When Good Plans Go Wrong: 5 Lessons from Grand Teton Day 2

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.

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Receiving Junior Ranger badges, Jenny Lake Visitor Center

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.

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Boat dock, Jenny Lake shuttle, Grand Teton National Park

“$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!)

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Jenny Lake trail, Grand Teton National Park
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How much further, Papa Smurf?
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“Look at the wildflowers!” 

“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.

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“Look at that peak!”

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.”

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Hiking along the lake, Jenny Lake Loop Trail
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Jenny Lake loop trail, Grand Teton National Park
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View across Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

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.

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Not Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
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Not Hidden Falls, Jenny Lake Loop trail
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Lunch with a friend, Jenny Lake Loop trail
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Stopping for a bite to eat, Jenny Lake Loop trail

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?

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First glimpse of Hidden Falls, Grand Teton National Park
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The real Hidden Falls, Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

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.

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Hard earned nap after Mist Trail

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.

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Skipping rocks, Redwood National Park

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.

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Spending time observing banana slugs, Redwood National Park

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.

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Grand Teton National Park: Day 1

I first visited Grand Teton National Park 3 years ago, during an epic holy crow-I’m-turning forty/3,000 miles/5-National Parks-in 72-hours whirlwind road trip with my brother. That tripped marked the beginning of a love affair with Grand Teton National Park. Captivated by its beauty, I vowed to return someday with my family to give it its proper due.

Last summer, we arrived at Grand Teton in the early evening after an 8-hour drive from Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore. Knowing we’d arrive late, we reserved a tent cabin in Colter Bay as a special treat. I love tent camping, but it was so nice to be able to jump out of the car with our sleeping bags and call it a day.

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Pathway to our tent cabin, Grand Teton
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Tent cabin and fire ring, Grand Teton
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Colter Bay tent cabin, Grand Teton National Park

Each tent cabin comes equipped with a fire ring, picnic table, and bear locker. Tent cabins are a unique hybrid of tent canvas and log cabin that offer a fun alternative to tent camping or hotel lodging. Coming from Hawaii, we were enthralled with the wood-burning stove inside. The bunk beds don’t look like much, I know, but they felt like heaven after a week of sleeping on sleeping pads. The restrooms at this campsite were particularly clean and spacious, with hot water sinks to boot.

Day 1:

We set our alarm for 3: 30 am and roused the kids from deep sleep–not a practice I generally recommend unless you have a sunrise float trip down the Snake River scheduled, which we indeed were lucky enough to snag. With a start time of 4:45 am, we drove 30 minutes to Triangle X Ranch. We were glad we observed the slower speed limit, especially when a large family of elk leaped in front of us. They paused for a moment to peer into our windshield. It was a thrill to behold!

The ranch was unbearably cold that early in the morning, but our hosts were warm and welcoming. We perused the gift shop and waited for the rest of the guests to assemble.

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4 am, Triangle X Ranch, Grand Teton National Park

We loaded into our guide’s van and drove to our push-off site, a gravelly beach area several minutes down the road. Shivering, we donned our life vests and stepped into the boat, sleepy but excited to begin. Our guide pushed off, silent, allowing us to enjoy the quiet of the lapping waves. A full moon still graced the sky, but the day proved to be dawning crisp and clear. Lovely lavenders danced across the water, bathing the distant peaks in purple hues.

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Push-off site, sunrise float trip
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Full moon on the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park
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Lavender hues, Grand Teton National Park

Cool purples gave way to blush, then melon pastels, washing the peaks in warm, golden tones.

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Daybreak on the horizon, Grand Teton
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First blush of day, Grand Teton National Park
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Sunrise Float Trip, Grand Teton

 

A 2 hour float trip along the Snake River might seem long on paper, but each bend in the river brought delightful new angles and wildlife surprises, among them bald eagles, osprey, elk, beavers, and a grizzly bear. Our guide mentioned that a grizzly bear sighting along the banks was a thrill for him, too, as it only occurred about once a month. We felt fortunate to have experienced such a rare sighting from a safe distance.

 

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Bald eagle, sunrise float trip, Grand Teton
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That splash in the background is a family of elk crossing the river
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Sunrise float trip, Grand Teton National Park

If you’re on the fence about a Triangle X sunrise float trip, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a little pricey, but the river provides unforgettable views of the Teton range. Watching my family fall in love with the beauty and majesty of the Tetons made it well worth the cost. Our guide was careful to remain quiet, preferring instead to point out wildlife with a nod and a finger so as not to disturb the animals–or disturb our opportunity to absorb the peace in our surroundings. The float trip was the perfect start to our Grand Teton experience.

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Back at Triangle X Ranch, Grand Teton National Park

After arriving back at Triangle X Ranch with full hearts and hungry tummies, we found ourselves eager for breakfast. The original plan was to stop at Oxbow Bend to grill up breakfast, but my husband decided a special treat was in order after such an incredible morning. We drove instead to Jackson Lake Lodge, where we indulged in a scrumptious breakfast buffet at the Mural Room. Renowned for its panoramic views and outstanding service, breakfast at the Mural Room was a true trip highlight for us. The kids loved the moose-imprinted Belgian waffles and the fresh, ripe fruit. The food, service, and company combined with the float trip we’d just shared made for a favorite family memory.

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The view from our table, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge, Grand Teton
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Breakfast buffet, Mural Room, Jackson Lodge
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Moose-imprinted Belgian waffles, Mural Room

With tummies full, we continued on to Colter Bay Visitor Center, where we stamped our passport books and journals and picked up Junior Ranger packets. From there, we hiked the 2 mile Lakeshore Trail behind the Visitor Center. It was the first time we’d hiked in bear country, and those first tentative calls of “Hey, Bear!” were met with no small amount of trepidation. Fortunately, we didn’t run into any bears on the trail–just a gorgeous riot of wildflowers and a peaceful sand spit where we spotted a family of otters and nesting osprey.

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Hiking Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton
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Lakeshore Trail, Grand Teton National Park

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Grand Teton never fails to stun, Lakeshore Trail

We ran into 2 families the entire length of the trail–during busy July 4th weekend, no less. Lakeshore Trail may not be an iconic Grand Teton hike, but it was truly rewarding. Upon returning to the Visitor Center, we stopped to sketch Colter Bay marina and catch up on our journal writing.

We later attended a Junior Ranger talk about bear safety, where our kids were thrilled to practice deploying (fake) bear spray.

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring and birdwatching at various scenic overlooks, including Willow Flats and Cathedral Turnout. Unfortunately, the moose sighting we’d hoped for eluded us yet again (no luck at Rocky Mountain National Park or Yellowstone, either; we’re keeping our fingers crossed for a Glacier moose sighting in a few weeks). After our early morning start, we were too tired to explore Signal Mountain–clearly necessitating a return trip to Grand Teton someday. 😀

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Willow Flats, Grand Teton National Park
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Wildflowers at Willow Flats, Grand Teton National Park

After a long and memorable day, we settled in for the night, eager for our Day 2 hike in Grand Teton National Park.

Tell me: What do you love best about Grand Teton National Park? What is your favorite Grand Teton memory?