Distance: 4.6 miles to Trapper Lake (one way)
Best time of year: Spring, Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2016 June
For those looking for an easy-going, but rewarding hike, Bearpaw Lake and Trapper Lake make for great destinations. Both are tucked away at the base of Mount Moran to the west, in between Leigh Lake to the south and Jackson Lake to the north. The entire trail has very little elevation gain, making it an easy trip for those not wanting to exert themselves too much. They’re also great destinations when snow is either still covering the mountains, or has just started to.
The hike begins at the frequently used String Lake/Leigh Lake Trailhead. The large parking lot at the end of the road gets used by everyone from picnickers just passing through to paddle-boarders on String Lake to backpackers heading up to the Paintbrush Divide. As a result, the parking lot fills up quickly so it’s best to get there early in the morning, both to beat the traffic, and also to have the time and flexibility to explore the area farther back. From the parking area, proceed toward String Lake, then take the String Lake Trail to the right to begin heading north. A few small rocky ridges will bring you up and down a minimal amount of elevation gain and loss, but very soon the trail smooths out as it pops in and out of the trees to show off some outstanding views of String Lake and the Teton Mountains behind it. If you’re there early enough (or late enough) in the day, you should see some immaculate reflections in the water, weather permitting.
At nearly a mile the trail forks, left leading up toward Paintbrush Canyon, and right leading toward Leigh Lake. Proceed right toward Leigh Lake which is only about .1 miles beyond, but not before another fork leads those with canoes and kayaks to portage to the left. Hikers (that’s you) should continue to the right. A very short ascent up a small moraine yields a great view of Leigh Lake through the trees as the trail heads north to wind around its southeastern shore. The trail descends from the moraine as it begins to hug the perimeter of the lake, many times bringing the trail right next to the water for even more dramatic views of the Tetons. Again, early in the morning and late in the evening will frequently present crystal clear reflections. Farther up the trail, excellent views up Paintbrush and Leigh Canyons begin to be revealed.
As the trail continues north up the eastern edge of Leigh Lake, it soon passes through some campsites at roughly 2.5 miles in. If anyone is currently using the sites as you pass through, please respect their privacy and hike on, unless they’re friendly, in which case you should say "Hi." The trail continues through the forest and along the lake and after a bit of hiking, you’ll notice that you’re entering a recently burned forest. This was the outer edge of the Bearpaw Bay Fire from 2009. It’s in this area that the trail begins to veer to the west as it wraps around to the northern edge of Leigh Lake.
After hiking westward along an old, overgrown forest to your left, and a freshly burned forest to your right, the trail soon opens up into a large meadow where another trail crosses it coming from the south at Leigh Lake heading north. Taking the trail right for roughly .4 miles will bring you to a campsite on the north end of Bearpaw Lake, giving you some different and interesting views of the lake unobtainable from the main trail. From this vantage point, it’s a bit easier to get a few shots of the mountains in the background, though you’ll notice that Bearpaw Lake isn’t the most impressive lake, especially having just passed String and Leigh Lakes. What it does offer is solitude and quiet, and where there’s solitude and quiet, there’s an increased chance at seeing more diversity in the wildlife of the Teton Mountains.
Continuing straight at the junction will bring you to two other campsites at Bearpaw Lake, this time on the west side of the lake. The trail winds past the two sites and begins a short ascent up a small hill to bring you a bit closer to Mount Moran. Once the trail has crested the incline, you enter a quiet and still forest for a little less than half a mile. At the end other, a campsite for Trapper Lake forks off to the left, and only 100 yards further is Trapper Lake, complete with elegant beaver dams and ponds at its north end.
Tip: Visit in fall to see large groves of aspens on the side of Mount Moran in their peak color.
If you left early in the morning in the middle of the summer, enjoy the views and the peaceful surroundings. By the time you’re back at String Lake, there will be lots of people and commotion all over the trails and shores of String Lake. To get back (when you’re ready), head back the same way you came in.
From downtown Jackson, head north on Highway 89 for roughly 12 miles to the Moose Junction. Take a left and continue straight to the entrance station and either acquire or show a permit to gain access to Grand Teton National Park. After about 10 miles, look for the North Jenny Lake Junction and make a left. At 1.5 miles, you’ll reach another junction where you’ll take a right. Follow that road until it dead-ends at a large parking area. Park anywhere in here and proceed to the northwest part of the parking area to join the String Lake Trail. Restrooms are also located on the northeast side of the parking area, while potable water can be found on the west side in the picnic area, provided it’s not regularly freezing at night.