Twenty-one years ago, only two days after I moved to Wyoming, my mom and I got lost on the western shore of Jenny Lake.
This should have been difficult to do as Jenny Lake was, and is, the most visited spot in Grand Teton National Park. Also, while the park manages the lake’s western shore as wilderness — meaning it doesn’t have amenities like the small market, visitor center and tent campground that the lake’s south end has — it does have trails, signs and a boat dock. It was the latter that we got lost trying to find.
The park does not have many mellow hikes appropriate for inexperienced hikers with sea-level lungs (like my mom and me) to choose from. The two-mile trek from South Jenny Lake to a boat dock on the lake’s western shore and then a ferry ride back to start is the park’s most classic short, flat hike.
But before we knew it, we were 600 feet above the lake’s western shore at a spot called Inspiration Point. The views from here might very well have been inspiring, but we were too lightheaded, thirsty, hungry and tired to appreciate them. Our easy hike had already taken us two hours, and we were out of water and energy. (The only reason we weren’t technically “out” of food was because we didn’t bring any to start with. A guidebook had told us this was a one-hour adventure.)
While we were oblivious to the mountain ranges that stretched to the east as far as the eye could see, from Inspiration Point we did notice ferries coming and going from a dock that seemed to be directly below us. We descended back to the lakeshore on a different trail than the one we had hiked up, passing runners in tank tops and short shorts, and rock climbers carrying heavy ropes on the outside of giant backpacks. It had to lead to the boat dock.
It was another three hours before we were back at our car, and by the time were reached it, I’d questioned the wisdom of my move to Wyoming. On only my second day in the state I’d managed to turn one of the easiest hikes in Grand Teton National Park into a day-long epic.
It wasn’t our fault that we got lost looking for the boat dock on the lake’s western shore. It was Jenny Lake’s fault.
In the years since my mom and I did the world’s longest one-hour hike, I’ve learned that park rangers and staff called the place where we made our wrong turn “Confusion Junction.” As of this summer, the junction is gone, its removal a tiny part of a five-year, $20 million public/private partnership that has renewed Jenny Lake’s trails and infrastructure. It will be finished next summer and is much bigger than a mere maintenance project.
For the first time since the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed the earliest official trails around the lake in the 1930s, its built environment is worthy of its natural environment. Jenny Lake has long been the park’s flagship attraction — more than half of its visitors stop here — but this was despite the man-made improvements to the area.
Previously, Jenny Lake visitors suffered crumbling retaining walls, excessive and buckling paved pathways, a lack of signs and confusing visitor-created shortcuts. Once they reached the lake — it’s several hundred feet from the parking lot — it took away their breath: Jenny Lake sits at the mouth of Cascade Canyon, in the perfect spot to reflect the snaggiest of the snow-capped Teton peaks to the west, which rise more than 6,000 feet. It might be the most gorgeous spot you can reach by car in the park, which is about seven times the size of Washington, D.C.
It was Jenny Lake that, two months into my Wyoming residency, made me realize that my planned year in the area wouldn’t be nearly enough. Paddling across it in my kayak one evening after work, I felt magic for the first time in my life. I had the whole lake to myself. Above me, an osprey rose on a thermal. As the bow of my boat cut in half the reflection of Teewinot, a prominent peak near the lake’s western shore, I planned out the phone conversation I would have with my parents, who had already paid the deposit to a law school that allowed me to defer admission: “The school lets people defer for one or two years. I’m going to do two years instead of one.”
I’m not going to blame Jenny Lake for the fact I never went to law school and have now lived in Wyoming for 21 years, but it was definitely a contributing factor.
Named after Jenny Leigh, the Shoshone wife of British fur trapper Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, Jenny Lake is a hole formed about 12,000 years ago by glaciers pushing rock and debris out of Cascade Canyon. The many cascades and creeks in this canyon filled the hole, which is about 420 feet deep, with water. When Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) was founded in 1929 it was only about one-third the size it is today, and Jenny Lake was one of only six lakes included in it. (The park was expanded to its present size, about 484 square miles, in 1950.)
When the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails around Jenny Lake in the 1930s, only several thousand people visited the park annually. Since then, the number of visitors to the park has grown; in 2017 the park got 4.9 million visitors, which is less than half of what the country’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains, got, but enough to land Grand Teton in the Top 10. Over the decades new trails were hastily added around the lake. Also, visitors looking for shortcuts created “pirate” trails that were used enough they came to look like real trails. The South Jenny Lake area was a mess.
