When Winter arrives in the Tetons, you know it! Fall sneaks up on us over a period of several weeks or even a month—then lingers in some areas well into October. Officially, the first day of Winter is December 21st in most years, but by that time, we are almost guaranteed to have a blanket of snow across the valley floor and snow, measured in feet, in the mountains and passes.
Over the 27 years of living here, we’ve seen snow storms blanket the valley before Halloween. We’ve also seen the valley floor still bare going into the first week in December. We’ve sat in the comfort of our car on 4th of July watching fireworks with snow blowing across the windows. The point: We never know when it is going to arrive, just that it will!
Needless to say, Winter in the Tetons is beautiful! The Park is much less crowded than at any time in Summer and Fall. In fact, very few people take advantage of the Park in the Winter. About the same time I wrote this post, I wrote it’s sister post titled: If I Had Only One Winter Day in the Tetons: The two posts go hand-in-hand but approach the topic from different angles and both have different photos.
There are two big issues for Winter viewing. First—weather—it can be darned cold! Not everyone is willing to endure the temperatures and I suppose many are not equipped for it. Second, access in the park is extremely limited. Many roads people take for granted in the summer are closed, barricaded, or snowed in.
Weather: Days are short, but the sun is low in the sky, so you can take photos almost all day long. We typically don’t get the super high contrast light we get here in the middle of the summer. Most mornings and afternoons can simply be called “cold”. But, some mornings can be -30°F or even below. That’s hard on people, vehicles, and camera gear! Throw in some wind, and it can be deadly.
Clothing and Gear: You’ll want to wear lots of it and have lots of it! Good boots, gloves, jackets, thermal underwear, and warm outerwear are necessities. You’ll probably want to wear several layers. You’ll also need a few extra batteries for camera gear—or anything that uses batteries. Keep them in your shirt pocket to help keep them warm.
Warm to Cold, but not Cold to Warm: You can take your warm camera gear out into the cold with no problem, but if you go the other direction, you’ll likely fog all of the glass. I have several jumbo Zip-Lock bags to put my cameras in when I need to do it, but you can also simply wrap it up in a jacket or towel when you get back in a warm vehicle or building. It’s tempting to leave the vehicle running while out in the field, but I find it better to at least leave a window open. There won’t be quite as much of a temperature difference. I have a pickup with the extended cab. I usually put the camera and lens behind me, and away from the heater. In the summer, you might blow dust off the front of a lens. The warmth and humidity of your breath will fog the glass in an instant on a cold day!
Access within the Park: To be honest, it’s a much shorter list to document the places you “can” go than the list of places you “can’t” go. The three major closures are 1: The Teton Park Road from Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area to Signal Mountain Lodge. 2: The Moose/Wilson Road from the Death Canyon road junction to Granite Canyon trailhead. 3: Antelope Flats Road. Those three roads are “connectors” in the summer and fall. The Teton Park Road and Moose/Wilson Road close at Midnight on October 31st. Antelope Flats road closes at an unspecified date sometime after the Elk Reduction Program is completed.
Superintendent’s Compendium Amendment – Road Closures and Day-use Access . This GTNP page includes some of the recent area and road closures:
GTNP Superintendent’s Compendium . The Compendium has all the official rules for the park, including closure areas. The information below comes from a section of the Compendium.
From December 15th to April l the following areas are closed to all public entry unless authorized by written permit from the Superintendent (see map below).
a. The Snake River floodplain south along Highway 89 from the confluence of the Buffalo Fork at the Moran bridge to Ditch Creek, west along Ditch Creek to the Snake River, then west along the 4-Lazy-F fence line to Cottonwood Creek and north to the River Road, north along the River Road to the RKO Road and then NE along the Snake River to the Buffalo Fork confluence.
b. The Buffalo Fork River floodplain and the UhI Hill area defined as the following: starting section 21 (T45N, RI 13W) where the park boundary intersects the Buffalo Fork, then south along the park boundary to the intersection with the Elk Ranch Reservoir Road, then westerly along the Elk Ranch Reservoir Road to Highway 26, then north and east along Highway 26 to the park boundary in section 30 (Ti 14W, R45N), then south, east, and northeast along the park boundary to the starting point.
c. The Kelly Hill area (portions of Sections 1 and 2 in T42N, Ri 15W.)
Winter Closure Maps in PDF format:
- Greater Snow King Area
- Larger Snow King Area
- Gros Ventre Area
- Cache Creek Area
- Game Creek Area
- Leeks Canyon
- Russ Garaman
- Post Office Area
- Horse Creek Area
- Winter Travel Map Jackson
- Pinedale to La Barge GTNP Winter Guide
A Few Travel Options & Quick Trips:
With so many connecting roads closed, here’s a quick list of some of the options. With the exception of continuing over Togwotee Pass, the rest of the trips dead end. Campgrounds and most facilities are closed in the Winter, so take food, water, and have a full tank of gas when you head out. The list below outlines essentially one way trips out of Jackson once everything is closed down for the Winter months. Other than the three mentioned already, some of the other roads and connectors close at different dates. According to a person I spoke with at the Forest Service, quite a few of the roads south of the Gros Ventre River close on December 1st, while similar connecting roads north of the river close on December 15th. They could close earlier if heavy snow blocks the roads. Antelope Flats road has no established date, but it usually happens in mid-December.
