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.
In September I drove to Grand Teton National Park to do some hiking but the area I planned to hike was closed for maintenance. So I drove over to check out the historical Menor’s Ferry area.This area is in the unincorporated community of Moose Wyoming. To get there I drove through the south entrance to the park and took the first right into a parking lot in front of The Chapel of the Transfiguration. It was a beautiful morning and the sun was just coming up. I decided that I would get a few shots of the chapel with the morning light on the mountains behind it.
CHAPEL OF THE TRANSFIGURATION, MOOSE IDAHO
The Chapel was built in 1925 and provided religious services for dude ranchers and tourists who didn’t want to ride the 12 miles into Jackson. Services are still held here every Sunday during the summer time. It is also very popular for weddings.
The Chapel can seat about 60 people and this amazingly beautiful view behind the altar is quite inspirational!
MENOR’S FERRY, MOOSE IDAHO
There is a paved path around the parking area that also loops through the trees along the nearby Snake River. Along this path are restrooms and a number of old historical buildings, cabins and such built in the late 1800’s.
Bill Menor made a homestead claim on the west side of the river in about 1890. Using a cable system he built a ferry with docks and a wooden pontoon boat.
For homesteaders and ranchers living on the east side of the river this was the only place in Jackson Hole to cross over (and stay dry) into what is now Grand Teton National Park. Besides the ferry there was a store and blacksmith shop and all this became the center of the Moose area.
Another interesting fact I found out was that the Moose area was the setting for a motion picture in 1955 called ‘The Far Horizons’ about the Lewis and Clark expedition. It starred Fred MacMurray, Charleton Heston and Donna Reed.
This is a beautiful place with lots to see. The park visitor center is located here and is one of the nicest visitor centers I’ve been to…
Well, I may not have been able to do the hike I wanted but I still enjoyed my day and was able to see a few new places and ponder what it must have been like for those first homesteaders to live in this place. I can’t imagine how hard life would have been here. But to be able to see the beauty of the Tetons every day would have been ‘balm to the soul’ for sure!
About three weeks after hiking into Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes I decided to hike the Leigh Lake trail. ( In the photo above is Leigh Lake ).
I have gotten into the habit of arising early enough to be at the trail head by daylight but didn’t think about the fact that by late summer the sun is rising a little later each morning. So when I arrived at the Leigh Lake trail head in Grand Teton National Park it was still very dark. I didn’t want to just sit there in my car waiting so I decided to drive to the Jenny Lake overlook and take some long exposure shots of Jenny Lake while still dark. There is a chain of three lakes in this area of the park that are all connected by inlets and outlets. Jenny lake is the southern most lake then String Lake in the middle and Leigh Lake to the north. You can actually float your canoe or kayak from one lake to another with some short portages.
THE JENNY LAKE OVERLOOK
I arrived at the overlook about a 10 minute drive away. Early mornings are great in the mountains. No sounds of civilization but not as quiet as one might think. The wind in the trees and sounds of the forest waking up all make their own sweet music. The fresh air and subtle smells of pine, damp earth and wildflowers help revive the soul and awaken the senses. Ha ha now I sound like a free spirit talking all sappy like that. But I do feel that I am recharged mentally, emotionally and spiritually after these trips. Now…early mornings in the dark, alone and hearing rustling noises in the underbrush on occasion can make me a little jumpy at times. Using a flashlight to aid in setting up my camera on a tripod and pointing the lens towards the lake and mountains that I can’t see but know are there tends to ruin any night vision. And any time I hear a noise behind me I’m twisting around flashing my light over the surrounding area hoping nothing is sneaking up on me. Need to bring my headlamp next time. Below is one of the images I captured of Jenny Lake while looking towards the west before sunrise.
THE TRAIL HEAD AT STRING LAKE
Afterward I drove back to the Leigh Lake trail head which heads north from the String Lake parking area. From the parking lot you also have access to the String Lake beach. String Lake looks more like a wide channel connecting Jenny Lake and Leigh Lake and sits just below the steep slopes of Mount St. John and Rockchuck Peak. It is a shallow lake with a sandy bottom and water temperature that is quite pleasant. This has been a popular swimming area since the early 1900s when guests of nearby dude ranches and early homesteaders enjoyed the lake’s clear waters.
Now not only do people come here to swim but also to paddle-board. They will also launch their canoes and kayaks from here and paddle north less then a mile to Leigh Lake.
