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Hiking the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve

Phelps Lake Reflection

Distance: 1.5 – 12 miles

Type: Out and back / Loop

Difficulty: Easy

In 2001, Laurance S. Rockefeller donated his family’s getaway ranch to Grand Teton National Park, ultimately becoming the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve (LSR). Upon its completion, the public now had more access to brand new trails and Phelps Lake, a jewel of a glacial lake found at the mouth of Death Canyon. The park created some excellent trails extending from the Visitor Center at the preserve that offer relaxed strolls through the woods to the lake, as well as trails that are a bit longer and a bit steeper for those wanting a bit more of a challenge but that might be short on time.

The Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Trail System

From the parking area, walk a few hundred yards down the path across an open flat with impressive views of the Teton Mountains to the Visitor Center where you can learn about the history of the preserve and get more information on the area. Whether you’re interested in the history or not, a visit inside is highly recommended. As the trail winds past the Visitor Center, a map on a large kiosk can be found to help guide you on your way. All of the trails in the preserve begin here so regardless of your route, begin hiking from the Visitor Center.

After just a short distance, a small natural, but man-made waterfall spills down a cascade of rocks to entice people to hike further. Just a bit farther up the trail, a small walkway spurs out to Lake Creek at a great vantage point to look up and down the creek. The trail continues another short distance where a fork in the trail is joined by a bridge crossing the creek. The Woodland Trail continues straight ahead, while the Lake Creek Trail crosses the bridge, both of these being the easiest of the two trails in the LSR Preserve, but providing access to the Boulder Ridge Trail and the Aspen Ridge Trail for those wanting to add a bit more distance to their hike.

Chipmunk on Log

Both the Woodland and Lake Creek Trails roughly parallel each other directly to Phelps Lake. The Woodland Trail easily climbs the terminal moraine from the glacier that created both Death Canyon and Phelps Lake, while the Lake Creek Trail travels along the creek, providing a relaxing white noise throughout the hike to (or from) the lake over slightly hillier terrain, but still considered easy hiking. The Woodland Trail explores more of the woodland diversity and scenery found throughout the area and continues very gradually higher where it crosses the Moose-Wilson Road and then later, meanders to a junction where you can either branch off to the Boulder Ridge Trail or cut over to the Lake Creek Trail where you can also access the Aspen Ridge Trail. For those wanting to just get to the lake, continue straight ahead. The trail continues to wiggle through boulders and larger ridges before ultimately reaching Phelps Lake. To make a loop from the Woodland Trail to the Lake Creek Trail, take a left at the junction to head south along the shores of Phelps Lake.

The Lake Creek Trail is found .4 miles from the Woodland Trail and also has an outhouse near the lake for those wanting something more than a tree. During the short .4 mile walk, you pass by a shallower section of the lake, providing a nice example of a wetlands area. Shortly after, Lake Creek begins its journey from Phelps Lake down the moraine and eventually to the Snake River.

Black Bear in Bushes

Once you’ve taken in the views at Phelps Lake, the Lake Creek Trail begins its descent along the creek. Many scenic vantage points of the creek provide a nice break from the trees, as well as a large meadow closer toward the lake. The Lake Creek Trail has a few more ascents and descents along its path, due to the hillier terrain found along it, but it also provides wonderfully different views and vantage points of the creek all along the way. After a bit of hiking, you come to a junction. Left (north) will bring you back to the Woodland Trail if you’d prefer to return that way, while right will bring you to the Aspen Ridge Trail, discussed more below. To head back to the Visitor Center, continue straight.

Shortly after the junction, the trail crosses Moose-Wilson Road, climbs up and down a couple more small ridges, and begins dropping to cross the bridge that reconnects you with the main trail back to the parking area.

