Togwotee Mountain Lodge has a great buffet breakfast. There is only one waitress to serve the dining room, though, and they require that she seat you and bring you your check at the end. The service was not particularly quick, but the food was good and healthy and various. And classic rock in the dining room is not a bad way to start your morning.
We did a split-shift breakfast, so it was Aidan and me on our own while the others got ready for the day. The restaurant is full of horse equipment, so we had a little crash course in bridles and bits and saddles and stirrups.
By about 11:00 am, we headed toward Grand Teton National Park. There are hardly words to describe the grandeur of these mountains. I am not native to Illinois, so flat is not my childhood terrain, but the eastern mountains are an entirely different breed: beautiful in a different way. We came back through Togwotee Pass, toward the Park. On this drive, Grand Teton is framed by the forested mountains of the Pass: a beautiful entry into a beautiful park.
The largest lake in the Park is Jackson Lake, covering about the top third of the Park. There are a few smaller lakes such as Two Ocean, Emma Matilda, Leigh Lake, Phelps Lake, String Lake, and Jenny Lake, and lots of tiny mountain lakes. Coming through Moran Junction, into the Park, we intended to head west toward Jackson Lake and take Teton Park Road south to Jenny Lake, but my faulty navigation led us onto Routes 26/89/191, which is the faster way through the Park. This road takes you straight south along the east side of the Snake River, which lies at the base of the valley that gives Jackson Hole its defining feature (a hole in between the mountains). Always one to find the bright spot, even in faulty navigation, I was glad we went this direction because being just a few miles further away from the mountains offers a better broad view of the range. Gorgeous.
At Moose Junction, near the base of the Park, we headed back north on Teton Park Road. This is where the action is when it comes to Park amenities, activities, and yes, people. The Park does not have guard shacks nor does it require entrance fees except along Teton Park Road, it seems, so if you want to drive on through on the east side of the Park, I think you can enjoy the view for free! Annual Pass in hand, we headed to South Jenny Lake Junction. One unique activity we noted was all the mountain bikers. We had seen a few here and there at Yellowstone, but there were lots at Grand Teton. Many were very serious-looking, water bottles on backs and packs on wheels. Some were clearly overnighters, while others were day bikers. And some appeared to just be out for a casual Sunday morning ride. I’m not sure it would have been worth carting bikes across the country just for this moment, but it would have been fun to ride a bit. There are plenty of mountainous areas, but also many flat areas in the river valley. Almost every road seemed to have a separate, or at least defined-by-lines designated bike lane.
We had been told that parking would be scarce at South Jenny Lake because it is a popular area for day-hikers, as well as a jump-off for backpackers and climbers heading up Grand Teton. My Aunt Mary Ann and Uncle Ted have spent some family vacation time in this area. Uncle Ted has backpacked from Jenny Lake, up Cascade Canyon three times, and climbed Grand Teton with his boys once as well. Uncle Ted gave us some tips regarding getting a good sense of the area, with kids along. I will gladly pass his tips on to you for your vacationing pleasure.
Assessing the amenities at Jenny Lake, we found bathrooms, a Visitor Center, and the Jenny Lake Store, a combination souvenir shop, camping/hiking/backpacking supply store, and grocery store. All were useful to us. At the Visitor Center, we gathered information about the boat ride. At the grocery store, we got drinks and sandwiches and enjoyed them on a bench on the porch of the Store.
One thing that struck us as we ate: the Badlands were rattlesnake country; we were now clearly in bear country. Each hotel we’ve been at has given us direct and clear instructions regarding how to handle our garbage, what to carry with us as we hike, and what to not carry with us. At Jenny Lake there were bins for plastic recycling, bins for glass recycling, bins for aluminum recycling, and bins for trash, all with handles sufficiently secure to keep out bears, and even some humans. It was amusing to watch people come along and try to figure out the latch. Some people in the world are persistent and creative, problem-solvers who approach a roadblock as a problem to be solved. And others see roadblocks as a reason to turn around and walk the other direction, trash and recycling still in hand.
I hope we are teaching our children to be the former.
With sandwiches completed, we headed down to the boat dock, following the moose tracks along the path, as instructed. The shuttle rides across the lake are run by Jenny Lake Boating. They also rent canoes and kayaks. With more time, it would have been fun to rent a boat and go out on our own. Uncle Ted’s advice to us was to take the boat across the Lake. There is also a 2 mile hiking trail around the Lake clock-wise or about 5 miles counter-clockwise. The boat ride offers a beautiful view of Grand Teton, Jenny Lake and the entire area, and a boat-ride is always fun, so I would strongly recommend it. You can buy a one-way ticket or round-trip. Some people chose to hike one direction and boat the other. We chose the round-trip ticket. Prices for RT/1-way: Adults ($10/$7), Children 2-11 ($5/$5). Under 2 and over 80 are always free. Dad & Mom, you might choose to wait another 10 years to do this trip. Your rides would be free! Actually, I’d come much sooner if I were you. You would really enjoy this area.
There is also a scenic cruise that goes around the lake for an hour. These run three times a day for $15 and $7 for Adults & Children. Jenny Lake Boat accepts credit cards. Tickets are purchased down at their dock.