ACCESSING THE STRING LAKE LOOP TRAIL
From the parking lot is the trail head for the Valley Trail, also known as the String Lake Loop Trail. Trail head elevation is about 6800 ft. As I began my hike from here I followed the part of the trail that goes along the east edge of String Lake and stopped along the way to capture the beauty around me. The view of the mountains are spectacular from many parts of this trail. Mount Teewinot is 12,325 ft high, Mount St. John 11,430 ft and Rockchuck Peak is 11,144 ft high. Mount Moran (12,605 ft) can be seen in the distance (photo below) bathed in early morning light.
The trail is well maintained and an easy hike through this stretch.
One reason I like to start my hike early is to beat the crowds. I didn’t see anyone at all on the trail until about 2 hours into my hike.
I saw many different kinds of waterfowl on the lake and a Bald Eagle in the trees along the west edge of String Lake (see image below).
The lake really narrows down through here and gets to a point where it’s too shallow for kayaks and canoes. Then they must be carried a short distance to the Leigh Lake portage area.
The trail splits here going left across a long foot bridge and up into Paintbrush Canyon (a hike I will take at a later date) and right to the Leigh Lake portage area (see below).
NEARLY BROKE MY CAMERA
All morning I kept one eye on my surroundings and the other on the trail checking for any fresh bear sign and making as much noise as one person can make to avoid meeting a bear on the trail. This area is well known for it’s bear sightings. As I came to the steps going down to the portage area I decided to go down and set up my camera and tripod on the beach. Just as I secured my camera to the tripod I heard a crash in the brush behind me and heart pounding I whirled around to see that a grouse had dropped down from a tree into the brush which was a relief. But in my brief panic I accidentally knocked over my camera and tripod into the sand and gravel! As I knelt over my equipment I thought for sure I would find something broken but other than a few scratches everything seemed to work fine.
View (above) from the beach of Boulder Island and Mount Moran in the background. There are about four Islands on the lake and I hear that they are fun to explore by canoe or kayak.
After I left the portage area I followed the trail around the south end of the lake and over a low ridge. The early morning sunlight was beautiful as it filtered through the trees. Being late August some of the plants in the area were already starting to show some fall color.
HIKING THE LENGTH OF LEIGH LAKE
Leigh Lake is the third largest lake in the Tetons. 2.8 miles long, 2.4 miles wide and 250 feet deep which makes it one of the deepest in the park. It is named after Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, a trapper and guide who led expeditions into the area in the 1870’s. Nearby Jenny Lake is named after Beaver Dick’s wife, a Shoshone Indian. As I hiked the trail along the the east edge of the lake I noticed a variety of coves and bays with different views of the mountains.
Some beaches were open and filled with boulders and easily accessible.
Some were harder to get to and strewn with deadfall and thick brush. In the photo above you can see in the distance a small rocky island with a tree standing in the middle.
There are also a few beaches with soft white sand that are great places to rest and enjoy the view.
Most mornings there is very little wind so the mountain reflections are awesome!
About half way along the edge of the lake there is a good sized sand and gravel beach.
Just inside the tree line are three campsites with fantastic views of the Tetons. I noticed that the park service installs “bear boxes” in these areas. These are metal boxes or lockers that campers are required to put their food in, are easily opened by humans but bears can’t get in them. I also noticed steel poles that looked like flag poles near the campsites. These poles have a pulley system and several hooks at the top to hoist and raise your food out of reach of bears. Because of frequent visits from black bear and grizzly bear to these campsites campers must be extremely careful about food storage.
These beaches on the lake are very popular for canoe and kayak camping and the fly fishing here can be an awesome experience. Leigh Lake holds many Cutthroat, Brook trout and Mackinaw. I have not fished this lake myself but intend to at some point in the future.
The Leigh Lake trail is about a 7 mile in and out hike. Which is a nice hike. I didn’t find the walk to be very difficult, there were some up and down but overall not a lot of elevation change. Most people hike to the north end of the lake and then turn around and head back. There are two more lakes to see to the north of Leigh Lake. By adding about two more miles on my hike I was able to see Bear Paw Lake and Trapper Lake.
BEAR PAW LAKE
As I left Leigh Lake I continued following the trail as it rounded the north end of the lake I walked through an old burn and then through some open meadows as the trail headed directly toward the base of Mount Moran. The first lake I came to was Bear Paw Lake.
