, osprey, moose, beavers, and river otters.
The Snake River Overlook ★, approximately 4 miles down the road beyond the Glacier View Turnout, is the most famous view of the Teton Range and the Snake River, immortalized by Ansel Adams. From this overlook, you’ll also see at least 3 separate, distinctive 200-foot-high plateaus that roll from the riverbed to the valley floor, a vivid portrayal of the power of the glaciers and ice floes that sculpted this area. In the early 1800s, this was a prime hunting ground for John Jacob Astor’s Pacific Fur Company and a certain David E. Jackson, for whom the lake and valley are named. But by 1840, the popularity of silk hats had put an end to fur trapping, and the hunters disappeared. Good thing—by the time they departed, the beaver population was almost decimated.
A half-mile north of the Snake River Overlook is the paved but steep road (a 19 percent grade) to Deadman’s Bar, a peaceful clearing on the river. Back in 1886, the unsolved murders of three gold miners gave this spot its morbid name.
History lovers will also appreciate Cunningham Cabin Historic Site just up the road. The 1888 cabin built by ranchers John and Margaret Cunningham is fairly nondescript, but it’s one of the few remaining buildings left from the homesteading era, and the .8-mile (one-way) hike across sage flats to reach it gives excellent Teton peak views and a great shot at seeing bison.
Once you hit Moran Junction, turn west to rejoin the inner park road. You’ll pass Pacific Creek Road, an alternate access point to trails to Emma Matilda and Two Ocean lakes, and the Oxbow Bend Turnout ★, a gorgeous, marshy site along the Snake River where moose and waterfowl roam.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.