My favorite time of the year is fall. It’s also one of the busiest times of the year for me. So I don’t always get the opportunity to get over into the parks to photograph fall color. In Grand Teton NP the autumn colors usually peak the 2nd, 3rd or 4th week in September and unless you live in the valley near the park the timing can be difficult. I live about 60 miles from the park. It’s a beautiful drive over the mountain from home but it’s still a 2-hour drive each way.
In late September my friend Scott and I spent all day, sunrise to sunset shooting different areas in the park. Two months ago in July we were here for about three days photographing some of the same areas. If you are interested in reading more about our summer photo shoot go to Grand Teton NP Summer Photo Shoot.
One of the first locations we stopped to photograph was the Snake River Overlook, a scene made famous by Ansel Adams. The texture of the clouds in the sky added interest to this scene as the early morning light brought a rosy glow to the Teton range.
A lot of the trees in this area had already lost most of their leaves especially those along the river.
I thought it would be fun to compare the two photos (above) which show the change of seasons.
From the Snake River Overlook we moved on up the river to Oxbow Bend.
It was interesting to see that most of the trees in this area still had their leaves and some of those leaves were still green. The above image was captured from the ridge above the highway. Mt. Moran is the most prominent peak on the horizon.
As we hiked that same ridge east we had several different shooting angles of the bend in the river. In the above photo you can just see a sliver of Jackson Lake at the base of Mt. Moran in the distance.
(Above photo) looking southeast from that same ridge.
From here we dropped off the ridge, crossed the highway and walked the shore of the Snake River.
The air was fairly cool with little to no wind. This enabled me to get this shot (above) of the river with a nice reflection of the mountains and autumn color.
Similar shot (above). But this was shot two months ago in July just before sundown.
Next we drove back down the river to Schwabacher Landing. The colors were not as bright here but you can still see the contrast in color between the above photo taken in September and the photo below taken in July.
In the afternoon we drove east up towards Lower Slide Lake for a different view of the Teton Mountains.
A nice drive and a short hike later brought us to what is called the Wedding Tree by the locals in the area. In the lower right-hand corner of the above image above you can see a bouquet of flowers left there from the last wedding ceremony performed under the tree.
We had a little fun with the wedding bouquet (above) and yes we did keep with tradition, placing the bouquet back at the base of the tree when Scott was finished mugging with it.
In the evening we headed back to Oxbow Bend to wait for the sun to set.
While sitting on the ridge above Oxbow Bend we enjoyed watching the changes in light and color at sunset. Like sunrises, sunsets are always different and we never really know what we are going to see. This sunset didn’t disappoint…a fitting end to an enjoyable fall day in the Tetons!
My friend Scott and I decided to spend three days in Grand Teton National Park and just travel around the area stopping anywhere we felt like shooting, all hours of the day and/or night. We would not purchase lodging anywhere but would sleep in Scott’s truck (when and if we took time to sleep). We would take enough food and water with us to allow us the freedom of driving into town only if it became necessary.
We left my house about 7:00am and drove to Jackson Wyoming by way of Ririe, Swan Valley and Victor. We rolled into Jackson at 9:00am, parked and checked out the Thomas Mangelsen Photography Studio, for inspiration? To ‘focus’ on our objective? (pun intended, sorry) I think we were just excited about what we were here for and wanted to admire another photographer’s photos of this area. We then headed out to the park to scout possible sites in which to photograph sunsets, sunrises and the Milky-Way.
Our first stop was Mormon Row, a historical district with the remains of old homesteads built by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the early 1900s. It’s located in what’s known as Antelope Flats east of the Jackson-Moran highway.
The two barns in this area are two of the most photographed barns in the country. Both of us have probably filled up lots of memory cards with images of these barns over the years but there seems to be this need to improve and get better and make each captured image better than the last. I used to stress over that aspect of my photography but have since tried to be more relaxed, more patient and enjoy my surroundings, trying not to be disappointed if I don’t capture an image in the way I had hoped.
Today the clouds were great so we couldn’t resist spending an hour here seeing what we might capture.
My favorite type of photography is landscape/nature photography. I do like to put people in my shots on occasion. Especially people I know. When shooting with Scott or my daughter Nicole (also a photographer) It’s easy to ‘include’ them in the shot even when they are unaware. Scott (in above photo) is a master at landscape photography and brilliantly puts his own stamp on often-shot scenes.
After about an hour of watching the clouds and light play we moved on up the highway to another popular and often-shot scene.
At the Snake River Overlook we watched some awesome cloud formations over the Teton range. The light which was attempting to break through the clouds created all the right conditions for a black and white. I wanted the focus of this image (above photo) to be on the light rather than the colors in the scene.
But this scene looks good in color too.
We decided to head back down the highway and drop off the hill down to the river and another very popular location.
