Saturday, December 28, 2013

Hike circles glacial lake to 180-foot waterfall

Topo map of Jenny Lake Trail.
Crossing Jenny Lake at Grand Teton National Park.
Photo courtesy Grand Teton NPS.

Moose ponds, boat ride
across lake await hikers

UPDATE: As of July 10, 2018, the National Park Service has closed the Hidden Falls portion of this hike due to a fissure that formed there. Read more.


Day hikers can walk along a tranquil blue lake with some of the most impressive mountain views in the United States as a backdrop on the Jenny Lake Trail in Grand Teton National Park.

The 6.5-mile trail wraps around the world-famous lake at the base of the snow-capped Teton Mountain Range in northwest Wyoming. Just a few miles south of Yellowstone National Park, no visit to the latter would not be complete without also stopping at Grand Teton.

Because of the high elevation, July and August mark the best time to hike the trail. Jenny Lake can be frozen in May, and snow can fall in June. Be forewarned: Because of this small visiting window, the trail will be busy in summer. To avoid the crowds, hike it early or late in the day.

The trail can be reached from Yellowstone by taking U.S. Hwys. 26/89/191 south. Turn onto Teton Park Road then onto South Jenny Lake Junction. Park at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center with the trail leaving from it.

Though an easy, well-maintained trail, it is long, especially for young children. You can cut the trail into a reasonable segment by walking half way around Jenny Lake and surprising the kids with a boat ride back across. That route – described here – is about 3.5 miles long.

Ice Age holdover
If you’re staying a while at the park, before heading out be sure to stop at the visitor center and pick up your kids copies of The Grand Adventure activity guide. By completing the guidebook and also attending a ranger-led program, your children can earn a Junior Ranger patch or badge, a cool souvenir. Each activity book is a mere dollar.

From the visitor center, head roughly southwest toward the lake. Beyond the lake is the Teton Range, with Teewinot Mountain at 12,325 feet the closest high point, with the Teton triplets beyond it to the southwest. Grand Teton is to the right of Middle Teton, with South Teton to the left.

When the trail splits, continue heading southwest by crossing Cottonwood Creek and passing the east shore boat dock. This route heads around the lake’s southern side.

Jenny Lake is fairly young, forming about 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age when glaciers pushed rock debris into the canyon beneath the mountain range. These debris created a natural dam that now holds the lake. A subalpine lake, it reaches an astonishing 423 feet in depth.

About a mile through the conifer wilderness, watch for the small “Moose Ponds” sign. The largest member of the deer family in North America, moose like to hang out in the wetlands area to the trail’s south and west. When the trail reaches a ridge line, look in that direction, and you’ll likely spot one or two.

Black bears also are common in the park. While they almost certainly will leave you alone, always remain wary of them – and definitely do not leave food in your vehicle.

Spectacular Hidden Falls
Curving around the lake’s southern shore, the trail gains in elevation. In about 1.4 miles from the trailhead, on the shore opposite of the visitor center, is the junction for the Cascade Canyon Trail.

The waterfall boasts a 180-foot drop as Cascade Creek flows out of the Tetons into Jenny Lake. If Hidden Falls were located on the other side of the continental divide, it would be the fourth highest waterfall east of the Rocky Mountains.

Return back along the Cascade Canyon Trail to the trail junction and continue left/north on the Jenny Lake Trail. In short order, the trail crosses Cascade Creek.

Less than a 1000 feet from the creek is the west shore boat dock. You’ll need to pay for a boat ticket; they leave about every 15-20 minutes throughout the day. As crossing the lake, enjoy the reflection of Teewinot Mountain upon the crystal blue waters.

The boat arrives at the east shore dock. From there, retrace the Jenny Lake Trail back to the visitor center.

Learn about other great national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.