The Best Hike in Grand Teton National Park

Considering I was nearly 2,000 miles from home, I was shocked to hear my name called in the virtually empty Jenny Lake parking lot. It was very early in the morning the day after the big storm. I didn’t know any details of the mountain rescue yet, but I saw a helicopter circling the Grand Teton.

I slept better than the previous night, but still woke with the sun just after 6:00 a.m. I had decided to hike the Cascade Canyon Trail. I heard and read that it was an amazing hike. It would lead me into the heart of the rugged Cathedral Group of the Teton Range. The Cascade Canyon Trail is a continuation on the trail past Inspiration Point. Since I had previously hiked to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point along the southern shore of Jenny Lake I decided to take the boat this time. That way I could spend more time on what would be new territory for me.

I had a granola bar and some orange juice for a quick breakfast beside my tent. Then I jumped in my car and headed for the parking lot a short distance away. I could have walked to the boat dock, but I wanted to make sure I caught the first boat shuttle of the day. It was set to leave the dock at 7:00 a.m. and I was cutting it close. The early bird boat ride was cheaper and I was certain there would be fewer hikers on the trail at that hour.

The vast Jenny Lake parking lot looked even bigger than usual since it was almost entirely empty. I parked near the boat dock and took my pack, boots, and trekking poles out of the trunk. I sat on the curb next to my car and stuffed some supplies into my backpack and then put on my hiking boots.

As I sat there lacing up my boots I heard someone call my name. Not just my name, but my nickname, that almost all my friends back home knew me by. I instinctively looked up with a jolt. I didn’t recognize the voice and at first I didn’t recognize the face either. I suppose that may have been because I never thought I would see someone I knew so far from home.

After a couple of seconds I recognized him as, Andy, an old friend from high school. I probably hadn’t seen him in ten years. He said he saw the Buffalo Bills license plate holder and my New York plates, and then had to take a closer look. He was traveling with his girlfriend. They were on a cross-country trip to Seattle, but making several stops along the way. We couldn’t believe that of the handful of cars in the huge Jenny Lake parking lot there were two people from our small town. We talked for a few minutes while getting ready to start hiking and got a little reacquainted.

We were both hiking the Cascade Canyon Trail, but they were taking the longer route along the shore of Jenny Lake and I was taking the boat, because I already hiked that part before. We parted ways, saying we’d see each other again on the trail.

Once I said goodbye, I had to hustle to the boat dock, because it was almost time for it to leave. I paid my fee and boarded the small boat. There were some benches on the boat, exposed to the elements, and a large cage near the front of the boat for backpacks and any other loose items. I tossed my pack and hiking poles into the cage and took a seat on one of the benches. There were about ten other hikers on the small boat. Some of them had backpacks much larger than mine. I figured they must be heading into the backcountry for a few days.

One of the workers lifted the ramp and untied the boat. Then we were off. The boat quickly zipped us across the cool water. Some water shot up and got me a little wet, because I was sitting next to the side. Both the water and air were a bit chilly. The lake was very calm in the early morning, making for a smooth ride.

The boat ride is described as a relaxing and scenic trip across the lake. However, this morning it was not the slightest bit scenic. There was nothing to see but a thick gray cloud of fog hovering above the lake. The entire Teton Range was invisible. The temperature would rise throughout the morning and slowly burn off the fog.

After ten minutes on the water, we arrived at the opposite boat dock. I left the boat and stepped onto the foot of Mount Teewinot. I sat down just past the dock and shed my hoodie and extended my trekking poles.

The Cascade Canyon Trail is a hike of variable length and difficulty. Some people start at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, some at String Lake, but most elect to take the shortcut across the lake to the boat dock. From the boat dock it is 9.6 miles round-trip to the forks of Cascade Canyon. That is the most common destination and my plan for the day. Between the boat dock and the forks there is an elevation gain of just under 2,000 feet. Most of the climb is gradual over a long distance, so the hike isn’t too difficult. However, there are longer options, too. A couple of steep miles past the forks is Lake Solitude. Farther still is Paintbrush Canyon, which stretches the hike to about twenty miles, and is the park’s most popular backpacking hike. I was planning on going to the forks, and depending on how I felt, perhaps continuing on to Lake Solitude.

From the boat dock, the trail led me rather steeply up and away from the lakeshore. Then I entered into a shadowy forest. Once in the woods the path leveled off under the cool canopy of trees overhead. I heard the light trickle of water nearby. It got a little louder with each step. Eventually the trail paralleled a small creek. The path and creek merged at a wooden bridge next to a fork in the trail. I could either go to Hidden Falls or to Inspiration Point and Cascade Canyon. I wanted to move on to the canyon and figured I could stop off at Hidden Falls on the way back.

I crossed the sturdy wooden bridge and continued on the path towards Inspiration Point. Soon I started a fairly steep ascent. At first it was through forest, but then I emerged onto a rocky incline. A few steep switchbacks led me to a bare rock clearing. I had arrived at Inspiration Point.

Due to it being so early I was all alone at the vista. Stretched out before me was an expansive view of… fog. Normally there would be a perfect view of pristine Jenny Lake below. Not this morning, though. It wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet, and the fog still had a ways to go before it would dissipate into the sky. I found the sight quite humorous, though, seeing absolutely nothing from a “scenic vista” named Inspiration Point. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the small “Inspiration Point” sign in front of the all-encompassing gray cloud.

