Backpacking Grand Teton National Park

Backpacking Grand Teton National Park with kids

(How we got here: With lunches packed, we'd spent our first day driving 22 hours straight from Pennsylvania to South Dakota, stopping in Iowa to stretch our legs. Day two was spent being chased by wasps and serenaded by Prairie dogs in the Badlands, followed by a 6-hour drive to Custer, South Dakota. This set us up to visit Crazy Horse the next morning, then head to the Tetons.)

We pulled into our hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming at midnight. We came from the north, passing right by Grand Teton National Park. It was a new moon, with pitch black skies barely allowing us to make out the jagged edges of the Tetons in the distance. I didn't sleep much, knowing they were literally sitting outside my window, and that daylight would bring an adventure I'd been patiently waiting to set off on for the better part of two years.

The sun finally started to come up and Phoenix (my 12-year-old son who's always been my "go-to" guy for early morning adventures) and I went into town to find a cup of coffee and get a glimpse of our surroundings. East Gros Ventre Butte was right there in our face as we walked out the door in Jackson Hole, but we couldn't catch a view of the Tetons.

We packed up our bags at the hotel and made our way to Park Headquarters to file our backcountry permit and ask a couple last minute questions. Rounding the bend past the butte, the Grand Tetons finally came into view.

It's hard to put their sight into words, but if I had to it'd include equal parts heart-stopping beauty and just "woah". An immediate wanting to explore its nooks and crannies, while a bit anxious in its enormity. It's comparable to what it might feel like to round the corner and see a brontosaurus. The car was silent for a solid five seconds, followed by "wow", "woah" and some pretty hearty laughter. We were excited!


We got our backcountry permit, asked the Ranger a couple questions, watched a short video on backcountry hiking and camping ("hey bear!"), and away we went. A short drive from there to Lupine Meadows trailhead where we reviewed our gear one more time, said hello to a couple passing elk, and alas, we were ready to begin.

We hiked in 4.6 miles (9.2 miles round trip), climbing 3,100' to Surprise Lake. We'd been taking practice hikes back home in Pennsylvania (with packs) for the month prior to our departure, my kids having been backpacking in our Allegheny National Forest numerous times in the last few years. But nothing can prepare you for the change in altitude. From everything I'd read it took people (on average) roughly 3 hours to get there, so we'd planned on it taking 5 hours, to include breaks. 

The hike was tough. The kids breezed through the first couple miles, and even up into the first few switchbacks. I found myself constantly reminding them that slow and steady was the way to go. There was a point (near mile 3.5) where we looked down on Bradley Lake and considered hiking back down and calling it a night there. But we decided as a group to keep going. By the time we hit the last 3 or 4 small switchbacks, the terrain changed and we were surrounded by big white boulders that made it almost appear snow-covered. They really had to dig in at this point for the final push to the top. I may or may not have heard some reference to our destination being "Hate Pond" instead of Surprise Lake (lol). The trail finally flattened out and we'd reached our destination in just over 4 hours. Surprise Lake! 

We set up camp, got out fresh layers, winter caps and gloves, and started dinner on the camp stove. By the time we finished eating, the sun was setting and the wind was starting to pick up, so we retreated to our tents for the night with flashlights and journals. There's something magical about being nestled in the dark on a mountain and having your 11-year-old daughter saying, "Mom, how do you spell Wyoming?" followed by, "Do you spell Teton T-e-t-o-n?" Just so rad.

The wind whipped through our campsite for the next few hours. You could hear it coming in waves from miles away... getting closer... and closer... until the rainfly would start to shake, and then the calm would settle back in.

When I awoke, the tent was starting to get a little lighter, and you knew the sun was rising. We all got up, started coffee, and immediately walked down to the lake to watch the sunrise. We hiked around Surprise Lake to get views in all directions, exploring along the way. Everything was so calm, the lake like glass except where little birds were bathing.

I'd been dreaming of this moment for months. It was beautiful. Breathtaking. And magical to say the least. And to have my children with me... words cannot describe the feeling. We'd done it - they'd done it. And it wasn't easy. You could feel their sense of accomplishment as they recorded videos to send to their classmates back in Pennsylvania. Each one of them having grown up a bit more overnight.


We had a little breakfast, and everyone laughed while I made up a funny jingle on the ukulele about how challenging the previous days hike was. We explored a bit more, packed up camp, and headed out, loving every second of going downhill

When we got back to civilization, Lily was asked while we stood in line for a big victory dinner, "why would you do that?" to which she replied with a big smile, saying almost matter-of-factly, "My mom wants us to know we can accomplish something."

Catch a sunrise on a lake in the Tetons - check.