Inasmuch as Grand Teton National Park Day 1 was replete with marvel and majesty, Day 2 was a lesson in overambitious itineraries and learning to go with the flow. Our original itinerary looked something like this:
- Hike 7.5 mile Jenny Lake loop to Hidden Falls
- Hike 4 miles roundtrip to String Lake to swim
- Time permitting, drive Signal Mountain Road and hike in 1.5 miles to view the meadow and wildflowers
- Leave Tetons by 5 pm, arrive at Bridge Bay Campground (Yellowstone) 6:30 pm; attend Evening Ranger Program at amphitheater.
Clearly, brain snatchers had convinced me that anything other than the inevitable outcome (a.k.a. passing out after bullet point one and barely making it to Yellowstone in time to set up camp before nightfall!) was possible. We didn’t complete our itinerary–not by a long shot–but I did learn some valuable lessons about tailoring itineraries and being flexible.
Day 2: On the Real
Day 2 began with a stop at Jenny Lake Visitor Center to turn in the kids’ completed Junior Ranger booklets. The badges at Grand Teton were particularly nice, fashioned from wood instead of the usual plastic found at other parks.
Not long after we left, visitors began to swarm Jenny Lake Center in droves, donning patriotic colors for the Fourth of July. Like us, most were bound for Hidden Falls. Unlike us, however, 99% wisely opted to take the Jenny Lake shuttle to put them within a half mile hiking distance of Hidden Falls.
“$60 for roundtrip shuttle fair*? Suckers!” I scoffed as we passed the crowded dock. Sure, the hike along Jenny Lake trail to Hidden Falls was a little long–over 7 miles long if I were counting (which, clearly, I wasn’t)–but it was free. Free! Hath sweeter words in the English language ever been spoken than ‘free?’
Clearly this was one of those instances where my pursuit of cheap completely backfired on us. On the upside, however, at least the crowds thinned as soon as we left the trailhead. (Probably because everyone else had actually done the math!)
“Isn’t this great? We have the trail all to ourselves. Look at the wildflowers!” I exclaimed, pointing out the beautiful yellow blooms. The kids smiled, still excited and full of energy.
An hour passed. The sun climbed higher in the sky, beating down on us with every step. Sweat clung to our foreheads and backs. “Look at that peak!” I said. The kids looked up but barely nodded.
“How much farther?” my youngest said, cheeks flushed.
“A mile or so,” I said, knowing full well we were at least 2 miles from the falls–with another 2-3 miles left on the return loop. “The quicker we get there, the quicker we get back.”
The kids trudged on for another hour–past the lodgepole pine forest, around the lake, through the forest again. “How much further?” my youngest said.
I pretended not to hear him.
And then we heard the most glorious sound: rushing water. I ran to the sound, quickly masking my disappointment at the unspectacular rush of water I was certain was Hidden Falls. “Well, it’s not that big,” I said, “but, hey, look! There’s a cool rock we can sit on for lunch.”
Honestly, the kids couldn’t have cared less about the travesty of the “falls” (spoiler alert: this was not Hidden Falls, though I wouldn’t realize that for another hour); they were just happy to stop and rest in the shade for an hour.
About 5 minutes into our return trip, a friendly hiker chatted us up and told us there was a waterfall “about 15 minutes from here” that was not to be missed. “It’s called Hidden Falls,” he said, waving as he departed. My heart sank when I realized that our picnic spot had not been Hidden Falls after all. After coming so far just to see the falls, I knew we’d regret it if we didn’t make the trek there. So I did what any self-respecting parent would do.
I bribed the kids.
With any sugary cold drink or chemical-laden treat from the Jenny Lake store their little hearts desired. The result?
Yes, we finally made it to Hidden Falls, three and a half hours after setting out to see it. It was beautiful but a little anticlimactic given the lengths we’d gone through to get there. This isn’t to say that the scenery along the way wasn’t beautiful (it was–tremendously so) or that this hike is a bad one (it’s a great one) or that the hiking was hard (it was amazingly flat). It’s that it was a flat 7-mile hike in gorgeous 80 degree weather–and we happen to have a family that doesn’t do well with flat, long hikes in warm weather. I knew this going into the hike from previous experience, but I’d read that Hidden Falls was a must-do for families with children. And being that Grand Teton was among my favorite parks, any must-do hike was a must-do of mine. Which brings us to lesson one.
