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Why Grand Teton National Park should be on your Fall Bucketlist!

Fall is my favorite season, and also the best time to visit Grand Teton National Park! A camping trip to this part of the west offers golden sunlit Aspen that wink in the breeze while framing the impressive Teton Range. 

This post shares why it’s worth your time to make a Grand Teton National Park trip in September, even if it’s only for a weekend!

Contents

  • My story + why it’s worth the trip!
  • When to go
  • Where to camp
  • Destinations + Hiking
  • Photo tips

My Story + Why it’s worth the trip!

Getting to the Tetons in time for peak Fall color was tough this year. Lucas took temporary work allowing only a weekend for travel. My dog, who was struggling with health problems, was feeling a little bit better. Would it really be worth the 5 hour drive each way? 

Admittedly, I was skeptical. There were some Aspen around Montana, so I wasn’t sure the drive to see more was worth the trouble. But as adventurers know, the momentous pull to an unknown destination is just too strong to put out of your mind!

We packed out early Saturday and started the long drive. First through dry prairie, then navigating crowds in Yellowstone and the packed Old Faithful parking lot. When we reached a quiet area of Yellowstone National Park, the leaves were a mix of pale yellow, green, and brown — the result of an early freeze that confuses the trees as much as it does people.

We knew it was too late to get an established campsite as we approached the south exit of Yellowstone at nearly 3pm. Finding a spot off-grid in the woods was our only option!

Using the iOverlander app, we located a few curious options strategically placed between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. One involved fording a creek, and the other a long 8 mile dirt road. Finding a free campsite during a popular time is nothing short of adventurous!

Here’s a short video of our trip to the campsite:

 

The first site across the creek was full, and after driving the 8 mile bumpy road in search of the second, we found a gorgeous spot beside a lake. Van life score!

The aftermath of a long washboard road:

A sunset stroll, a quiet evening, and a quick getaway in the morning were all that lay between me and my imagined views! We even made our tea and coffee that night to save time in the morning. Thankfully, our drinks were still slightly warm the next day with our cozy Contigo mugs (a van life favorite).

With only 40 minutes left to go, I felt my pulse quicken. It was a haul to get down to the Tetons this weekend. And as we approached Jackson Lake, most of the trees were pretty lackluster. 

Early light played through the still-green trees as we turned the last bend to Jackson Lake… and I lost my breath. There are no words to fully describe this view:

The trees glowed while Aspen leaves twinkled in the breeze like little round coins, light as a feather. Perhaps the twinkling is what make Aspen so magical. We took a lonely gravel pullout for soul soothing views and to freeze the moment in time with a photograph. 

That one view was worth the entire trip by itself. And many more beautiful views materialized around each bend on the road to Jenny Lake.

Views to get excited about:

 

Best time to Visit Grand Teton National Park for Fall Color

The Aspen peak mid to late September and can be seen in full color for up to three weeks. If your arrival is flexible, I recommend calling a local ranger station or Signal Mountain Lodge to get updates on fall color. Signal Mountain Lodge has rooms, cabins, and a campground.

For reference, I visited September 27-28 in 2020.

Know that an early freeze can confuse the trees and dull Fall color. However, the Aspen trees in Grand Teton National Park are old and strong — most of these Aspen groves were unaffected by the adverse weather conditions of 2020.

 

Where to camp

During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, camping was crowded. Some people arrived at 5:30am to get popular campsites.

What you kneed to know about Grand Teton National Park camping:

Book campsites ahead of time or arrive early.

Established campsites are either booked ahead of time or taken on a ‘first come, first served’ basis (FF). Many FF sites are gone by 9:30am. However, very popular campgrounds like Jenny Lake were full by 6:00am! 

Consider Free camping.

I recommend you book ahead of time or take advantage of free campsites on the iOverlander app. If coming from the North, the sites at Sheffield Creek (National Forest) and Grassy Lake Road are adequate for tent campers and RV/Van travelers. 

Know that Sheffield Creek requires a usually very small creek ford (see video earlier) and Grassy Lake Road is a bumpy but passable washboard road past the 3rd or 4th campsite, which were all taken when we arrived. 

We camped at Grassy Lake — it’s the farthest set of sites down Grassy Lake road and our neighbor towed a mid-sized airstream.

