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The Grand Tetons

Moulton Barn, Grand Tetons, Grand Teton National Park
One of the famouts Moulton Barns on Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park

One of the things that sets the eastern view of the Grand Tetons apart from other ranges is there are not any foothills to obstruct the view. The actions of nature's elements have sculpted a monolith of sharply notched peaks accented by deep U shaped glaciated canyons that are truly a sight to behold. If you think the Grand Tetons is awe inspiring from the valley floor a trip into the center of them will set new benchmarks for beauty for the hard drive in your skull.

Along the eastern base of the Grand Tetons are several clear blue lakes, the result of glacial moraine damming. When the glaciers receded from the last ice age they left these gems of nature for our enjoyment. Phelps, Jenny, Leigh, Sting and Jackson Lakes all are icing on the cake in this beautiful spot on the globe. Each canyon has a trailhead to lead you into the web of trails that traverse the Teton Range.

The views from the west are quite different but no less Grand. Teton Valley, a picturesque farming valley provides many beautiful places to frame up a postcard perfect photograph. The numerous beautiful canyons of the western slope are the source for the Teton River; most of these canyons have trailheads also the lead into the Grand Teton's web of trails.

Buckrail Fence, Grand Teton, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The Grand Tetons often cast a fine reflection in Jenny Lake

The western slope of the Teton Range is in the Targhee National Forest, and the southeastern part south of Grand Teton Park is in the Bridger Teton National Forest. The Tetons have prolific wild flower displays in the summer months starting with the balsamroot in early June. Meadows along the Idaho/Wyoming border contain little grass, but many tall perennials such as cow parsnip, penstemon, lupine, monkshood, and western coneflower.

The Teton Range is a small but dramatic mountain range. A north-south range, the Tetons lie on Wyomingês western border with Idaho, just south of Yellowstone National Park. The two principal summits are the Grand Teton at 13,772 ft and Mount Moran at 12,605 ft; much of the range is within the Grand Teton National Park but much of the western slope is outside of the park. Grand Teton National Park protects the stunning mountain scenery and a diverse array of wildlife of the region. The Grand Tetons are the focal point of the park.

Natural History

Archaeological studies reveal human presence in the area some 11,000 years ago. Prior to 1600 the inhabitants were Athabaskan-speaking Native Americans; later groups included the Shoshone, Crow, and Blackfoot.

Grand Teton  sunrise, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Sunrise, Moose Flats, Grand Teton Natonal Park

The first recorded American to see the Tetons was American adventurer John Colter in 1907, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, he got hired away form Lewis and Clark on their return from Oregon by fur trader Manual Lisa to do some reconnaissance and PR work for Lisaês trading post on the Yellowstone River. Colter was also the first American to see Yellowstone. Fur trappers, traders, and mountain men followed suit to frequent the range in the first half of the 19th century.

During the mountain man era the Grand Tetons served as helpful landmarks for the region because you can see them from so far away. French trappers, a no-nonsense lot, named the Grand Tetons (–Big Teats” in English) for their resemblance to women's breasts.

The Geology

The geology of the Teton Range consists of a core of igneous and metamorphic Precambrian rocks overlain in most of the range by westward dipping sedimentary Paleozoic rocks. The Teton Fault, lies on the 40-mile long eastern front of the Teton Range. Rock jumps skyward some 7,000 feet from the valley floor, with the Grand Teton the highest peak soaring above all at 13,770 feet, About 10 million years ago, stresses of the Earth's crust caused movement along the Teton fault. The west part of the fault has pushed upwards to form the Teton Range creating the youngest range of the Rocky Mountains. Simultaneously the east side of the fault is dropping downwards to form the valley of Jackson Hole. It is this dynamic of the west side of the fault rising while the east side falls that creates the magnificent rock monoliths that are the Grand Tetons. While many of the central peaks of the range are comprised of granite, the geological processes that lead to the current composition began about 2.5 billion years ago. At that time, sand and volcanic debris settled into an ancient ocean. Ocean sediment can still be found on the top of Mt. Moran. There’s no better an example of a fault-line mountain range in all of the Lower 48 states.

Lake Solitude, high in the Teton Range of Grand Teton National Park
Lake Solitude is a ten mile hike up Cascade Canyon deep into the Grand Tetons but as you can see there isn't much room for imporvement upon a scene like this.

Earthquakes have built the Grand Tetons but it has been glaciers that have given them much of their unique character. The Tetons have been glaciated at least three times, with the oldest event being the most significant event. The ice sheet in many places in Jackson Hole exceeded 2,000 feet in thickness, and later glacial events eroded or covered parts of earlier ones. During the latest glaciations, ice flowed down canyons in the Teton Range onto the floor of Jackson Hole and built the moraines that dam Jackson, Leigh, Jenny, Bradley, Taggart, and Phelps lakes. There are still 8 small glaciers in the Grand Tetons.