It’s a lot smaller then Leigh Lake but is more secluded as not many people choose to hike this far in. In the above photo you can see the lower slopes of Mount Moran at the head of the lake. As I’ve mentioned before this is bear country. When hiking alone I tend to talk out loud to myself while banging my trekking poles together ever so often. I also like to play music (instrumental not rock) at full volume from my iphone. I get some odd looks from people at times but have had a few folks comment that they liked the way I chose to let the animals know I’m on the trail. As I followed the trail around the lake with my music playing I startled a deer that came crashing out of the brush ahead of me. It didn’t hear me until I was right on top of it because of the noise made from a stream plunging down the slope into the lake. I was thankful it hadn’t been a bear.
There are several secluded camp sites around the lake. I rested while I ate my lunch at the above camp site and as I left the site to get back onto the trail another deer (or maybe the same) stood in the trail ahead of me calm and not afraid. I waited for it to move off before I proceeded up the trail towards Trapper Lake.
Trapper Lake sets further up the slopes of Mount Moran and gets it’s water from Skillet Glacier.
I was a little bit disappointed with Bear Paw and Trapper Lakes and I shouldn’t have been. On their own they are pretty little lakes. But when I compare them to Jenny, String and Leigh Lakes they don’t even come close in my opinion. I had debated whether or not to hike the extra miles to these lakes but had decided I would never have a better chance to see what they look like. I don’t regret the decision. I just was not ‘wowed’ by them.
HEADING BACK DOWN THE TRAIL
On my way back down the trail I talked to a couple who had forgotten their bear spray and asked me with some trepidation if I had seen any bear. They heard my music playing long before I reached them. I told them I hadn’t seen a bear at all during the five hours I was on the trail and if they made plenty of noise going up the canyon they should be okay.
I also ran into about a dozen people on horseback heading up the trail to Bear Paw and Trapper Lakes. As I hiked back along the shores of Leigh Lake and String Lake I encountered many hikers of all ages and nationalities working their way up the trail. Even one guy with and inflatable kayak (deflated) on his back. He was headed all the way to the north end of Leigh Lake to put in and paddle the length of the lake then portage to String Lake and paddle it’s length back to the parking area. I thought I might try that sometime. I have an inflatable kayak but I’m not sure I could hike that far with it on my back. I think I would rather paddle both ways.
By the time I reached the trail head and String Lake beach area it was getting warm, about 80 degrees. The parking lot was full and there were a lot of people enjoying the water, swimming, canoeing, kayaking and paddle boarding. You won’t find a more beautiful area to hike and/or play in the water…I look forward to visiting the area again but next time I will bring my wife, kayak and fishing pole!
One of my favorite hikes in the Tetons this year and the most difficult (for me anyway) was hiking the Amphitheater Lake trail out of Lupine Meadows. The hike is about 10 miles round trip with a 3000 ft elevation gain. Both Amphitheater Lake and Surprise Lake sit close together, one above the other at about 9600 feet. If you don’t plan on spending the night on the mountain you will want to make an early start up the trail.
On this trip I traveled alone and was very careful about my preparation. I had my backpack with high protein and high carb snacks, plenty of water, camera gear, bear spray, map, compass, binoculars, survival gear, first aid kit, trekking poles and cell phone with portable charger. I also made sure my family new exactly where I would be and what time I would return. I have found that in most areas of the Tetons I have some cell phone access. So it is great that I can give some updates as to my progress to family members who might otherwise worry about me.
LUPINE MEADOWS TRAIL HEAD
I arrived at the Lupine Meadows trail head just before sunrise. To get there I drove from Jackson to Moose Junction then through the Park’s south entrance past the Taggart and Bradley Lakes trail head. Then I took a left at the Lupine Meadows turnoff (midway between Taggart Lake and Jenny Lake parking lots). From there its about 1.5 miles of dirt road to the trail head parking area. Just before I reached the Lupine Meadows turn off while it was still dark I saw some movement ahead of me on the road, slowed and stopped as a large herd of elk crossed the highway. This is not an uncommon sight as many mornings I am on the road before daylight and I am always on the lookout for wildlife. Such a beautiful sight watching these large animals at close range silhouetted against the lightening sky. After they crossed the road I moved on, briefly took my eyes off the road to glance at my phone screen’s map (I have my phone mounted on the dashboard) and saw in my peripheral vision a large porcupine in my headlights. I wasn’t driving very fast so was able to stop in time but everything in the passenger seat ended up on the floor. Shortly after moving down the road again my eyes starting watering and I began gasping and sneezing and noticed a strange peppery taste in my mouth so pulling over I rolled my windows down and opened the door. I then got out walked around to the passenger side door opening it and checked the items that had fallen on the floor from the seat. That’s when I figured out what happened. Among the items that had hit the floor when I slammed my brakes was my bear spray which had briefly discharged when it hit the floor! I kept the windows down while I drove the rest of the way to the trail head. Lupine Meadows sits right at the base of the mountains and it is a beautiful place filled with lush grass and wildflowers.