Lesson #1: Make decisions based on your family.
I know this sounds blasphemous, but we’re just not a big waterfall family. Maybe it’s because they’re common in Hawaii, or maybe it’s just that we prefer alpine/lake hikes because they’re so different from anything we have locally. I really don’t know the reason, but I know historically, we’ve never done well on hikes with waterfall destinations. Mist Trail in Yosemite did not go over well with my then 6-year-old. Fortunately, he’s not a whiner, but there were many silent tears as he trudged up those steep stairs to Nevada Fall. No matter what any guidebook may say about some trail being a can’t-miss, a hike is only successful if all members of your family are on-board.
Lesson #2: Kids have different interests than parents.
Seems obvious, right? Yet it’s amazing how often I neglect this very fact when planning itineraries. It’s helpful to keep in mind that what’s interesting to parents (scenery, wildflowers, views) may be less so to kids. As parents, we love flat hikes with expansive vistas. Our kids, however, prefer more strenuous hikes; extra points if it involves rock scrambling, opportunities to skip pebbles, or opportunities to get wet/muddy/dirty. Sure, they appreciate the scenery and destination, too, but it’s often the journey that’s more important to kids. Planning hikes that are physically challenging and allow ample opportunities to touch stuff along the way might work well for your family, too.
Lesson #3: You can only have as much fun as the youngest/least-capable member of your group.
You know the saying, “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” Turns out this applies in a broader sense to any member on a family outing. Our youngest is a great hiker and rarely complains, but even he has his limits. A flat 7-mile hike with few opportunities to touch anything is one of them. For our older two, any amount of hiking that exceeds 9 or 10 miles means risking the enjoyment of the entire group. It’s important to weight how must-do an activity might seem against 1) how capable the youngest member of your group is for the task, and 2) where the activity falls in the overall capability levels of your family. If mom and dad are hiking at the upper end of their limits, it will be much harder to help little ones along. If kids are taxed, they’re likely to complain, lowering the enjoyment of the activity for parents. Experience will help you find your family’s sweet spot–that perfect blend of challenge + enjoyment.
Lesson #4: Less is more (a.k.a. Enjoying one activity is better than rushing through 3 activities that no one remembers).
I have a bad habit of cramming our vacation itineraries with activities from morning to night. We’re often on the move from 6 am to 9 pm (just to be clear: I do not recommend this). This may be sustainable some of the time, but definitely not all of the time. More importantly, this just isn’t enjoyable. Anyone with a toddler knows that kids move to their own internal clock. A fallen tree branch can be endlessly fascinating; an entire day can be made out of a lake shore excursion. This often conflicts with my personal agenda to see everything the parks have to offer. Still, even I have to admit that rushing around is not my idea of fun. And isn’t that the point? To have fun? An itinerary is great, but learning to let it serve as a guide and not as an unchangeable schedule is even more important. If your family is having a blast at the lake and find yourself reluctant to leave, stay! I guarantee that memory and your kids’ association of that great memory with the park will be worth more than any must-see attraction you might have missed.
Lesson #5: Don’t automatically dismiss activities with crowds. Or price tags.
Crowds are there for a reason. It’s tempting to avoid crowds and extra expenses, but not at the expense of your family’s enjoyment. Is $60 worth saving yourself 7 miles? The answer will differ for each family. In hindsight, for us, it might have been better to follow the crowd and take the boat shuttle to Hidden Falls. Yes, we enjoyed solitude on our hike, but we might have enjoyed ourselves more had we simply braved the crowded shuttle (especially since the end destination wasn’t all that exciting to the kids) and spent the afternoon hiking to and swimming at String Lake instead. It’s tricky to find a balance between crowded iconic activities and those that offer more solitude. Though I tend to prefer a quieter wilderness experience, I’ve learned that one is not necessarily better than the other. It’s all about finding the right balance.
In spite of everything, we truly enjoyed our hike to Hidden Falls once we changed our mindset and adapted our schedule. Once we decided that all subsequent activities were off the table, we were able to fully connect with our hike and the moment we were in. In that sense, Grand Teton National Park taught me the most important lesson of all: life isn’t about checking items off some imaginary, self-imposed list; it’s about being present, here and now, connecting every moment we can.
*The shuttle is $15 for adults and $8 for children, roundtrip.