Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons: Day #5 – Jenny Lake, Altitude Galore, and Snow!

Day #5 was slated to be our day in the Tetons, and the night before was also our coldest night in the park, with the temperature dropping to 24 degrees Fahrenheit.  We went to bed that night in our mummy sleeping bags, wearing all of our layers, and putting a $2 clearance sweatshirt blanket we found at the Grant Village store underneath us to try to trap some heat.  The alarm was set for 6:30 AM. but I woke up around 5:15 AM to Mom gently whispering my name and shaking my sleeping bag.  She looked at me and, in the most dramatic voice possible, said, “I have to pee and I’m not coming back to the tent!”  So, I joined her in leaving the tent and getting dressed for the day in the campground bathroom.

Looking at our guidebook on the Tetons, Mom and I decided to go to Jenny Lake and then figure out what trails we wanted to hike from there.  From Grant Village, we took South Entrance Road down to John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, and finally to Teton Park Rd.  Along the way, we stopped wherever we pleased (we were running incredibly early, after all) and took pictures of the gorgeous mountains as we got closer and closer.  There’s just something about mountains that make me feel happy and relaxed – I’d take them over the beach any day.

Upon arriving at Jenny Lake,  we discovered all of the construction the Visitor’s Center has going on – part of a 5 year renewal project scheduled to finish by the end of 2018.  Thankfully since we were so early (a full hour before the Visitor’s  Center opened for the day) the limited parking wasn’t an issue for us.  We decided to take advantage of the downtime and take the short paved trail to the lake itself.  It turns out Jenny Lake was named after Jenny Leigh, a Shoshone Indian who assisted her husband, Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, in leading the Hayden Survey, which was a geological survey of northwestern Wyoming in 1871 (Side Note: “Beaver Dick”, in my opinion, has to be the best old school nickname ever).  The lake is 2.2-mi across at its widest, and is estimated to be 423-ft deep.

After taking some pictures and chatting with other hikers, we still had plenty of time to kill, so Mom and I decided to hike part of Jenny Lake Trail.  Instead of hiking the full 7.7-mi around the lake, we hiked counterclockwise around the lake 1.1-mi until we got to Jenny Lake Loop, which is a service-type road within the Jenny Lake campground area that we used to connect us back to the Visitor’s Center.  Parts of Jenny Lake Trail can be quite steep on the eastern side south of Inspiration Point, but the section we hiked was relatively flat – a few small climbs, but really no elevation gain to speak of.  The lake itself does sit at 6,764-ft of elevation, though, so I’m sure it could be rough for anyone used to something more towards sea-level.

Once the Jenny Lake Visitor’s Center opened at 8AM, we went in to look around and get some recommendations on what trail to tackle.  The ranger suggested Surprise Lake Trail, stating we wouldn’t be able to hike the entire length of the trail due to snow and ice on the ground towards the top, but advised that it would be worth it anyway for the views we’d get along the way.  Mom and I agreed that sounded like a good plan, bought a few books that sounded interesting, and headed out.

To get to Surprise Lake, you first have to drive to Lupine Meadows Trailhead, where there is a bathroom, I’m pleased to say.  This particular trailhead is the jumping off point for several different trails, including Bradley Lake, Taggart Lake, Surprise Lake, and others, so paying attention to trail signs is key.  On the way back down, Mom and I were actually stopped by a small group of 3 or 4 looking for Moose Ponds, and we had to sadly inform them that not only had they hiked 0.5-mi on the wrong trail, but that they had started off at the completely wrong trailhead as well.  Needless to say, they were less than thrilled.

The first 0.25-mi of the trail is relatively flat, but that’s the only section of the trail that can claim to be so.  The rest of the hike is quite steep, with the maximum gradient being 35% (that particular section kicked my butt, no lie).  At the 1.2-mi mark, there’s a straightaway of sorts on an otherwise winding trail, with very few trees on either side for almost a half a mile.  We were there on quite a windy day, so without any tree cover, Mom and I got hit with those cold winds straight on.  The only upside to the wind is that it blew away the mosquitoes, which had been plaguing us just prior to the straightaway.  After that, the Valley Trail splits off and you begin the switchbacks.  There were only 4 switchbacks on this section, but they felt so long, like we were never coming to the end of them.

