Day 3 -- Grand Teton National Park

This morning we break camp early, grabbing a breakfast that required no dishes and repacking the car. Kathy and I were both awakened early by a bird in a nearby tree, repeatedly announcing dawn. Neither of knew that the other was awake and silently wishing the bird would go away. We were both obviously ready to go but we had to wait for the kids, who could sleep through anything, to awaken. We separately lay quietly and listened to the bird(s). We spread the rain fly out to dry over some nearby small trees while we ate and packed. Daniel checked out the landscape again around our tent and confirmed the special powers of these trees and rocks. A hopeful prairie dog had been added to the local landscape as well. Getting Daniel to eat some breakfast is a different story. As might have been expected, one of the pull tops on a cup of fruit broke without opening. I used my brand new Swiss Army knife to open it and manage to slice my finger too, probably aided by my unfamiliarity with the bifocals I am forced to wear. This set off a search for bandaids which neither Kathy nor I seemed to be able to find. We finally located a small one and I managed to stop the bleeding. At last we were ready to start. The prairie dog was disappointed that we didn't leave much for him.

On the way out of the campground, we paid last night's campground fee and stopped at the store for more ice, some bandaids, a loaf of bread and another six-pack of diet Dr. Pepper. Since we were so far north of the hike we intended to take, we decided to spend the morning looking at the wildlife. We stopped first at Willow Flats to walk the trails there. The pullout was high above the flats, yielding a great overview of the wide, flat marsh region. We dropped down into the marsh, passing through the local prairie dog colony, and paused at the beaver pond. There was a large beaver lodge in the pond below the dam. Rumor said a beaver had been visible a short while ago, but he was nowhere to be seen now. Yellow headed blackbirds were resting on the cattails. Swallows were swooping overhead and resting on small tree branches out over the water. Their buff breasts and iridescent bodies were like jewels in the trees. In the pond above the dam were a mallard and a few American coots.

We headed out on a trail into the marsh. There were goldfinches flitting in the low bushes. Then, in the distance, we saw large animals browsing just in front of the trees. I recovered my binoculars from Daniel (he was using them as headlights; he was an RV), pushed up my bifocals and saw the family of elk. As we watched, we saw them appear and disappear in the brush. We walked quietly (as quietly as you can when you are with an RV) forward along the trail to get as close as possible. Then they heard us. For a while they froze and assessed the threat. It was impossible to keep Daniel completely quiet, so we didn't even try. At last they decided to retreat slowly into the brush. As we watched, we realized that there we many more elk than we had realized. Their high white rumps were distinctive and made it easy to see them as they entered the trees.

We walked on for a short distance, becoming aware of a bird call that we could not locate. We kept checking all of the clumps of brush before we finally realized that the musical sounds were coming from above us as the swallows zipped back and forth. The gnats were beginning to get to us so we stopped standing around and began walking back toward the ponds and the car. The goldfinches were still flitting brilliantly through the low brush ahead of us. At the ponds the swallows still posed in the branches. Back at the parking area, Kathy and Rebecca read the information provided at the overview while Daniel and I watched the brazen yellowheaded blackbirds. They were landing on the cars and just barely avoiding the people. I watched them long enough to be sure of what they were doing. They were taking advantage of all of the dead insects on the cars and saving themselves the trouble of catching them!

From Willow Flats we drove to Jackson Lake Junction and turned east toward the Oxbow Bend. As we approached the bend, driving beside the river, we could see large flocks of white birds on the water. At the pullout we were immediately greeted by the prairie dog colony. They were all over the slope down to the river's edge as well as running around in the parking area. As we walked down one of the paths, one stubborn critter stood up on his hind legs and chattered loudly at us. Rebecca and Daniel were entranced, as much by his brazeness as his volubility. There was an otter in the river, swimming peacefully, and then suddenly diving. A great blue heron flew into the trees on the other side of the river. A downy woodpecker was flitting among the brush on the riverbank. Yet another species was crouched on the edge of the river in a small bunch, a group of photographers stationed around a camera with a long focal length lens and mounted on a sturdy tripod. As the kids watched the prairie dogs, Kathy and I watched the otter through the binoculars. We also identified the white birds we had seen upriver as pelicans. The large birds we saw in another niche in the riverbank were Canadian geese. But we saw no large mammals other than the photographers. We gathered up the kids and headed back west toward Jackson Lake junction.

