In a perfect world, we’d all have unlimited vacation time and get to really take our time and linger at places like Grand Teton, but that’s just not always possible. If you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, you can still hit the highlights even if you only have one day in Grand Teton National Park. It’s the perfect companion to add on to a trip to neighboring Yellowstone or equally well-suited for a weekend in Jackson Hole. Because many of the roads, activities, and restaurants mentioned here are only open seasonally, this fast-paced itinerary for Grand Teton National Park is also best-suited for visits during late spring through early fall.
The best way to spend one day in Grand Teton
This Grand Teton itinerary will start from the north entrance leading toward Yellowstone as it’s intended to be a companion for my 3-day itinerary there. It can easily be adapted for visitors coming in the east entrance as most of the main things are still to the south. If you’re staying to the south in Jackson Hole, simply start in the middle and then wrap around to the beginning.
Since you only have one day in Grand Teton National Park, this itinerary requires you to get an early start. No, not 4 am – I’m not that mean – but this is not the day for sleeping in. In order to fit the top sights in, plan on being on the road by 8 or 9 am. Even if you weren’t trying to pack a lot into one day, morning is the most spectacular time in the Tetons. Because the sun is to the east in the morning, it gives them the best light of the day. If you’re visiting during wildfire season, mornings also tend to be clearer so you may get a less hazy view. There were several active wildfires, including one in Yellowstone, when we visited and there was a notable difference in air quality between morning and late afternoon.
For this one-day itinerary, there are two different hikes I would consider doing. If you start early and move quickly during longer days in the summer you can probably hit both, but in the interest of not spending your whole day rushing, I’d choose one or the other and enjoy a bit slower pace. The first option I included is an easy lakeshore trail that doesn’t gain much elevation at Colter Bay. The second involves a steeper climb and a shuttle boat across Jenny Lake. You can choose which to do based on your interests, fitness level, and timing.
Start your Grand Teton itinerary at Jackson Lake
As you enter the park from the north, you’ll have the mountains on your right. As you continue south, the road will get very close to the lake and you’ll enter an area with no trees blocking the view. It’s impossible to miss – your jaw will drop as soon as you see the mountains. This is the Jackson Lake Overlook and you’ll definitely want to pull over for photos. If you can’t find a spot to park here, a little further down is the Lakeview Picnic Area, which has a small amount of parking and gets you very close to the water.
If you’re lucky enough to visit on a calm day, the waters of the lake will look like a mirror reflecting the peaks. It’s a spectacular introduction to the Teton Range.
Continue heading south until you reach the Colter Bay area. You’ll turn off to the right and find a center of activity with a marina, gift shop, visitor center, restaurant, cabin lodge, and campground. Pop into the visitor center to pick up maps and stamp your National Parks passport if you’d like to and take a look at the marina. We spotted a beaver swimming around here on our visit.
Optional hike #1: Take a walk along the Colter Bay Lakeshore Trail while you’re here. It’s a very easy 2-mile trail with a trailhead right by the visitor center. You could walk part of the Hermitage Point Trail which leaves from the opposite side of the marina instead, but you won’t have time for the full trail if you only have one day in Grand Teton. Note that this is bear country so practice bear safety when hiking here. It’s recommended by the park that you carry bear spray.
Jackson Lake Dam
As you continue south, you’ll reach the Jackson Lake Junction. Make a right to take the Teton Park Road and you’ll soon cross the Jackson Lake Dam. Jackson Lake is a natural lake, but the dam which was built before the park was a protected area increased its size and depth. I was 100% not expecting the dam to be my favorite spot in Grand Teton, but my favorite photos were taken here and my fiance cited it as his favorite stop we made as well.
At the south end of the dam, there are two parking areas, one on either side of the road. The one on your left is closer to the dam, but the one on the right has vault toilets, so choose accordingly. There’s a pedestrian walkway on the mountain side of the dam, so watch your step and head out here for incredible views of the Tetons. You can also take a look on the other side of the dam to see the water thundering down.
Signal Mountain Road
Signal Mountain will be on your left as you continue heading south. If you have more time, you can take a pleasant hike to the top, but since this is only a one day itinerary, we’re going to do the drive instead. This narrow, winding mountain road is approximately five miles long and leads you to the summit of Signal Mountain. From here, you’ll get rare elevated views of the Grand Tetons and have a new perspective on them that you won’t get at lake level.
The round trip to the top and back should take you less than an hour unless you get stuck behind a car that insists on only driving 3 mph the whole way and also refuses to let you and the other 20 cars they’re holding hostage pass. Speaking from experience here.
By now you’re probably hungry. If you brought your own food, I’d recommend continuing south on Teton Park Road to the North Jenny Lake Junction. You can turn off on the String Lake Road and park in one of the lots to use the picnic area here. It does get crowded, so if you can’t find a spot you could always continue on and just eat out of your car at another overlook.
If you didn’t pack a lunch, I recommend trying the Jenny Lake Lodge Dining Room. You’ll follow the same directions to String Lake, but instead of turning right toward the lake, continue just a bit further to the lodge. It boasts spectacular scenery and delicious food. Reservations are recommended for lunch (required for dinner), so it’s best to plan ahead if you want to eat here.