STARTING MY HIKE UP THE AMPHITHEATER LAKE TRAIL
When I could see well enough to begin my hike I donned my gear and headed up the trail. This trail can be busy in the morning. It’s the only trail in the park that heads directly up the face of the Tetons. I saw early morning trail runners and saw several people with climbing gear on their backs. Mountain climbers use the trail to reach Garnet Canyon and then climb the Grand Teton and other nearby peaks.
The first quarter mile of trail was the easiest, traveling along the length of the meadows with the sights and sounds of Sandhill Cranes and other birds in the marshy area of the meadows. Then the trail turned towards the mountains and a steady climb to the 1.7 mile mark where the trail forks south towards Bradley and Taggart Lakes or straight up the mountain toward the Garnet Canyon junction. From this point the trail begins switch-backing across the mountain’s face gaining altitude at every turn. By the time I reached this first fork I was already feeling some fatigue and set a goal to at least reach the next fork to Garnet Canyon which would be the 3 mile mark. I find that on difficult hikes I do better if I cover the distance in stages. Setting a goal to reach the end of the first stage, stop, drink water, let my heart rate return to normal, check my surroundings for photo opportunities then move to the next stage and do the same. This works great especially on really long sweeping switchbacks. As the trail crosses the mountain’s open slopes there are some beautiful views of the peaks above and the valley below.
Bradley and Taggart Lakes can easily be seen from many parts of the trail. I saw deer many times while hiking. Some on the slopes, some at the edge of the trail near springs and I even had a couple of mule deer fawns walk down the trail to within a few feet of me stop and check me out showing no fear. I also saw a female Ruffed Grouse on a log beside me paying me little attention as her babies walked around and between my legs as I stood there. So cool!
By the time I had reached the 3 mile point at the Garnet Canyon Junction I was tired and winded as I contemplated the sign that read 1.7 miles to Surprise Lake. At this point the switchbacks are still quite long and sweeping and seemingly endless but I knew I could make it the rest of the way if I took my time. At the end of the next switchback I could look north and see portions of Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake.
In the photo above you can see the slight haze in the distance. There were several fires burning in Wyoming that made the distances hazy but not bad enough to affect the air quality. Really not noticeable at all while hiking up the mountain.
The last 1.5 miles of switchbacks are steep and less sweeping and my progress slowed way down as I struggled up the last steep climb and into the Surprise Lake area. It took me almost 5 hours to hike the 5 miles into this area. That was disappointing to me because I felt like I was in better physical condition then that. There were times coming up the trail with my heart pounding in my ears that I physically could not go another step until I had rested, watered and got my breathing and heart rate under control. Then I would look up the trail a ways to the end of the switchback and tell myself “I can make it that far”and then do it all over again with the knowledge that “I’m almost there!” So instead of being disappointed at how long it took me to get there I congratulated myself for not giving up and turning back and for pushing through even though it was very difficult for me.
ARRIVING AT SURPRISE LAKE
The Surprise Lake area has been popular since the 1920s when groups on horseback rode in here to camp while on their way to visit the Teton Glacier, just to the north. The first lake you come to is Surprise Lake just off through the trees to the left of the trail. Not sure the reason for it’s name but the first thing you see are the trees. Majestic Whitebark pines grow around the lake. Through the trees is your first glimpse of this pretty subalpine lake.
What’s interesting is that Amphitheater Lake is about .25 miles up the trail, another 100 feet in elevation and is considered an alpine lake. Both lakes straddle the border between alpine and subalpine environments and sit in cirques carved by glaciers. Elevation at Surprise Lake (below) is 9580 feet.
After spending time taking photos and looking around Surprise Lake I put my gear back in my pack and headed up the trail to Amphitheater Lake climbed over the ridge and spread before me was one of the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen. Surrounded by high peaks, Disappointment Peak directly in the background and Grand Teton behind that, Amphitheater Lake sits a little higher up then Surprise Lake at an elevation of 9698 feet.
