Beginner’s guide to Grand Teton National Park

I remember seeing Grand Teton in a textbook as a kid. The image of the super rugged but also beautiful snow-capped mountains was so striking. The Tetons seemed like they were on another planet that I’d probably never get to. I think eight-year-old me would be pretty excited to know that I finally did get there two decades later.

But three days were not enough! Okay, it was wonderful and amazing and a blast, but I wanted to stay longer and/or come back immediately. Here’s how we spent three days in Grand Teton, plus what I would do differently. (Don’t forget to add on a visit to Yellowstone National Park)

The best time to visit Grand Teton

Hands down, September. My partner and I arrived September 12 to significantly less crowds, sunny and 70 weather, and the leaves starting to change. It was chilly overnight (high 30s), don’t get me wrong, but totally doable to camp with warm clothes and a decent sleeping bag.

Where to stay

We camped at Signal Mountain Campground because it’s the most centrally located. We were originally disappointed that Jenny Lake was closed due to construction for most of 2018, but once we actually visited Jenny Lake we were so glad we weren’t camping there. It’s SUCH a popular area that it felt super crowded and a little touristy (yes, I realize I’m *also* a tourist). Signal Mountain felt much quieter and laid back. I wrote a full guide for Signal Mountain Campground that you can find here.

We splurged (it was our anniversary) on a private cabin at the Signal Mountain Lodge for the last night of our stay. The cabin was an awesome combination of staying somewhere that felt cool and outdoorsy…but also having a ballin’ hot shower. If it’s in your budget, I highly recommend it.

The closest town is Jackson. It’s nice, but pricey. If you’re going to spend all that money on a hotel, you might as well stay at one of the lodges in the park.

Our three-day itinerary

We could have easily spent an entire week there exploring. There are tons of beginner-friendly options (and you know they’re beginner-friendly because I had altitude sickness the first few days we were there!).

Day 1

Taggart Lake Trail (option to add Bradley Lake): This 3.3-mile round trip hike has ridiculous views of the Tetons themselves without any super steep hills. Because of that, it’s a popular option. We got there mid-morning in September and the parking lot was juuust about full (another great reason to visit in the fall). We didn’t feel overly crowded on the trail or at the lake, and I preferred having some company because I was really freaked out about bears.

teal-colored water reflects the bright blue sky on a lake surrounded by rugged mountains and evergreen trees
The view from Taggart Lake

You have the option to add on a 2.5-mile loop to Bradley Lake, which was beautiful but a little more steep and much more quiet, which at times made me nervous. I should note we saw literally zero bears on any hike, probably because I insisted on making so much noise to ward them off.

Sunset on Jackson Lake: From the south side of Loop 3 of the Signal Mountain Campground, there’s a short trail that takes you down to a beach on Jackson Lake. It’s about a 10-minute walk, and easy enough to drag a camping chair with you to watch the sunset behind the Tetons.

Day 2

Canoe on Jackson Lake: My legs were quite tired after our Taggart-Bradley Lake hike, so we took a day off of hiking to get out on the water. My arm strength is mediocre at best, and canoeing was still really fun. You can rent a canoe at the dock behind Signal Mountain Lodge for $25/hour. Being out on the water gives you a whole new, incredibly cool view of the mountains. Make sure to bring a sweatshirt and sunglasses!

woman canoeing on Jackson Lake in Grand Teton park. The lake lays out ahead of her, bordered by the Grand Tetons under a bright blue sky.

Dinner in Jackson: Jackson is a fun little mountain town that definitely warrants a visit while you’re in Grand Teton. We had some fantastic tapas and wine at Bin22 before walking around town to take in the sights. Don’t miss the photo op with the antlers at the town square!

Evening Wildlife Watching: Bonus of being in Jackson in the evening? Driving back at dusk is the BEST wildlife watching time. We took the scenic route back on Moose-Wilson Road. The name absolutely delivered with some amazing moose sightings, plus we saw pronghorn, mule deer, and a HUGE bull elk with his harem of ladies all on the drive back to the campground.

Day 3

Flightseeing with Fly Jackson Hole: Originally, we were supposed to do this after dinner on day two, but the weather had other plans! This was also a splurge since it was our anniversary, and totally worth it. Sunrise was beautiful, our pilot was super knowledgeable, and the views were unforgettable. Flying in a little tiny plane also wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I felt very safe with our pilot and the flight wasn’t bumpy at all.

an aerial view from a flightseeing plan of Grand Teton National Park. the park's biggest lakes and evergreen forests stretch out in front of the rugged mountain range in the early morning light
Grand Teton from the air

Mormon Row: We did a drive-by of Mormon Row, which was all I needed. My partner is a little bit more of a history buff and I think he might have liked to walk around and look at more of the buildings. We accidentally continued on 191 instead of getting back on the main park road, but that turned out to be a really beautiful drive with lots of great overlooks.