Another option for lunch requires a short backtrack to the Signal Mountain Lodge. Here you can choose from the Peaks Dining Room or the Trapper Grill. The Trapper Grill has a more casual menu with soups, sandwiches, salads, burgers, and some Tex-Mex options. The Peaks grill has a higher price point and entrees like trout and bison stew.
The Jenny Lake Visitor Center will be coming up soon and does have a small general store area, but we’re talking pre-made sandwiches and protein bars.
Jenny Lake Loop
If you chose to picnic at String Lake or have lunch at the Jenny Lake Lodge, you’re already partway here. If not, you’ll want to make a right at the North Jenny Lake Junction. The road starts out with two-way traffic, but once you pass the Jenny Lake Lodge, it becomes a one-way drive. You get fantastic views of the Cathedral Group behind the decently sized lake.
Jenny Lake Visitor Center
When you return to the main Teton Park Road, make a right to continue heading south. A short drive later, you’ll reach the turn in for the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. This area can get crowded, so give yourself time to find parking.
You can opt to just pop into the Visitor Center and enjoy the views from the pathway along the lake here. If you want to spend a little more time, consider renting one of the kayaks from the East Dock or taking a scenic cruise. The cruises take approximately an hour and purchasing tickets in advance is highly recommended.
Optional hike #2: Rather than a scenic cruise, hop the Jenny Lake Shuttle boat that will ferry you to the other side of the lake. Tickets can’t be reserved in advance for this, so you can just get in line and pay. You can also reach the docks on the other side via a hiking trail, but you won’t have time for that in this short itinerary. From the landing on the other side, you can take a short, 1/2 mile hike to Hidden Falls and/or continue on another half mile to Inspiration Point. The stretch to Hidden Falls is pretty easy, but if you go to Inspiration Point, the trail does climb quite a bit and there are some drop offs.
Chapel of the Transfiguration
Once you’ve enjoyed Jenny Lake, continue heading south on the Teton Park Road. Just before you get to Moose Junction, turn off to the left to visit the tiny, picturesque Chapel of the Transfiguration. This log cabin-style church still hosts services on Sundays and is available for weddings. The views from inside are perfection.
Turn south onto US-191 at Moose Junction and head a short way down past the Jackson Hole Airport to the Gros Ventre Junction. Turn left here and head northeast until you reach Mormon Row. Make a left and you’ll soon reach the historic Moulton Barns. They’re spectacular set against the background of the mountains, but if you’re not a photographer or you’re running out of time this is an easily skippable detour. Head back out to US-191 via the Antelope Flats Road.
Scenic stops along US-191
Continue heading northeast along US-191. there are several marked turnouts along the way, so take your time and stop at whichever ones interest you. The Glacier View Turnout was one of my favorites because it allows you to compare and contrast the sizes of the glaciers not too long ago with how they look now – aka notably smaller.
Schwabacher Landing has a short, mile-long drive to a parking area with fantastic viewing locations near beaver ponds. You can see the mountain peaks framed by pine trees and reflected in the water, which makes for excellent photographs.
Further up the road, the Snake River Overlook is one of the most famous vantage points in Grand Teton National Park. It’s where an iconic photo was taken by famous photographer Ansel Adams, so you can attempt to recreate that – with the benefit of digital cameras and filters, of course.
As you finish your loop, depending on the time of year and how fast or slow you’ve gone during the day, the sun may be getting low in the sky. If so, any one of these lookouts would make a great spot to pull over to watch the sun go down behind the mountains. If you still have plenty of daylight, keep going to the next area.
Oxbow Bend & Willow Flats
Oxbow Bend is one of the most popular spots in the park for viewing wildlife – particularly moose and bears. Moose love the slow, shallow waters and early morning and early evening are peak times for wildlife spotting here. The calm waters reflecting the mountains also make it a fantastic sunset spot. The turnout for this overlook will be on your left as you follow this itinerary’s route.
If you don’t have any luck spotting wildlife at Oxbow Bend, keep heading down the road to Jackson Lake Junction. We passed through here this morning, but this time you’ll be continuing north on US-191. Just past the junction, you’ll find the Willow Flats overlook on the left, which is another common wildlife spotting area.
Complete your one day in Grand Teton with a sunset
Depending on the timing, find yourself a place to watch the sunset over the mountains. Any of the most recent stops mentioned will afford you great views, but you can also head back to Jackson Lake Dam, return to Colter Bay Marina, Leek’s Marina, or the Jackson Lake Overlook from way back at the beginning of this post. If you have time, you could even grab food from Colter Bay or Leek’s and eat it down by the water as you watch the sun go down. With the sun down, you’ll obviously be driving in the dark, so factor that into your choice to stay for sunset if you’re not comfortable with mountain roads at night.
Now that your itinerary is complete, you can head out of the park in whichever direction you need to. You’re perfectly positioned to head back to Yellowstone where this left off, or you can turn back south to head to Jackson Hole, or backtrack a little bit east to the Moran exit.