In 2012, GTNP committed $3 million to address Jenny Lake’s infrastructure issues. These included simple things like installing signs pointing visitors to the lake as well as more complex projects such as closing pirate trails, building new bathrooms and replacing crumbling, mortared retaining walls with sturdier dry stone walls.
Realizing $3 million would only scratch the surface of what needed to be done, the park’s nonprofit partner, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, launched a fundraising campaign with the goal of raising $12 million. When early donor support exceeded expectations, the goal was raised to $14 million, and the scope of the renewal was expanded.
Work started in June 2014 and has progressed piecemeal every spring, summer and fall since. (In winter Jenny Lake is buried beneath several feet of snow, and the road to it is closed.)
This summer, South Jenny Lake, the area’s busiest and most developed area, was in a serious state of transformation. There is a parking lot for several hundred cars and a small visitor center. For the last several years, while work was being done on its original foundation, the center has been in an interim structure in the parking lot.
South Jenny Lake’s other amenities and services — the historic headquarters (a cabin built in 1925 by a homesteader) of the park’s Climbing Rangers, a tent campground, a market, a boathouse and dock — were where they had always been, but surrounded by orange fencing and construction. A long row of portable restrooms will stick around until the permanent facilities are finished next summer.
Still, for the first time, I could see how much easier visiting the lake will be, and how much richer. If you escaped the area immediately adjacent to the parking lot, the benefits of the renewal are obvious.
As recently as the third year of this project, staff reported that the most common question at Jenny Lake’s small visitor center was, “Where is the lake?” You couldn’t see it until you were almost standing on its shore, which was hard to find because of the spider web of trails. “We lost visitors almost right from the parking lot,” the park’s landscape architect, Matt Hazard, told me. (Finding Jenny Lake from the parking lot was so difficult that, about a decade ago, an employee, under cover of night and without asking a supervisor’s permission, painted moose tracks on the paved pathway that led from the parking lot to the lake, hoping visitors would follow them.)
Now a repositioned, well-signed trail pulls visitors in the right direction and, as they get closer, creates the illusion of Jenny Lake appearing out of nowhere. New signs are mounted on rough granite pedestals — made from boulders collected from the Tetons, helicoptered out of the mountains and hammered into size and shape by hand, like all of the rocks used in the project. (A crew of master masons from Kentucky’s Dry Stone Conservancy taught the craft of dry stone work to the park’s trail crew.) Buck rail fences and laminated signs deter visitors from heading off onto the wrong trail, and repositioned ADA-accessible paved pathways lead to the lake intuitively.
Strategically placed log benches encourage resting and admiring the views of the Tetons just across the lake. (Do this in the morning, before the wind coming down Cascade Canyon kicks up, to catch the best mountain reflections on the lake’s glassy surface.) New lookouts and beaches with the Tetons rising behind them are already Instagram stars (#jennylake, #thisisreal).
Past the South Jenny Lake boat dock and a small ramp where the public can launch paddleboards, kayaks and small motorboats — Jenny Lake is one of only two lakes in the park on which motorboats are allowed — a new trail begins to climb. The old trail hugged the shoreline, and was often submerged, requiring hikers to rock hop or get their feet wet. After five minutes of climbing the new trail, the Red Mountains and Absaroka Range in Yellowstone National Park are visible through a break in the trees.
On the lake’s western shore, Confusion Junction is gone: “That was one of the first things we fixed,” Hazard said. It wasn’t the biggest thing fixed in that area, though. Before this summer, thrown elbows and terse words were common at the base of Hidden Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the park and the most easily accessible waterfall in the park. To see Cascade Creek tumbling over a cliff more than 100 feet tall, visitors used to have to wait their turn in a cramped space muddy from spray and mist. Last autumn, trail crews finished construction of tiered, stone benches set about 20 feet back from the creek and with room for three times as many people as the original viewing area.
Recently checking in on all of these improvements, my plan was, after sitting and watching Hidden Falls for as long as I wanted (which turned out to be about 17 minutes), to continue hiking around the lake. At Jenny Lake’s northern end, near where String Lake flows into it, I would break for lunch at Jenny Lake Lodge, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2010. This property started life as a dude ranch in the 1920s and today has 37 log cabins around a main lodge with a river rock fireplace and a dining room that serves three meals a day. (The butter served at breakfast comes in the shape of moose!)
Leaving Hidden Falls, though, I took the putter of a boat engine as the universe calling an audible. I’d done Jenny Lake Lodge’s lunch several times before (also its breakfast and its five-course dinner; all are worth it and available to non-guests). What I still hadn’t done was take the boat shuttle from the western shore.
