Swim, Fish, Cycle & Hike in Grand Teton National Park - even with Coronavirus outbreak
While Yellowstone National Park might be the better known Wyoming summer destination, I really loved its smaller neighbor. There is a tremendous variety of things to do in Grand Teton National Park, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and easier to see in a short time.
The towering Tetons have been called “mountains of the imagination”. On our visit in early August 2020, I learned why. The park and its famous peaks are stunning. And while Yellowstone could arguably require weeks to see, we were able to cover a lot of Grand Teton National Park and enjoy a variety of activities, in just a few days.
(Note: I’ve created a map of most of the activities I will mention here; it can be found at the end of this post.)
Things to do in Grand Teton National Park
I visited the park with my family, during the coronavirus pandemic, so this information reflects what was open at that time. While some hotels and visitors centers are closed in 2020, we found more than enough was open to have a wonderful time. (That said, please check the Grand Teton National Park website for the latest information about closures.)
Here are some of the many fun things to see and do in Grand Teton National Park. I am also including things we didn’t get to, but would definitely do on a future visit.
Hiking in Grand Teton National Park
Hiking in Grand Teton National Park is varied and beautiful. From almost anywhere, you will have amazing views of the Tetons. The summer heat can make hiking a challenge however, so go early in the day if possible, and take lots of water, hats and sunscreen.
Oh, and bring bear spray (more on that below). It is also advisable to hike earlier in the day, for a better chance to spot wildlife.
Taggart Lake Hike
My favourite hike was Taggart Lake (photo above), which had a little bit of everything packed into a manageable 3-mile return distance, and small elevation gain. The views of the Tetons are spectacular on this trail, and your destination is a beautiful lake which you can swim in if you wish. It was very hot when we went and although the water was cold, it was warm enough for a refreshing dip.
Cascade Canyon Trail
We also enjoyed the popular Cascade Canyon Trail which you can access by the boat shuttle on Jenny Lake. This hike offers the chance to see a pretty waterfall near the start, and incredible views out over Jenny Lake from the top of Inspiration Point. It is very popular however, so go early to beat the crowds on the trail and to avoid lines for the shuttle.
The boat shuttle on Jenny Lake is a fun activity, whether or not you plan to hike afterward. It is $18 roundtrip for an adult and $10 for a child (one-way tickets are also available if you would like to hike the 2.4 miles one-way around the Jenny Lake).
You will enjoy beautiful views from the water, and once you reach the west boat dock, you have the option to walk a half-mile to a lovely Hidden Falls. Note that the first shuttle of the morning, at 7 am, has a much reduced price to ride. Check for details; I think you may need to pay in cash.
Swimming in Grand Teton National Park
Taggart Lake (reached on the hike mentioned above) is a beautiful spot for a swim on a hot day. I would say that the stunning scenery and refreshing swim make the hike worthwhile, even if you don’t like hiking.
The entry is a little rocky, but manageable. There are no restrooms here, so you could either wear a swimsuit under your shorts and t-shirt, or do what I did: swim in your sports bra and quick-dry hiking shorts.
Colter Bay, Jackson Lake
On our last morning while our teen boys slept in, Sean and I decided to walk down to Jackson Lake for a swim. We were staying in a cabin at Colter Bay Village, located on the shore of a large bay within the lake. When we reached the swim beach, I saw a few people kayaking out in the bay, otherwise we had the place to ourselves. Jackson Lake is the biggest lake in the park and this bay is a small part of it.
It was still early and with the snow-covered Teton peaks towering above the lake, it looked cold. Sean waded in and went immediately under. He came up smiling and assured me it was warm. I hesitated; I wasn’t nearly as hot as I had been when we swam at Taggart Lake, but I wanted to go in. How often could I swim in a place like this?
I waded in, (it is a little rocky at the edge – you may want to bring water shoes). It was warm; as warm as a typical lake, rather than a glacial fed lake which is what I am used to in Colorado. Those are typically too cold to swim in.
We swam around enjoying the cool water and amazing views. The contrast of the mountains with the lake and brilliant green of the pine forests was startling. Once more we noted that it looked like someone had unfurled a backdrop of the Tetons beyond the lake. I highly recommend swimming at Colter Bay.
(To access the Jackson Lake swim beach, park at the Colter Bay Visitor’s Center – the trail is just beyond the center. Follow it to the water and marina and turn right. Walk along the forested trail until you see the water ahead. Turn left at the water and walk to the point of land. This is where we swam.)
Swimming is also available at Jenny Lake, near the east dock where you catch the boat shuttle. Coming from the visitors center and before reaching the dock, I saw two small beach areas with buoys to mark off the area for swimming. There were people with young children here; it was sandy and looked like an easy entry point. I didn’t go in so can’t say how warm it is. Let me know if you go.
Leigh Lake & String Lake
People rave about swimming at String Lake (located next to Jenny Lake) and this will be a good choice if you want warmer water. It is very shallow so the water warms quickly.
