While Grand Teton National Park may not be considered one of the bigger national parks, it’s still big enough to seem overwhelming, particularly if you only have one day to see it. As a professional guide, this would be my recommendation for how to best experience it if your time in the area is limited.
Note that this post assumes you’ll be leaving from Jackson, so make adjustments as necessary if you’re staying somewhere else. While there’s no urgency in waking up early to accomplish the same thing for a park like Yellowstone, keep in mind that the earlier you leave, the more you can see in a day and the more wildlife you’ll catch in the early morning hours before it gets warm. Likewise, take your time and follow the speed limit. There’s no reason to rush through this potentially itinerary, and if you do, you’ll find you’re done extra early with an afternoon to kill. Take your time, relax, and enjoy the national park while you’re there.
This post is also geared toward general sightseeing. If you’re interested in tailoring a trip like this for photography, get in touch for a private and custom Grand Teton National Park photography workshop!
Begin by driving north from Jackson and at the roundabout turn right to begin driving along Gros Ventre Road. Keep your eyes peeled along the Gros Ventre River on the right because it’s a fantastic spot to potentially find moose, particularly if you’re out early.
Continue past the Gros Ventre Campground where the road will open up into Antelope Flats as Blacktail Butte tapers off behind your left. The road makes a straight dash for the small, unincorporated town of Kelly, where it then bends ninety degrees and heads north. Fun fact: if you go back and watch Rocky IV you’ll recognize many of the vantage points you just drove through.
Speaking of movie trivia, about a mile after the road bends north, look for a paved right turn. Turn right, and just a few hundred yards down the road will be Kelly Warm Spring where Jamie Foxx filmed a scene from Django Unchained.
Into old westerns? Keep going up that road a short distance and look for a small pullout on the left just up the hill from some old weathered cabins. This was the set for the final scene of the classic western, Shane.
Not interested in either? Continue along the main road, keeping your eyes peeled both near and far for wildlife such as bison, elk, moose, coyotes, and possibly even wolves! This sprawling landscape that these animals love so much is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of glaciation filling in the valley with dirt and sediment. As a result, there’s very little soil in the ground, which is why it’s a massive expanse of mostly sagebrush, which many creatures have come to depend on.
Continuing north past the Teton Science Schools turn, you’ll pass over Ditch Creek, after which will reveal more stellar views of the Teton Mountains and northward into the valley. After a short bend in the road, you’ll reach a 4-way junction where you’ll want to head left.
The road will lead to an old settlement that historically was named, Grovont, but is now known as Mormon Row. This is the location of the world-famous Moulton Barns, two preserved barns that have become icons of Grand Teton National Park, and relics of the old Mormon community. You’ll see one of them long before you reach the junction for it, where you can make a right turn into a small parking area and learn about the history of the community.
Resuming on the main road, you’ll soon rejoin Highway 89. Turn right to keep heading north through Antelope Flats, the Teton Mountains constantly changing shape as the vantage points gradually shift.
One of the signature views from Grand Teton National Park is from Schwabacher Landing. A discrete left turn shortly after the Glacier View Turnout will bring visitors down along a side channel of the Snake River where beavers have built up calm and serene ponds, the Teton Mountains gorgeously reflected in the still waters. A short trail will bring you up to another pond where moose and the beavers themselves can often be seen, among many types of birds.
Snake River Overlook
Heading north once again on the main highway, you’ll next want to stretch your legs at the Snake River Overlook, not only a beautiful spot for morning light on the Teton Mountains, but also a remarkable geologic location in the valley.
Prior to this point you’ve been driving through Antelope Flats, an open stretch of vast sagebrush flats with little to no trees due to the lack of soil. Yet just to your north is a sharp and clear barrier of trees that seemingly ends at an imaginary line in the ground. Why would there be so much more soil right there that ends so bluntly?
When the last ice age was melting off over 10,000 years ago, a glacier extended down from Yellowstone National Park and ended right at the point, grinding up the rocks into soil along the way and breaking up the landscape into hills as opposed to the open flatness to the south, leaving a ripe landscape for a forest. The terminus for that glacier was at that line of trees.