The 10-minute ride was better even than moose-shaped butter, and that was arriving at a still-under-construction South Jenny Lake. Next summer, to celebrate the renewal’s completion, my mom and I might have to finally do the hike we planned 21 years ago.
More from Travel:
Jenny Lake Lodge
Jenny Lake Rd., Moose, Wyo.
Historic cabins — most date from the 1920s and ’30s — tucked into a pine forest a short walk from the northern shore of Jenny Lake, with bikes and horses available for guests’ use and meals included. Open June 1 through Oct. 7. Rooms $702 for one person and $812 for two.
Jenny Lake Campground
South Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park
The 49 tent campsites and 10 sites designated for hikers and bicyclists here are available on a first-come/first-served basis. Flush toilets are a short walk; showers a short drive. This is often the first campground in the park to fill up, sometimes by 9 a.m. Open through Sept. 30. Sites from $29. Biker/hiker sites are $12 a night.
215 N. Cache St., Jackson, Wyo.
Two 1950s motor inns were combined and remodeled into this 49-room motel in downtown Jackson. The cozy lobby has a coffee shop, mercantile and wood-burning stove. Rooms have custom Pendleton wool blankets and minibars stocked by a local cold-pressed juicery. Rooms from $299.
Jenny Lake Lodge
Jenny Lake Rd., Moose, Wyo.
Fine dining in a log lodge dating from 1922 and where men are advised to wear jackets for dinner. Breakfast , lunch and dinner open to non-guest by reservation. Breakfast and lunch $34 each; five-course prix fixe dinner $100.
Dornan’s in Moose
12170 Dornans Rd., Moose, Wyo.
Order your pizza, pasta and drinks downstairs — and ask the bartender if you can borrow a pair of binoculars — and then head upstairs to a rooftop deck where, with the help of the binocs, you can look for climbers on the summits of the range’s main peaks. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Items from $10.
Snake River Grill
84 E. Broadway, Jackson, Wyo.
Creative comfort food in a luxe log cabin setting. Dinner nightly from 5:30 p.m.; entrees from $18.
Jackson Lake Lodge, Wyo.
Late 20th century master Carl Roter painted scenes from Jackson Hole’s 19th century fur trading period across 80 feet of wall here. Opposite the murals are 100 feet of windows looking out on Jackson Lake and Mount Moran, the tallest peak in the northern Teton Range. . Entrees from $18.
Lower Inspiration Point
Hike starts at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center, Moose, Wyo.
This rocky outcrop about 250 feet above the western shore of Jenny Lake offers views down onto the lake and east to the Gros Ventre Mountains. Starting at the visitor center on the lake’s eastern shore, it is a six-mile round-tip trek. Take the boat shuttle across the lake and cut off 4 miles. A seven-day pass to the park is $35 for one vehicle.
Hike starts at Jenny Lake Visitor Center.
This 18.4 mile (14.4 miles, if you take the boat shuttle) hike to an alpine lake at 9,035-feet at the back of the North Fork of Cascade Canyon is one of the park’s classic treks. A seven-day park pass is $35 for one vehicle.
Elk Island Dinner Cruise
Colter Bay Marina Rd., Moose, Wyo.
This one square mile island — Wyoming’s largest — in Jackson Lake is accessible only via kayak, canoe or this narrated scenic dinner cruise, which serves trout and steaks in a grassy meadow in the shadow of Mount Moran. Departs 5:15 p.m. Open Fri.–Wed., June 1-Sept. 5. $74 adults; kids ages 3-11 $43.
Jenny Lake Boat Shuttle
Departs from Jenny Lake Boat Dock near Jenny Lake Visitor Center
Take this shuttle between the lake’s southeastern and western shores to shorten every hike by four miles round-trip. Or just take it for the scenery. Shuttles run every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. Open June-Sept. 3, 7 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sept. 4-30, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $15 adult round-trip, $9 one-way; seniors $12 round-trip (no one-way senior fare); kids ages 2-11 $8 round-trip, $6 one-way.
Hike starts at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center or Jenny Lake Boat Dock
A 100-foot waterfall on Jenny Lake’s western shore that is either a five-mile (no boat shuttle) or one-mile (with boat shuttle) round-trip hike. A seven-day pass to the park is $35 for one vehicle.
Eco Tour Adventures
Take a wildlife tour of Grand Teton National Park with a naturalist. Adults from $130; kids 10 and younger $95.
For the author’s full list of Jenny Lake recommendations, visit washingtonpost.com/travel