Looking for the best hike in Grand Teton National Park? Well, look no further, as there’s perhaps no better trail than the one that reaches the dreamy alpine waters of Delta Lake.
But you’ll have to put in some legwork to make it to the lake’s milky robin’s egg blue water- a portion of the trail is unmaintained by the U.S. National Park service, meaning the trail (and how to get there!) is not included on the park’s map. You’ll need to scramble over boulders and fallen trees and may even need to rely on your navigational skills to make it to the top.
If this aspect of the trail makes you as nervous as it made me, fear not! I’ve hiked and conquered the Delta Lake trail and have put together a complete guide so you can too.
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Table of Contents
- What is Delta Lake?
- How do you get to the Delta Lake trail?
- How do you hike the Delta Lake trail?
- What should you pack for hiking to Delta Lake?
- Where to stay in Jackson Hole
What is Delta Lake?
Delta Lake (via Lupine Meadows Access) is a challenging 8.1 mile out-and-back trail, with 2300 feet elevation gain, located in the southwest corner of Grand Teton National Park, right outside of Jackson, Wyoming. Because of the extreme snowfall in Jackson each winter, the trail can usually only be accessed between June and October.
Part of the trail is not maintained by the park (thus, why it’s called an “unmaintained trail”) and instead, is created by the erosion of other hikers. That means that if a tree branch falls on the trail due to heavy snow or if vegetation starts growing over the path, the Park Service isn’t going to come clean it up and you’ll need to find a way over or around it, which can make the hike a bit interesting at times.
Because of its unmaintained status, many blog articles will refer to Delta Lake as “a hidden gem” or “off-the-beaten path.” Before hitting the trail, I had gotten all worked up about the hike, thinking it was going to be a challenging navigational feat- with my husband, Justin and I, Indiana Jones-style, conquering the Wyoming wilderness, using only cairns (those little rock piles left by other hikers to show you the way) and our hiking prowess to find our way. In reality, though, this hike is quite popular- so much so that it was one of the most crowded trails we did in the park!
So while this trail is certainly physically demanding, you don’t really need any kind of advanced technical skills to complete it- so long as you’re in decent shape, the hike should definitely be doable. While it isn’t really that hard to figure out your way once you’re on the trail, it is a bit confusing to figure out how to actually get to the trail in the first place, since it isn’t marked on any maps.
But don’t let that scare you away- Delta Lake is one of the most jaw-dropping hikes I’ve ever seen and is a not-to-be-missed stop on your Grand Teton itinerary. Here’s exactly what you need to know!
How do you get to the Delta Lake trail?
To get to Delta Lake, you’ll need to enter Grand Teton National Park (admission is $35.00 for a one week pass per car or free with the America the Beautiful Pass, discussed in the What to Pack section below) and then head to the Lupine Meadows trailhead parking lot. Note that the road here is gravel, but well-maintained and passable with any normal passenger car (unlike a lot of the pothole-ridden National Forest roads in my home state of Washington!).
I’d recommend arriving at the parking lot early- Justin and I arrived around 7 AM on a Tuesday and I’d say about half of the parking lot was full. By the time we left around 1 PM or so, the lot was completely full and cars were in a fight to the death over spots as people were leaving.
You’ll start by taking the Valley Trail from the Lupine Meadows trailhead, which gently lulls you into a false sense of security for the first mile as you meander through a flat wooded forest (it will get steeper, my friend; trust me!).
After this point, you’ll start making your way slightly uphill and eventually reach a marked junction in the trail, either veering left to continue on the Valley Trail or straight on to the Garnet Canyon Trail towards Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes.
Take the Garnet Canyon Trail (as a helpful tip, for both of the junctions along the way, you’re always going to pick the one headed towards Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes, which will be marked on the junction signs) and start making your way up its switchbacks, which provide absolutely breathtaking views of Bradley Lake and colorful wildflowers (if you happen to go in the summertime like us). Remember to count the switchbacks- there’s a total of six until you reach the offshoot for Delta Lake.
Protip: While totally doable, these switchbacks are moderately steep and would be pretty unpleasant to slog up in the midday sun of the summer. If you’re headed here in July or August, I’d again recommend hitting the trail early to avoid the hottest part of the day.
