Family Camping in Grand Teton National Park
Growing up in the midwest, my family trips took us up north to Wisconsin, the rare road trip to Michigan and extra-long drives to Florida. We never ventured out west or far east, but happily hopped in our family van with a mini tv set squashed between my parents’ seats. Our vacations were spent with family; cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles and we spent all of our time playing outside on my grandparents 60 acres of land in Wisconsin, aptly named “Journey’s End.”
I’ll always cherish those days, but one thing I wanted to start as a tradition with my family was visiting National Parks of the USA. On our baby bean world tour, we visited Bryce Canyon and Arches National Park and made a promise, each visit to the States, we’d tick off another. Knowing we were heading back to Denver, we decided to spend three days in the Tetons, a place we’ve been wowing over for years.
The Tetons: where to camp, when to get up and where to go.
Ryan and I love a good, long road trip so while most won’t drive 8-10 hours (each way) to spend just three nights in a place, we were looking forward to it.
Wyoming is a vast state and topographically, it’s quite flat until you reach the northwest part of the state. Once the roads began to wind, our excitement levels grew. We pulled into Jackson, the largest town in the Jackson Hole Valley, and immediately loved the feel. Mix western style with a charming ski town vibe and you have Jackson. While walking around the crowded main downtown, we heard an array of languages, passed local outfitters, and fueled up on cold brews and freshly-made wraps from Healthy Being.
Although we only had three days in the Tetons, we wanted to keep costs down. When a friend suggested a free campsite with the views of the Teton Range, we were sold. After our little rendezvous in town, we drove out to the campsite as it was a first-come, first-serve basis. The entire drive, we sat in awe as the Tetons Range towered to the left of us looking mighty and inviting.
Shadow Mountain Campground
This campsite is dispersed camping which means no toilets and no trash bins. Everything you bring in, you need to take back out aka leave no trace. Each site has plenty of space for a couple of tents and most feature a firepit. We set up next to a lovely family of four and enjoyed our first dinner with a fire overlooking the range. That night, we set our alarms for 4am, climbed into our cozy tent and hoped for a good night’s sleep.
*Always leave food, cooking equipment, diapers, etc in your car or pitched high in the trees to avoid attracting bears to your site.
Three days in the Tetons
The next morning we crawled out of the tent and drove over to Schwabacher Landing to join the photo dads (think a row of tripods at head level and beige vests) at the favoured reflection shot. I was exceptionally crabby and on little sleep, Ry snapped some gorgeous shots and as we headed back to the campsite, we noticed fog rolling in near Mormon Row. We took a few photos, I let go of my cranky mood, and we decided to head into the park to hike around Jenny Lake.
We paid the $35 entrance fee and drove straight to Jenny Lake carpark. At this time (7-8am) there were still plenty of spaces, however, come noon vehicles were parked a solid mile away in order to access the most popular trails of the park. Go early.
To make the most out of our time, we hopped on the ferry (15mins) to reach the other side – an ideal way to wake up and take in the surroundings. From the pier, we hiked straight up to Hidden Falls and over to Inspiration Point, both fairly easy and short walks that became busier by the minute. On the way back to the visitor centre, we stopped at Moose Point and sure enough saw a female moose bathing in the lake – our first big animal sighting of the trip.
After our hike, we headed back to Jackson to catch up on a few work projects and once again, to fuel up on coffee. Upon returning back to the park, we decided to go for a swim to cool off in the afternoon heat at String Lake.
That night, we relaxed at the campsite, ate a hearty dinner and played in the tall grass during golden hour. Back to sleep around 9pm with alarms set for 4am once again. On this morning, Ryan wanted to capture a few road shots so as Lia and I slept, he drove around finding the perfect spot. To see it, click here on his Instagram page.
Still desperate for decent WiFi for work purposes, we chose to hang out in Moose’s little pioneer-inspired town, Dornan. While the views were outstanding, skip the watery, grind-filled coffee at Wagon Wheel. The rest of our afternoon we spent driving around the park, attempting to swim at Phelps Lake only to realize our rental car might not survive the drive and encouraging Lia to take a long, midday snooze. We drove over to Jackson Hole (in hopes of better coffee – unsuccessful), we cruised to Jackson Lake for a pasta lunch alongside the lake where we planned out our sunset hike mission.
Our goal was to hike as high as we could in the allotted time. The park rangers suggested Amphitheatre Lake – a 10mi roundtrip hike full of switchbacks, wildflowers and vast views. We raced the sun, hoping to reach the lake with plenty of time to return before dark.
