Tips for getting the most out of a Winter day trip to Grand Teton National Park.
Winter closures make a trip to the Tetons a completely different experience for any tourist or photographer. It’s cold and the days are much shorter. Animals are not in the same areas of the park.
PLEASE NOTE: I originally wrote this post towards the end of Fall for people visiting the area in early Winter. By mid-December, many of the roads in the Park are closed and access becomes much more limited. Antelope Flats road was locked at both ends on December 24th this winter (2013-2014), cutting off vehicle access to the Mormon Row barns. Access to Cunningham Cabin and the Chapel of the Transfiguration is limited to on-foot travel, including snow shoes and cross country skiing.
You’ll probably want to read Winter in the Tetons: Tips for travel and photography along with this Feature Post for more info and details. The page also includes maps and winter closure info.
November 2016 Edit: Schwabacher Landing has been open for several years since I wrote this article, but the entire zone closes to human activity in mid December.
Back to the topic…I’ve lived here 27 years and I get out regularly, but you might only have a day to explore the park. This page should help you develop an “itinerary” for a day trip.
I’d suggest starting the early morning at Snake River Overlook. It’s about 20 miles from town and located next to the highway with a convenient pullout. Get there early and dress warmly. Sunrises there can be spectacular. Ansel Adams took one of his iconic photos from that very location. It is a great place to capture both the Grand and Mt. Moran, and if you know how, shoot several side by side images you might use to stitch into a single panoramic image.
If you’ve already taken a lot of shots at Snake River Overlook, consider heading on up the highway another few miles and shoot across the buck rail fence across from Triangle X. It makes a good sunrise subject, especially when there are interesting clouds over the peaks. Of course, even if you are just sightseeing, either of these two locations are worth the time and energy. (November 2016 comments: Some of the original buck rail fences near Triangle X Ranch have been replaced with less attractive fences).
The pullout to Cunningham Cabin is usually open in the Winter. The road from the pullout down to the cabin is usually unplowed, so you would need to walk in as I did for this shot.
From either of these locations, I’d suggest heading back south. There will be several additional pullouts along the highway that might interest you. If you are in the valley before the middle of December, Antelope Flats Road might still be open. The Park Service closes it once snow storms cover the valley floor and when snow plowing becomes too expensive. That’s usually after hunting season. The Mormon Row barns are located a few miles off the highway on Antelope Flats Road.
Schwabacher Landing usually remains open through November and part of December. The gate can be locked at any time once snow covers the road, but you can hike into the area until December 15th when the entire river bottom closes to all human activity. Most shots taken at Schwabacher have mirror reflections of the Tetons, but as you can see, the pond freezes over in the winter.
If Antelope Flats road is closed, head on over to Moose Junction. Check on the road into the Chapel of the Transfiguration or go on up to the trail head at Taggart Lake. This is also a parking area for cross country skiers, hikers, and people on snow shoes. At Moose, you can go south on the Moose/Wilson road a few miles. Early in the Winter, watch for elk, owls, moose and deer. By late in the Winter, expect most animals to have moved away from the base of the mountains and away from the deep snow.
From Moose Junction, go south to the Gros Ventre Road junction and head east towards the town of Kelly. Watch for moose, deer, elk and raptors along the Gros Ventre River. At Kelly, head north a mile or so and make a sharp right. You’ll still be on the Gros Ventre Road. Watch for anything interesting that might be hanging around the Kelly Warm Springs including deer, foxes, elk, bison and waterfowl.
Continuing East on the Gros Ventre Road, you’ll wind through stands of aspens until you see the old Shane Cabins in the hollow on the north side of the road. Many people like to photograph them at all times of the year.
A few miles east of the Shane Cabins, you start a climb to the top of the hill. The Wedding Trees are only 100 yards West of the parking area. In some years, tourists, campers, and photographers have already stomped down a path to the trees. I’ve also had to use snow shoes to get to them.
From the Wedding Trees parking area, head east over a patched asphalt road to Lower Slide Lake and start watching for wildlife on the red hills on the left. Bighorn Sheep are there fairly often. Elk are occasionally visible on the hillsides, and I have rock solid information about a mountain lion seen on the hillsides.
From Slide Lake, I’d head back towards the Town of Jackson. As you approach town, look for a good shot of Sleeping Indian on the east side of the valley. Stop at the observation platform along Flat Creek and look for waterfowl, swans and otters. It is also good place to take photos of Sleeping Indian. The platform is probably my favorite place to see and capture images of Trumpeter Swans.
The Visitor’s Center and JH Chamber of Commerce are located only a few hundred yards south of the observation platform. You can book a sleigh ride trip to the National Elk Refuge there. It might be the best value in the valley!
After lunch, head East from downtown Jackson and enter the National Elk Refuge. You’ll be restricted to the roadway and are expected to park only in turnouts. The historic Miller House in a couple of miles from the entrance and there will likely be thousands of elk roaming behind it.
From the Miller House area, continue on to Miller Butte and watch for Bighorn Sheep. They can be on the rocks, in the sage flats, or right on the road. They are not typically scared of humans. During December, the rams can be clashing heads. The Elk Refuge Road continues on for another couple of miles before you have to turn around. Elk and bison can sometimes be feeding next to the road, but are usually farther north. Both bald and golden eagles are known to sit on the rocks on Miller Butte. The first four or maybe five miles of county road on the Refuge is open all year. There is no winter access to Curtis Canyon. Wolves work the elk herds and are occasionally seen on the hillsides, usually at a long distance however.
If you were to follow this itinerary, you’ll have a good chance to get some nice landscapes and see some wildlife. Weather will be a big factor on any particular day of the year, of course. And, you can change the order as desired.
If you need to warm up, spend some time in town. There are good restaurants, lots of galleries and plenty of talented photographers with splendid galleries around the Town Square.
Photography Notes: Grand Teton National Park offers some great Panoramic Opportunities. If you have a good tripod, Winter is a good time to capture a scene wider than you can normally get in a single shot. I seldom feel the need to use a polarizing filter in the winter. The cobalt blue skies always seem bright enough against the white blanket of snow. I seldom need to use a graduated Neutral Density Filter in the Winter, either. The snow on the ground does a good job of filling in the lower sections that might normally be very dark in the summer. With all of the light, it is possible to shoot at the base ISO on my cameras unless trying to stop action in low morning light. And, even if the Tetons are socked in with clouds, there are always lots of opportunities to capture icicles, shadows, and details.
Please Note: All of the images on this page are fully copyrighted with the US Copyright Office. ©2009-2013 Mike R. Jackson – All Rights Reserved