When you’re climbing, it’s sometimes difficult to see the switchbacks above or below you due to the terrain.  Usually we only noticed them when we saw other hikers, who were few and far between.  Two groups stood out to me: The first were two girls and one guy, and the girls were hiking in shorts and tank tops.  I know it’s summer, but not only were the temperatures in the low 30s, it had started to snow as well.  Yes, snow.  Thankfully more flurries than anything, but still.  The second group was two guys and two girls that we had originally seen waving at us from the switchback below, but eventually ended up passing us.  They told us they had been waving because they saw a baby black bear further up the mountain ahead of Mom and I, and wanted to let us know.  We had seen no such thing, so we pressed them for more details, and felt slightly reassured that the bear hadn’t been close to the two of us, but actually further up the mountain.  However, despite the fact we were prepared for a possible bear encounter, hearing that group talk definitely made us even more cautious the remainder of the hike.

Mom and I made the decision to turn around at the 3.0-mi mark.  The ranger had indicated that we would start having problems with snow and ice on the ground shortly past that point, and it was actively snowing harder as well.  We felt accomplished, having climbed to elevation 8,519-ft, we’d gotten some great pictures of the mountains and valley below, and we had experienced snow in the summertime.

The hike back down the mountain wasn’t without some excitement.  We were on one of the switchbacks, when I spotted a bear and her cub ahead of us.  They were right beside the trail further on, so Mom and I stopped where we were (a safe distance away) and waited to see what they were going to do.  Neither bear showed any sign that they saw us – the cub was playing and practicing climbing trees, and momma was just looking after baby.  Eventually they traveled further down the mountain, and it was safe for Mom and I to continue, albeit cautiously.  However, when we reached the next switchback, we saw both bears again further down the trail.  We, of course, parked it again and waited.  In the meantime, we saw two male hikers on the switchback above us and tried to silently get their attention, but they kept on walking.  When they finally reached us, we quietly explained the bear situation and they waited with us.  The last I saw of either bear was when they climbed high in a tree off of the switchback.  We waited a bit to make sure neither bear was going to come down, and Mom and I continued along briskly.  The two male hikers, however, stood as close as they could to the tree and kept peering up to see if they could see the bears again.  I can confirm neither of them got mauled, however, as we saw them again at the trailhead as we were driving away.

I was personally amazed with how many people we saw starting the hike as we were finishing.  I know we got a ridiculously early start to the day, but I personally would never start such a strenuous hike in the afternoon just in case something went wrong and I needed more time to get off the mountain (i.e. injury, getting lost, wildlife encounter, etc.), but to each his own, I suppose.  We did, at least, warn all of the hikers we encountered about the bears and where we last saw them so they could be prepared.

When we finally returned to the car, Mom and I were starving and felt like treating ourselves for a change instead of eating more of the sandwiches/crackers/bananas that had been sustaining us all week.  We drove into nearby Jackson Hole, WY and had a late lunch at Dornan’s, while enjoying the people watching and views of the mountains.  Afterwards, we popped over to the Grand Tetons’ Visitor’s Center to check out t-shirts and postcards.

By the time we were done with all of the above, it was after 4pm and, in addition to being tired, Mom and I still wanted to get in a shower before they closed at 7pm (Grant is one of the few campsites with shower facilities.  People registered to camp at Grant get showers with their fee.  All others can pay for them on location).  So, we headed back towards camp, but not without one more quick stop at Lewis Falls, which we had seen on the ride to the Tetons.  Located on the Lewis River inside Yellowstone National Park, the falls can be seen from the road, but there is parking if you want to get out for a better look.

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