Grand Teton: A little-known side trip to Phelps Lake
Road Journals Blog—My parents visit my home in Jackson at least once a year. Because my father believes Wyoming winters to be the direct work of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, they inevitably arrive during the summer months. (My father is just now recovering from the one Christmas they came out and we got six feet of snow in half as many days.)
I’ve been in Jackson Hole for more a decade, and it’s important to me to show my family what it is that keeps me living thousands of miles from them. Hiking in Grand Teton National Park is one of the reasons. I’ve dragged them up—and up, and up—Paintbrush Canyon and Garnet Canyon, and have even tried to coax them up to Amphitheater and Surprise Lakes. When you have a mountain range that has no foothills, flat hiking trails are hard to find. My parents are fit, but they live at sea level. They’ve always been game for my death marches, but I think these hikes have left them more scarred than with an appreciation of why this place is so special to me.
Then in 2007 the 1,106-acre Laurance Rockefeller Preserve opened off the Moose-Wilson Road. Its eight miles of trails are nearly uniformly flat. Sure, they don’t offer neck-craning views of the Grand Teton, but they do lead to Phelps Lake, a morainal lake popular with moose and black bears. And the trails are nearly empty. When Rockefeller donated this block of land to the park, it was with the stipulation that it be designed to give users a more solitary experience than they would have in most other areas.
(Conversely, the six-mile trail around Jenny Lake—while fairly flat by GTNP standards—is extremely crowded. Sections of it experience hiker jams. That’s not what I want my parents to experience.)
The hike around Phelps Lake, however, is far less trafficked because the trailhead is off the beaten path. I do this hike on my own whenever I’m looking for some walking meditation, and took my parents on it two summers ago. It always starts in one of the oversized Adirondack chairs at the Preserve’s Visitor Center, the first LEED Platinum-certified building in any national park. Sitting there looking out at aspen, sage, and sky, you forget the lines of RVs at the park’s entrance stations and the rush to get a first-come-first-serve campsite. After I’ve cleared the hustle and bustle from my head, it’s an undulating mile through pine forest to the southeastern shore of Phelps Lake.
When we went, my parents and I just parked ourselves there—there’s a log bench perfect for the activity—and watched the light and shadows cast by the steep sides of Death Canyon move across the lake. When I’m on my own, I’ll sometimes walk a mile further to a giant granite outcrop that serves as one of the park’s best jump rocks—from which one can take a safe, 20-foot plunge into the chilly waters of Phelps Lake. Other times, I’ll circumnavigate the lake, a hike that was impossible before the preserve opened. Always, the hike ends back in an Adirondack chair.
I think it was actually the quiet, contemplative moments in that chair that most helped my dad udnerstand why this place is so special to me. “I don’t know tht I’ve ever heard such silence,” he said as we headed back to the car.
Do you have a favorite out-of-the-way yet highly accessible place in a national park or wilderness area?
Dina Mishev's article, "An Insider's Guide to Grand Teton National Park," can be found in VIA's 2011 spring edition in the Mountain West region, comprising Montana, Wyoming and Alaska.
This blog post was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.