A few weeks ago, Dean and I went on what we thought would be the adventure of a lifetime… and in many ways, it did turn out to be just that…. Sort of.
The Grand Teton National Park is located in Wyoming, right below Yellowstone. It is a much smaller park, but large in grandeur. The mountain peaks just seem to pop straight up out of the ground. Photos cannot quite capture just HOW dramatic they are, you must see them in real life. “The Grand” towers at 13,770 above sea level !
We were dying to see this land up close and personal, and spent many months planning a multi-day hiking route, studying the topography of the trails, making our menu and preparing all our food. Every single ounce had to be taken into consideration. A five day trek doesn’t sound that long, but when you have to carry everything on your back, up and down steep mountainous terrain, in much thinner air than the sea level climate we are used to here in Hawaii, you have to make sure you are not taking any unneeded items.
We packed up and headed for the GRAND TETONS!!!
We flew from Honolulu to Salt Lake City, Utah, and then drove about 5 hours up through Idaho and Wyoming. Thunderstorms came along when we were about an hour from the Tetons, and did not let up the rest of our drive there. Although it was a “scenic route” we didn’t see much. In fact, we were lucky if we could get the windshield wipers to move fast enough to even be able to see where we were going! This wasn’t a very good sign!!
When we finally arrived, the Grand Tetons did look grand, but they also looked a bit ominous. Large, bright bolts of lightning streaked down from the sky across the mountain range, and it reminded me of a setting in a Disney cartoon where the mean old witch might live. I wasn’t too confident in our hiking plans at this time.
By late afternoon, however, the black clouds rolled away but the air was still thick with a fog that gave us a bright red ball of a sun for the rest of the evening.
We camped at the Gros Ventre (pronounced “Grow Vaunt” – it’s French, meaning “Big Belly”) campgrounds the first night, setting up the tent in a quick thunder/lightning/hail storm. They were expecting another large storm to roll in tomorrow….. the very day we had planned to start our hike! OH NO!
But the next morning we woke up to bright clear skies and we were hopeful. We set out for the Moose Visitor center to obtain our permits for the hike.
The buffalo are plentiful near the Gros Ventre Campgrounds. What a beautiful setting!
The rangers informed us that another thunderstorm was scheduled to roll in today, but it looked like clear skies and nice weather for the following days. Although we hated to, we decided to play it safe and postpone our hike one day, in hopes of better weather.
We weren’t too disappointed in our change of plans, as this gave us a chance to drive around and see some of the sights of this beautiful National Park. We ate lunch at Signal Mountain Lodge and then checked out Jackson Lake, the largest of several lakes in Grand Teton. The scene is just gorgeous, the mountains look fake. They are so unbelievable, although, here you can see the afternoon clouds starting to roll in. Rain followed.
Luckily, it didn’t last very long at all, and we kinda wished we had started our hike today as previously planned. Instead, we took the Antelope Flats route (in which we saw no antelope) and made our way to “Mormon Row”.
The main attractions of “Mormon Row” are the abandoned barns that were homesteaded by the Mormons in the early 1900’s. I had seen many photographs and paintings of these beautiful buildings with a backdrop that was just breathtaking.
It was so neat to finally be able to see these old barns and homes in real life, and I had many thoughts of great painting opportunities. Needless to say, I took many photos for later reference.
"Still Standing Before The Grand"
Yet again, the weather did not want to cooperate, and started to turn on us. We headed back to our tent at Gros Ventre for a second night.
The next morning was not so clear and sunny, and clouds hung over the Grand Tetons. We were a little pessimistic about hiking up into them, but time was an issue, and we couldn’t postpone another day. It was now or never. Maybe the weather would clear as the day wore on…..
At 8:30 a.m., we were finally starting our long awaited adventure. Here I am heading up Paintbrush Canyon. We had planned to hike in about 8 miles up the canyon the first day and camp in the Upper Paintbrush Zone.
It began to drizzle, and our views of the beautiful Teton Mountain range were blocked by the ever-looming clouds. We did see many beautiful waterfalls though, and streams ran down next to the trail a lot of the way. Had it been nice weather, this place would have been absolutely gorgeous!
Our first critter we encountered on the trail was a Marmot. He was busy scurrying among the boulders, but when he saw us, he took a minute to pose for a picture.