At the junction we turned south and drove over the dam, where we has seen the moose last night. We decided to take the drive up Signal Mountain, a steep climb up the heavily timbered slopes to a view over the Snake River plain and the Pothole area. The Potholes are shallow depressions in the plain where water is held. From this viewpoint we could see for great distances. The landscape was an expanse of color fields, responding to the different level of the subsurface water. While scanning this expanse with my binoculars, looking for bison on these river bottomlands, I found no bison, but I did spot a small group of pronghorn antelope. Because they were so far away, I had a hard time helping Rebecca find them through the binoculars, but she finally spotted them. After Kathy had seen them, we drove down the mountain again. Since we were near the Signal Mountain Lodge, we decided to see whether there was a room available for tonight. They were full but there was space in the campground, so we drove in, picked a spot and set up the tent. While we were setting up, Daniel took out his trucks and played with his boy toys. While Rebecca laid out the sleeping bags, Kathy went for a walk in the trees behind our campsite. She was back limping in a few minutes, having knocked her shin hard on a small tree stump. After concluding that we had better keep a close eye on her, we made up an icepack and had her hold it on her leg while Rebecca and I made lunch.

String Lake

After lunch we headed down to Jenny Lake. We had read descriptions of several of the hikes in this area and they all sounded appealing. We decided to start out along the eastern shore of String Lake, which connects Leigh Lake and Jenny Lake. At the end of the lake we could choose to go on to Leigh Lake or to cross the river and circle String Lake. The walk along the east shore of the lake was very easy. We passed many others walking back along this path, one man with a set of bells attached to his belt so that the jingling would warn bears that he was coming. At the end of the lake we decided to cross the river because Kathy wanted to try to make it to Hidden Falls, if we possibly could. The hike on the other side of the lake was an entirely different story however. The lakes lie along a fault line. The mountains are formed from the upthrust block of rock which is then eroded into its present shape; the lower block on the east side of the fault has been smoothed by centuries of erosion from the action of glaciers and the high water periods of the Snake River.

Daniel on the trail

On the west side of String Lake, we climbed high up above the water, moving far inland before we turned south again to head back to the other end of the lake. We walked deep in the woods and high above the water, moving up and down along the mountain side. At one point we rose above the snow line, low for this time of year, and had to cross the snow at a drainage where the snow melt was running down the mountain. A snow bridge was apparent. Kathy carefully examined the available paths and then preceded us onto the snow. Rebecca and I then helped Daniel up to safe footing. Rebecca followed and then I scrambled after them. There was only one tongue of snow down the drainage and across the trail, but it caused us to carefully discuss with the children the dangers to be found in such areas and ways to avoid them.

On the trail while returning to water level, between String Lake and Jenny Lake, we encountered 3 marmots sunning themselves on a couple of big boulders. We stopped to watch them from a short distance. Two of them were not bothered at all by our presence but the third kept going down behind the rock and then reappearing to see whether we were still there. The kids didn't want to leave but we finally continued on down the trail, much to the relief of the marmots, I'm sure.

At the bottom of the grade we had a choice between turning back a bit, crossing another bridge and returning up the east side of String Lake to the parking lot and the car or continuing south along the west side of Jenny Lake toward Hidden Falls. Since it was still early and Kathy wanted to see Hidden Falls, we continued south.

The two lakes were connected by a series of rapids with the water level dropping from String Lake to Jenny Lake. As we walked along the trail, the water dropped away below us, sometimes slowly, sometimes more rapidly. Then the trail began to rise and fall above Jenny Lake, and Daniel began to tire visibly. We left the trail to rest on a boulder giving a view of the lake. We climbed up on the top and settled down for a snack and a breather. When Daniel was ready to go again, after some myth making about this landscape and its inhabitants, we climbed back to the trail and continued toward Hidden Falls. Kathy even carried Daniel for a few short stretches. We finally reached the junction with the short trail to the boat dock (the boat brought those across the lake who wanted to see Hidden Falls without all the effort of a hike). There was still no sign of the falls. By this time my knees were giving me problems, and Daniel was not ready to move any farther away from the car. It was decided that the two of us would remain here while Kathy and Rebecca went on to see where these falls really were. The mileage signs had been of little help so far. They had all indicated that we should be there by now.

