Lake of the Crags, Grand Teton National Park
Work, familial obligations, our favorite television show, unabashed laziness, the list is much longer—so many forces seem to conspire to keep us stationary, mired in habit, on the other side of adventure. I’ve felt the opposite pull since moving to Utah. The call to constantly to be on the move. The impossibility of remaining still when unexplored canyons beckon from the south, when I’ve still never summited King’s Peak just a few hours east. And then there is the lure of places north: the Sawtooths, Yellowstone, the Wind Rivers and, one of the most insistent voices of all, the Tetons. With a three day weekend in front of us, Kate and I couldn’t resist. We woke at 4 a.m., packed the truck, and were on the road and already in Wyoming well before first light.
When I close my eyes and try to form a general idea of mountains, I invariably picture the Tetons in all their particularity. The rise of these glacially-scoured peaks from the valley floor seems as abrupt on my tenth visit as it did on my first. But yikes, does the park ever get crowded. Crowded to the tune of nearly 3 million visitors per year. For those looking for a day hike that avoids the crowds and offers a relatively remote wilderness experience, Lake of the Crags is an ideal option.
As is so often the case, the paths leading to the best places are not marked on any map. Although Lake of the Crags sits just two miles west of well-traveled Jenny Lake, there is no maintained trail leading to the lake. However, the path is fairly obvious provided you can locate where it begins. Start at the boat dock on the western shore of Jenny Lake. This destination is marked on all park maps and is easily hiked to. For an even more breathtaking trip, we rented a canoe and paddled our way across Jenny Lake. Once at the dock, head down the trail leading towards String Lake. After crossing the fifth bridge, keep your eye out for a unmarked but foot-worn path on the left side surrounded by a half-circle of rocks. Here is where the ascent begins.
The route will ascend Hanging Canyon nearly 3,000 feet over the course of 2 miles and does require some light scrambling once you reach the upper lakes. If ever in doubt, rest assured that there is usually only one way you need to go: up! The pain in the calves will be the small price paid for so many pleasures for the eye. From the very beginning, the hike affords superb views of the Cathedral Group: Teewinot, Mount Owen and Grand Teton itself dominate the southern skyline.
Ribbon Cascade, an intermittent waterfall that serves as the only drainage for the upper lakes, stays in constant view and points the way back into the unseen recesses of Hanging Canyon. The abundance of water and snow melt find life in fields of late-season wildflowers.
As you continue to ascend, you will pass two other scenic alpine lakes that might, in less spectacular country, be destinations in themselves. First will be Arrowhead Lake. The most modest of the bunch, it nonetheless affords impressive views back down towards Jenny Lake and Jackson Hole. Just south looms craggy Cube Point, a potential day climb. From Arrowhead, scramble a rock face to the right to reach Ramshield Lake.
Lake of the Crags requires one last climb over the talus field dominating Ramshield’s western shore. When we were here in late August, there was still lingering snow to be avoided. Bring an ice axe if you are coming in early summer.
At 9.600 feet, we’d reached our destination. We made our way along the shore, feet searching for purchase among the boulders, looking for a place to sit aside the cirque tinted turquoise from glacial meltwater. Rock of Ages, the Jaw, Mount St. John: those are a few of the names I was able to recall of the peaks towering above the lake’s western shore. Knowing the names made their presence no less impenetrable—jagged, vertical masses of rock thrust against the sky like barbed wire.
Blue sky surrendered as clouds bearing storm sailed atop the serrated ridge. It was time to go. Hiking back down, it is easy to get lulled into the zombie trance of staring at the feet, plodding your way unawares back to the car and back to the campsite. Not today. The afternoon showers had led to the formation of a rainbow. An ordinary enough phenomenon, except this time I was looking down upon its crest. I was reminded of one final reason I love the mountains: they are often the occasion for a total change of perspective, the chance to see from above what is otherwise only visible from below.