After a brief stop there I resumed my hike. I was excited to enter new territory, since I had already hiked as far as Inspiration Point a few years earlier. The path made its way back into the woods. The lively green forest was bursting with vegetation, but it was short lived. I was in and out of the woods in just a few minutes. Once I exited the forest my surroundings changed dramatically.

Cascade Canyon opened wide before me. The largest mountains of the Teton Range stood to both sides of me. Teewinot and Mount Owen were directly to my left, with The Grand behind Mount Owen. Mount St John, another mammoth peak over 11,000 feet was directly to my right. Their serrated mountaintops struggled to poke through the stranglehold of the immense fog.

The middle of the canyon was level, while the sides were very steep. The dirt path ran adjacent to the northern side of the canyon (the right side). Massive white granite boulders were spread across the outer edges of the canyon. The boulders were formerly chunks of the mountains that line the canyon. Over the years, they have fallen to the canyon floor and now line much of the trail. In the center of the canyon a low lying forest spread from the other side of the trail to the calm meandering waters of Cascade Creek.

About a half mile into the canyon I ran into a couple of people stopped on the trail. They were looking at something in the middle of the canyon. We were in an area where Cascade Creek had split into several smaller streams. Large pools surrounded by a small forested area with thick underbrush created a marsh-like environment. This was prime moose habitat. So, it came as no surprise that when I approached the people on the trail they pointed to a pair of Bull Moose.

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There was a couple of dark chocolate colored moose grazing behind some trees and heavy brush. The other hikers moved on, but I stayed for a while and tried to find a good angle to photograph the moose. I climbed nearby boulders and ducked around trees to no avail. They were down low in some tall grass and were in no hurry to move elsewhere. Despite being a little annoyed that I couldn’t get a nice picture, I still felt very lucky to see a pair of moose in the wild. These were huge muscular animals.

Farther along, the forest thinned out and the surrounding canyon widened into more of a bowl shape. The smaller parts of the creek rejoined to make one larger, broader stream that bisected the canyon. It flowed smoothly and quietly to my left. At one point I walked down to the creek bed and was surprised by a beautiful landscape reflecting perfectly in the creek’s still water. Stands of Engelmann spruce spread out on both sides of the creek with a hulking mountain in the middle.

Cascade Canyon
Cascade Canyon

By then the fog had finally dissipated, revealing a striking blue sky overhead. There were big puffy white clouds scattered throughout the sky. These were friendly skies, posing no threat of rain like the day before. With the fog gone, the panorama around me was a magical sight to behold. The jagged peaks lining both sides of the canyon pierced the heavens above. Several thin waterfalls poured down the canyon walls, fed by snowmelt far above on the surrounding mountaintops. I guess that’s where the name Cascade Canyon originated.

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The creek eventually narrowed again and the current intensified. The canyon encompassing Cascade Creek closed in as well. The well-worn dirt trail ran alongside the creek and the two entered a wooded area together. They led me to the forks of Cascade Canyon. At the forks there was a sign posting destinations and distances in each direction. To the south were Hurricane Pass (5.1 miles away) and the Whitegrass Ranger Station (18.2 miles down the trail). The north fork led to Lake Solitude (2.7 miles away), Paintbrush Divide (5.1 miles), and String Lake (13 miles).

I considered continuing to Lake Solitude. It would entail a steep climb and an additional five miles. The hike to the forks was absolutely amazing. I guess carrying on could quite possibly have added to that, but I was satisfied and ready to go back.

So, I turned around and started back through the wonderful canyon. After about a half hour of leisurely walking I ran into Andy and his girlfriend again. We stopped and talked for a few minutes about the hike. I also told them how much farther they had to go. I encountered many more people on my return trip due to my early start. Nearly everyone stopped me to ask how much farther it was until the forks.

A little after noon I began to grow pretty hungry so I picked up my pace. Since the trail was mostly level I was able to cover a lot of ground quickly. I was back where I saw the moose sooner than expected. There were about a dozen people stopped on the path watching and photographing the pair of moose I had seen a couple hours earlier. They had barely moved in all that time.

From there it was just a short jaunt back to Inspiration Point. There was an entirely different scene there this time. The fog was completely gone, and the rocky clearing was absolutely swarming with people. The place was teeming with tourists of all ages. I stopped, despite the crowd, for a snack and took some photos of the drastically different view. In the morning there was nothing but fog, now there was an awe-inspiring panorama before me. The royal blue Jenny Lake looked glorious in the shadow of the cathedral group. An expansive blue sky spanned the horizon above the lake.

I carefully maneuvered my way through the crowd and away from Inspiration Point. I waited patiently for some slow-moving families on the short craggy switchbacks, then re-entered the forest. I followed the path to the wooden bridge over cascade creek. I took the spur trail toward Hidden Falls. A few minutes later I reached the substantial cascade flowing down a narrow chute lined by tall pines. The area was even more crowded than Inspiration Point, so I didn’t stay long. It was a nice view, but I had seen it before and it didn’t compare to my amazing journey through Cascade Canyon.

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I promptly departed and started back toward the boat dock. The path was almost completely flat and well-shaded, making the homestretch quick and easy. I completed the half-mile walk to the dock in less than ten minutes.

It was only a short wait for the next boat shuttle to arrive. I packed up my hiking poles and hopped onto the next available boat. The small boat was packed. Thankfully, it was a short ride.

The hike took me a little over five hours. I could have gone faster, but I took my time and really enjoyed it. By simply slowing down I was able to notice a lot more in my surroundings and it really amplified the enjoyment in my hike. I have naturally hurried through many hikes in the past, but I tried to take more time and consequently got more out of it.

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