Wildflowers near Holly Lake grew along the edge of the trail.
Hours and hours of hiking in the rain. Luckily, we had waterproof rain covers for our packs, and our rain gear worked well in keeping us dry. Not the most ideal hiking conditions, though. That is for sure.
We saw many little Pika’s running in and out of rocky areas. They were fun to watch, so comical, (they sure reminded us of our little Brighton SuperYorkie, back home. How we missed him!) Most of the little Pika’s were busy collecting wildflowers and taking them back to their winter stash. They would make a funny little “scream” that sounds almost like a bird. We spent a few minutes watching them, and we should have stopped for lunch, but the weather was getting worse, and we wanted to get up to the camping zone as soon as possible, so we hungrily trekked on.
We had been hiking about 6 1/2 hours. It rained almost the entire way, and was not letting up. In fact, it looked like it was actually turning worse. The mountain passes were completely covered in clouds. The higher we got, the colder it got. We were hungry, and our clothes felt damp, probably from the sweat of hiking in only semi-breathable rain gear all day. All we wanted to do was get our tent set up and get a nice warm meal made.
About a quarter mile from the camp zone, the rain turned to SNOW!! Yes SNOW! In August! It started coming down in full force, big large flakes! What were we doing??!?? Were we CRAZY???
We reached the Upper Paintbrush camping zone. There are not actual camp sites, you just have to find a decent place off the trail to pitch your tent. We didn’t have much time, as the snow was starting to stick to the ground already. Dean found a fairly level area, and we started setting up as fast as we could. Our hands were frozen, which made pushing stakes into the ground painfully difficult, but with the way the snow was coming down, we knew we had to get the tent up and get everything inside as quickly as possible before it got all wet.
By the time we got our tent pitched, and all our gear stowed, the trail we had just come up was completely covered! We couldn’t have hiked back down if we had wanted to. Looks like we’re going to have to ride this storm out!!
It was only about 4 pm, and it doesn’t get dark in the Tetons this time of year till after 9pm, but we were COMPLETELY exhausted from hiking all day with much too heavy packs, in the rain, and no meal since our early morning breakfast. It tends to wear you out quite quickly. Plus, I think we still were not quite adapted to the high altitude. We were at about 10,000 ft. now. At that altitude, you should expect snow any time of year, I suppose!
We quickly changed into dry clothes. It was freezing cold, and the snow kept coming down, but luckily, there was no wind. We opened up our 15 degree rated sleeping bags and crawled inside, hoping they would warm us up. We were cold, tired, and hungry, but didn’t want to go outside to cook because we didn’t want to end up wet. Grand Tetons is “bear country” so you are not suppose to have any food in your tent AT ALL. (Couldn’t we make an exception this once?)
Our 5 day food supply was stuffed in a bear canister, and stashed under a tree about 50 yards away. We were too scared to eat. Being from Hawaii, we thought we might freeze to death, we were not used to bears either. We were so tired, we didn’t really care. We curled up in our sleeping bags, and luckily, they did seem to work. We were not too cold at all. Every 10 minutes or so, we had to whap the snow off the fly of the tent. It would build up quickly. Around 8 pm, the snow finally let up a little – I did not bother to get out of my warm sleeping bag to take a picture – although now that I am back home and warm and safe, I wish I had. (The photo below was taken around 5 pm, after we got the tent set up.)
We just wanted to go to sleep, stay warm, and have this night be over with as soon as possible! On more than one occasion, we were JOLTED upright by sounds of falling rocks. “Falling Rocks” is an understatement, it sounded more like large boulder slides. Then there was the constant “plop” “plop” “plop” of the snow falling off the tree branches. In my overactive imagination, I kept thinking it was a killer grizzly bear walking around our tent, ready to rip us from our nylon fortress and have his “Two Hawaiians Dinner”.
I was on edge most of the night, Dean was too comatose to care about anything. He had a major “High Altitude Headache” and didn’t give a single thought to the snow or the falling boulders, bears, wind, lightning… etc. He left all the worrying to me!
(How nice of him!)
