Grand Teton National Park is one the most scenic and beautiful spots in the lower 48, period. Yet it’s so underrated and is often thought of as Yellowstone’s little brother. Tourists quickly drive through it as if a speed bump to get to the larger, more famous park to the north. We say let summer’s RV caravan ignore it, so you’ll have more of Grand Teton National Park to yourself. That’s not to say all of Grand Teton is ignored. Attractions right off the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, like Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake Lodge, and Colter Bay see a steady throng of tourists as they snake their way up to Yellowstone. So to avoid the crowds and find your peace and solitude, check out the lesser known parts of the park, like Phelps Lake on the often overlooked west side of Grand Teton.
At an elevation of well over a mile high, or 6,633 feet high if you are playing National Parks Jeopardy, Phelps Lake is a sight to be seen and won’t take you all day on a dusty trail to hike there. You can get to a Phelps Lake trailhead pretty quickly via the Moose-Wilson Road if you happen to already be out by Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Don’t worry if you are coming from town you can still go through the main entrance to the park and simply make a left on the Moose-Wilson Road instead of continuing straight on John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. Keep in mind that about half of the Moose-Wilson Road isn’t paved depending on which entrance you come in from. The road is well maintained, but narrows in parts with even a one-lane bridge, which helps add to the outdoor adventure motif of your surroundings. Four-wheel or all-wheel drive isn’t necessary on the Moose-Wilson Road, but your car may be due for a wash afterwards. Also, keep in mind that this road is closed to cars from November 1 to April 30.
Hitting the Trail
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated his Wyoming land holdings to the government to create Grand Teton National Park. The family however kept a smaller portion of this land for a retreat and ranch until 2001 when they donated the last 1,106 acres that became known as the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. The Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve makes for a great starting point to check out Phelps Lake.
Your other option to get to Phelps Lake is via the Death Canyon trailhead. This is a good option if you are planning on backpacking in and camping at the lake. You can obtain a backcountry permit at the visitor’s center and make sure to pack everything you’ll need for your stay, including warm clothes, sunscreen, food, water, and bear spray.
Between the two trailheads you’ll have the option of a few routes to an overlook of the lake or to the lake itself. The overlook trail is just short of a mile each way with an option to descend to the lake which is another mile. Also, there is a trail that goes all the way around the lake and is about 4 miles round trip. From the south shore of the lake you’ll have amazing views of Death Canyon. Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds and offers stunning views of this canyon that was formed by glaciers as was Phelps Lake. The lake’s mirrored reflection of the mountains is definitely camera worthy and is sure to garner a ton of likes when you post it on Facebook. The north shore offers glimpses of the equally beautiful Gros Ventre mountains. From either shore you’ll have epic views and won’t believe how little effort it took to get to this secluded paradise.
If you are brave enough and hot enough you can make your way to Jumping Rock to cool off. Jumping Rock sits on the northern side of Phelps Lake. It’s about a 25 to 30-foot drop into the lake with a deep enough splash point. If it’s a warm day there is a good chance that you’ll see a bunch of people jumping into the cold waters below or you’ll at least hear the hooting and hollering. The brisk temps of the lake should reinvigorate you or sober up your adrenaline as you swim out and make your way back up to Jumping Rock to give it another go.
Phelps Lake makes for a great day outing with the family or overnight trip with some planning, as it offers a lot of reward with minimal effort. For maps and more on trail routes, stop in at a Grand Teton visitor center or go to nps.gov/grte.