In the middle of the sixth switchback, you’ll hit another junction- if you continue straight, you’ll be on the Surprise/Amphitheater Lakes Trail or you can turn left to continue on Garnet Canyon. You’ll want to continue straight towards Surprise/Amphitheater Lakes and finish up that sixth switchback (you should be right around the 3-mile mark at this point).
At the end of the switchback, look downhill (to the north side of the trail) and you’ll see a set of makeshift steps built into the dirt- at this point, you’ve officially hit the Delta Lake “trailhead”!
Protip: Before doing the hike, it really freaked me out that I couldn’t generally see where the Delta Lake Trail started on Google Maps. If you’re neurotic like me, I’d recommend downloading a trail map on the AllTrails app. With these feature, you can use GPS and track where you're at on the trail, even if you don't have cell service! You'll need the AllTrails+ version of the app to download offline maps. Luckily, you can get a 7-day free trial, PLUS our awesome readers get a sweet 30% off discount for their first year—just use the code “Uprooted30” at check out! If you’ve been thinking about upgrading your AllTrails account to the paid version (I know it took me, like, five years to make the jump), we wrote a whole post about whether an AllTrails+ account is worth it.
How do you hike the Delta Lake trail?
Congratulations; you found the trail to one of the most beautiful lakes in the park! Now comes the fun part- over the next mile, you’ll make your way up an additional 600 feet elevation gain to Delta Lake- this may not sound like a lot but the trail is STEEP.
Once you make your way down the makeshift stairs, you’ll follow the boot trail until it disappears in a boulder field, which you’ll need to scramble over to pick up the trail again. You can either follow the cairns along the boulder field or in reality, it’s probably easier to scramble up and to the right of the field (i.e., to the northwest) until you see the trail on the other side.
As I mentioned above, the trail was so crowded when we went, we had no problem finding our way- we just followed the people ahead of us. Once you make your way over the field and back on the boot trail, hold onto your butts- there’s TWO more boulder fields waiting for you ahead (with the exact same navigational tips above)!
The last half mile of the trail is called Glacier Gulch and boy howdy, is it a doozy! The climb up the gulch is across loose dirt and gravel and REALLY steep- probably the steepest part of a hike I’ve ever done. There were some parts of the trail that I literally crawled up on my hands and knees, given the incline; I’d recommend doing whatever it takes to make sure you and others around you are safe- water breaks, using trekking poles, even crawling!
Once you crawl, er, I mean climb up Glacier Gulch, you’ll finally make it to Delta Lake, one of the most stunning lakes in Grand Teton. Break out your lunch, take all the selfies, and do a happy dance- you did it!
Protip: I’ve read a few blog posts that suggested you can go swimming in this lake. The spectacular color of the water is from glacial runoff, so, while it may be refreshing to stick your feet in the water on a hot summer day, I wouldn’t recommend jumping into the lake (not even for the ‘gram). The water is FREEZING- cold enough, in fact, that you could go into shock or experience hypothermia and, given the remoteness, it would be difficult to get you medical treatment in time.
To return, you’ll simply need to retrace your steps from how you reached the lake. I want to flag that making your way down the gulch can be more challenging (and frankly, scary) than making your way up as it’s harder to get solid footing on the steep, loose ground.
If you’re really scared of heights, I’d recommend skipping this hike, due to the steepness and the terrain. There was a woman hiking when we went that was so frightened by Glacier Gulch that her husband had to hold on to her and tell her exactly where to place her feet every step of the way. She wound up falling along the trail and injuring herself (not badly, but still!). While she fell on a flatter part of the trail, it would be super easy to fall on a steeper part and possibly slide into and injure other hikers along the way.
Under the same logic, I’d recommend skipping this hike when it’s wet or icy.
What should you pack for hiking to Delta Lake?
There’s a few things I’d recommend bringing along to make your experience better and safer:
- Hiking Boots: In my many hikes, I’ve seen people hit the trails in all kinds of, shall we say, interesting footwear choices- flip flops, ballet flats, slip-on Vans. Given the steepness of the trail, this is not the one to try “alternative footwear.”
Please wear shoes that are specifically designed for hiking- they’ll provide your ankle with support as you make your way across uneven terrain and provide traction on slippery ground. Here’s the kind that I use (and LOVE!) for years and here‘s the pair that Justin uses.
- Water: Did you know that the #1 reason that most people require rescuing in the park isn’t from dangerous mountaineering attempts or wildlife encounters gone askew, but rather dehydration? For the people in the back, this hike is STEEP and almost the entire trail has sun exposure.