Daniel found many ways to express his imagination while we waited. Several people passed on the trail, asking if we knew how far it was to Hidden Falls. About all I knew was that they were hidden! One woman stopped to ask how far Daniel had hiked today. She couldn't believe that he had come this far and urged us to take the boat back across the lake. I pointed out to her that we would just have to hike back on the other side because we were not parked at Jenny Lake, but up at String Lake. She just looked at him and shook her head. Soon a group of rock climbers came down the trail to catch the boat back. Daniel asked me to explain all their equipment to him, so we spent the next 10 or 15 minutes talking about ropes and pitons while other climbing groups passed on their way to the boat dock after a day of rock climbing.

Eventually Kathy and Rebecca returned, saying that it was a good thing that we had remained behind. It was at least half a mile further to reach the falls, with the last part being very steep. It was one of those trails where you feel disappointed as you near the goal. In this case there were some fairly steep cascades seen for a while as you near the end of the trail. But suddenly you turned the corner and there is Hidden Falls, with the water crashing down and the noise overwhelming.

After Rebecca and Kathy rested a few minutes, we started back the way we had come. Now we had landmarks to check off as we passed. While Daniel was tired, he knew we were headed back to the Prev now. We stopped occasionally to show him tree roots that were splitting rocks and other interesting things along the trail. We passed several large boulders on the lake side of the trail before we all saw the one that we agreed was the one we had rested on. In a little while we began to hear the rapids on the connecting river between the two lakes. Then we could see them and knew that the bridge across the river was just ahead.

After we crossed the bridge, we walked up the level side of the lakeshore to the parking lot. It was then that we realized that this was not the lot where the Prev was parked. It was in the far lot. The kids were very tired, especially Daniel, so Kathy decided to leave us all here and to get the car and bring it to us. We tried several different places to sit down and rest, but the ants were all over the area. Rebecca and I added up our mileage for the afternoon. Daniel and I have hiked 7 miles and Rebecca and Kathy added another mile. The kids began to get restless, checking out each car that passed on the road. Their hopes rose and fell with each car that passed. At last the Prev arrived and we all piled in.

The Tetons

We decided to eat at Signal Mountain Lodge and agreed to sit on the deck so that we wouldn't need to wait. After we were seated, we understood both the attraction and the dangers of this seating arrangement. There was constant activity from the swallow community whose nests were packed under the eaves of the lodge. We almost had to duck as they came flying in. Daniel ordered the chicken fingers while the rest of us decided on something relatively light and replenished our fluids with plenty of iced tea. All the time the swallows were swooping over the tables. Children were playing below us at the lakeshore. After dinner we visited the gift shop. Rebecca was redecorating her room with posters collected on her camping trips. Here she took a while to choose the poster that she wanted while Daniel examined almost everything in the shop.

The sun was still up though there were lots of thunderheads around. We decided to visit the Oxbow Bend again to see if any of the big mammals were there this evening. Again, as we drove over the dam, there was a moose sauntering along just below the road. By the time we reached the Oxbow, it was starting to rain. We sat in the car and watched the lightning all around us. A flock of pelicans was on the slowly moving water. The prairie dogs were still active. Then a rainbow started to form as the sun dipped below the clouds. At first it came and went, but then it formed a full arc across the east. Kathy decided that she had to get out of the car to attempt to get a photograph. The rain continued and the light changed constantly. Finally she felt she had done the best she could and got back into the car. (The picture did not "come out.") We then headed back to Signal Mountain and our campsite.

Tonight I had no contact lenses to take out, but I still felt very strange in the bifocals, a little bit out of balance. The kids got ready for bed. We made sure that no bear attractants were left out and that the car was locked. The sleeping arrangements were a little different tonight; both kids were in the middle slots and Kathy and I moved to the outside. This night it would be cold if it cleared off at all. There was a lot of condensation from our breath on the tent last night. There would probably be more tomorrow morning. The sky was a little light still but we were tired.

In a short while, a light rain began.


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The Grand Teton Natural History Association (GTNHA) is now online.

See our map and guide reference section for trail maps and other useful information available from has over 3,500 maps.

Wyoming Atlas and Gazetteer, DeLorme Publishing.

Roadside Geology of Wyoming, David R. Lageson & Darwin R. Spearing, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, MT

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© 1995 - Karen M. Strom