Grand Teton National Park is one of my favorite places in the world. I’ve visited a few times, and each time, it manages to steal my heart even more. The Tetons are among the most iconic mountains in North America. No matter how many times you see them, they never get old. My latest trip to the Tetons lasted nearly a week. I spent it camping all throughout the park and chasing all sorts of magnificent views. Plus, it was my birthday week so quite a few seltzers were thrown back on the shores of Jackson Lake.
Despite Grand Teton’s popularity, it can still be overwhelming trying to decide what to do. No amount of Internet guides and blogs, this one included, can compare to actually being on the ground and adjusting. How does one avoid the crowds, especially during a pandemic? What are the low-key hikes that go relatively under the radar? What’s the best way to see the park without paying $300 a night for a hotel room in Jackson? I fumbled my way around the park so that you don’t have to.
Here’s the low-down on visiting Grand Teton National Park safely and on a budget.
Getting To Grand Teton National Park
There are a few different entrances to Grand Teton National Park. The closest one to Jackson is at Moose Junction. One of the less-crowded entrances is at Moran Junction. There’s also the entrance in the highway between Yellowstone and Grand Teton. If you’re coming from the north from Yellowstone, that’ll be the entrance you go through. If you’re coming from the south from Jackson, you’ll enter either through Moose Junction or Moran Junction. If you’re coming from the east, you’ll likely be entering through Moran Junction.
- $35 per private vehicle for a 7-day pass as of August 2020.
- $80 for an annual interagency pass, including all national parks and national monuments.
- $70 for an annual pass to just Grand Teton National Park.
Visiting Grand Teton National Park During the Coronavirus Pandemic
What are the crowds at Grand Teton like?
Grand Teton is undeniably one of the most crowded national parks during the summer. Yellowstone is arguably the most iconic of America’s national parks. Most visitors to Yellowstone will undoubtedly tack on Grand Teton because of how close it is. Of course, Grand Teton is popular on its own right, as well. Because of that, you’ll encounter quite a few crowds. During the day, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a trail without heavy traffic. In the neighboring city of Jacksone Hole, it’s going to be rough as well. Here’s the latest on Jackson and the Coronavirus pandemic.
Are masks mandatory?
Grand Teton is in Wyoming, and is close to the red states like Idaho, Montana, and Utah. You’ll encounter people from all over the country, and we made a game of ticking off all the license plates we saw in the park. However, I definitely noticed that masks were a lot less popular in the park than in other parks that I’d been to. In Rocky Mountain National Park, it seemed like about 70% of hikers would have a mask or a buff on hand. It seemed like less than a third of hikers in Grand Teton wore a mask. I even got called out by an anti-masker Karen for wearing a mask.
Social Distancing Guidelines
Most of the park’s popular hikes are going to be insanely crowded. There’s no way that the underfunded national park systems would be able to adequately enforce social distancing and mask guidelines, so it’s really in the hands of people to be responsible. Unfortunately, most have chosen not to be. Wear a mask and maintain social distancing guidelines or don’t go. Jackson has become a hotspot for coronavirus due to its proximity to Grand Teton and Yellowstone.
Is anyone enforcing the COVID-19 guidelines?
Sadly, no. The national parks are underfunded as is, and unfortunately, park rangers are spread thin. With the immense and constantly growing popularity of Grand Teton National Park, there’s little that the staff can do.
The Best Things To Do At Grand Teton National Park
Best Hikes in Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is a hiker’s paradise. I mean, look at those beautiful mountains. Don’t you just want to conquer those majestic beauties? There are dozens and dozens of trails, ranging from leisurely strolls along a lake to lengthy, high-elevation challenges.
The most popular hikes at Grand Teton National Park are Jenny Lake, Taggart Lake and Bradley Lake, Phelps Lake, Amphitheatre Lake, and the until-recently hidden gem of Delta Lake. Yeah, Grand Teton National Park has a lot of lakes, if you couldn’t tell.
Other non-lake hikes include Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, and Cascade Canyon, all which are on the same trail around the Jenny Lake loop. One can also hike up to Signal Mountain, although driving it is a whole lot less effort.
Here’s a list of most of the hiking trails in Grand Teton National Park.
Photography Spots in Grand Teton National Park
Honestly, everywhere you go makes for a pretty photogenic spot. As long as the Tetons are in view, you’ve got something to snap a photo of. Some of my favorite spots, outside the obvious ones, are at the top of Signal Mountain and along the drive if you decide to go straight at Moose Junction. There, you’ll find overviews of the Snake River, the glacier, and a few historic cabins and spots, including Mormon Row.
Of course, the hikes will always provide plenty of photo opportunities. Jackson Dam is also a stunning spot where many a traveler will stop to snap some selfies. As far as lighting goes, sunrise is otherworldly. When first light hits the Tetons, it is a sight to behold. Middle of the day and sunset lighting can often be harsh for the average phone or camera. No matter how beautiful the sunsets in the Tetons are, it’s often hard to capture. Morning adventures make for the best lighting for my fellow photographers.
Get Out on the Lakes
For those who prefer something more laid back, perhaps a day out on Grand Teton’s many lakes is the ideal option. I spent a few hours kayaking in beautiful Jackson Lake and could’ve spent the entire day out there. It was serene, peaceful, and breathtakingly beautiful. A lot of visitors to Grand Teton bring their boats, whether it’s a kayak, canoe, or bigger motorized boat. It’s one of the best ways to have a relaxing day with some of the most breathtaking and iconic views in the country.
