Distance: 18.9 miles (loop)
Best time of year: Summer, Fall
Last hiked: 2015 September
The views at the top of Swift Creek, leading to the Crystal Creek and Gros Ventre River headwaters are easily some of the most epic mountain views in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but it doesn’t come easily. This Swift Creek to Shoal Creek Loop is both extremely rewarding, but equally challenging, making it one of the most enjoyable trails in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
Many people prefer to hike up the steepest parts and go down the most gradual parts, since it’s typically much easier on your knees. I opted to go that route, heading up Swift Creek, but certainly the better way for increasingly better views and scenery would be to go the opposite way, heading toward Shoal Falls and up Shoal Creek, then connecting with the Swift Creek Trail to descend. Having rushed through part of this trail, and also having apparently missed a turn taking me on a slight detour, I expect to hike this again next summer that way. However, since I hiked it going from Swift Creek to Shoal Creek, that’s how I’ll be describing it.
It is highly recommended that you bring along a good topo map. There are a few places where the trail disappears and cairns are required for finding your way, and there’s more than one cairn trail in the vicinity, so following the right one is crucial. Signage is also inconsistent. There are also a few forks (one of which I apparently missed) which will keep you on the proper route so you can experience the trail as best as possible. Finally, this trail is not at all intended for novice hikers, unless you have an experienced hiker with you who can help guide you through the tricky spots. Either way, be ready for lengthy, steep ascents and lots of exposure to the sun.
From the parking area, head toward Swift Creek to the north where a dirt road with a "Road Closed" sign is in place just before a bridge crossing the creek. After the creek, only a couple of dozen yards up, look for the trail to veer off to the right from the dirt road. If you miss it, you won’t be on the trail.
After strolling through a large meadow, you soon begin gaining elevation as the trail pops in and out of small meadows and forests as you climb with Swift Creek, occasionally crossing over it. After crossing the creek farther up the trail, you’ll notice a well-trodden trail heading off to the right. This is an unmaintained trail heading up to McLeod Lake, well off of this route, so continue straight. The trail soon begins its steep ascent up into the canyon where Swift Creek originates. For the most part, this trail is well-forested with limited views for a couple of miles.
At roughly mile 3.8, the trail finally begins to flatten out to give you a break from climbing as you emerge into a meadow where there’s even a camping spot. Enjoy it while it lasts though. Just up the trail, the trail begins another very steep climb. Watch your footing too. On multiple occasions the ground gave out from under me, the dirt completely slipping from under my feet.
For the next mile or so, the trail will continue to flatten out and climb steeply while the views finally begin to open up. The massive peaks and canyon walls surrounding you begin to appear as the trees slowly become more sporadic and short. The views to the south also open up as fantastic views of the Wyoming Range begin to emerge. If nothing else, the views certainly make for great excuses to catch your breath.
At mile 4.8 or so, you begin to reach the treeline where views to the west are dominated by Antoinette Peak. After a bit more pushing and climbing, you finally reach the divide where all your hard work and effort are payed off in a breathtaking view of the Gros Ventre Wilderness ahead of you. A massive basin is below where Crystal Creek begins its journey toward the Gros Ventre River, which, interestingly enough, is beginning its journey just a mile to the east. The entire view is filled with large alpine peaks and great forested valleys. It’s truly one of the best sights to behold in the Gros Ventre Wilderness and beyond.
If you were only out for the day, this is where you’ll want to poke around, have a meal, and then head back down before taking in all the views one last time.
As for me, I went up with the intent to camp up there, and that’s just what I did. My main goal was in hoping for continued northern lights activity from the night before, and also just to experience the night sky in such a remote place. I stayed up into the darkness to see just how brilliant the Milky Way could shine, and it didn’t disappoint! For those with a little camera knowledge, the area was so dark that I was able to crank up my Canon 5D Mark III’s ISO to 10,000 without producing more than a minimal amount of noise. As for the northern lights, they weren’t out by the time I was ready for bed. However in checking the data later the next day, they were out in the middle of the night. Serves me right for not doing a time-lapse up there just for the fun of it. Lesson learned!
I woke up the next day after sunrise unfortunately and expecting a mellow day, took my time getting back on the trail. In looking at where I was to go next on the map, I realized a had a big problem: I brought along the wrong map. I had three options:
I’m pretty stubborn in the backcountry, so I went with #3. I packed up after breakfast, and made my way over the next divide, but not before being treated to a glimpse of the highest Teton Peaks peeking over the mountains to the northwest.
Over the next divide, I stood there overlooking the headwaters of the Gros Ventre River, completely blown away by how vast, intense, and grand the scenery became. I immediately began wondering if I should spend my next night in this area. In hindsight, that probably would have been the better choice, but I was eager to continue on and see more.
Heading up to the divide, the trail fades in and out and is assisted by an easy set of cairns. As the trail climbs over the divide with Black Peak emerging to your left, the trail becomes much more obvious, with a couple of large signs pointing out different destinations. One will even direct you down toward Shoal Lake, but shortly thereafter, the trail becomes a long series of cairns as it traverses over a large alpine basin, hopping over various creeks that all help to create the Gros Ventre River.
