Two weeks ago I hiked Palisades Creek Trail into Lower Palisades Lake. To read more about that hike please click the link Late Spring Hike To Lower Palisades Lake. That post has a lot of photos I shot along the four miles of trail between the trailhead and lower lake.
This morning I arrived at the Palisades Creek trailhead at about 7:30 am and then hiked at a steady pace stopping only once during the first four miles to lower my pack to the ground, grab a snack and a photo.
Last time I hiked this stretch it took me almost four hours to reach the lower lake because I stopped many times along the way to shoot the scenery and glass the cliffs for mountain goats. This time it took me two hours less because I took just this one shot of the creek from one of the five bridges along the way. Two weeks ago the water was brown with runoff but now it has cleared up quite a bit. Still a little water on the trail in some places but much less then last time.
The photo above shows what the lower lake looks like today. The photo below shows what the same lake looked like two weeks ago. Big difference in two weeks. Much greener now. More leaves on the trees/brush and the lake water is green instead of brown. Also there is less snow on the mountain.
The trail continues along the waters edge at the left side of the lake and then on up the canyon about another three miles to Upper Palisades Lake.
This (above) is the bridge that crosses the lower lake outlet.
(above photo) Looking back across Lower Palisades Lake towards the canyon and the trail that leads back down the four miles to the trailhead.
About one hour of hiking past the lower lake I took a break in this nice shady area. There are a few campsites near by and a hitching post for horses.
Also in this area is this forest service cabin (above photo) which hasn’t been used in awhile other then by the local wildlife. Door was unlocked and ajar but wouldn’t open very far because the floor has buckled.
The trail climbs up a ridge overlooking Palisades Creek and I could look across to the ridge on the other side and just over that ridge in an upper valley (see above photo) is where Upper Palisades Lake is located.
To get there the trail descends back down into the canyon and crosses over another bridge there.
Pretty nice bridge for back country stream crossing. Makes me wonder how the people at the forest service got it there.
About one hundred yards past the bridge I spotted a cow moose grazing the grass from the bottom of the marsh. I watched her for awhile and thought about getting closer but when she wasn’t looking at me she was looking at something in the willows to my left and I suspect she had a calf or two hidden in there somewhere. If my suspicions were correct and I had moved in for a closer shot she would have been on me in no time. Not wanting a mama moose mad at me I moved on up the trail.
Not far up the trail I looked up to see a young mule deer watching me from a bend in the trail. This little guy gave me just enough time to snap a shot and then disappeared.
(above photo) View from the top of the trail looking back down the canyon I just climbed out of.
Upper Palisades Lake sits at an elevation of just over 6700 feet and is about two miles long. The water is a blue-green color (more green then blue) and is quite striking where the water covers the sand around the submerged portions of the island.
There are several decent campsites around this end of the lake. I hiked part way up the trail on the left side of the lake, rested, ate my lunch and then headed back. I saw several mountain bikers ride into this lake while I was there and am extremely impressed that anybody could make it this far on a bike.
I had originally planned to hike past the upper lake and into Waterfall Canyon where a 90 foot waterfall is probably gushing water this time of the year. But that would have added another five miles of hiking for a grand total of nineteen miles. I didn’t feel I had it in me and wasn’t sure I had enough daylight left either. So I headed back happy I had made the effort to see this beautiful lake but already a little tired and honestly not looking forward to the seven mile hike back. It took me about four hours to reach the parking area and although exhausted and hurting, I am already looking forward to my next hike.
I had been itching to do this hike ever since I heard the trail was clear of snow. Then another snowstorm and a week of ‘iffy’ weather caused me to postpone one more week.
From Rigby I drove to Swan Valley then to Irwin. Just past Irwin I took a left on Old Irwin Rd/Palisades Creek Road. Then 2 miles in on a dirt road to the campground. Just past the campground is the trailhead for Palisades Creek Trail. I saw five head of deer along the edge of the trees as I pulled into the trailhead parking lot. They saw me and scattered so I wasn’t able to get a photo of them.
The trailhead parking area sits at an elevation of 5500 feet and has a restroom and info board with map of the area.
Beginning the hike
At the trailhead I crossed the first of many bridges along the way. It is a pleasant 4 mile hike from here to Lower Palisades Lake with only about a 500 foot elevation gain. Because of this you can make good time and if you push it you can make it to the lake in two hours. It took me a lot longer as I stopped often to capture images of the beauty around me.
Less than 1/4 mile up the trail the US Forest Service has a sign-in area and asks for hikers to register on their way in and again on their way out. I wish all trailheads had one of these. Just another way to make a hiking experience a little safer.
The trail follows Palisades creek pretty much all the way into the lower lake. It had rained during the night and everything was fresh and clean looking. The Trees and bushes were getting there leaves and grass was growing, the colors vivid!
This is a very scenic and fast moving stream, swollen and muddy now due to snow melt.
Because the water level was so high there were 3-4 areas where the stream overflowed its banks and sent water down the trail creating a new stream for short distances. This is one of the reasons I use trekking poles. They help me keep my balance as I try to keep my feet dry and also are great for gauging the depth of water in case I need to cross.
There are about 5 bridges between the trail head and the lower lake as the trail crosses back and forth across the stream. These are bridges built not only for human traffic but also horses. This trail is popular for horseback riding and also mountain biking.
Palisades Creek Trail changes elevation quite a few times from down level with the stream to a few 100 feet above the stream with some grand views.
Many parts of this canyon are lined with cliffs and sweet looking rock formations. If you take time to stop and check the cliff ledges above you, you might see some mountain goats. I had been told that there were quite a few in this area but didn’t see one until about a mile or two up the canyon.
Mountain Goats love to eat along the cliff edges and watch hikers, horseback riders and mountain bikers from their lofty perches. Many hikers I’m sure walk right by them without seeing them.
This goat watched me the whole time I watched it.
The trail pulls away from the creek at times and meanders through some beautiful groves of trees and vegetation.
Not long after I walked across the fifth bridge of the hike I started up a rocky incline which would be the first of five switchbacks before reaching the lake.
Just before I reached the lower lake there was a nice campground off to the right of the trail with several campsites and an outhouse off in the trees behind the area.
Lower Palisades Lake sits at about 6100 feet elevation. I read that it was created by a huge rockslide blocking the stream ages ago. The lake was muddy brown from runoff but still picturesque. I ate my lunch and visited with a couple of hikers who arrived shortly after I did. They were some of the first people I had seen since early morning. (I ran into three hikers when I first started my hike. They were finishing their hike and had spent the night at the upper lake the night before.)
After lunch I headed back to the trailhead. I ran into several hikers and mountain bikers on the way back and saw some more mountain goats. It started to rain when I was about 30 minutes from the car. I keep a rain poncho and waterproof jacket in my pack but decided to relax under a big tree with lots of cover until the rain stopped which was long enough to reflect on this beautiful hike and plan my next one. I decided I would hike this same trail next time but keep going until I reach the upper lake and maybe go a little farther up into Waterfall Canyon. Already looking forward to it! Happy hiking!!
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!