Grand Teton looks just like the kind of mountain you would have drawn as a child. It is the quintessential jagged triangle, lined with grey-blue slopes, a resplendent snow-capped peak and lush green forests and meadows surrounding its base.
Name: Grand Teton
Height: 4,199 m (13,775 ft)
Location: In the Teton Range, Grand Teton National Park, north-west Wyoming, USA.
First Climbed: This is contested. Either 1872 or 1898 (see more below).
Climb Time: 1 to 2 days.
Best Time to Climb: June to September.
Introduction to Grand Teton.
Standing at the pinnacle of the Teton Range, Grand Teton dominates the angular skyline over the wide Jackson Hole valley. Home to transient populations of human for the last 5,000 years, the mountain and valley are now the centrepieces of the Grand Teton National Park.
Jump to Climbing and Hiking Guide.
Only 10 m (34 ft) shorter than the highest peak in Wyoming (Gannet Peak is 4,209 m/ 13,809 ft) and with more than 100 established climbing routes, this mountain offers plenty of challenge to even the most experienced of outdoor adventurers.
The rich wildlife that surrounds the mountain and fills the valleys and lakes below can also be easily accessed and enjoyed, with over 300 km of trails winding around the area.
So, while its name is anything but refined (see below), Grand Teton and the wider Teton Range has a great deal on offer to encourage you out of your armchair and onto its slopes.
History of Grand Teton.
With its lush wetlands, wide valley and dense forests this is an area of significant bio-diversity (see below). As such, it was an important area for hunting and gathering for local Native American tribes, who are thought to have used the area extensively from around 5,000 years ago.
Yet no individual Native American tribe appears to have laid specific claim to the area. Various tribes used the area transiently during the warmer months, including the tribes Blackfeet, Crow, Gros Venture and Shoshone.
The early white American settlers of the 18th Century – mountain men, ranchers and farmers – named the wide valley to the east Jackson Hole, after the famous trapper Davey Jackson. However, the name for the Teton Range came from French explorers, or Voyageurs.
They called the mountains les trois tétons, meaning ‘the three nipples / breasts’, and it appears the name stuck. The ‘three’ refers, no doubt, to the appearance of the three highest peaks (listed below), which stand closely together as distinct peaks, (you can find your own reference of the rest of the name!)
Grand Teton, if translated literally means, ehem, ‘big tit’!
A little to the east of Grand Teton is the perhaps unjustly named Disappointment Peak, which stands at a truly credible 3,541 m (11,618 ft). It was given this name after Phil Smith and several other climbers scaled this peak with the aim to then reach Grand Teton.
But after summiting this mountain, they came to an impassable 140 m (450 ft) drop on the saddle between the two mountains. Clearly disappointed in having to turn back, they named this mountain after their experience on its slopes. (This may have softened later when they discovered they had achieved the first ascent of it).
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- Read about other important US & North American mountains in our Mountain Info Page
The Grand Teton National Park grew over time. It was actually established twice: firstly as a park consisting of the mountains and lakes only (1929) and secondly to take in the wide valley and historical sites (1950).
Geography of Grand Teton.
Grand Teton is the highest mountain in Grand Teton National Park, a 1,256 km2 (485 sq mile) expanse of wilderness and historic sites. The mountain is part of the Teton Range, which itself is part of that great sweeping range of the American west, the Rocky Mountains. The Teton Range dominates the park’s skyline with its jagged mountain peaks that run for 64 km (40 miles) from north to south.
The Teton Range began forming along the Teton fault sometime between 9 and 13 million years ago (there are various, differing accounts). However, its east face contains marine-origin metamorphic rock dated at over 2.5 billion years old. This makes it both one of North America’s youngest ranges and some of the continent’s oldest rocks!
The mountains were formed through complementary reactions to earthquakes, a process known as a ‘faultblock’. As the mountains were pushed up, the release of tension also caused the valley below to fall. In other words, as one tectonic plate went up the other bore down.
And down it certainly went. The valley’s descent has been three to four times the amount of mountain growth up.
This means the range is also devoid of foothills, meaning the mountains rise up impressively straight from the wide valley floor. This creates the illusion that they are taller than they actually are.
The three highest peaks in the range are Middle Teton (3,903 m/ 12,804 ft), Grand Teton and Mount Owen (3,940m/ 12,928 ft). They are adjacent to each other and run in this order when viewed from south to north.