A: Jackson to Flag Ranch, via Moran Junction. Features: Snake River Overlook, Triangle X buck rail fences, Cunningham Cabin, Pacific Creek Road, Oxbow Bend, upper Jackson Lake. Possible Deer, Elk, Coyotes, Foxes, Moose, Otters, Eagles, Waterfowl, etc.
B: Jackson to Signal Mountain Lodge, via Moran Junction. Features: Snake River Overlook, Triangle X buck rail fences, Cunningham Cabin, Pacific Creek Road, Oxbow Bend, Jackson Lake Dam, Jackson Lake. Possible Deer, Elk, Coyotes, Foxes, Moose, Eagles, Waterfowl, etc.
C: Jackson to Togwotee Pass, via Highway 89/191. Features: Snake River Overlook, Triangle X buck rail fences, Cunningham Cabin, Buffalo Valley, Views back to the Tetons from the lower part of the pass. Possible Moose, Elk, Deer, Wolves, Coyotes, Foxes
D: Jackson to Taggart Lake Trailhead parking area, via Moose Junction. Features: Views of the Tetons, hike into Chapel of the Transfiguration if the road is not plowed.
E: Jackson to Granite Canyon road junction, via Moose Junction. Features: River bottom at Moose, Beaver Ponds, Aspen groves. Possible Owls, Beavers, Elk, Moose,
F: Jackson to Kelly and Slide Lake, via Gros Ventre road. The road is closed to vehicles past the campground at Slide Lake after December 15th. Features: Town of Kelly, Kelly Warm Springs, Shane Cabins, Wedding Trees, Lower Slide Lake, and Red Rocks. Possible Bighorn Sheep, Eagles, Deer, Elk, Mountain Lion
G: Jackson to Schwering Studio, via Gros Ventre road and E. Boundary Road. Features: Town of Kelly, vista views of the Teton Range. Possible Moose, Elk, Deer, Coyotes, Wolves, Eagles.
H: Jackson to end of the National Elk Refuge Road. The first 4-5 miles are open all year. After December 1, the road on out to Curtis Canyon and Upper Flat Creek is closed during the winter. Features: Views of the Tetons, Miller House, Elk on the Refuge, Sheep on Miller Butte. Occasional Fox, Coyote, Eagles, or possibly Wolves.
Pacific Creek Road: This road stays open and is plowed to allow access to the residents at the north end of the road. The Forest Access road is closed in the Winter along the with road to Two Ocean Lake.
If turning towards Kelly at the Gros Ventre Junction, you can head “up the Gros Ventre”, but the road is closed to vehicles past Lower Slide Lake. If you opt to go north out of Kelly on the East Boundary Road, but it dead ends about 6 miles north at the Schwering Studio driveway.
At Moose Junction, you have the option to drive a little ways into the road to the Taggart Lake Parking area, or south on the Moose/Wilson Road to the Death Canyon road junction. The visitor’s center at Moose will be closed for the 2013 Winter Season.
Obvious Closures: With the Teton Park Road closed, there is no winter vehicle access to common places like String Lake, Jenny Lake, the Old Patriarch Tree or the drive up to the peak at Signal Mountain. With part of the Moose/Wilson road closed, you don’t have winter vehicle access to the Lawrance Rockefeller Preserve and parking for access to Phelps Lake or Death Canyon. Once Antelope Flats Road is locked up, you don’t have winter vehicle access to the Mormon Row barns.
Less obvious closures include: Blacktail Pond Overlook, Cunningham Cabin, the road to Cattleman’s Bridge, and Shadow Mountain. The river bottom land along the Snake River from Moose to Pacific Creek is closed to all human entry during most of the Winter. (Dec. 15 to April 1). The road into the Chapel of the Transfiguration is seldom plowed, though you can walk in. You can walk in to Cunningham Cabin, but not down into the river bottom at Blacktail Pond. You can walk, snow shoe, or cross country ski into the Mormon Row area. The road from the highway to Lost Creek Ranch is not plowed in the Winter. The road to the top of Shadow Mountain closes December 15th, or possibly sooner with heavy snow. In short, the Park Service plows only the main roads and a few pullouts along the highway.