For real, I’m jealous of all of y’all that have boats. Can one of y’all Wyomingans adopt me? I don’t know what people from Wyoming are called, and autocorrect won’t tell me. From now on, you’re all my Wy-homies. As long as you let me on your boat.
Grand Teton National Park has an insane amount of wildlife. I’ve had minimal luck with wildlife in the past. In my dozens of visits to national parks, I had never once seen a moose or a bear. That all changed on my latest trip to Grand Teton National Park. We spotted a moose taking a dip at Moose Pond and a black bear snacking on some greenery close to the road. Grizzlies, black bears, moose, elk, deer, otters, you name it. Grand Teton is home to an abundance of majestic wildlife. Of course, a couple hours north to Lamar Valley in Yellowstone and you can add bison and wolves to that list.
Be sure to be responsible when wildlife watching. Wild animals, especially the larger ones, can be extremely dangerous. Getting too close to them can be a death sentence. Keep wildlife wild and do your part. Admire them from a safe distance and live and let live. According to the National Park Service safety guidelines, stay at least 100 yards from wolves and bears and 25 yards from everything else.
Visit the Historical Sites of Grand Teton National Park
Grand Teton National Park is home to a variety of historical sites and locations. One of the largest is Mormon Row Historic District. It’s home to some of those iconic barns that you’ve likely seen many a picture of. Honestly, it was surprisingly neat. I came for the photo op but stayed a lot longer just because of its calm and quaint vibe. Outside of the barns, there’s plenty of room to roam away from the tourists. Herds of bison frequent the area, as well. Don’t get too close. Those guys are massive.
Other historic spots within the park include cabins, ranches, and lodges that have stood the test of time, if not a bit worse for wear.
Where To Stay In and Around Grand Teton National Park
Camping. As a budget traveler, that’s pretty much the only thing I can tell you. Even the cheapest motels and Airbnbs in Jackson Hole will be brutal on your wallet. Campsites in the Tetons are nearly twice as expensive as other national parks, but hey, what can ya do? They are still by far the cheapest accommodation option for seeing the park. Luckily, there are plenty to choose from, and combined, there are probably around a thousand campsites available within Grand Teton National Park. Here are the ones I’m familiar with.
- Gros Ventre Campground
Gros Ventre is conveniently located about 15 minutes from both the Moose Junction entrance of the park and Jackson Hole. It costs $33 a night for a normal tent site with room for two vehicles. It’s a good value for its location. However, if you wanted to be in the heart of the park, it may not be your first option. The view is nowhere near as nice as the other campgrounds, and you won’t have an epic lake to walk to for every sunrise or sunset.
- Colter Bay Campground
Colter Bay is where I ended up camping the most. Next to Gros Ventre, it’s probably the campground that fills up the slowest. It’s got over 300 campsites, so you don’t have to wake up at an ungodly hour to try and reserve one. It costs $36 a night and is within walking distance to the lake, a general store, a visitor center, a gas station, showers, laundry, and more. It’s nearly an hour to drive back to Jackson from here, so make sure to come prepared to minimize lengthy trips back and forth through the park.
- Signal Mountain Campground
In a perfect world, I’d camp at Signal Mountain every day of my life. It’s got the most amenities and probably has the most central location of the park’s campgrounds. There’s a cafe, showers, laundry, general store, gas station, and boat rental close to the campground. Since it’s located next to Signal Mountain Resort, it’s where you’ll find the most amenities. I’m sure cell signal has nothing to do with Signal Mountain, but it’s probably the only spot in the park with reliable Wi-Fi and cell signal.
- Jenny Lake Campground
This is the most famous, by far. Like my god, what a mess it was trying to get a campsite here. Honestly, it might be best to not even bother trying to get a campsite at Jenny Lake. As iconic as it is, there’s not much appeal of getting to the campsite at 5:30 AM and then waiting until 8 AM to find out if you’ll even get a spot. It’s by far the smallest of Grand Teton’s campsites, with only around 50 spots, compared to over 300 for both Colter Bay and Gros Ventre.
The other campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park are Headwaters and Lizard Creek. Those are in the northern part of the park, making it a good home base to explore both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. You can read more about the campgrounds in Grand Teton here, including what time they usually fill up by.
Outside of the campgrounds located within Grand Teton National Park itself, it’s possible to find cheaper, or even free, campgrounds at the national forests.
Camping at National Forests Near Grand Teton National Park
Primitive and dispersed camping are other options for campers who don’t need the amenities of a developed campsite. On the way up to Grand Teton National Park, we passed quite a few BLM and USFS campsites. Most of them will be free, although some of the nicer ones requested you to pay about $10 in a self-serve envelope. A good spot near Grand Teton National Park would be at Bridger-Teton National Forest.
Hotels/Motels/Hostels in the Tetons
The most popular home base for Grand Teton National Park is likely Jackson, Wyoming. However, it is expensive to stay here. Outside of camping, there are very few budget options. Another option nearby is the ski town of Teton Village. I stayed here one night in a hostel for $40. That was before pandemic times. I looked at the same hostel for mid-August running half-capacity and it was a brutal $80 for a shared room. One night there could buy me a whole month in a hostel in my favorite little mountain town in Peru. Alas, how I miss international travel.
Outside of Jackson, there are a few smaller towns that might make a good home base. Places like Idaho Falls and Rexburg in Idaho are decent if you don’t mind driving around four hours roundtrip. Smoot and Afton in Wyoming are other good options if you don’t mind the drive. I stayed at an amazing private cabin Airbnb in Smoot for $40 a night, although it didn’t have electricity, Wi-Fi, or running water. But hey, that’s part of the adventure.
And when you’re in the Tetons, it’s going to be one grand adventure.