Located on the Snake River and not too far off the highway is Schwabacher Landing. Just like Mormon Row I’ve been here many times. Even so, it never gets old. Each time is a little different. Different seasons. Different animals present (or not). Different weather. Different cloud formations. Different company. I love this place, the sights, sounds, smell and general ‘feel’ of this area. It’s like something special is going to happen and I’m going to miss it if I’m not here…
Lucky for us because of the cloud formations (above photo) the light was still good late morning at Schwabacher Landing and we had a few ducks posing for us as well.
In order for us to decide where we would be shooting sunset and the Milky-Way that night we decided to scout some more locations. We drove out to Oxbow Bend, Colter Bay, Jenny Lake and Signal Mountain. We checked out Oxbow Bend for a possible sunrise or sunset shoot. Colter Bay on Jackson Lake provides some possibilities for photographing the Milky-Way with interesting foreground.
I have an app named SKY GUIDE that shows me where in the night sky the Milky-Way galaxy or any planet is going to be and what time it will be there. It’s a must-have for astrophotography.
We drove to the top of Signal Mountain, checked the future location of the Milky-Way using the SKY GUIDE app and decided that this would be the location from which we would shoot the Milky-Way on this first night in the park.
Other then driving through Jackson in the morning we never made it back to town the rest of the day and would spend the night on Signal Mountain. We had plenty of snacks to eat throughout the day. Protein bars, Kind Bars, breakfast bars, apple chips, dried fruit, trail mix, almonds, V8 Fusion Energy drinks and plenty of water.
One of the most photographed locations in Grand Teton National Park is Oxbow Bend. It’s such a beautiful area in any season. The bend of the Snake River with majestic Mt. Moran in the background is a breathtaking sight. No matter how many times I have photographed this scene I can’t drive through here without stopping and taking some shots. It’s almost guaranteed that dozens of other photographers will be there right at my elbow.
We decided to use this location for our first sunset shoot. We got here a few hours early, picked our spot, set up cameras, tripods and camp chairs and waited, taking a few shots here and there as the light changed. It was hot! I had already soaked-up plenty of sunshine throughout the day. Mosquitos harassed us but we saw herons, beaver and pelicans while we waited. As we sat there other people came. Some stopped to take photos, others fished or glassed the area with binoculars for wildlife. Many, like us, stayed for the sunset.
Sunsets always seem more colorful here. Maybe it’s because the landscape is so awesome that any extra color just accentuates the scene. Having some clouds in the sky can make a sunset even more interesting by scattering the light and color in beautiful displays across the sky and water.
After sunset we headed over to the Colter Bay area on Jackson Lake for some ‘Blue Hour’ shots.
Colter Bay – The BLUE hour.
My friend Scott showed me just how beautiful the blue-hour can be. That 45-60 minute period after the sun goes down is a great time to capture some long-exposure shots.
Scott suggested we get some images here (Colter Bay) to possibly use as foreground for the Milky-Way shots we would capture from Signal Mountain that night. We stood on this beach in the dark, cameras on tripods as we tried to capture the image we wanted. The photo (above) is deceptive in that it appears to still be fairly light out which is what happens with a long-exposure shot. In fact it was almost too dark for me to see the stump in front of me without my headlamp.
A few minutes later we drove south and then west along Jackson Lake and just past Signal Mountain lodge turned left on Signal Mountain Road. It’s about a five-mile, 20 minute, 1000 foot climb of switchbacks to an observation area at the top of the mountain. Set far apart from any other mountain peak Signal Mountain provides some breathtaking views of the Teton mountain range, Jackson Lake and the flat glacial plains below. There is a parking lot with restrooms and picnic table. From there we had a short climb up the trail using our flashlights to navigate by as we entered the observation area. Using headlamps we set up our camera equipment and camp chairs.
We started shooting just after 11:00pm facing south with the Milky-Way arching across the sky from the north (behind us) over the top of us with the thicker part of the formation above and in front of us to the south.
(above photo) Night view from the top of Signal Mountain. You can barely see the wooden rail that surrounds the viewing area. The lights from the Jackson area are in the distance and lights from traffic on the Jackson-Moran highway stretch for miles. We saw falling stars, bright planets (Mars and Saturn) and aircraft moving across the sky. It was cold up here at almost 8000 feet even though I had several layers of clothing on (long sleeve t-shirt, light weight hoodie, fleece jacket and wind breaker) I was wishing I had brought my down coat.
I brought two cameras with me on this trip. A Nikon D610 with Nikon 14×24 wide-angle lens that I brought for my long-exposure shots and a Sony A7II with 28×70 lens that I prefer using for my daylight landscapes (personal preference because of the smaller size and weight). I didn’t know until I got home that I shot all my night shots in .jpg format instead of raw format. I was mystified at first because I never shoot in .jpg with either camera but figured out that while fumbling around with settings in the dark on the beach at Colter Bay I must have bumped the ‘quality’ button. Because of the compressed format of these images there’s not much I can do with them in post-processing especially if I want to combine one of these Milky-Way shots with one of the Colter Bay blue-hour images. Just glad I used the Sony camera (which was set for raw format) for all my other images.