The ride across Jenny Lake to the west (mountain) side takes only about 10 minutes, but is a lovely and refreshing ride nonetheless. Our east to west ride was slow and stately. Our west to east ride was with a driver who might have preferred working at another lake, running speedboats for water skiers. Let’s just say there was a lot of wake and a lot of spray on that ride!
There are trash cans and a dock on the west side of Jenny Lake. And there are trails heading to a number of places, but that’s about it for amenities over there. Take care of your bathroom and nutritional needs before you head over, if you’re not heading back immediately. As we explained to the kids, it’s a shuttle boat. It goes back and forth all day long. Rides are approximately every 15 minutes, though they’re not precisely on a schedule. We hardly waited on either side. The last ride leaves the west side at 7:00 pm. If you miss the boat, so to speak, you are welcome to hike the 2-mile or 5 mile trails back to the east side of Jenny Lake. Beyond that, you’re on your own to hike as you please. I noticed that there are hiking sticks to borrow from the west side dock. Their only request: return the stick on either dock. We didn’t use any of them, but what a nice offer.
Uncle Ted suggested that we hike up to the waterfalls and then hike up toward the Cascade Canyon Trail, until it levels out, and then only as far as we had time for the day. That’s exactly what we did, and really enjoyed it. There are waterfalls just above the boat dock, but if you hike another half-mile or so, you get to Hidden Falls, which is larger and more secluded, dropping from the mountainside into the raging river below. The banks were full, as the snow was still melting from the mountaintops. We hiked a bit further, to Inspiration Point, which has a terrific, panoramic view of the Snake River valley, as well as a gorgeous view of the mountaintops behind you. These trails are extremely well-marked, with small maps and “You are here” indications at every intersection. The climbs are moderate, I’d say, but a lot of fun. Upward climbers have the right-of-way. Plenty of rocks to climb and some areas of wooden, as well as placed-rock stairs. I don’t know, maybe it would be considered strenuous. It wasn’t mountain climbing, but it would be challenging for someone with limited mobility and flexibility. We got some good exercise and the kids are perfect ages for this. They love hiking and are not easily discouraged. We saw a few families with little ones on shoulders, so it’s doable with toddlers; it would just be a different experience with less independent children.
Back down the mountain, we shuttled back to the east side of Jenny Lake. It was about time for a snack and a some water. We did not have serious regrets about not bringing water along on the hike, but we would have used it if we had it. The air at the falls was mountain-cool with some spray from the waterfall, but the rest of the hike was partly shaded and partly sunny. It was a gorgeous, warm day. Some water bottles could have come in handy. We stopped in to the Store again for a snack and drinks and then got back into the car to head to the North Jenny Lake Junction.
On this side of Jenny Lake, you can access a smaller lake, String Lake, which is (I believe), the only location within the Park that permits swimming. The kids swam for a bit in the (very chilly mountain) water. Several families were there and the kids enjoyed playing together. Hal and I read, while we sat on the shore. I’m trying to finish up Deathly Hallows before we see the movie when we get home. Hal was comfortable in the “soccer chair” we brought along. I prefer the blanket and the lean-back sitting-on-the-ground camping chair, but soon realized we were sitting amongst a colony of fire ants, so it wasn’t quite as relaxing as it might have been.
Dried off and changed in the bathrooms at the String Lake Picnic Area, the kids hopped back in the car with us and we headed off to find some dinner. I had considered staying inside the Park at Signal Mountain Lodge, just a few miles north of Jenny Lake, so I suggested that we might have dinner at one of their restaurants. The Trappers Grill has outdoor seating overlooking Jackson Lake or indoor seating with a breathtaking view of the Tetons and Jackson Lake below. We enjoyed terrific food and so-so service. Hal and I had the quesadilla: very spicy and delicious with guac and sour cream. Lots o’ jalapenos. Austin and Haley had a baked potato loaded with chili and other toppings. Aidan had the chicken & beef nachos: plenty for everyone to enjoy, actually. I should also mention that we started with some spring rolls (Haley’s suggestion: yum!), and I had a cup of chili before the quesadilla. The chili, unlike the quesadilla, was not spicy at all. It is elk chili, which is why I wanted to try it. It was almost sweet, with chunks of tomatoes. Lots of cheese and onions as well. Really good. I would strongly recommend the chili. It’s the same stuff that was on the baked potatoes. And the cup was perfect as an appetizer: not too much. Do not miss the blackberry pie. Really good blackberries. Really flaky crust. Hal and I shared, and made it a la mode by borrowing ice cream from Haley’s cookie sundae, which was really intended for many more than our 11 year old.
We drove the 20 miles back to Togwotee Mountain Lodge, having enjoyed the lake and the wildflowers alongside it while we waited the 20 minutes for our dinner table. We were tired, the good kind of tired, after a full day of enjoying the mountains. Our final stop before Togwotee was at the Jackson Dam, which holds Jackson Lake back from dumping into the Snake River. I’m not sure the kids had ever seen a dam close up before, so it was fun to talk to them about the dam’s purpose and to be with them as they experienced the power of the waterfalls going over the dam into the River.
Tomorrow: a long day’s drive to Bryce Canyon.