I recommend arriving at free sites before 2:00pm if possible. You can leave an item (like foldable chairs) to reserve your spot. Know that since these sites are free, sometimes left items walk off… It’s never happened to us but we hear stories — don’t leave anything you can’t replace.

Arrive before dark. Finding your way on these roads and semi-established campsites would be very confusing after dark.

Bring your own water & Leave no trace.

These sites are primitive — meaning there is no water available. Some have a pit toilet.

Please be respectful and pack out anything you bring in. This includes trash, bottles, toilet paper… Free campsites are shut down when people start leaving trash.

Grassy Lake Road follows this beautiful river to Grassy Lake. If you wake up early, you can see the mist coming off the water when the sun hits.

In our very relaxed way, we did not plan this trip beforehand. We were able to find a beautiful secluded free camping spot near the end of Grassy Lake Road between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks.

Destinations + Hiking

We enjoyed established pullouts along Jackson Lake for photography. With the dog, we could only walk on paved parts of the trail by Jenny Lake visitor center (note: the parking area was full by 11:00am on Sunday).

Many of the in-park hikes are across Jenny Lake and benefit from the ferry ride (otherwise they’re very long).

Had we been dogless, we would prioritize these hikes:

  • Cascade Canyon
  • Paintbrush Canyon

You can also walk around Jenny Lake or explore the trails outside of the National Park.

Photo tips

I know some of you are working on your photography and looking to buy new camera gear. These tips will help you arrive prepared to capture the Teton range in full fall glory!

Tips for photos of the Teton range:

Don’t be afraid to choose the empty pullout.

National Park visitors often pull over wherever the crowds are, assuming there’s something to see. For the BEST views and photos on this trip, I took empty pullouts… and then the crowds joined us (lol).

Go early for unobstructed views.

Since pulling over signifies to others that they should too, anywhere you choose is likely to draw a crowd. Go early so it’s just you, your camera, and a whole lot of natural beauty.

You don’t need top-of-the-line gear for amazing photos.

That is unless you plan to make very large prints or sell these photos in the future. I have a cropped sensor camera (Sony Alpha 6500) which is a low range DSLR and it took all of these beautiful shots. Videos were taken with my iPhone.

Generally, a good lens improves photos more than a camera upgrade.

I recently purchased this lens for my Sony Alpha 6500, and it can be credited for the improved sharpness and depth of my outdoor photos.

Lenses can improve your iPhone photos.

While I haven’t tried them (yet), I’m eyeing this set of iPhone lenses. If you’re shooting with a phone, it’s worth getting a lens for outdoor photography. 

The amount of light your iPhone camera lets in is too much, so your photos will be hazy. In other words, the aperture of an iPhone camera allows for too much light and is unadjustable. You can improve this with a lens. 

Summary

In case you skimmed, here are key points for the best time to visit Grand Teton National Park:

  • Whether a weekend or a week, this trip is absolutely worth it!
  • Aspen in Wyoming usually show peak color in mid to late September.
  • Camping can be crowded. Be prepared with the tips in this post.
  • Use the tips above to sharpen your outdoor photography skills.

Browse other posts on Van Life Travel:

Read Tasty Recipes made in my camper van:

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Best time to visit Grand Teton National Park PIN 4

Thank you for sharing this adventure with me! If you enjoy posts like this, please let me know in the comments below <3

Jamie

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Jamie has celiac disease down to a science!

-Rachel

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2019-07-14T13:44:39-07:00

-Rachel

Jamie has celiac disease down to a science!

A fresh perspective on gluten-free with tips that are easy to implement!

-Lucas

Vibrantly g-Free
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2019-07-14T13:53:33-07:00

-Lucas

A fresh perspective on gluten-free with tips that are easy to implement!

The best GF info and ideas out there, especially if you travel! Wonderful pictures, as well.

-Ross

Vibrantly g-Free
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2019-07-14T13:54:34-07:00

-Ross

The best GF info and ideas out there, especially if you travel! Wonderful pictures, as well.

I feel like can travel spontaneously again. Thank you!

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2019-07-14T13:55:08-07:00

-Priska

I feel like can travel spontaneously again. Thank you!

I love the vibe - so positive and uplifting!

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2019-07-14T13:55:43-07:00

-Ashley

I love the vibe - so positive and uplifting!
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