We shot the Milky-Way until about 2:00am. Those who haven’t shot the Milky-Way as it moves across the night sky should try it sometime. I’m a novice but was lucky to have the opportunity to stand beside and learn from an expert. Three hours of shooting in the dark on top of a mountain can be a wonderful experience. The sound of the wind blowing through the trees. The smells of the forest, mountains and rivers in the night air and good conversation while looking up at the spinning celestial wonders above is one of those things in life that shouldn’t be missed.
At 2:00am we packed up our equipment, climbed into Scott’s truck, kicked the seats back and got a few hours sleep. We left Signal Mountain about 4:45 am and drove back to Mormon Row to shoot the blue-hour and sunrise.
Back to Mormon Row. arrived at 5:30 am. Not as many clouds in the sky this morning so we weren’t sure what kind of sunrise we would get. A few other photographers showed up as we waited for the sunrise. Sunrise happened around 6:00am.
(Above photo) I always enjoy watching the first light of the morning sun hit the tops of the Tetons and warm up the surrounding area. The mountains are a perfect back-drop for the old barn. John Moulton’s barn is built of logs and was built sometime between 1908 and 1916.
John Moulton’s house sits just to the south of the barn on the homestead and has pink-tinted stucco walls. It was built around 1938 and replaced the original house. I enjoyed the play of warm light filtering through the trees onto the front of the house. Turned the pink to almost a peach-color.
Farther to the south is John Moulton’s brother’s homestead. This is another popular barn to photograph. The Mormon Row area is so popular that the historical district put a restroom near by to accommodate the needs of the thousands of photographers and tourists that flock to this site every year.
After some shots of this barn we drove over to Black Tail Ponds located on the opposite side of the highway from Antelope Flats.
Black Tail Ponds overlook is just west of the Highway. It’s on a bench overlooking a lush area of trees, grass, willows and beaver ponds. Prime habitat for wildlife. I have seen Elk, Moose and bear in this location. There are several companys that run wildlife safari’s out of Jackson. One of them was at this location letting there clients take turns looking through a spotting scope they had setup. The scope has an attachment that fits your mobile phone and enables you to take photos using the powerful lens of the spotting scope. While we were there we watched a young bull moose chasing a cow moose out of the tree line and through the willows and ponds.
We then went north a short drive up the highway to Schwabacher Landing where we were the day before.
Very little in the way of clouds gives the scenes a slightly different look then the shots from yesterday. This scene (above) is several hundred yards from the parking area. There is a path from here that leads to a beaver pond that is also very scenic.
Got some good mountain reflection in the water this day and the few clouds moving through added interest to the scene.
From Schwabacher Landing we got back out on the highway drove south and turned to go through the unincorporated town of Moose Wyoming and through the south entrance into Grand Teton National Park.
Just past the entrance to the park we turned right to check out the Chapel of the Transfiguration. I have shot this beautiful little chapel many times in every season. It is quite picturesque with the back drop of the Teton mountains and has lots of history. Always worth stopping here when in the area.
We drove on to Jenny Lake but with its popularity and all the renovation construction going on, it’s almost impossible to find parking during mid-day. Today was no exception so we decided to head into Jackson to grab some lunch. By now, because of lack of sleep we were getting very tired and pulled over into a rest-area near the Taggart/Bradley lakes trailhead. We found some shade and with windows open to get a nice cross-breeze napped for a while.
After our nap we drove to Jackson via Teton Park Road, then Moose-Wilson Road, saw some deer and then a young grizzly wearing a tracking collar crossed the road in front of us. We also checked out the Laurance Rockefeller Preserve.
In Jackson after grabbing a bite to eat we took some time and walked through four of the many art galleries. When finished with this inspirational tour, Scott bought us some ice cream at Moo’s Gourmet Ice Cream. Their Key-Lime ice-cream is fantastic!
After leaving Jackson, Scott asked me if I knew about the old homestead used as one of the ranches in the movie ‘Shane’. I hadn’t so we drove out to Kelly and then up the hill to check out what was left of the ranch. We explored further up the road and stopped at a turnout and an overlook.
Lower Slide Lake (above photo) sits in this little valley and is a natural made reservoir. It was created when the Gros Ventre landslide of 1925 dammed the Gros Ventre River. It’s hard to miss the beautiful colors of the Red Hills overlooking the lake.
With plenty of time still on our hands we drove back out towards Moran and took a look at the old Cunningham Cabin. At this point we were growing tired again so found some shade down on the Snake River at a put-in point used by rafting companies and slept some more. Nothing better than being lulled to sleep by the breezes rustling the leaves in the trees and the sound of rushing waters from the river. We drove from there to Colter Bay, checked out the marina and surrounding area then hiked a trail which took us around the shores of the bay. Then on to Jenny Lake / Leigh Lake area. On the way there we stopped at the Mountain View Turnout which has a view looking south down the valley and the Cathedral Group of the Tetons. We decided this would be the place we would shoot the Milky-Way from this night. A photographer we had met at Mormon Row that morning joined us while we shot the Milky-Way as it moved from left to right on the horizon (our perspective – earth is turning to the left).