They are part of the Cathedral Group, a group of 8 of the 10 highest peaks that are clustered together in the centre of the range. They all lie between the Cascade Canyon to the north and Death Canyon to the south.
The other principal Cathedral Group mountains are an eclectically-named bunch:
• South Teton – 3,814 m (12,514 ft).
• Teewinot Mountain – 3,757m (12,325 ft).
• Teepee Pillar – 3,708 m (12,166 ft).
• Cloudveil Dome – 3,666 m (12,026 ft).
• Buck Mountain – 3,638 m (11,938 ft).
The appearance of these mountains, as classic alpine peaks with hanging and U-shaped valleys criss-crossing them, is down to the action of erosion of glaciers.
The glaciers that populate the valleys and gullies down Grand Teton and the range more widely are small descendants of former giant incumbents. In previous ice ages, this area was covered by up to 900 m (2,950 ft) of ice. Today, these ice rivers, including the Schoolroom, Teton, Middle Teton, Falling Ice and Skillet glaciers, are all in retreat, as is a common pattern across our warming world.
The action of glacial erosion has left numerous cirques (amphitheatres high up on mountains, often containing mountain lakes) and arêtes (sharp ridges) throughout the Teton Range.
Jackson Hole, is a wide flat valley bisected by the Snake river, running along the east side of Grand Teton. Appropriate to its name, the Snake river winds a zig-zagging path through the Tetons. Having begun its journey up in Yellowstone National Park, it cuts west after these mountains into nearby Idaho.
The valley floor contains a number of lakes of various sizes, including the six glacial lakes which line the base of the mountains. The largest, Jackson lake, covers the western side of Jackson Hole at the foot of Mount Moran (3,842 m/ 12,605 ft).
Wildlife of Grand Teton.
With the tops of the mountains largely snow-covered, steep rock, and the high elevation valleys being homes mainly to glaciers, most of the flora flourishes lower down. However, some hardy types cling on, growing low to the ground, like the alpine forget-me-not.
On the lower slopes, including amongst the moraines and ridges that are able to support life, conifers dominate. These trees are so plentiful that the dense forest appears to blanket the bottom of the mountains dark green.
In the valley below, and in the Grand Teton National Park more widely, over 1,000 species of vascular plants can be observed. The meadows that fill the wide, lower valleys are lush with colour come spring and summer, fed by the wide river, long days and the protection from the elements offered by the mountain range to the west.
Narrow leaf cottonwood, willows, long grasses and wildflowers all prosper in the wetland areas. Meanwhile the big leaf sagebrush, silvery-green in colour, dominates much of Jackson Hole, and is food for many of the grazing animals.
Given the proximity to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton is home to a similar selection of fauna. The majority is found in the lush valley below Grand Teton, or within the dense forest that lines its lower slopes.
Bighorn sheep, bears and wolves are some of the typical megafauna found across many range of the western United States, (although this park has the rarer grizzly as well as black bears). The bears and wolves are perhaps best seen at distance though, if at all.
Being fast enough to see the pronghorn antelope is a whole other challenge. This elegant creature is the fastest land animal in North America. It is best seen on Timbered Island – a forested ‘island’ in the Jackson Hole, directly east of Grand Teton.
Bison, moose and elk are also found in the shadow of Grand Teton. These grazing animals can be spotted alongside the lush meadows provided for by Snake River year-round, except for during winter.
The river itself supports a wide selection of life, including beavers, river otters, trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, Canada geese and an assortment of ducks. The plentiful fish and plant life found in the largely slow-moving waters feed many of these animals. These include fish such as suckers and trout.
First Ascent of Grand Teton.
The first ascent of Grand Teton is contested between two different claims that occurred sixteen years apart.
On 29 July 1872, Nathaniel Langford and James Stevenson claimed to reach the summit. They were there as part of a nature survey team, and, in the final report, they write that they managed to reach the summit thanks to some rather unusual helpers…
Supposedly, as they climbed there was a huge migration of grasshoppers from the cold, higher elevations. As they hopped down the mountain, their tiny bodies apparently melted grooves in the ice that allowed the two climbers to grip on the treacherous, icy climbs!
However, in 1898, William Owen, Franklin Spalding and two others claimed firstly to have reached the summit but also suggested they found no evidence that anyone else had ever been there. This claim threw Langford and Stevenson’s attempt into debate (which is still, and perhaps always will be, unresolved).