And of course not to be missed is the view looking toward the Tetons! This classic view was made famous by Ansel Adams, his photo of which is now outside of our solar system on Voyager 2!
Continue driving north on Highway 89 where you’ll pass the historic Triangle X and Moosehead Ranches before reaching an open expanse known as Elk Ranch. This is typically a reliable spot to see bison both near and far, as well as a classic northern view of the Teton Mountains.
Also in this area was a massive lake that stretched to just north of the Snake River Overlook, hence the reason the landscape appears so different than its southern counterpart.
After Elk Ranch, turn left at the Moran Junction to head through the Moran Entrance Station. Though you just got to your first entrance station, you’ve actually been in Grand Teton National Park since you saw the sign for the park just a few miles north of Jackson. This is just to keep thru-traffic flowing along the highway that isn’t necessarily there for the park and continuing elsewhere.
A couple of miles past the entrance station along the main road you’ll reach the Oxbow Bend Pullout, a classic and iconic mountain scene made all the more spectacular by the calm waters reflecting the massive Mount Moran above. The water below is the original course of the Snake River, winding around the trees on the opposite shore. In more recent (geologically speaking) times, the river cut a more direct route closer to the base of Signal Mountain, directly to the south. This leaves the waters of Oxbow Bend a calm and slow-moving side channel of the Snake River, frequently providing immaculate reflections of the mountains above.
In time (geologically speaking), the more direct route will continue to erode, cutting off the supply for Oxbow Bend, making it a lake that will eventually dry up. Don’t worry though, none of this will happen in our lifetime or any time soon.
Willow Flats Overlook
Continuing along the main road, keep going straight through the Jackson Lake Junction, though you will be returning shortly. Up a small bench will be the Willow Flats Overlook. It’s a view that’s slightly out of the way, but so accessible that it’d be a shame to pass up.
Below is a sprawling willow forest named Willow Flats, home to a wide variety of animals, including elk, moose, grizzly bears, wolves, beavers, and much more. Beyond that is the glacial lake of Jackson Lake, its presence long outdating the dam that deepened it by 20-30 feet. And of course rising high above are the Teton Mountains, Mount Moran the most dominant peak from this view, with the Grand Teton poking up in the background.
Teton Park Road
Once you’ve had your fill at the overlook, head back the way you came and turn right at the Jackson Lake Junction, bringing you through Willow Flats, and up onto the dam for Jackson Lake, providing a stunning view of the lake and mountains. Feel free to park on the other side and enjoy the views!
By this time, if you got up early and if you’ve been getting out and seeing all of the sites thus far, you might be getting ready for lunch. Pop into the Signal Mountain Lodge restaurant area just a couple of miles beyond the dam where you’ll find a great gift shop and also a fantastic place to stop and satisfy your hunger. If you find you could wait an hour or so, head up the drive below and then come right back for your meal.
Once done with a meal if you stopped in, keep heading south along the main road. About a mile past the lodge will be the Signal Mountain Summit Road. Over the course of 3 miles, this narrow and winding road will bring visitors to the top of Signal Mountain, a glacial moraine from the glacier that extended down into the valley from Yellowstone. Below what was formed from the glacier is also volcanic ash from the previous eruption of the Yellowstone hotspot 640,000 years ago.
The Signal Mountain Summit Road is also a great opportunity to see various wildlife, including elk, black bears, mule deer, and ruffed grouse, among others, so take it slow! Near the top is one of two overlooks. If you’re up for it, check out both, or continue to the top for the summit overlook, climbing roughly 1,000 feet above the valley floor, providing outstanding views of Jackson Hole and the Teton Mountains. When you’re done appreciating the view, head back down the way you came and make a left to merge back onto the main road, or go right to head back to Signal Mountain Lodge.
Tip: Always use caution when driving this road and follow the speed limit. There will not only be other drivers going up and down the road around sharp turns, but also cyclists and wildlife. Obey the speed limit here and everywhere else in the region.
Traveling south along the Teton Park Road, multiple short and optional pullouts will present themselves along the way before reaching the North Jenny Lake Junction. Turn right to begin a scenic detour.
