In the summer you might circle the parking lot at Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park looking for an open spot. When you finally leave your car to take in the view, you have to share it with throngs of others.
But in the winter, the park’s popular lake might be all yours, along with the sweeping view of the mountains. The colors, wildlife and visitor experience change with the season, and the park you thought you knew transforms.
“Winter has its own magic in Grand Teton,” said Andrew White, spokesman with the park. “Winter is a much quieter time in the Tetons. That provides special opportunities for solitude in the park.”
Last year more than 865,000 people visited Grand Teton in July, the park’s busiest month, according to White. In January visitor numbers are usually about 150,000.
The quieter season means fewer services. Visitor centers close, but the park is still open.
“We never close the park — well, unless there is a government shutdown,” White said.
There’s backcountry winter camping and ice climbing, but the most popular activities are cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. While there are options throughout the park, on a bluebird day the parking lot at Taggart Lake can be full as people set off to snowshoe and ski to the lake or elsewhere in the backcountry. Yet you might not see anyone on your ski or snowshoe trek, White said.
The biggest draw to the area is the Teton Park Road, which is groomed once a week for 15 miles from Taggart Lake to Signal Mountain. The track draws Nordic and skate skiers and even walkers who take in the frosty beauty of the park.
If you venture elsewhere in the park you’ll find ice fishing on Jackson Lake and winter camping spots near Colter Bay, along with more cross-country ski trails and even fewer people than you’ll find near the Taggart Lake Trailhead.
For those dubious of sleeping in a tent in the snow, Flagg Ranch in the northern part of the park rents out rooms and serves breakfast and dinner.
Park ranger Clay Hanna started as a winter seasonal ranger in 2010, spending his summers elsewhere. Winter is the best season in the park, he said. The snow transforms the landscape, absorbs sounds and leaves everything quiet. And there is so much to do.
“It’s a pretty amazing place as far as recreation,” he said.
Aside from the snowshoeing and cross country skiing, there’s Hanna’s favorite — the world-class backcountry skiing. The scenery while skinning up Teton peaks searching for powder is stunning.
Hanna is one of the rangers that guide hikes three times a week using historic wooden snowshoes. It’s only $5, but you need to reserve a spot. The park snowshoe hikes provide a perfect introduction to Grand Teton in winter, he said. No experience is necessary to try the 55-inch wooden snowshoes.
Different animals take the limelight in the winter. While bears are hibernating you might see pine marten, snowshoe hares, tree squirrels, or even signs of wolverines. The white backdrop of snow makes it easier to spot foxes, coyotes or wolves, White said. And the snow leaves better imprints than dirt, so there are more track sightings.
But the best part is the mountains — jagged granite covered in white. “The mountains look naked in the summer,” White said. “You see the range in all of its glory with the snow on it.”
Check out Grand Teton National Park for free on Martin Luther King Day. Don’t forget when visiting in the winter to dress in layers, wear sunscreen and sunglasses, and be prepared for quickly changing weather. If you are headed to the backcountry make sure you have proper avalanche training and gear.