Distance: 2.1 miles (one way)
Best time of year: Spring, Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2014 August
Tucked away east of Jackson Hole is local treasure very few take the time to see. The Red Hills of the Gros Ventre Mountains are an exposed sandstone deposit that are leftover from when the region was under a shallow sea, roughly 50 million years ago. The road to the hills is engineered in such a way that immediately after coming around a small bend in the road, a dramatic view of the hills overwhelms you with a sense of natural beauty and wonder. A pullout is conveniently located at that exact location so that you can fully appreciate the view.
While the view from the road is amazing, the hike up through the hills is even more rewarding. The trailhead begins on the other side of the road from the Red Hills Ranch and immerses you right away into the red and orange, sandstone landscape. After only a few hundred yards, you find yourself surrounding by the large hills at the bottom of a small canyon. Wildflowers, aspens, willows, and (some burned) evergreen all take their turns sharing the trail with you throughout your gradual ascent during the initial stretch of the trail.
While the trail climbing starts gradually enough, it doesn’t take long before the steepness increases at a noticeable rate. From this point, the trail continues to climb at a rather unforgiving rate. Likewise, many of the views of the sandstone deposits have all but disappeared, leaving you with the northern side of the hills where more vegetation tends to grow, covering up the reddish dirt. Still, the trail continues its steep ascent upward.
Just as you were beginning to wonder if the best views were back at the bottom, you see a ridge up ahead; a potential summit to offer something new. You’re not wrong. As you crest the ridge, a sweeping view of the Lavender Hills opens up directly in front of you comprised of many other layers of sediment during the sea’s millions of years above these mountains before they were formed. It’s here that the trail seems to dead end into another trail, though technically the trail continues to the west (left) and a spur trail heads to the east (right).
Regardless of whether you choose to end your hike here or continue onward, it’s highly recommended you take the spur trail to the east to experience an unparalleled view of the Crystal Creek and Gros Ventre River drainages and confluence. A nearly 180 degree view of a massive open valley is sprawled out in front you, with rolling hills far below lining Gros Ventre Road as it meanders back deeper into the Gros Ventres with the majestic Wind River Mountains visible above the horizon. The Gros Ventre River peeks out from a few lower elevations to the east while Crystal Creek emerges from the higher peaks to the south. If you’re short on time, this is a great place to stop for a snack before heading back.
Continuing up the trail proves to be a rather significant challenge as the steepness only increases even more. In some places, the dirt below your feet is barely enough to hold you on your ascent higher, the Lavender Hills occasionally peeking above the trees to check on your progress. One grueling step after another, you finally ascend one ridge, only to see another even steeper ridge awaiting your challenge.
Finally, after much patience and perseverance, you crest a ridge whose reward is well worth the effort. Far in the distance straight ahead are the Teton Mountains looming above the entire landscape laid out before you. A bit closer are the foothills of the Gros Ventre Mountains and nearer still is Slide Lake. Turning your attention to the south, you get the back-side view of the Sleeping Indian. Aside from a few burned trees obstructing a view here and there, the view is one of the best I’ve seen from the Gros Ventres.
On top of this ridge, you’ll notice the trail continues westward, while a small spur trail heads south. Some arguably better views are offered a short distance to the south, while the official trail swings around the Lavender Hills to eventually lead you to the north side and back down toward Slate Creek. An ascent up the Lavender Hills is also easy to negotiate from this vantage point as well, one potential route very steep, the other, not as steep.
From Jackson, head north along Highway 89 for 6.8 miles until you reach the Gros Ventre Junction. Turn east (right) there and continue on Gros Ventre Road for eight miles, which will bring you past the Gros Ventre Campground and the town of Kelly before the road turns north for about the last 1.3 miles. Turn right onto Gros Ventre Road and follow that for 10.3 miles, which will bring first past Kelly Warm Spring, the National Forest/National Park boundary, around Slide Lake, and up and over a hill that finally brings you to the view of the Red Hills that you can’t miss. Continue for the duration of the mileage and that should bring you to a small parking area just beyond the entrance to the Red Hills Ranch (not to be confused with the Red Rock Ranch a bit further down the road). The trail begins on the other side of the road.