Again it was beautiful but cold as we all stood together visiting, wearing head lamps, layered clothing and snacking. We shot the night sky from about 10:30pm to around 12:30am.
Then Scott and I loaded up, said goodbye to the other photographer and headed back to Mormon Row to rest for a few hours with the intention of shooting the sunrise at Schwabacher Landing.
This second day was a good day, fun although a day with very few clouds. Great for shooting milky-way astrophotography but not so much for sunrises/sunsets. When we arrived at Mormon Row we climbed in the back of Scott’s pickup this time and stretched out on mattress’ in our sleeping bags. Went to sleep shortly after 1:30am hoping the next day would dawn with some clouds in the sky.
We awakened about 4:30am to the sound of rain drops on the camper-shell roof and the first thing Scott said was, ‘We got our clouds!’
We quickly got our gear together and drove over toward Schwabacher Landing. The clouds were looking pretty darn awesome over the mountains, no light on them yet. At the last-minute Scott suggested we stop at Glacier View Turnout first, set up and see what happens. And then…magic happened! What we experienced next took our breath away!!
A glorious Teton Sunrise! This was such a special and magical moment. As we stood there and watched the light hit the tops of the mountains the colors were soft and subtle in the beginning but then the yellows and the oranges started appearing in the clouds above and mountains below and the view just kept getting better and better.
It looked to me as if the sky was on fire. We were amazed and humbled by the sight of so much majesty!
After about 10-15 minutes of shooting from Glacier View Turnout we quickly loaded back up in the truck and drove down the hill to Schwabacher Landing. There were dozens of photographers on the river just as amazed by the sight we had beheld as we were. As we were unloading our gear and heading out along the river a good share of the photographers were leaving allowing us to set up with no one in front of us.
The clouds were still amazing even after the orange color had faded away.
As we were standing there with this scene in front of us I visited with a photographer who had come up and setup his camera and tripod next to me. He said he travels here from Texas every year to photograph this area and told me that one time as he stood here a few years back, a rainbow appeared and he was able to get some awesome shots. A short time later while we talked it started to rain a little and then he said excitedly, “Here comes the rainbow!”
And that’s when God painted a rainbow for me to photograph. It was there between me and the mountain only for a few moments but the timing and placement was perfect. More magic!
After the rainbow disappeared Scott and I walked over to the beaver ponds.
Here the water was calm, there being no wind, creating another beautiful reflection of the mountains on the surface of the water.
We finished up here and headed down the highway to the Snake River overlook to see how things looked from there.
The bits of sunlight filtering through the rain clouds gave us another great photo opportunity.
This scene (above) made famous by Ansel Adams.
I learned a lot on this trip. I learned that fun times can be had photographing most of the day and night with little thought of food or sleep. I learned that ‘Blue Hour’ is basically the twilight hour before sunrise and after sunset and that the Milky-Way is an exceptionally beautiful thing to watch over a period of several hours as our planet spins within it. Makes me think about all those other planets and solar systems out there and how we mortals on this planet and those on other planets in other solar systems are staring with wonderful awe up into this same Milky-Way. Makes a person’s problems seem very small and opens the mind to some wondrous possibilities. If a night or two on top of a mountain under the stars can expand the mind and bring peace as well as wonder to the soul, who wouldn’t love it. I for one, am better for the experience.
I left home this morning at 5:30am and drove to Driggs then onto Ski Hill Road for a few miles until turning right onto Teton Canyon Road to the south Teton Canyon trailhead. Teton Canyon Road is about five miles long and unpaved most of the way to the trailhead. It was necessary for me to drive at fairly slow speeds because of potholes and quite a few cows on the road. I passed Treasure Mountain Boy Scout Camp and several campgrounds along the way.
It had rained during the night so everything was wet which I didn’t mind. Everything was washed clean with no dust to speak of. I arrived in the trailhead parking lot at about 7:00am and there was only one other car parked there.
The one trail leading up the canyon from here goes a lot of places. My destination today was the Devils Stairs trail which branches off this trail about three miles up the canyon.
I headed up the trail along Teton Canyon Creek and I banged my trekking poles together at times usually in the thickest parts of the trail to try to warn off any bears that might be on or near the trail ahead of me.
The first bridge (above photo) crosses a small clear running stream. Just past the bridge is a trail that goes to the left.
A very short distance up this trail is a pretty little set of waterfalls.
The next bridge (above) was larger and crossed Teton Canyon Creek. The forest becomes real dense in this area.
The vegetation was lush and green, almost like a rain forest and there were many varieties of wild flowers. Those flowers are just beginning to bloom. A few more weeks and this will all look like one giant flower garden.
The sound of the stream was my constant companion along here and the canyon begins to open up to a decent size with steep slopes on both sides and snow-covered mountain peaks in the distance. Spruce, Fir and Aspens line the trail in between verdant meadows. Just. Absolutely. Beautiful!
