62 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: to visit every U.S. national park. Avid backpacker and public-lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built out a tiny van to travel and live in, and hit the road. The parks as we know them are rapidly changing, and she wanted to see them before it’s too late.
Pennington is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure the safety of herself and others. She’s visiting new parks while closely adhering to best safety practices.
There are days when you think you’re going to hike the Teton Crest Trail in northern Wyoming in late June, and then there are days when your dreams come crashing down on you. As a spoiled SoCal hiker, I’m used to the snow line being well above 10,000 feet by midsummer. But after I sauntered up to the wilderness-permit counter with my partner, Brian, my jaw dropped when a friendly ranger informed us that the snow was sitting somewhere around 7,500 feet.
“What’s the next best thing?” I asked. “Could we backpack up Lower Paintbrush Canyon?”
“Yeah, that should be beautiful and practically snow-free,” he said, handing us a permit attached to a twisty tie.
To mix up the strange monotony of a mid-pandemic, two-month van trip over the summer, my friend Brandon drove up from Salt Lake City to join us on our journey. That day at the park, we packed our bags while dodging peanut-size hail in a parking lot near String Lake. Then we hiked.
“We’re finally backpacking in the Grand Teats!” Brian shouted. We had been sophomorically making boob jokes about the park all month and were thrilled for the opportunity to test them out in person. “You know, the park is actually named after the French phrase meaning ‘the large tit,’” Brandon replied.
It’s true, by the way. The story goes that when exhausted, homesick French explorers laid eyes on the Teton Range, they gazed out at the vast, jagged mountains and thought, Breasts! The Grand Teton is the largest of the three pinnacles, and when the park was formed in 1929, the name stuck.
Being outnumbered two to one, clearly I had 48 hours of bro time ahead of me.
My merry band of dudes maneuvered around the sparkling western shoreline of String Lake, passing through a patch of not yet ripe huckleberries. It was my first time backpacking in grizzly country, and my mind was on high alert. I kept a can of bear spray close at all times—while pitching the tent, cooking dinner, and peeing in the bushes. I did not drive all this way to become an ursine protein bar.
The following morning, we had the ambitious goal of snow-climbing up to Holly Lake, at an altitude of 9,400 feet. Yellow-bellied marmots scampered around the trail like tiny mafia dons, unaware or uncaring that we were over 15 times their size. Breathless, I took in a new, unfamiliar view of the Tetons, one that allowed me to see the delicate waterfalls and craggy cliffs of metamorphic gneiss from deep inside a canyon. We stopped and stared in silence at a massive, snaggletoothed alpine cirque nestled beneath Paintbrush Divide.
We were the only hikers around for miles, and it was perfect. The three of us slid on our rumps all the way back to camp and then began the long trek back to the cars. My original plans had been dashed, but the trip was still pretty darn phenomenal.
At least now I’ve got an excuse to return.
62 Parks Traveler Grand Teton Info
Size: 310,000 acres
Location: Northwestern Wyoming
Created In: 1929 (national park), 1943 (Jackson Hole National Monument), 1950 (the current national park, which combined the national park and monument grounds)
Best For: Backpacking, hiking, boating, wildlife viewing, stargazing, and scenic drives
When to Go: Summer (36 to 78 degrees) and fall (15 to 67 degrees) are the best seasons for hiking and backpacking. Spring (14 to 58 degrees) brings thawing snow, while winter (4 to 32 degrees) is the least visited season.
Where to Stay: If you’re not into backpacking, the Jenny Lake Campground is centrally located and offers some killer views of the Teton Range. Each site comes equipped with a picnic table, fire ring, and access to flush toilets.
Where to Eat: Cowboy Coffee, in nearby Jackson Hole, serves up a mean panini and an incredible assortment of fancy caffeinated drinks. It’s a great morning stop on your way into the park.
Mini Adventure: Hike to Bearpaw and Trapper Lakes. This flat trail makes for an epic family-friendly trek along the shore of picturesque Leigh Lake, with stunning views of the Tetons and 12,605-foot Mount Moran.
Mega Adventure: Go backpacking. The 40-mile Teton Crest Trail is the crown jewel of the park, though there’s no shortage of single- and multi-night treks if you know where to look. Consult the park’s backcountry camping page for wilderness permits and planning tips.