How I pick a hike from hundreds of scenic miles!
It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of trails and hiking options when visiting a national park, and Grand Teton is no different. With over 200 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to expert and seven major summits, the options seem limitless. This is my quick guide to picking a trail you will love!
Knowing how to pick a trail.
Unlike many of the other parks in the US the Tetons while offering a massive number of trails, only offers a handful of easy and beginner trails. Of these easy trails most are heavily trafficked and very crowded, likely leaving you frustrated and overwhelmed. Not the scenic getaway anyone is looking for.
When picking your perfect mountain trail I think it is important to keep in mind a few key things. Skill level, distance, altitude acclimation, comfort with wildlife and weather, and probably the most important what you want to see!
Let's start with skill level.
In my book skill level looks specifically at how well you can handle terrain and technical situations on the trail. Are you comfortable on loose rock and skree or perhaps you want something easier like a gravel path. Having a good idea of your true skill level will help you narrow down trails and pick something that will leave you feeling satisfied but safe!
I would put myself into the highend of a moderate skill. You won't find me rock climbing cliffs, but you will find me climbing across rock fields at 14,000 feet, trekking through forest and doing the occasional water crossing as needed. I have met countless people far more and far less skilled than I, it is important you know your own skill level so you can stay safe on the trail.
Knowing how far you can safely go, so you don’t get hurt or worse stuck. Walking 3 miles on flat ground is not the same as hiking up a steep trail. Be realistic about what you can handle so you don’t end up wearing yourself out along the way.
Because of a hip injury from over hiking last summer, lesson learned! I know that right now I can safely do hikes in the 6-7 mile range. Much more than that and the pain starts to set in. Knowing this limitation means I can pick trails that will suit me, offer a little room for a challenge but most importantly keep me feeling good so I can get out and do multiple hikes throughout the week.
Honestly I never knew altitude sickness was a thing until moving to Colorado, and it is worth talking about! Altitude sickness can ruin your week, and leave you sitting in the parking lot with a headache and a lot of frustration. The Grand Teton Valley comes in around 6,200 feet in elevation, that is a huge jump from someone coming from sea level, luckily coming from Denver its less so. It is important to look for and understand the physical side effects altitude can have of the body. From mild headaches, to dizziness and disorientation - not something you want to experience while hiking on a rocky trail - altitude sickness can kick your butt and ruin your week. Check out WebMDs page on Altitude Sickness for Signs and Treatments.
Wildlife and Weather
Easily the most dangerous part of any outing is wildlife and weather. Being prepared to handle both can make your hike one that is safe and fun. While I could write an entire post on reading changing weather on rocky peaks, it comes down to looking at the forecast and paying attention. Big mountains make their own microclimates, meaning big storms can pop up out of perfectly clear skies. It is important you start your day with a peak at the weather, should you bring a rain jacket to help you stay warm and dry or an extra lay to keep the sun off? Is there a chance of thunderstorms, if so when, where and how bad. More importantly pay attention, is the sky starting to get dark, is the wind picking up, can you hear the distant rumble of thunder? If the answer yes it is time to head home, completing a trail isn’t worth getting trapped in a storm, or worse getting struck by lightning, pelted by hail, or fighting hurricane force winds. Generally in the peak of summer, afternoon storms will start to build around 2PM, be mindful of the forecast and start early if needed.
And we can't forget about wildlife. You hear about bears all the time but do you have the tools and techniques needed to stay safe? Animals on the trail can be common especially on wooded paths that are less traveled. Here are the 3 basics I have learned from time one the trail and from the lovely rangers I have met along the way.
1. Make noise! You may hear the echo of “Hey Bear!” of hikers ahead, it’s not a greeting it’s a warning, an attempt to scare off any animals that maybe around. Animals are more likely to attack when startled; playing music, talking with fellows hikers, signing to yourself, clapping and yelling out Hey Bear! can help warn animals you are coming and give them a chance to get away.
2. Don’t go alone. If possible hike in a group of 3 or more. Going alone? Pick a more heavily trafficked trail. The more people the less likely mama bear and her babies will come around a corner.
3. Know the Animals and be Prepared. Knowing what kind of animals you may encounter on the trail and how to safely manage an encounter can be a lifesaver. Want to learn more about wildlife and how to use things like Bear Spray? Talk to the rangers, they are there to help keep you and the animals safe, and are happy to help you and answer any questions you have. They can tell you about recent sightings, what kinds of animals to expect, what a safe distance is and how to react depending on what you see.
Now that we know that we have all the safety parts of picking your perfect trail out lets talk about the fun parts!
Let's be real, if you are going on a hike somewhere like Grand Teton National Park you are probably on the hunt for epic views! As a lover of landscape photography views are usually at the top of my list. So how do a pick a hike that meets my safety and skill criteria but all gets me some stunning views? I head to AllTrails.
AllTrails is the perfect place to look at hikes others have done, see the length, skill level, get a good idea of trail conditions, even check out photos from the hike. This is where I usually spend a fair amount of my planning time. Comparing camping locations with weather projections I will pick a handful of hikes that I think will be a perfect fit for my trip, but I always try to keep things flexible and free form as well. I don't lock in hikes or times because when it comes to nature, you have to be ready to change as needed.
For my hike in the Grand Tetons I kept a few key points in mind.
Moderately Challenging - 4 - 5 miles with the opportunity to go further if I want.
Moderately Trafficked - I was going to be hiking alone.
Good Trail Conditions - I didn't want to deal with snow or lots of mud.
Great Views / Something to hike to - Something worth carrying my camera gear for.
Forest / Partially Covered Trail - I didn't want to overheat out in the sun all day.
The Winning Trail - Hidden falls via String Lakes and Inspiration Point
This hike hit all the marks, and while it was a bit more crowded than I had hoped it was a perfect choice for my first Teton hike. The first 2 miles of the trail is a less trafficked route that weaves along lake sides and through forests, boasting big views of Teton Peak and Jenny Lake, before meeting up with the boat launch and the crowds as you climb towards the Hidden Waterfall. The best part of this hike wasn't the waterfall views but the unexpected opportunity to keep hiking up to Inspiration Point.
The hike was a total 6 miles and 745 feet of elevation, a little longer than I had originally planned but with in my safe distance. I took off on my usual pace 20 min pace across the first 2 flat and wooded miles, before starting the climb to the view point. The trail was filled with wildlife, including a stunning fox who had just caught lunch, numerous groundhogs and ground squirrels and an unexpected surprise of a moose tucked into the woods just on the other side of a gully.
For my casual hikes I like to take my time and camera gear so I can really enjoy my day. I took the time to photograph wherever caught my interest, playing with some new gear and really taking in the sights and sounds of the trail. And this trail offered everything I could have hoped for, from big vista views to quite stretches in the the forest.
This trail got a solid 4.5 out of 5 for me. The only downside being the crowds at the top. Next time I will be taking this trail to the Lake of the Crags and heading deeper into the mountains for a more secluded hike.
Bonus for people looking to enjoy the views but can't make the full hike. You can take the boat across Jenny Lake and enjoy an easier 1.8 mile hike round trip with some incredible views to leave you wonderstruck.
Decent walking shoes or sneakers with some good grip.
Water - I finished almost 2 liters.
Bear Spray! and know how to use it.
Sunblock - while the trail is partially wooded you hit some long sunny stretches in the beetle kill areas.
A camera - The views are stunning at every turn!