Hidden Falls and Cascade Canyon: Cascade Canyon is a very long backpacking trail (12 miles total) from the opposite side of Jenny Lake, but since it’s an out-and-back, you can just turnaround whenever you get tired. This hike was really high on our list because of all the rave reviews we saw, but due to construction in Fall 2018, a short hike wasn’t possible. The bypass alone was going be to several miles, so if you don’t want to do at least five miles of hiking round trip, I would recommend skipping this area altogether until construction is complete. The ferry ride across Jenny Lake was fun, but the trails are PACKED.

Jenny Lake Loop: We decided to hike back from the ferry drop-off around the west side of the Jenny Lake Loop, about two miles back to the South Jenny Lake parking lot. There are beautiful views, but it was so crowded it was hard to enjoy them because you’re constantly letting people by you on the trail or stuck behind people slower than you. The rangers at the visitors center were, however, fantastic. And it has great souvenirs!

a man stands in front of a large mountain lake, framed by evergreen trees and a bright blue, cloudless sky jenny lake hiking grand teton national park
The view from just around the corner from the visitors center. Just walk there from the visitors center to take it in instead of messing with the ferry and crowded hike back.

Moose Ponds Loop: In an attempt to escape the crowds, we added on the approximately one-mile total Moose Ponds Loop as we were hiking around Jenny Lake. Huge mistake. The second half of the loop is just wandering around in a sea of tall, dead grass. You end up walking by the road. It got SUPER hot and there was no shade.

Dinner at Signal Mountain Lodge: For our last night in Teton, we had our anniversary dinner at the lodge. Both restaurants had surprisingly good food and just incredible views looking out over Jackson Lake, and the nicer of the two options was also delicious without being horrifically over-priced. Plus, I’ve always wanted to go to a nice restaurant where it’s also totally acceptable to be in hiking clothes. The dream!

What I would do differently

First, stay longer! There were a ton of other hikes that looked really interesting, including Phelps Lake.

I also would’ve just hit the visitors center at Jenny Lake to get some intel from rangers and then not come back to the area to avoid crowds. Unless…I was prepared to get into a longer hike to Cascade Canyon. My legs were really tired from Taggart Lake, so I would’ve started with a big day to Cascade and then taken it easy with the other hikes.

Technically, we missed the actual sunset on Jackson Lake our first night. I was in an anxiety spiral about our nonstick pan that was now not nonstick. I was determined to make dinner in it, even though it wasn’t working because everything was just sticking to the pan and nothing was cooking.

Billy was totally willing to help clean or just chuck the pan in the car and forget about it, but I got obsessed with the pan not working and took too long so we missed sunset. So, yeah, take a deep breath and let it go so you can make it to sunset!

Panic attacks aside, Grand Teton was one of my favorite national parks. Yellowstone is amazing for Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Lamar Valley, and other iconic sites, but I would go back to Teton again and again. Leave any questions in the comments section – I’m all too happy to relive the trip and help you out.

Just *after* sunset but still pretty

Published by Laura Cardon

Laura Cardon moved to Colorado as an adult and quickly realized how difficult it was to get started exploring the outdoors in a state full of experts. She founded Outdoor Beginner in 2014 to fill the gap in beginner-friendly content for camping, hiking, skiing, and other outdoor activities. In addition to Outdoor Beginner, she coaches beginner trail runners and works at Runners Roost in Golden, Colorado, where she lives with her spouse and toddler.

9 thoughts on “Beginner’s guide to Grand Teton National Park

    1. Thank you!! I won’t ever forget the view from the air – such a cool experience and a worthy splurge. Sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you, Raastha!

  1. We took a float trip on the Snake River and loved it. No scary rapids, but a strong enough current to make it fun and gorgeous views. My husband was unduly concerned about getting wet but he ended up loving it and taking credit for the idea. If you prefer a little more adventure, there are other boat trips that will deliver all of the excitement that you want..

    Another great blog, Laura! I enjoy them so much.

  2. Another activity to try – rent bikes or ebikes and ride the path that goes from north of Jackson to past Jenny Lake.

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