Again, just like my Darby Canyon hike (see Darby Canyon Wind Cave Trail) most of the way up the trail for the first mile or two I followed the tracks of a moose.
There were several of these big clearings along the way that allowed a good look at the Teton Shelf in the distance. All along this stretch there were multiple stream crossings with most of the streams originating from half a dozen waterfalls flowing down the steep canyon walls.
At one point as I began to cross an old avalanche of snow covered with dirt and debris I noticed in the distance two cow moose.
They looked past me to my left and I noticed a bull moose and another cow heading toward them.
I watched the two groups cautiously meet and then the bull went off into the willows.
The larger cow appraoched the cow that had come over with the bull and raised up on her hind feet to hit her with her front hooves then chased her off.
I was not carrying a long lens so was unable to zoom in for closeup shots but still enjoyed watching these beautiful creatures interact.
I then moved on down the trail into a thick stand of trees and as I rounded a bend in the trail I was startled to see another bull moose standing just off the trail looking at me.
He was close enough to me to make me wary. I took a quick photo (probably not the wisest first reaction) then I carefully moved as far away to the other side of the trail as much as the thick brush allowed. He watched me and then looked at a point behind me several times and then back at me. I didn’t dare take my eyes off him to see what he was looking at when all of a sudden he started trotting towards me. I picked up speed to try to put something like a tree or log between him and me then attempted to put some distance between us.
I got back on the trail and hurried around the bend before I dared look back to see where he was at. That was when I saw him coming down the trail behind me accompanied by another bull at a trot. My first thought was, ‘Are they following me?’ But then I thought maybe he had waited for me to move down the trail until he could join his buddy who had come up the trail behind me. Whatever the case I was still not comfortable being that close to them so I continued to put distance between us.
As I walked down the trail near the stream and an area filled with willows (prime moose habitat) I saw another bull moose in the willows tossing his head and antlers around but ignoring me. I did not slow down but kept moving. I thought, ‘Wow! How many moose are there in this area?’
Roughly three miles up the trail is a sign. At this point you can continue another five miles up the canyon to the Teton Crest Trail and then on to the Basin Lakes or turn right and hike about a mile to Devils Stairs.
I turned right at this point and began a tough climb up the mountain toward the Stairs.
Part way up the trail is a big flat rock just off the trail that gave me a great view looking back down the valley towards the trailhead.
Video by: Marc Bowen
The switchbacks going up are very steep and eventually the trail enters a couple of open meadows and then follows a stream up the steep face. As I crossed the stream and climbed higher the trail crossed a steep open slope.
Then the trail begins to climb up several sets of rocky steps and it became fairly obvious why they are called The Devils Stairs as they look like steps made for a big beast.
There was a sign below at the fork advising against bringing livestock up this trail and I can see why. It would be very dangerous for horses and the humans who ride them.
I loved this trail! Beautiful views, steep drop offs and something new around each corner.
The trail was also kind of difficult to navigate. I mistakenly started to follow it around an outcropping in the cliff and saw the trail disappear (photo below).I doubled back and saw I had missed the not so obvious switchback carved into the cliff face.
Parts of the trail just cling to the cliff plus as I got closer to the top the clouds moved in giving an impression of an immense void.
This (above) is the switchback in the trail I initially missed.
With the clouds moving in the trees disappeared for a few moments and everything got quiet.
Farther up the trail I could see the The Teton Shelf which extends for miles up towards the Basin Lakes.
The trail finally ends at a wall of snow on the shelf which I had to hike around to get up on top.
The video below shows how foggy it was when I got on top.
Video by: Marc Bowen
After detouring around the wall of snow I decided to see how far up the shelf I could go before the snow got to deep. There is a loop trail that goes up the shelf to the crest trail and then comes back around and down the basin trail.
I kept losing the trail under the snow but I could guess pretty well the direction and approximate location. It was very foggy at times and visibility was low.
Video by: Marc Bowen
I decided to stick to walking in the snow so if I lost my bearings in the mist I still be able follow my tracks back out.
Most of these images I captured during breaks in the clouds so they are not always indicative of how foggy it was.
I walked another mile or so but decided to turn back. A thunderstorm was forecast for around 12pm and I told myself I better be off the shelf and at the bottom of Devils Stairs before noon.
On my way back to the top of Devils Stairs I stopped to shoot some of the few wild flowers blooming.
The video below shows the view from the top of the stairs and three waterfalls can be seen coming down the mountain side across the canyon.
Video by: Marc Bowen
I had just dropped off the rim and cleared the staircase when it started to rain pretty hard. I found cover under a clump of trees where I was out of the rain, ate a snack and drank water. After about 15-20 minutes I decided the rain might last awhile so I got my rain gear out put them on and continued down the trail in the rain.
I talked to a couple of hikers at the bottom of the trail who had encountered too much snow farther up the basin trail and had to turn around and come back down. So it’s still too early to hike up into the basin. The top of the Staircase is over 8000 feet and the Basin lakes are over 9000 feet. Will probably be another month before the upper elevations open up.