The Tetons are among the youngest ranges in the Rocky Mountains. The Teton Fault, which parallels the eastern front of the Teton Range from north to south, is an eastward-dipping fracture in the earth's crust along which movement has occurred. The block on the western side of the fault was uplifted, while the block on the eastern side of the fault moved downward. This sort of motion defines a type of structure called a normal fault. As the plates of earth move about, bending and twisting within them produces fractures called faults. Where these reach the surface they can produce scarps, sharp changes in elevation.

Such faults are the result of extension or stretching in the earth's crust. The Grand Tetons range is the product of uplift along the Teton Fault which began 9 million years ago.

The Tetons are a fault block mountain range carved from a segment of the earth's crust that has been uplifted along a fault. The Teton fault is approximately at the break in slope where the eastern foot of the range joins the flats at the west edge of Jackson Hole, but in most places is concealed beneath glacial deposits and debris shed from the adjacent steep slopes.

Limber Pine, Grand Tetons
A myjestic limbar pine frames the Grand Tetons and little brother conifers east of the Jenny Lake Loop.

If a typical mountain range is cut by a fault with large vertical movement, many ridges may be beveled off along the same plane, giving rise to what is often called a faceted mountain range. The Grand Teton range in Wyoming is a perfect example. Scarps can be very small, or the size of Majestic Mountain ranges like the Grand Tetons and eastern Sierra Nevada.

Mountains appear ageless, but as with people, they pass through the stages of birth, youth, maturity, and old age, and eventually disappear.

The Mighty Snake River originates a short distance north of the Tetons in Yellowstone National Park. It winds its way through Yellowstone Park's conifer forests, takes a rest in Jackson Lake before meandering at the foot of the Teton's sagebrush meadows. In many places it meanders into marshes that give shelter to abundant bird life that call Jackson Hole home. Along its route through Jackson Hole it provides many opportunities for rafting, fishing, canoeing and provides many scenic foreground photographic opportunities for Teton photos.

The Jedediah Smith Wilderness encompasses most of the western slope of the Grand Tetons outside of Grand Teton Park on the west side of the Teton Range. The 123,451-acre Jedediah Smith Wilderness area sits entirely in Wyoming. This area can be accessed from the Idaho side or through Grand Teton National Park. The Jedediah Smith Wilderness contains nearly 300 miles of trails offering incredible high-mountain scenery. Wilderness permits are not required for overnight camping in Jedediah Smith, but if you plan to cross over into Grand Teton National Park one is required. One of the more popular places in the area is Alaska Basin, which provides great vistas of the Grand Teton, South Teton and Buck Mountain. The access point for the Alaska Basin is South Teton Creek Trail.

Yellowstone Wolves, Grand Tetons, Death Canyon, Grand Teton National Park
Two wolves of the Antelope Pack make their way north along a ridge below the Grand Tetons.


A diverse wildlife population is found in the Grand Tetons. There are thousands of elk scattered throughout the mountains and valley bottoms. Moose can usually be seen in the canyons on the valley floor. Bison and Pronghorn Antelope can be seen on the sagebrush plains at the foot of the mountains. On the high peaks around Death Canyon, Fox Creek and South Teton Creek you can sometimes see Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. It is common to see black bear, and always be prepared to see a Grizzly, you don't see them often but they are there. Trumpeter Swans, white Pelicans, Bald Eagles and Ospreys can all be seen at the Snake River. Coyotes, Pica, Beaver and Marmots are abundant.


The most popular short hikes are in the vicinity of Jenny Lake and the Jackson Lake Lodge. From the south Jenny Lake parking area, a boat crosses the lake and transports visitors to the base of Cascade Canyon trail which leads up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. One can also hike around the lake. In fact the north route around the lake is relatively unused. Most day-hikers take the boat across and hike back along the south shore.

Hikers Alaska Basin Grand Teton Mountains
Backpackers enjoy a sunny day hiking in the Alaska Basin on the West side of the Tetons east of Driggs Idaho

Any of the Grand Teton's canyons provide great hiking opportunities for those hardy enough to venture into the center, high country part of the range. The Hiking in the Grand Teton Park sections are a lot more crowded than those on the south and west sides of the Teton Range. Some of my favorite hikes include, Cascade-Paintbrush Loop, Death Canyon, Teton Crest, Darby Canyon, South Teton Creek and Table Mountain.

Horseback Riding

horseback rider Alaska Bason Grand Teton Mountains
A horseback rider takes the easy route to the top of South Teton Creek, east of Driggs Idaho.