Please be sure to take sufficient water- a good rule of thumb is to take one liter of water for every two hours of hiking (this may need to be adjusted up or down depending on how hot it is)- for Delta Lake, having 2.5 or 3 liters of water should be more than enough for most people. On our hikes, I carry large 64 oz. Nalgene bottles, like this one, and bring along a couple smaller plastic bottles (that I reuse!) in my backpack to refill the Nalgene along the hike.
Justin and I also keep a 2.5 gallon water dispenser in our car, like this one, to fill up our water bottles before and after our hikes (good for the planet and our wallets!).
- Sun screen: Given the bison and the snowy peaks, Grand Teton doesn’t really feel like a place you have to be too worried about sunburn. But with Jackson sitting over a mile above sea level, those UV rays on the trail are REAL, especially on this one, which offers little shade. Pick up some reef-safe, vegan-friendly sunscreen like this one before you hit the trails.
- Bear spray: As many signs around the park will be quick to tell you, Grand Teton is bear country- home to both black and grizzly bears. Both kinds of bears will generally try to move away from you if they hear, see, or smell you approaching, but certain factors, such as the noise from a stream or the wind, can make it harder for them to know you’re hiking near them.
Bears are generally not aggressive, but may act aggressively if their young is near or if you have startled them. Because of this risk, I keep bear spray (which is used much like pepper spray to temporarily deter, but not permanently injure aggressive animals) in my car and take it with me wherever I go hiking in bear country.
Although we thankfully have never had to use it, we have this one. Note that you cannot take bear spray on airplanes, so if you’re flying into Jackson, I suggest renting a can at Teton Backcountry Rentals.
It’s also best practice to make noise while you’re hiking- by chatting to your hiking partner, intermittently clapping, or clipping a bear bell onto your bag (I like this one, as it comes with a magnetic silencer for when you’re not trying to scare away bears).
- Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are basically ski poles that you can use as additional anchor points as you hike across certain types of terrain, for example, to stabilize yourself as you cross streams or head downhill or to help you pull yourself up steep slopes. While they’re not necessary for every hike or every hiker, they can help tremendously if you have knee or hip injuries or if you’re hiking on loose ground (check!), steep uphills (check!), or steep downhills (check! check! check!).
Checkout these lightweight, collapsible Black Diamond ones– I’m all about portability and I love that you can fold them up and tuck them in your backpack when they’re not in use.
- Climbing gloves: Over the trail’s three boulder fields, you’ll have to lift your body up and around some pretty meaty rocks. While climbing barehanded comes with advantages (you can feel and grip the rocks better), some people may find scrambling more comfortable with climbing gloves, especially if you have particularly sensitive skin or if you’re doing the hike in colder weather. I plan on picking up a pair of these for climbing Mt. St. Helens next year.
- America the Beautiful Pass: As mentioned above, for one car, it costs $35 for a one-week pass into the park. However, if you have plans to stop by a couple of U.S. National Parks within a year span, these fees are included if you pick up an America the Beautiful Pass, an annual pass that costs just $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 U.S. national parks, forests, shorelines (and on and on).
The proceeds support the National Park Service and if you plan to go to at least three national parks per year (which usually cost around $30-$35 per car per visit), picking up one of these bad boys is a no brainer. You can either pick one up here.
Obviously, if your adventures this year don’t include some National Park visits other than your trip to Grand Teton (but why though?! Don’t you know that Yellowstone is right next to it?!), purchasing a pass probably doesn’t make a ton of financial sense.
Where to stay in Jackson Hole
Now that you completed Delta Lake, where are you going to rest that weary head (and those burning thighs)?!
- Elk Country Inn: On the more affordable end of the spectrum for Jackson, this hotel is rustic yet so cozy- but still offers creature comforts, like a hot tub to rest your weary muscles.
- Rustic Inn Creekside Resort and Spa: For more of a mid-range option, consider this resort with all the Western vibes, with a broad range of accommodations, from charming cabins to luxe spa suites with rain showers.
- Wyoming Inn of Jackson Hole: For a bougie experience, this hotel offers it all, with many rooms that offer fireplaces, coffee and cookies in the lobby every afternoon, and the BEST hot tub you’ll ever soak in.
I hope you enjoy conquering Delta Lake as much as I did- let me know what you think about the hike in the comments below!