The trail was very muddy heading back down to the trailhead. I eventually took my rain gear off when the rain quit.
There were many hikers coming up the trail, about half of them with dogs and no leashes. I would be worried my dog might run off after a bear or mountain lion. Not a good idea in my opinion but I get the reasons why they might want to bring their dog with them.
When I got back to the parking lot I noticed that to the left of the restrooms is a trail with a sign saying ‘Face Trail’. Found out it’s a trail that goes up a VERY steep 4000 foot climb to Table Mountain. I will be climbing Table Mountain next week but will do so by way of the Huckleberry Trail which is longer but also an easier climb. Definitely going to be getting into snow up there as Table Mountain is over 11,000 feet in elevation but I’m still looking forward to the experience.
Well I have to say, I enjoyed this hike immensely! Thats despite the fact that I kind of wandered around up there on the Teton Shelf losing my way at times, getting rained on and sort of chased by a moose or two!
In east Idaho near the town of Menan are twin buttes known as the North and South Menan Buttes. The north butte is also known by locals as “R” Mountain because of the big white ‘R’ painted on its north face. The south butte (the smaller of the two buttes ) is privately owned. The north butte is publicly owned and is designated as a National Natural Landmark. The buttes are two of the worlds largest volcanic tuff cones.
I wrote about these tuff cones and hiking this area in great detail on my blog last year. You can read that post by clicking this link: Hiking The Volcano – N Menan Butte
Hiking The Butte
This hike is 4.2 miles out and back with 1,089 feet of elevation gain. The trail leads up the west face and then follows the rim around the entire crater and back. The hike to the rim of the crater from the trailhead will get your heart pumping. I have hiked this trail 6 times in the past 8 weeks (in the months of April and May). It’s close to my home and I can hike it early in the morning and be home by 9 or 10am. It’s a great workout and is good preparation for some more difficult hikes in the months to come.
The images in this post I shot over a period of two months. The images are dated as I thought it would be fun to show the surrounding landscape as the seasons change.
Coming up the west side of the butte you know your near the top when you get to a line of steel posts connected to each other with a chain (above image to the right of the big rock formation). The footing is very poor in places and the chain gives you something to hold on to.
Because of the geology of this place caves and varied rock formations are a common sight. This one (above) is to the left of the trail near the top.
Just past that formation looking back down the slope at the trailhead parking area.
Once you’ve made it to the top of the trail you will be standing on the rim of the buttes cratered center. Now you’re on the rim trail and can go left (above photo), right (scroll down to next photo) or even walk a trail down through the middle of the crater (not shown).
I have arranged my photos in a sequence as if hiking to the right around the crater. As you hike this direction you can see (in this photo above) across the crater into the valley to the east toward Rigby, Ririe and the distant hills.
As the trail curves around the south side of the butte you can see South Menan Butte, the town of Menan is across the river in the middle right in the above photo and Idaho Falls is in the middle distance at the base of the hills.
If you compare this panoramic image (above) with the one above it you can see the difference 5 weeks makes. Crops are growing and summer colors and foliage have arrived.
Looking back to the east from the trail across the crater, part of the valley between Rexburg and Rigby can be seen.
As the rim trail curves east you will arrive at a formation of rocks called the ‘Wind Bowl’. This is a fantastic formation and almost seems like the landscape should be part of another planet. Great area to do some ‘bouldering’ … Looking south across the bowl you can again see South Butte.
There is a time span of six weeks between the above two photos.
Below is a video clip of the Wind Bowl recorded on 4/10/18. ‘click’ to play
Above is a another photo of the Wind Bowl from a different perspective.
Below is the most recent video clip of the Wind Bowl.
(above photo) Looking east towards Rigby and Ririe and the point where the Henrys Fork and South Fork of the Snake River come together. You can see some of the current flooding. Snow melt has caused all the rivers and streams to run at higher than normal levels the last month or so.
Again in the above photo the view is to the east as this is the east side of the butte. Part of the Teton mountain range can be seen on the horizon.
I took the above photo as I hiked the trail around the north side of the butte heading west. This is looking south across the crater to the south rim and South Butte beyond that.
If you look north from the trail on the north rim the St. Anthony Sand Dunes can be seen in the distance with the city of Rexburg to the right of that (above photo).
In the above photo I am looking west across the desert towards the Lost River Range of mountains.
Another one of the many rock formations in the area and another view into the buttes crater.
I shot the above image as I was hiking south along the west rim of the crater. The orange-colored rock formation across the crater on the other rim is the area where the Wind Bowl is located.
My daughter Nicole (above photo) joined me on the May 15th hike. Looking out over the parking lot below and the Deer Parks Wildlife Management Area across the highway.
Below is a video clip shot from the northwest rim in April of this year.
Another view (above photo) looking down on the parking lot / trailhead and the Deer Parks WMA.
Above is another view from the same area but shot over a month earlier.
The above two images were shot a month apart at slightly different angles.
I shot this last image as I was headed back down the west face of the butte.