It was along this stretch that I didn’t notice the trail fork, and wound up going slightly out of my way. Following the cairns through a large flat area, I noticed a path leading off to the right over a ridge. My curiosity was piqued, so I went to go check it out. As I reached the crest of the ridge, I saw the trail dropping into a large canyon, but which canyon? I took out my phone hoping for a signal and was actually able to get one! I downloaded a topo map on my phone and noticed that this spur trail that I had scoped out was actually the Shoal Lake Trail that I wanted to be on. Following the cairns would have taken me much farther east to Dell Creek, and significantly off my path. Thank you technology! Looking back, I noticed a series of cairns leading back a different route from where I had come from.
The trail begins a quick descent down toward a small pond with bright blue-green water reflecting the peaks. Passing around another bend from that, Shoal Lake emerges far below a couple of switchbacks, offering only a few teasing glimpses. It’s not until you’re much closer to it that it’s actually able to show off its magnificence, surrounded by tall Gros Ventre Mountain peaks. The shores beg to be rested at, especially a small cluster of trees at the southeast end of the lake shielding a nice small outcropping of boulders ideal for sitting on just after you cross over the runoff.
Beyond Shoal Lake, the trail begins a long descent farther into a large mountainous canyon, passing through many forests and meadows. At one point farther down, the trail winds down a steep ridge, exposing a couple of dramatic waterfalls on the other side of the canyon. The trail continues its lengthy descent and ultimately brings you to the top of some high grassy hills.
There were two things at this part that I missed. One was a place to camp, another was the proper fork to access Shoal Falls directly. According to a map I referenced after the hike, there should have been another trail in this area connecting me directly to the falls, but I completely missed it. This took me on an extra mile or so detour, bypassing the falls. I was unaware of this at the time, and instead focusing mainly on finding a campsite. However this late in the season, the hills were completely blanketed in dry vegetation of different grasses and wildflowers anywhere from a couple of feet high to several feet high. As I continued down the trail, I found a fork marked by an unmarked post. Wondering if that could have been the original fork I was looking for, I decided to scope it out and then saw Shoal Falls in the distance, about another mile or so to the north, and much bigger and more grand than I had expected. I continued on that path and came to another fork, pointing me north toward Shoal Falls with left heading out back toward the trailhead. With no place to camp in sight, and realizing I had what I thought were only a few miles left, I made the poor decision to just head back to the car without checking out Shoal Falls. It was at this point in hindsight where camping up at the Gros Ventre River headwaters would have been the much better idea. After admiring some beaver dams and ponds downstream from the falls below the trail, I crossed over the creek and began a rather brutal 700 foot climb up a hill.
After crossing the creek, the trail relentlessly climbs up the side of the hill to the west of Shoal Creek. Views become more plentiful and scenic the higher you climb until the trail finally levels out at a pleasantly shaded grove to rest in.
It was here that I realized I was much lower on water than I had thought and I had completely neglected to check after crossing the creek, now far below. I was feeling dehydrated and as a result, was experiencing the "I just wanna be out" feeling, unfortunately the exact opposite of that morning, and never how I want to be feeling on a trail. Fortunately, it was only another mile and a half to the next creek, mostly a gradual downhill, where I was able to rehydrate and take a much needed rest before the last stretch.
From the top of the hill, the trail begins a gradual descent through meadows, forests, and aspen groves, often providing great views of the peaks to the north. It makes a small dip to pass over a creek before making a small ascent back up. As the trail starts to descend more consistently, it enters into an old forest dense with evergreen trees. In continues this descent through the forest for the next couple of miles, bringing you to a fork to either head back up Swift Creek (just in case you want to try the loop again), or back to the trailhead parking. From there, it’s only .5 miles back to the parking area where the Swift Creek to Shoal Creek Loop is completed.
I also hiked this trail at probably the least scenic time to be hiking it and was still blown away. All the wildflowers and ground vegetation were dried out and dead, but only a fraction of the aspens were beginning to change. To really get the most out of this trail, either hike this in early August when wildflowers are peaking, or in mid-to-late September when the fall colors are peaking, provided you can stay warm enough.
Getting there: From Jackson, take Highway 89 south for about 13 miles to the Hoback Junction where you’ll take a roundabout. Pass the exit for Alpine and take Highway 191 down toward Pinedale. Continue on that road for about 11.4 miles and just before the highway crosses the Hoback River again, you’ll see Granite Creek Road on your left. Take that road and continue on it for about 7.6 miles, which will roughly follow Granite Creek the entire way. Be sure to avoid the road following Little Granite Creek. At 7.6 miles, you’ll come out of some trees and there will be an immediate right turn pointing toward the trailhead, as well as a nearby ranch. Follow that across the creek, and when the road forks, head left and you’ll see the trailhead parking.