Lake-studded Grand Teton National Park offers numerous magnificently scenic hiking opportunities. But in the summer high season, enjoying communion with nature requires some strategy. Like Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming’s Grand Teton sometimes suffers from a surfeit of visitors. Fortunately, even on the busiest days, it’s possible to avoid the crowds.
Understandably, the most popular hike in the park is the Jenny Lake Loop, or at least a portion thereof. Many cut the 7.5-mile hike down to size by taking a scenic shuttle boat across the lake, and then hiking to Inspiration Point and/or Hidden Falls. A cruise on a mountain lake followed by a hike to a waterfall does sound irresistible, but it’s best done as early in the day as possible (in season, the shuttle starts service at 7 a.m.). We passed by the parking lot for Jenny Lake at about noon one day, and cars spilled out of the overstuffed lot onto the main road for quite some distance. If Jenny Lake is on your list, arrive as soon after sunrise as you can.
Having arisen early to enjoy that hike in the past, on this trip, we allowed ourselves a relaxed breakfast before heading to a less famous trail recommended by a staff member at the Caldera House. The Phelps Lake Overlook trail is one of the southernmost hikes in the park, making it especially quick to reach from Teton Village. A bumpy gravel road leads to the trailhead, and signs warn that a 4-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended. But even relatively compact sedans made it to the final lot unscathed. (Parking for the trailhead is strung from the final lot all the way to the turnoff from the main road, a distance of about a mile.)
After reaching the Death Canyon Trailhead, the path rises slowly upward through flower-dotted meadows and groves of aspens and lodgepole pines. Although the 1-mile hike to the overlook is almost entirely uphill, the grade is gentle for most of the way. The official overlook has an impressive view of Phelps Lake far below; panoramas that are even more breathtaking are to be had by continuing to the right for a while. The trail heads downhill as it hugs a curved slope at the north end of the lake, and the primary-growth forest surrounding the overlook gives way to open meadowland. The views from this stretch of trail, just a bit beyond the overlook, are awe-inspiring. We stood mesmerized by the grand blue oval that is Phelps Lake, backdropped by a distant mountain ridge.
If you’re feeling especially energetic, continue to descend, following shady switchbacks down the slope along the Death Canyon trail. After crossing a major rockslide, not far from the Death Canyon trail junction, the view opens once again. With a turn of my head, I could see the sapphire bowl of Phelps Lake, a verdant meadow dusted with blossoms of yellow and pink and, etched against a cerulean sky, towering rocky bluffs streaked with snow: the entrance to Death Canyon itself.
From there, it would have been possible to follow the trail toward the canyon or take another path that descends to a small beach on the lake. But we had time and supplies (and energy) only for a short hike that day. Satisfied with the sensational vistas we had enjoyed, we huffed and puffed our way back up the switchbacks to the overlook, from which the trail was a refreshing downhill glide back to the parking lot.
Note that bears are regularly spotted in this area, making it unwise to hike alone. If you do, be sure to bring some bear spray.