Distance: 4 miles (one way)
Best time of year: Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2014 August
Be forewarned: Delta Lake is a very challenging trail that requires route-finding skills and a very steep ascent up a large boulder field. This trail is not at all for casual hikers.
I had always been hesitant to make a blog post about Delta Lake because I didn’t want the secret to get out. It was my “happy place” where I knew I’d have the whole lake to myself any time I went. Judging from my last hike up there, however, it’s safe to say the secret’s out. After encountering a number of parties along the trail, as well as doing a Google search discovering many other trail descriptions for access, I decided there wasn’t much of a secret left to protect.
Delta Lake is by far one the prettiest lakes in the Teton Mountains, and arguably the entire region. Fed entirely by Teton Glacier, the lake is a bold and brilliant turquoise that is tucked directly beneath the Grand Teton to the west, dominating one of the most dramatic and amazing scenes of a Teton peak. The Teepee Pillar to the south of the Grand Teton is distinctly visible with Disappointment Peak continuing the southern rim of the bowl that lines Delta Lake. To the north is Mount Owen, the second-highest peak in the Teton Mountains, with a sharp ridge lining the northern perimeter extending down from Teewinot.
The trail begins at the Lupine Meadows parking area which also provides access to the South, Middle, and Grand Teton peaks, as well as Amphitheater and Surprise Lakes, for which part of the trail will be used. It slowly weaves south through a lodgepole pine forest where you soon cross the cloudy waters spilling down from Glacier Gulch, fed from the waters of Delta Lake. The trail then cuts west as it steeply ascends the spine of a glacial moraine before connecting with the Valley Trail roughly 1.5 miles in.
The trail cuts back to the south as it begins to switchback up the eastern side of the Teton Mountains. Provided you’re hiking up early in the summer (late June/early July), you’re rewarded with large, open meadows brimming with balsamroot wildflowers, among many others, with marmots occasionally peeking out from the brush and boulders along the trail. In and out of groves of evergreen, the trail continues its ascent showing off better and better views of not just Jackson Hole, but of Bradley and Taggart Lakes far below.
A fork in the trail is at last reached, signaling Garnet Canyon to the left and Amphitheater Lake to the right. Continue in the direction of Amphitheater Lake, but pay attention. At the very next switchback in the trail, look for a wildlife trail that drops off of the main trail system.
The trail changes dramatically at this point. Gone is the ease of a maintained trail cleared of obstacles and the obvious route to follow. Now the trail appears to drop off into a gully that requires good traction and careful maneuvering. Following a few fallen trees and other obstacles, a scramble across a boulder field leads to an unmarked path heading straight up the side of Glacier Gulch through the trees. Beyond these trees the boulder field opens up and the real ascent begins. Route finding skills are essential not only for the climb up, but also for knowing when to head back to the maintained trail on the hike out.
A relentless climb ensues up hundreds of feet of boulders and steep, loose dirt, none of it guaranteed to be reliable. Up and up, the trail continues, and while the scenery in Glacier Gulch doesn’t change all that much, a near vertigo-inducing view of Jackson Hole to the east can be appreciated whenever rests are needed. The calls of pika throughout the gulch, both near and far, provide a natural soundtrack during the climb, until finally, the final ridge is crested and a reward unlike any other opens up through the trees.
With a bit of scrambling, a seat around Delta Lake (most likely in the form of a boulder) is easy to find for a well-deserved rest. Just as well-deserved as the rest is the appreciation of the view. The commanding scenery engrossing a nearly 360 degree panorama all around shouldn’t be taken in too quickly. Find a comfortable seat and listen to the landscape voice itself through the towering peaks and the bright color of the water.
The Grand Teton explodes into the sky above, far beyond the enormous wall that is the glacial moraine from Teton Glacier above. Take your time and hope you have it to yourself. When you’re ready to go back, make sure you know where to cut back across to access the main trail.
From Jackson, take Highway 89 north out of town, and continue north to Moose Junction. Head west (left) and continue through the Grand Teton National Park entrance station and follow the road north. Pass the Taggart Lake trailhead and then the Climber’s Ranch. As Timbered Island on the right begins to taper off, you’ll see the sign for the Lupine Meadows trailhead on your left. Follow that until it dead ends into a (typically crowded) parking lot.