As I mentioned before I usually hike this trail early mornings with cool temperatures, beautiful light and colors surrounding me, and few people around. Sometimes I’ve had the butte all to myself and its a perfect time to change perspectives and remember whats most important in my life. Just being outside breathing the fresh air and having the sun shine upon me energizes my soul and changes my mood for the better.
Its been two months since I wrote my first blog post of the year. At that time there really wasn’t very many places to hike in Eastern Idaho that didn’t have snow on the ground. I did an easy but fun hike in the snow on Cress Creek Trail the first part of March. I wrote about it complete with plenty of pictures at: Late Winter Hike – Cress Creek Trail
Since that hike and after the snow melted I started hiking the North Menan Butte Trail once every week for the past four weeks to work on getting back into hiking shape. That hike is a four mile loop with some stamina required for the first hard pull up the butte. I decided it was time to do a longer hike. I knew by now that the Palisades Creek trail would be clear of snow or at least the lower part should be. I’ve hiked this trail before and wrote about it last year. See:Late Spring Hike To Lower Palisades Lake
The lower part of the trail starts just north of Palisades Creek camp ground several miles off the highway near the town of Irwin. There are two lakes off this trail. Lower Palisades Lake which is about four miles out and Upper Palisades lake which is about seven miles out. Today I chose to hike to the lower lake and back for a total of eight miles. Although I was tempted to go all the way to the upper lake I didn’t think my body was ready for the nearly 14-mile round trip yet.
The trail follows Palisades Creek almost all the way to the lower lake with only about a 600 foot elevation change. This time of year because of snow melt the stream becomes a river and parts of the trail become a stream (above photo). Keeping my feet dry was not possible. My boots are fairly waterproof if I’m not standing in water or in deeper than my ankles. Using my trekking poles to balance on a few branches and logs I placed strategically I managed to get through this part of the trail without soaking my socks.
This is the first of five bridges I crossed as the trail meanders across the creek at times. These bridges are built for horse traffic as well as human. Since this isn’t technically designated ‘Wilderness’ mountain bikers use this trail also. Motorized vehicles are prohibited because this is, at the very least, a ‘wilderness study area’.
As I hiked up the trail, just around the bend I noticed three mountain goats in the morning light standing on the cliffs above the creek. One looking right at me. They are not easy to see in the photo without the white circles around them.
As the trail follows the creek up the canyon I walked through many different kinds of landscapes. Some parts of the trail lead through beautiful groves of trees letting just a little morning light shine through. In the lower levels of the canyon trees and shrubs are just beginning to sprout leaves.
About 1-1/2 hours into the hike there is an area where I like to stop, take my pack off, eat a snack and drink a bunch of water. The canyon is narrow here with steep cliffs on both sides. Its cool and refreshing because you are right over the river and mostly in shade.
Every time I have stopped here I have seen at least one mountain goat on the face of the cliff above (above photo). This one was asleep on a ledge. Hard to see in photo so I circled it in red. I did not have my long lens with me. I did have a small but powerful set of binoculars strapped to my chest for easy access which allowed me a close look at this beautiful animal.
This canyon is so narrow in some places that it doesn’t allow a lot of light into it. It’s a beautiful place with lots of rocky canyon walls and cliffs. I can see why mountain goats are so prevalent in this area. Its the perfect environment. If I was a mountain goat I would want to live here.
Crossing the next bridge had me spying a group of three goats on the cliffs above (circled in red). Also the trail on the other side was under water so I had to do a little bushwhacking to stay dry. The bad thing is every time I leave the trail into the brush I seem to pick up unwanted hitch-hikers. I brought home a tick from this hike just like I did on several occasions last year. Despite the toxicity I am going to start applying ‘DEET’ to my clothes from now on.
The third bridge I crossed is similar to the others, well-built to withstand all the traffic this trail gets on the weekends and everyday in summer. My job schedule is such that I can hike on a week day and if I start the hike just after daylight I very seldom see anyone. I saw no one on the trail going either direction today. I did encounter snow on the trail in some places the farther up the canyon I hiked.
Between the third and fourth bridge there was more water on the trail. My trekking poles got me up this stretch with no problems. Can’t say enough about the advantages of using poles.
The higher up the canyon I hiked I noticed the canyon temperatures were low enough that most of the trees and brush were still bare of leaves.
I shot the above image looking upstream while standing on the fifth bridge. There is a small foot bridge (not shown) crossing a tributary of the creek just before you reach this bridge. So technically this is the fifth bridge I crossed although the fourth isn’t much of a bridge.
After crossing the fifth bridge the trail starts climbing into five switchbacks. Standing on one of the switchbacks in the trail I looked back and shot the above photo. You can see the flooded trail I came up just to the right of the stream and some pretty cool clouds above.
There is a campsite at the top of the switchbacks just before the lower lake comes into view. There were two people camping there having breakfast when I walked by. They were the only other people up there besides me today.
Lower Palisades Lake
Lower Palisades Lake sits at the far end of the lower canyon at an elevation of about 6,100 feet. It was created by a huge rockslide ages ago. The lake is very muddy right now but will clear up in another week or two.