In order to avoid such uncertainty themselves, three of this latter team re-climbed the mountain two days later and posed for pictures. The route they took became known as the Owen-Spalding route (see below).
Despite all this magazine-worthy gossip and drama, the next ascent of the peak didn’t happen until 25 years later.
Climbing guide to Grand Teton.
The Teton Range is renowned for alpine rock climbing and mountaineering. With 12 peaks in the Teton Range over 3658 m (12,000 ft), there is no shortage of variety for climbers and summiteers.
Grand Teton has over 100 established climbing routes, ranging from standard routes, to the Owen-Spalding route, which is considered of reasonable technical difficulty, up to far more severe, mixed-alpine challenges.
Most routes head up the Garnet Canyon and begin from the Lupine Meadows trailhead 2052 m (6,732 ft). This valley climbs past Disappointment Peak and forks in front of Middle Teton. Head to the right for Grand Teton or to the left for South Teton.
The most popular route is the day-long but very technical Upper Exum Ridge route.
This challenge heads up Garnet Canyon to the Lower Saddle (spanning between Middle Teton and Grand Teton). From here, the climbing becomes more technical. Firstly, the Upper Saddle has Class 3/4 routes leading to Wall Street, which marks the beginning of the Upper Exum ridge.
The difficulty class of climbing continues to increase, culminating in a slab on Friction Pitch that is rated at Class 5.4. It gets moderately easier above this through the V Pitch and becomes more of a scramble along to the summit.
You can also take the original Owen-Spalding route, which is also highly technical but normally split over two days, with camping down in the Garnet Canyon meadows. This makes the summit day a long one, so another option is to overnight on the moraine.
This route begins similarly to the one above, but at the Upper Saddle heads directly along the western wall to the ‘belly crawl’. This section of narrow ledge squeezes you between one wall and a hanging rock. You can choose to traverse this either by crawling (with one half of you dangling out over thin air!) or using the hanging rock as a handhold to inch your way along.
This is followed by the two most technical sections, ascents up two chimneys, before emerging onto broken rocks and slabs to scramble over to reach the summit.
Another standard route is a 22.5 km (14 mile) route of more moderate difficulty.
It begins at the Lupine Meadows trailhead (2051m/ 6732 ft) then follows an easy 10 km (6 mile) hike up Garnet Canyon. Most access to Grand Teton is gained through the Garnet Canyon, (the west face is best approached through the Alaska Basin).
While non-technical, with an elevation gain of 1,280 m (4,200 ft) this hike is a full-day’s walk. Camp is normally set at the Corbet High Camp (particularly if going with local guides).The climb to the summit is around 3 km (2 miles) and climbs 823 m (2,700 ft).
June to September is optimum climbing season, as the snow and ice has normally cleared sufficiently by this time. With afternoon thunderstorms during the summer, early starts and afternoon finishes are recommended for most adventures.
Winter ascents are strongly discouraged; the unpredictable weather and thin snow means the dangers of accidents, exposure or avalanches are much higher.
There are no permits required to climb in the Teton Range. However, the Grand Teton National Park does charge an entry fee.
Information on Hiking & TREKKING around Grand Teton.
Whichever part of the Grant Teton National Park you visit, the National Park Service offer a comprehensive trip planning resource, with far more detail than we can offer here. They also have a range of simple maps and information, as you might expect from one of the US’s most popular national parks.
An option is to follow Phil Smith and hike up Disappointment Peak (3,541 m/ 11,618 ft). A less technical challenge than Grand Teton, this day-long hike takes you up passed the Amphitheater and Surprise lakes. From the summit, you can enjoy an unobstructed view of the east face of Grand Teton.
But if you’d rather go around than up, the wider Grand Teton National Park offers over 322 km (200 miles) of trails. For challenging hikes, head north to the northern Tetons, while for a more solitary experience head to the other side (west) of the Tetons to enjoy the less-populated Teton Canyon.
One of the most popular hikes is the 10-mile trek through Cascade Canyon. Walking from the idyllic Jenny Lake, it rewards hikers with spectacular views of Teewinot mountain at the mouth of the canyon and Mount Owen (as well as the very tip of Grand Teton) around the halfway mark. In spring, it is full of wildflowers and a diverse range of fauna.
Alternatively, there are scenic walks around the many lakes along the valley floor. Not all of these are easy (Lake Solitude is listed as ‘tough’ in several reviews) but almost all of them will deliver on a promise of offering stunning views.
Maps of many of these hikes can be downloaded here from the National Park Service.