I spent about an hour and a half at this lake just drinking in the spectacular views, taking the occasional photo as the light changed and glassing the cliffs for mountain goats. I felt I could have stayed there forever. As I ate my lunch sitting in the grass leaning against my backpack I had chipmunks in my lap eating crumbs from my fingers while listening to friendly folks chatting about the area and the scenery. One couple who just arrived said they had just seen a bear cub a couple hundred yards back on the trail. Of course my first thought was “Uh oh where’s it’s mom?”
On my way back down the trail I ran into others who had seen the cub near the trail. A couple hundred yards further down as I rounded a bend I looked over the edge and saw down below the trail a good sized black bear. She or he was tearing apart a log for the purpose I assume of getting at the little critters living inside. I didn’t linger but continued at a steady pace down the trail and out of sight. I ran into quite a few people coming up the trail and I warned them about the bear advising them to “be bear aware” and make plenty of noise. It was interesting the different responses I got. Some were worried because they didn’t have bear spray. Others unconsciously put their hand on their belt to make sure their bear spray was there and a few were very excited and said they hoped they would get to see the bear!
Obviously the hike down was much quicker and easier in some ways then the hike up. But hiking down hill is hard on the joints, especially my knees and hips. I always take trekking poles with me. They are great for helping me keep my balance stepping over obstacles and climbing steep areas of trail. I also bang them together at times to make more noise going up the trail. But where they benefit me the most is going down hill. It took me two and a half hours on the return trip and if it wasn’t for my poles taking the pressure off my hip and knee joints I don’t think I would have made it back to the trail head without emergency assistance.
So…to summarize this adventure of mine. I do look at this trip as an adventure and a great outdoor experience. Yes it was tough on me at times. But I found out just how far I can push myself physically. I was able to go home and recover just fine. It took a few days to get over being stiff and sore. But looking at the photos I captured, remembering the wildlife I saw and the awesome majesty of the mountains, spectacular lakes and sweeping views of the valley makes it all worth it and it will be remembered as one of my favorite hikes. I can’t wait for the next adventure!
I live a little over an hour away from two national parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Both parks can be pretty crazy with the amount of people visiting in the summertime. These two parks are amazingly beautiful in their own way. I spent most of this summer hiking the trails in the Tetons. One of these trails is the Taggart Lake Loop.
GETTING TO THE TAGGART LAKE TRAIL HEAD
I live on the Idaho side of the Tetons so I drive over the mountain into Jackson Wyoming and then enter the park through the south entrance near Moose Wyoming. Just a few miles up the road on the inner highway is a parking lot and restrooms just off the highway. We left home well before light and arrived at the trail head just at sunrise (this is a good idea if you want to beat the crowds as this is a popular hike). As we exited our car we could hear an elk bugling and as we donned our gear we could see on the ridge where we were headed several elk in the trees. If you have ever heard the sound of a bull elk bugling in the cool morning air it is a sound you won’t forget. Even in midsummer early mornings are in the low 40’s so it’s best to dress in layers (by afternoon the temperature rose to about 80 degrees).
HIKING TO TAGGART LAKE
The hike into Taggart Lake is an easy hike with only a 277 foot elevation gain. There is one trail leading from the parking lot straight toward the Tetons across a flat area and then over a glacial moraine. It’s 3.2 miles in and out or you can take the loop from the lake south around and back along Beaver Creek and that is about 4 miles. We took the 4 mile loop in order to come back a different way.
After you leave the parking lot, and cross the flats the trail winds through some beautiful aspen groves that are especially beautiful in the fall.
The trail then crosses Taggart Creek via a bridge that is perfect for photos.
While on the bridge look to your left for a great view of a waterfall
The trail crosses Taggart Creek, circles past Park Service corrals and an historic old barn and cabin from the homestead era ( circa 1911 ), and turns back towards the mountains.
The trail then climbs up the moraine along the creek then as you flatten out and walk towards the mountains the trail then splits right towards Bradley Lake ( see myBradley Lake Loop Trail post ) and left toward Taggart Lake through an old burn and down to the lake.
Taggart Lake is a pristine glacial lake sitting at the base of Avalanche Canyon with views of the high peaks behind. I am told that fishing for trout from the shore is pretty good. The water is cold and I’m sure the fish would be tasty. This is a perfect place to break out the camera for photos or canvas and brushes to begin a painting. We lingered here for about an hour then continued south around the end of the lake across a footbridge over a low rise then down along Beaver Creek back to the trail head. The parking lot was full to overflowing when we returned with people of all ages headed up the trail. As I said before this area is very popular and if you want to beat the crowd and the heat go early!