It was a gruelling slog up, but we climbed quick and we were immediately rewarded with views. A few passersby let us know a bear was sighted on the trail earlier so we took each turn with caution and kept our eyes peeled.
We passed Surprise Lake and reached our end goal just in time to greet all the mosquitos, capture a few shots, let Lia stretch her legs and realize for bear safety, we need to head back down. From Amphitheater Lake, you have front row seats for the park’s tallest peaks including Middle Teton, Disappointment Peak, Grand Teton and Mt. Owen. This subalpine lake is rated as the most beautiful one in the park and we agree. Many furry friends scurried around us including rabbits, weasels and plenty of adorable chipmunks, but little did we know who we would run into on our way down.
Now that we were close to dusk and the trails were empty, we made sure to talk loudly as we raced down the switchbacks. About halfway down, Ryan spotted our first bear. A medium-size brown bear rustling in the trees in the valley below us – a safe distance away.
We caught up to a group of girls who had just summited South Teton and straight away were told there was a bear just off the trail. We looked to our left and just 50m away was a teenage grizzly bear on a rock. Close enough to make your heart pound, but the guy didn’t even look our way.
As we reached the end of the trail another furry friend popped out. This smaller black bear was barreling through the trees just 20m above us and had a few older tourists freaked out. We walked on by talking loud and once again, the bear never looked away.
Moral of the story: ALWAYS BE BEAR AWARE in these parts of the world. Don’t scream, move fast, or even use your bear spray unless the bear is coming to attack you. These bears know you are there and typically don’t care. Keep talking loudly in a non-threatening way, stay on the trail and continue walking. Leave the bears to their world and they’ll do the same.
That night we opted for pizza and beer under the starry sky and climbed into our tent with sore legs and happy hearts.
For our final sunrise, we headed back to a few road shots, saw a coyote friend, then headed back to our campsite to pack up and make the long drive back to Denver.
Three days in the Tetons was just what our adventure souls needed. We left dirty, exhausted and full of stories to share and made a promise to return one day.
Thanks so much for joining me and my family on our trip to Grand Teton National Park. If you are looking for a quick go-to guide for the park, scroll below to find our best tips for the area.
And as always, happy wandering!
Quick Guide to Grand Teton National Park
*Heads up: Park Fee is $35 per vehicle, $20 per hiker/cyclist
- Shadow Mountain campsite (FREE, dispersed, first-come/first-serve)
- Camp within the park (payment required, book in advance)
- Book hotel/motel/Airbnb in Jackson or Jackson Hole (pricey)
I recommend cooking at your campsite or setting up a picnic in the park, but if you want someone else to cook your meal, check out these spots:
- Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company – Best views (Moose)
- Healthy Being Cafe (Jackson)
- Hatch – Mexican (Jackson)
If you forgot any essentials or need to re-stock, pop into Doran’s Moose Trading Post, located across from the main visitor centre.
- Jenny Lake Trail: This trail has two must-see spots: Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. From Jenny Lake choose to walk the entire route or cut it off by hopping on the lake ferry cutting off 2.4mi of the hike ($10 one-way, $18 roundtrip).
- Amphitheater Lake (5 hours roundtrip): Follow switchbacks as you climb higher and higher soaking up views of the sweeping landscape, heavily forested surroundings and the serene blue waters of Bradley Lake and Taggart Lake.
- Mormon Row – Capture the awe-inspiring peaks with old log cabins and tall, wispy grass in the foreground.
- Schwabacher Landing – Arrive before sunrise to find yourself among the photography Dads (look for the tripods) for good reason. On a clear, still day this damned river, thanks to the local beavers, you’ll find a perfect reflection of the Tetons range.
- Curved road shot – Jenny Lake scenic drive road towards String Lake (be VERY aware of cars if attempting this shot).
- String Lake – Plenty of parking and picnic tables at this little swimming spot. Let your little ones paddle in the shallow area (head’s up lake floor is rocky) and relax as you take in the mountain views.
- Phelps Lake – If you are up for a bumpy drive (4×4 recommended) and a bit of a walk, this lake is the local favorite.
- Jenny Lake is another hotspot for a swim just stay clear of the marina. You can also rent canoes and kayaks by the hour to cruise along the lake
- Catch as many sunrises and sunsets as you can and hang around for golden hour.
- ALWAYS carry bear spray and BE BEAR AWARE aka never leave food out and use the bear safe bins.
- Arrive at Jenny Lake as early as possible, this lot and these trails fill up quick.
- Hang around dawn and dusk for the best chance to see wildlife.
For more information, head to the Tetons Plan Your Visit site.