The trail rounds the left side of the lake and crosses the bridge at the lake outlet, continuing 2.7 miles through the upper canyon and splits off to Upper Palisades Lake. My son and I plan to hike to the upper lake sometime next month, stay the night and do some fishing. I did a solo hike up there late May of last year but didnt spend the night. See last years post: Palisades Creek Trail To Upper Palisades Lake
On the hike back I took a short video clip (above) of part of the trail. You can hear the stream near by and see the rocky cliffs hanging over the trail.
As I hiked further down the trail I looked off to my left and up a side canyon as the sunlight streamed across the cliffs in the distance. I saw two glowing white spots on the cliff face and verified that they were mountain goats. Their agility that allows them to stand and eat in places with seemingly no place to stand amazes me. Click on the video below and see if you catch a glimpse of these beautiful creatures on the cliff walls in the far distance.
Just in case you missed them in the photo below i have them circled.
I took this video clip below to show the part of the trail with the worse flooding.
It was wonderful to get out and hike today. Other than being a little tired I Feel GOOD! I’m always excited to start a hike and when one hike ends I’m excited to start the next one.
There seems to be this great need in me to get out and hike along a stream, up a canyon or up a mountain to not only see whats at the end of the trail but to enjoy the journey as well.
Trail Difficulty Rating – 10.94 Moderate to Strenuous
When thinking about where to hike this month I considered the Alaska Basin hike from the Driggs Idaho side of the Tetons. But I swear I am still recovering from my hike into Holly Lake last month. I was having a hard time getting excited about doing a strenuous hike this time around and felt like doing more of a leisurely stroll through the mountains. So I thought about Phelps Lake. I hiked into this lake last fall. There are several trails into the area and most of them are moderately strenuous. It’s a beautiful place and definitely worth a second visit. So I mentioned it to my daughter Nicole and not having been there before herself, she was excited to check it out. To read the post from my hike in this area last fall click Phelps Lake, Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve.
From Jackson turn left at Moose Junction onto Moose-Wilson Road and drive 3.6 miles south to the turn-off for the preserve which is on the left hand side of the road.
We arrived in the preserve’s parking lot early morning to find a half dozen cars there before us. Make sure you start this hike early in the day because the parking lot fills up fast! Once parked we grabbed our gear and headed across the sagebrush meadow to the visitor center a few hundred yards from the parking lot. There we checked in at the registration box, grabbed a complimentary trail guide of the area and headed up the trail. There are 4 different trails you can use to hike into Phelps lake. We chose the 1.6 mile Lake Creek Trail for this hike. The trail follows a beautiful stream through a mixed forest of spruce, fir and lodgepole pine. It took us about 30 minutes to reach the lake.
Phelps Lake has a surface area of 750 acres and is the 6th largest lake in Grand Teton National Park. From the southern shore looking north across the lake we could see the mouth of Death Canyon.
Elevation at Phelps Lake is 6633 feet. The surface of the lake was very calm and created some nice reflections of 10,552 foot Albright Peak.
This (above) is a new bridge that was built late last fall and provides several platforms and seating areas for fishing or soaking in the scenery.
As I have mentioned in previous posts I carry about 20lbs of gear on my day hikes. I usually hike alone so I try to have what I would need if I should have an emergency and need to spend the night on the mountain.
Our plan was to hike along the eastern shore (2.2 miles) until we reached the north shore of Phelps lake then take Death Canyon Trail up to the overlook which would be another mile each way.
Some of the scenery as we hiked around the lake towards the eastern shore.
About 1.5 miles up the east shore of the lake we came to a rock they call ‘Jump Rock’ or ‘Jumping Rock’. This rock is 25-30 feet high and is a popular place for hikers to cool off by jumping into the deep cool water below. If we had planned a little better we would have worn our swim suits under our clothes and brought a couple of towels…It would have been fun to drop off that rock into the lake.
By this point in the hike the sky was filling with these cotton-like clouds and the resulting reflections produced a serene zen-like atmosphere.
The view of Death Canyon from the top of Jump Rock Is breath-taking. The ‘U’ shaped canyon was formed by retreating glaciers. If you look closely at the photo above you can see a sandy beach on the lake’s north shore.
I took the above photo while standing on a narrow strip of beach on the north shore looking back across the lake to the south shore.
We left the beach on the north shore and began the climb up Death Canyon Trail toward the Phelps Lake Overlook. At this point we ran into some men with horses and pack mules headed up into Death Canyon.
This Mule Deer doe (above) had 2 fawns with her. She slowly made her way down the trail toward us I think more concerned about all the hikers coming down the trail behind her then she was with us.
We finally reached the overlook, took some photos and then headed back the way we came. From this overlook you can see the lake, ‘Sleeping Indian Mountain’ and Jackson Hole in the distance.
This hike was a pleasant 5 hour round-trip for us and we will definitely be back. Next time we won’t forget our swim suits!