I peeped out of the tent around 11 pm with my headlamp, and fully expected several green glowing eyes to be staring back at me, but that wasn’t the case. In fact the night was still and, for the most part, quiet. It was actually kind of peaceful out there with the almost full moon and ground blanketed in white. I began to relax just a bit, and finally was able to doze off to the sounds of our hungry stomachs growling.
Early the next morning, we awoke to hail popping off the top of our tent.
We looked out to see that (unfortunately) the storm was still hanging around, and the pass that we were suppose to go up and over today was completely covered in clouds. It MUST be snowing up there! We had to decide if we should try to wait it out, maybe the snow would melt and we could continue on…. Or head back down the mountain the first chance we got.
We waited… the hail kept coming down…. We were hungry.... and thirsty….. and tired..... and sore, we knew the pass must be completely covered in snow, and potentially dangerous. Would we even be able to FOLLOW the snow covered trail up at the top, and what if the storm turned worse? We had no choice, we had to go back down. We waited about an hour more, and finally the hail let up a bit. We quickly packed up all our wet gear, donned our rain jackets and started the long and depressing trek back down the mountain. We felt like such failures….. but we wanted to be safe, and this was really our only choice.
I was able to stop and filter some water from a stream. Boy did that taste good. We also gulped down a couple breakfast bars and were on our way.
The clouds cleared for a few minutes, and we looked back towards the pass we were supposed to have been crossing today, had the weather cooperated. Totally snow covered. Something we had not expected in our planning. Oh well, we will try to make the best of it anyways.
A few miles down, the weather cleared a little, and we did get to see a bit of the beautiful canyon. Here was a nice view of Jenny and Jackson Lakes.
More fields of wildflowers.
Lower down the trail, we spotted a Mama Bear with two cubs. She was busy digging through the downed trees for ants. We didn’t want to stick around, but we couldn’t pass because she kept coming out onto the trail and crossing over to the other side. The fact that she had cubs with her made us even more cautious. We talked loudly and she was aware of us, but didn’t seem to care.
We snapped a quick pic of one of the cubs walking along the trunk of a fallen tree, and when Mom was preoccupied with an appetizing ant filled tree trunk, we slipped past quickly.
What an amazing sight that was! We hadn’t seen any wildlife on the trail other than the Marmots, Pikas, and a few birds. No deer, no moose, nothing…. But to get to see a mama bear with two cubs in the wild like that was pretty amazing. I was sure thankful they hadn’t been up at our “Snow Camp” though!!
And then, as quickly as it cleared, the clouds rolled back into Paintbrush Canyon. You just can’t predict Mother Nature!
After a long and tiring downhill hike, we finally made it back to String Lake, where we started our hike the morning before. Carrying back down the heavy 5 days supply, not using any of it. All that planning…. All that work….. All the optimistic expectations of a wonderful journey to the backcountry of the wild, rugged Tetons…. And to end it like this. We were fully bummed, to say the least.
But we had to think “It could have been worse!” We could have froze to death up there, or been eaten by a bear. Aside from some sore and tingling feet, we were safe and sound once more.
We looked back toward the far away mountain we had spent the night on. It was still covered in a bit of snow, perhaps it had melted enough throughout the day that we could have carried on with our adventure. That is something we will never know.
As we walked back to the car, the dark clouds and rain began to roll back in. We were confident now that we had made the right decision to come back down the mountain. It was just not meant to be. We decided to drive back down to Utah and spend our remaining days hiking around the Wasatch Mountains that we love to snowboard on every winter. So….. that’s what we did.
We had an awesome time hiking in Utah, the wildflowers were exploding in brilliant color everywhere, and the weather was perfect. But you know, when we got back home, the thing that stayed with us most about this entire adventure was the “Snow Camp” night. We had been miserable and hungry and scared and would never want to repeat it again, but that is the thing that stuck out most, almost in a good way. Our “Snow Camp” pictures are our favorite of our entire trip, so even though it did not turn out as we had hoped, we did have a lifetime experience that we will
THIS TIME, we were BEATEN BY THE TETONS. But WE WILL BE BACK AGAIN!!
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"Storm Watcher" is a small original ACEO of a photo we took while driving through the Grand Teton National Park. A big black raven sits stoically atop an old fence post watching the ever darkening sky move in above the Grand Teton range. He has seen this many times, and knows that rain will soon be upon him, but it won’t last for long.
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