It is also very popular and I understand it can be crowded. We didn’t visit this time. If you go, you may want to continue on past String Lake to Leigh Lake where there are some nice sandy beach spots, apparently. There are also picnic areas at String Lake which are supposed to be lovely.
The scenery throughout the park is spectacular: lakes and rivers are abundant and framed by silvery-green sagebrush. Pink lupins and purple Indian paintbrush and thistles also colored the landscape.
Coming from Colorado, I also noticed the smells. Although Wyoming is a dry climate, there is enough moisture in Grand Teton to carry the scent of pine forest in the air. It’s heavenly.
If you choose to stay in Colter Bay, as we did, the drive along the Teton Park Road between Colter Bay and Jenny Lake, will take your breath away. There are several places along this route to pull over and take photos, including the Mount Moran Turnout.
Antelope Flats Road to Mormon Row Historic District
Driving north along highway 191 once you pass Moose Junction, look for Antelope Flats Road on your right. It is quite close to Taggart Lake, mentioned above, so we did this on the same day. Turn on to Antelope Flats Road and follow it until you see a peach colored house – this is Mormon Row. Park here and explore the historic area where structures from six homesteads remain.
You will enjoy stunning views and great photography of the Tetons from Mormon Row and the old buildings are fascinating. I could just imagine the settlers stepping out of their wagons here, seeing the Tetons and saying, “this oughta do”.
The Moulton Barn framed by the Tetons beyond is one of the most photographed scenes in the park. My son Nate really enjoyed taking some photos here.
Moose-Wilson Road (Highway 390)
We missed driving the Moose-Wilson road (Highway 390) which is too bad because this windy, scenic road is known as a great place to see wildlife. It will also take you to Phelps Lake, which is known for good hiking and swimming, as well as Murie Ranch and homestead cabin, a national historic monument. There is lots to explore here if you have the time.
I was disappointed we did not see moose or bears on our trip. Then again, we did not hang out patiently at any of the likely lookout spots. You have to be prepared to park yourself with binoculars, apparently, not just drive around. That said, we saw deer and bison, and a pika, which lives at high elevations and resembles a guinea pig. We also saw some pronghorn sheep, from a distance.
Willow Flats overlook near Jackson lake lodge is supposed to be a great place to watch for wildlife. The road to Jackson Lake Lodge looked closed when we visited, so you could inquire whether there is another access point to Willow Flats.
We saw Bison driving along the outer park road (highway 191). Here you can pull over and take photos of them. Watch for dustups between the males; we say a few as it was mating season when we visited. Antelope Road can also be a place to spot pronghorn and bison, although we didn’t see any.
And of course, hiking is a great chance to see wildlife. We enjoyed seeing two young deer in the sun-dappled Cascade Canyon. It was a beautiful scene.
Kayak & Canoe Rentals in Grand Teton National Park
There are a few places to rent kayaks and canoes in the park. There is the marina on Jackson Lake at Colter Bay, where we stayed. The bay is calm and offers gorgeous views. You can not reserve ahead unfortunately, and I am told it has been very busy this summer. Details can be found Grand Teton Kayak/Canoe Rentals (Note that motorboats are not available for rent this season as they usually are.) Rentals come with life jackets, maps and a radio.
Snake River Scenic Float Trip
Signal Mountain Lodge offers scenic float trips which are described as a relaxed 10-mile trip along the Snake River within the park. The tour is approximately 3.5 hours, two of it on the water.
In addition to scenery there is a chance to see elk, moose, bald eagles and other wildlife. I would have loved to do this, although it seemed expensive given the pricing was the same regardless of your group size. That said, I didn’t call to see if there was some flexibility in the pricing. Details at Signal Mountain Lodge.
Fishing in Grand Teton National Park
Fishing is permitted in most streams and lakes within Grand Teton and fishing licenses can be purchased in the park at the Colter Bay Marina, Signal Mountain Lodge, or Dornans Fly Shop. They are also available at various fishing shops in Jackson, apparently. Detailed regulations around fishing can be found in this National Park Service Fishing Guide.
Colter Bay Village Marina was also supposed to be offering guided fly fishing trips, so inquire there if that’s of interest.
White Water Rafting
River rafting takes place on the Snake River, outside of the park near the town of Jackson. Dave Hansen Whitewater & Scenic Trips is very well reviewed. We wanted to do this, however we were short on time and Jackson was a bit of a drive from where we were. Also we live in Colorado, where there is lots of good rafting, so decided it wasn’t a priority at Grand Teton.
Roller Blade or Cycle the Scenic Path
A beautiful paved bike path runs between Moose and Jenny Lake. We walked a little of it when we visited Taggart lake, and saw people doing all sorts of activities here; it’s not just for biking. It is also pretty much flat so recommended for all ages. Because Moose is beyond the park entrance, note that you have to pay entrance fees when entering by bike, just as you would entering by car. You can rent bikes at Adventure Sports at Dornans, both traditional and electric bikes which look really fun.
Dine With a View
Many of the park’s popular dining options are closed in summer 2020 because they are located in the park lodges which are closed.