Wildlife: Considering the abundance of animals in the park in the summer, the Park is surprisingly barren in the winter. The bears hibernate. Pronghorns migrate south towards Pinedale and Big Piney. A few hawks and eagles might hang around, but most move south. Most elk and bison move to the National Elk Refuge, but access to them is often limited to viewing from the highway or at a distance on the Elk Refuge Road. Wolves follow the game animals, so they are also difficult to view on the Elk Refuge. In early winter, Trumpeter Swans migrate through the valley along Flat Creek. Bighorn Sheep arrive to Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge around Thanksgiving, offering good viewing and photo opportunities. Most of the little critters like ground squirrels, voles, chipmonks and so forth are seldom seen. Ermine might pop up about anywhere. Most of the mule deer spend the winter near Kelly, the Golf and Tennis Club or on the buttes west of the highway. Moose often move to the flats north of Kelly until the snow gets to deep for foraging. They lose their antlers in late December and early January. In late January and February, Mountain Goats are visible on some days in the Snake River Canyon near Alpine Junction.
Going North: I usually make a trip to the northern ends of the park a couple of times a year, and then drive home wondering why I went there. Jackson Lake is hardly a lake during the Winter, and especially so this year. Water levels at Oxbow Bend are very low. There can be a few waterfowl, a few otters, and maybe a few raptors, but it is such a crap shoot finding them or getting close. Most of the larger mammals will have already left the area and migrated south towards the Refuge.
My Winter Wildlife Outings: I usually have a few tree stumps and feeders in my back yard, so I watch for woodpeckers, flickers, nuthatches, and the various winter birds willing to pose for me. I can usually get a few shots and never leave the house. The swan pond West of the Maverik Convenience Store is usually good in the afternoons.
I spend much of December along Miller Butte when the Bighorns are in the rut. Elk and Bison are sometimes visible along the road on the Elk Refuge Road. (See Maps). I spend a lot of time around Kelly up until Christmas, photographing moose and mule deer. Around the first of December, Trumpeter Swans migrate through the valley, so I spend a lot of time at the observation platform along Flat Creek north of the Visitor’s Center. An occasional otter swims through while watching the Swans and other waterfowl. Great Gray and Great Horned owls can sometimes be found in the valley.
My Winter Landscape Outings: On days with the right kinds of clouds, or with a setting moon, I head for one of the few accessible points in the valley, like Cunningham Cabin, Snake River Overlook, or the buck rail fences across from Triangle X Ranch. The hike from the barricades on Antelope Flats is around 3/4 of a mile. It’s not too bad on some days, but it can be very cold getting to the right spot before sunrise. Nights are usually cold and clear, so it can be good for night time photography. With fog filling the valley on many winter mornings, hoar frost builds on leaves and branches for some wonderful opportunities, usually close to home. Snow is usually very deep along the base of the Teton Range, so most of the animals have moved to more hospitable areas.
The Cycle: It seems each year, one of the subjects is better than others. But, it is not necessarily the same from year to year. Owls might be in the valley one year, but not again for a couple of years. Bigger bighorn rams come down some years than others. Snow is heavier some years, pushing Moose off the sage flats sooner than others. Ice freezes solid on Flat Creek and the Swans leave or don’t stop. The variety keeps you on your toes and keeps me interested. Luckily, most of the action is in the south end of the valley in the Winter. The Teton Park Road opens back up each year on May 1st. Some years, there’s a thick layer of snow, but other years there might be just a few patches of snow in the sagebrush. Snow pack along the base of the mountain usually offers a few “last of winter” shots.
Other Winter Opportunities: The National Elk Refuge Rides start in December. You can ride horse drawn sleigh right into the middle of the herd of elk. They tolerate it for some reason. Commercial operations offer snowmobile tours to Granite Hot Springs, Togwotee Pass, Up the Gros Ventre, and into Yellowstone. Sled Dog tours are also available in several areas. Of course, the area ski mountains are open all winter. Cross country skiing and snow shoeing is allowed in many areas other than the river bottom along the Snake River. Consult the Jackson Hole Chamber Of Commerce for a list of the various Winter Events like the New Year’s Eve torch light parade and fireworks display. Also, check out Helpful Area Links: and GTNP Maps on this site.
Equipment Notes: Until I received my Nikon D4 in March of 2011, I was using a Nikon D300 body. For most landscapes, I use a 24-70mm lens or a 70-200mm lens. For wildlife, I use a Nikon 200-400mm lens most of the time, but will occasionally switch to a 70-200mm. In the early part of 2013, I purchased a Nikon D800, but I usually have the D4 and a 28-300mm lens around my neck. I can always switch bodies if I feel like I will be getting action shots—or use the D4 and 28-300mm if I need to capture a quick wide shot.
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.
Final Observation: As I read back on this Feature Post, it might sound like the door slams on Fall on a specific date and Winter hits the next. A big snow storm can dump a heavy snow on the valley floor and mountains in late October and early November, but snow on the valley floor usually melts off. On November 1st, two main roads close, but most of the rest stay open until snow banks make it impassible or dangerous. By mid-December, however, most of the valley looks and feels like Winter is here to stay. I have Four Wheel Drive on my truck and have had to use it countless times.
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