For those wanting to add a bit more distance to their experience in the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, start off on the same trails, but consider taking either the Boulder Ridge or Aspen Ridge Trails to access Phelps Lake. Both of these trails explore a bit more of the terrain leftover from the terminal moraine of the glacier that carved out Phelps Lake. The Aspen Ridge Trail is accessible via the Lake Creek Trail at its midway junction, whereas the Boulder Ridge Trail is accessible a similar distance up along the Woodland Trail. Both will extend your mileage and provide you with more diversity found throughout the preserve. The Aspen Ridge Trail in particular offers some great views toward Granite Canyon and the southern Tetons.

Death Canyon and Phelps Lake

All four trails together will add up to about eight miles, but for those wanting even more, you can throw in the Phelps Lake Trail which wraps around Phelps Lake to add even more diversity and discovery to your day. Along the way, you can stop at Huckleberry Point on the south side of the lake for a great view of the area. Prior to making this post, I hiked in the area and started off from the LSR parking area and went up the Aspen Ridge Trail, then did the Phelps Lake Loop to the Boulder Ridge Trail, headed back toward the lake via the Woodland Trail, then came back down the Lake Creek Trail. All of this added up to 11.95 miles from, and back to, the parking area which can be seen on the map below. Many locals overlook the LSR for being too easy, but adding the extra miles is a great way to experience the preserve and Phelps Lake in a more extensive way. If you have all day and want even more adventure, make a side-trip up into Death Canyon for some of the best views from a canyon in Grand Teton National Park.

Those more in tune with how the natural world works will notice two obvious things along the trails:

  1. The forest is very old and looks to be ready for a forest fire to clear out the clutter. Despite what many think, forest fires are an extremely important and helpful process to help create healthier forests by clearing out cluttered undergrowth, nourishing the soil, and thus allowing healthier and more vibrant vegetation to grow. When a forest begins to look like the one in this area, it’s “ripe” for a lightning strike to restart the natural renewal process.
  2. There is a tremendous amount of aspen trees dying. This is due to a lack of predators in this particular area, allowing elk, deer, and moose to browse all summer long on all the younger trees attempting to grow throughout the summer. Especially visible along the Aspen Ridge Trail, you’ll see many older aspens that have already reached the end of their life, while new trees are only about a foot high due to the over-grazing from too many prey species. It’s a shame that we allow a handful of short-sighted individuals to have such disastrous consequences on the natural world.
Dying Aspen Trees

For those wondering, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Trails are still open in the winter! While the LSR Visitor Center and the Moose-Wilson Road are closed, winter recreation is permitted along the Moose-Wilson Road and along the trails themselves. This allows people to park at either end of the Moose-Wilson Road at its closures and snow-shoe or cross-country ski in. On the north end, the closure is at the Death Canyon Trailhead Junction, while at the south end, it’s at the Granite Canyon Trailhead. Either starting point will provide a great day out on the snow, but those not familiar with the area should have a good topographic map as well as map reading skills if you plan to head to Phelps Lake. It can be very easy to get lost if you’re not well familiarized with the terrain.

If you’re a resident, or have flexibility in your travel plans, be sure to maximize your hike by experiencing the following seasonal highlights:

  • Wildlife: Late May to late June
  • Wildflowers: Mid-to-late June
  • Wild Berries: Mid-August
  • Black Bears: Late-August to mid-September
  • Winter Recreation: December to April

Getting There

From downtown Jackson, take Highway 89 north out of town for 12 miles to the Moose Junction and make a left. Follow that road for about .7 miles and take another left onto the Moose-Wilson Road. Continue south on the Moose-Wilson Road for 3.7 miles until you see the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve entrance on your left. Pull in there and follow the short road till it dead ends at the parking area. Alternatively, you can also take the Moose-Wilson Road from Wilson and/or Teton Village and access the LSR from coming into the Moose-Wilson Road from the south.
NOTE: RVs, campers, buses, and trailers of any kind are not permitted on the Moose-Wilson Road inside the park.

Elevation profile for the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve
Elevation and route courtesy of Route Scout

All content © Copyright Mike Cavaroc, Free Roaming Hiker & Free Roaming Photography