The Grand Tetons provide many trails for horseback travel but do research before you go because some trails are only accessible by hikers with ice axes as there are many places where the snow never melts and prevents traversing by horses. Inside Grand Teton National Park not all trails are open for horseback riding. I have found that horseback is the way for me to see the mountains of the area because I can cover so much more ground with them.

Fly-fisherman, Snake River, Mt. Moran
Fly-fisherman tries his luck in the Snake River Below Jackson Lake and Mt. Moran

Trout fishing in and around the Grand Tetons is a treat to all who give it a try. The Snake River is a Blue Ribbon Trout fishery. The Snake River is home to a unique subspecies of cutthroat trout known as the Fine-spotted Snake River Cutthroat Trout. This outstanding game fish is indigenous to the Snake River drainage and relies totally on natural reproduction. All the Teton tributaries to the Snake are spawning streams for the Fine-spotted Snake River Cutthroat and are fine fisheries. The west slope of the Tetons also has good fishing but rainbow trout are in the mix. The Teton River is also considered a Blue Ribbon fishery. Having a wild trout fishery with indigenous trout is not something we take for granted and we highly encourage catch and release fishing to protect this valuable resource.

Phelps, Jenny, Leigh, Sting and Jackson Lakes all have good fishing but some of the high lakes donêt have any fish in them so check before you invest any time. Jackson Lake has had a 52-pound lake trout harvested from its waters.

Elk hunting is popular as well as good in the Targhee and Bridger Teton National forests of the Grand Tetons. There is also a limited Elk hunt on the Valley Floor of Grand Teton Park. Mule Deer, Black Bear, Mountain Lion are also hunted in the National Forest.

Bull Elk, Grand Teton
A young bull elk at sunrise is dwarfed by the Grand Teton Towering above.

The Grand Tetons are a magnet for mountaineers from all over the world. The jagged snow-crusted peaks epitomize the ruggedness of the West, All the elements of alpine climbing, rock, ice, snow, and altitude, are represented in the Tetons. Glaciers, striking ar¡tes, fist-size cracks, steep rocky ridges and ice couloirs abound providing climbers a true alpine experience. This variety makes them especially appealing to experienced mountaineers who use the Tetons to apply their technical rock climbing skills in alpine settings and to train for Alaskan or Himalayan expeditions.

At first glance the Tetons are daunting to novice, the massifs known as Grand Teton, Middle Teton, South Teton, Moran and Teewinot are surprisingly accessible once youêve mastered a few essential moves, learn how to read rock, how to knot a rope, how to belay a companion, and to leverage your arm and leg muscles and youêll be capable of climbing the Tetons.

Ascents of Grand Teton typically involve two days. The first day climbers leave Lupine Meadows Trailhead by 10 a.m., and hike up hike up Garnet Canyon trail, the main approach to the Grand. Along the way you are treated to views of stunning alpine terrain. To the north, periodic clearings of the conifer forest reveal Mt.Teewinot, Middle Teton and the Grand, that appear as distinct razor edges and chiseled stone. Your arrive at the Lower Saddle between the Grand and Middle Teton by late afternoon where you camp for the night. After a night spent at the 11,650-foot saddle you push on in the early morning darkness for the summit. The main approach to the summit is the Owen-Spaulding route, graded 5.4, a relatively easy technical climb even for the novice.

The accessibility and comparatively modest heights of the Tetons lead some to underestimate their dangers. Altitude sickness, avalanche and wildlife, all pose hazards, lightning is a serious threat and it can snow any month of the year and does.

Grand Teton from Hurricane Pass
The Grand Teton from Hurricane Pass

Mountain guides are available for hire, two well-regarded companies offer a variety of classes and private mountain guide services depending on skill level and experience: Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (; 800-239-7642) and Exum Mountain Guides (; 307-733-2297). offer classes and guided trips throughout the year to introduce climbers of all skills and ages to the Tetons.

There are many worthy peaks in the range offering a spectrum of climbing opportunities, Guide's Wall on Storm Point, is a moderate climb (5.7 to 5.9) on quality, or solid, golden rock is one of the more popular one-day routes in the range. Other interesting day climbs include Baxter's Pinnacle, the southwest ridge of Symmetry Spire and the of Mount Owenês steep couloirs.

You might think the Grand Tetons would suffer visitor loss in comparison to larger, more historic Yellowstone Park being in such close proximity, but when you see the Tetons rising out of Jackson Hole or Teton Valley, you realize that nothing overshadows soaring peaks like these.

You might think the Grand Tetons would suffer visitor loss in comparison to larger, more historic Yellowstone Park being in such close proximity, but when you see the Tetons rising out of Jackson Hole or Teton Valley, you realize that nothing overshadows soaring peaks like these.

Grand Teton - Images by Daryl Hunter

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