Jenny Lake Overlook
Passing straight through the next junction, the road will turn into a slower-going one-way road as it passes by Jenny Lake Lodge on the left. Be sure to go slow through here, as there’s ample opportunity to see wildlife such as black bears and elk, and ultimately reaching the stunning Jenny Lake Overlook.
This remarkable vantage point overlooks the crown jewel of Grand Teton National Park, Jenny Lake. This ancient glacial lake was carved out by the glacier that extended out of Cascade Canyon on the opposite shore, the Grand Teton rising directly to the south. In its wake is left a sparkling and deep blue lake that is as unique as it is beautiful.
Once you’re done admiring the view, get back on the scenic road and follow it back to the main road, where you’ll take a right to continue heading south.
Jenny Lake, Inspiration Point, and Hidden Falls
At the next right turn, pull in and find a parking place. Look for the signs to lead you to the Jenny Lake Loop Trail, where you can either take a boat across the lake one-way or round trip, or hike along the Jenny Lake Loop Trail an extra 2.25 miles each way.
Regardless of which option you choose, you’ll want to make the easy hike to Hidden Falls, and if you’re feeling up to it, the climb up to Inspiration Point. Both make fantastic destinations, but Inspiration Point is definitely a more strenuous climb than the easy meander to Hidden Falls. Those who don’t regularly hike will find this both challenging and rewarding, with the destination offering a beautiful view overlooking Jenny Lake and the valley of Jackson Hole.
If you do hike regularly, you may still have some energy left in you and want to explore a bit more. In that case, continue up the trail into Cascade Canyon where an easy stroll will bring you into one of the most picturesque canyons you’ll ever step foot in. Most people only go back about a mile to get incredibly rewarding views, while others continue to the fork of the North and South Forks of Cascade Canyon. Given time constraints you might be on, you’ll be relieved to know that the fork isn’t as scenic as the hike leading up to it, so find a satisfying spot to turn around and head out via the Jenny Lake Loop Trail back to the parking area, or by taking the shuttle across Jenny Lake to enjoy a rewarding and scenic ride. Head out the parking area and turn right on the main road to continue heading south.
Tip: Always carry plenty of water. Dehydration catches up with many people that aren’t properly prepared for it, depleting their bodies of necessary resources to complete their hike efficiently and safely. Drink water before embarking on any hike, and carry plenty with you to help you finish safely.
Along the way south you’ll pass by a few scenic pullouts and vistas, along with the Taggart Lake Trailhead before the road begins winding down to the small town of Moose, Wyoming, aka, park headquarters. After exiting the Moose Entrance Station, the next right turn will be the Moose-Wilson Road. Depending on how much you just hiked, you might be more interested in getting dinner, in which case you’ll want to skip this and read the next section. If you’re not hungry yet, or you’re staying in Teton Village, turn right onto the Moose-Wilson Road.
This slow-going winding road starts off open enough, but quickly narrows at a scenic overlook where moose can be frequently spotted, along with black bears, elk, and on special occasions, great gray owls. The road winds along peaceful beaver ponds where yet more moose can be found. Feel free to explore this road as much as time and your appetite permits, then (unless heading specifically to Teton Village) turn around and head back toward Moose, taking a right to merge back onto the Teton Park Road.
Back on the Teton Park Road, you’ll reach a 4-way stop sign, with the park’s main Visitor Center to the right, highly worth the visit if you have the time, while straight will bring you across the Snake River. If you’re interested in grabbing a meal sooner than later, take the next left turn to head to Dornan’s.
Park past the gas pumps and head to the right to the Pizza and Pasta restaurant of the Dornan’s complex. Here, both locals and tourists gather to have a delicious dinner under the Tetons as the sun begins to get low in the sky.
Once you’ve enjoyed the food and views enough, head back out of Dornan’s and turn left back onto the Teton Park Road, where you’ll quickly take a right to head back to Jackson.
While this is just one potential route, there are any number of potential options to swap things around and trade in one feature for another. As a professional guide and long-time resident, this would be my recommendation to get the most out of the park if you only have one day to do it. That being said, the more time you’re able to spend here, the more you’ll discover that will make you want to come back and visit over and over again.
Interested in doing a similar trip but geared specifically to photography? Check out my Grand Teton National Park private photography workshops and let’s make sure you get the shots you want while you’re here!