Near the “town” of Moose at Dornans, there are several restaurant choices which were open, as well as a grocery store. And this location offers outdoor dining and wonderful views.
We enjoyed the Chuckwagon restaurant for lunch. The salads were large and fresh and my son loved the pulled pork sandwich. I had a black bean burger which was also good. It’s all outdoor seating here with a good portion of it in the shade. There is a cute teepee with picnics tables inside, if you are with kids. Chuckwagon is open for breakfast, lunch & dinner.
The Pizza & Pasta Co.
I had read rave reviews about the Pizza & Pasta Co. restaurant, also located at Dornans. It was open for takeout only, but we were able to sit on their back deck in the shade, with a view of the mountains. It was very pretty.
We had pizza and salad and thought the pizza was quite good, not fantastic. But we are very picky when it comes to pizza. You might love it. It was certainly better than the pizza at Colter Bay Village Ranch House.
Pizza & Pasta Co. is open for lunch and dinner. The upper deck wasn’t open when we visited, but is supposed to be a great place for cocktails with a beautiful view. Next time.
For breakfast one morning, we went to the general store at Signal Mountain Lodge and thought the breakfast burritos were delicious. This is the only dining available Signal Mountain. At Colter Bay the only dining was take-out from Colter Bay Village Ranch House. It was fine, and there were picnic tables to eat at. We only ate there once.
Dining in Jackson
There are outstanding dining options in Jackson, which is nice given that park dining is limited due to coronavirus. We really enjoyed dinner at the famed Snake River Brewing. We sat on the patio and the view was lovely, the service was friendly and the food was delicious.
Jackson was crowded, and less places are open for dinner than usual, so go early and be prepared to wait. We considered a number of other recommended restaurants that I would love to try, including: Bubba’s for BBQ, The Merry Piglets for Mexican and Bin22, a wine bar with small plates. I enjoyed a glass of bubbly in the overflow outdoor seating at Bin22.
I made the classic error of not booking the most popular dining attraction ahead, during high season. I wasn’t sure if we would want to eat indoors, given coronavirus, I am still not sure we would have, to be honest. I am still nervous about indoor dining.
By the time I called, it was booked for our three night visit. It is supposed to be a raucous Western Music show with the Bar J Wranglers entertaining the crowd. There is no outdoor dining here. Reserve ahead of if you are interested.
Where to Stay: Grand Teton National Park
National Park Lodging
We stayed at the Colter Bay Village cabins. They were simple but charming and comfortable. Some come with private bathrooms. We really enjoyed our stay there. The location on the lake is great and there is lots to do. The main downside here is dining was limited and the cabins don’t have kitchens. (Read my review of Colter Bay Village Cabins.)
You can check availability on the park website: Grand Teton Lodging. Note, that you can reserve up to one-year ahead and cancel for a fee of only $15.
RV's and Camping at Grand Teton National Park
Camping and RV parks are open throughout much of the park. Most camping in Grand Teton is first-come, first-served, although Headwaters Campground, and Flagg Ranch and Colter Bay RV parks are supposed to accept advance reservations. Details here: Grand Teton Camping.
Other Lodging at Grand Teton
There is also a private dude ranch located within the park called Triangle X Ranch. Although within the park, it is privately run and they require a 7-night stay in summr. They do offer reduced rates and a 4-night minimum in September and October. It looks lovely and how nice that it’s located within the park.
And of course there is lots of accommodation just south of the park in the town of Jackson which offers world-class hotels and dining. There is a Four Seasons hotel here, enough said. We visited Jackson twice during our trip and it was crowded with visitors. I had another friend recently stay there and she also found it especially busy this summer.
Visiting Grand Teton National Park: Good to Know
When you enter the park, you will be handed a pamphlet advising that you should always carry bear spray and know how to use it. I shamefully admit that we didn’t buy any, although it’s available in all the grocery stores. You can even rent it and return it at some places.
There are signs everywhere reminding you of precautions regarding bears. In addition to carrying bear spray, it’s important to never do any activity alone and do not run if you see a bear, back away slowly. One interesting slogan I heard: “A fed bear is a dead bear” (Once fed, bears will want more PB & honey sandwiches (can you blame them?) so will become aggressive to access food. They will then need to be moved or destroyed. “Don’t feed the bears” – do we really need to be told this? Apparently yes, we do.
Although it’s a dry climate, there is lots of water and marshy areas in the park, and with it, mosquitoes. They are mostly an issue at dusk but they can be around at any time if you are in a forested area, so have bug spray ready. I also bring topical Benadryl, to calm bites.
When we visited in early August, it was as hot as 90 degrees during the day and dropped as low as 40 degrees at night. Be prepared for both extremes.
And finally, don’t forget your camera. Grand Teton National Park is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve been and I am guessing you too will want many photos to remember this very special trip. Exploring the beauty of the U.S. National Parks is a lovely way to forget about the crazy times we are living in right now. It’s easy to forget the real world for a while, on a visit to Grand Teton.