Jackson Hole, with its expansive evergreen forests, isn’t known as a top destination for fall colors. But for those who appreciate quality over quantity—aspens glowing gold above the irrigated, green pastures of a ranch with the Tetons in the distance—the valley might be one of the best places in the country to catch the season’s changing colors … if you know where to go. An added benefit of leaf-peeping here? Some spots are best visited by car, others via great hikes. You can take a scenic chairlift or boat ride to others, or even stand-up paddleboard. Here’s where we take our friends and family lucky enough to visit in the fall.
A couple of miles north of the tiny community, Kelly, which is entirely surrounded by Grand Teton National Park, Gros Ventre Road heads east off Antelope Flats Road and deep into the mountain range it is named for. The road is paved for several miles before it becomes gravel. There are some washboarded sections of road, but any passenger car can make it the sixish miles to an overlook and interpretive site for the 1925 Gros Ventre Slide, which is one of the largest recorded land movements in U.S. history. While the nearly 100 year-old scar from the slide on the lower flank of Sheep Mountain is impressive, that’s not what you’ve driven here to see. Yes, you’ll want to take time viewing the slide site, but once you’ve had your fill, turn around and drive back towards Antelope Flats and Kelly. This section of the Gros Ventre Road is lined with aspen trees that perfectly frame the snaggly Cathedral Group of the Tetons rising in the distance.
It’s understandable to think that if you hike or ride the scenic chair up Snow King Mountain, five blocks south of the Town Square, you’re doing it for the expansive views of the National Elk Refuge and the mountain ranges that surround the valley. Sure, the Tetons (to the north), the Gros Ventres (to the east and north), and the Snake River Range (to the southwest) are beautiful from “the King’s” 7,808-foot summit, which has almost 360-degree views. But in the autumn, a golden aspen grove on the western side of its summit is the prettiest thing to see. The distant mountains are merely a bonus.
One of the most beautiful autumn drives in the valley is on Fall Creek Road, a rural byway at the base of Teton Pass that heads south from Wilson. (Although most of the road is devoid of shoulders, it offers a beautiful bike ride; Fall Creek Road doesn’t get much traffic.) You can do this as a 20-ish mile out-and-back drive/ride starting and finishing in Wilson, or as a 40-mile loop beginning and ending in the Town of Jackson. Fall Creek Road, itself, is about 17 miles long, and its most intense colors can be witnessed where it passes through stands of cottonwoods of the Snake River bottoms, about eight miles south of Wilson, as well as where it winds its way around Munger Mountain, which might have the valley’s highest density of aspen trees. If you want to drive to Munger, about 11 miles south of Wilson, and then turn around, you’ll see an abundance of vibrant color. You can also take Fall Creek Road about six miles past Munger Mountain to its junction with U.S. Highway 26/89/191. This intersection is several miles south of Hoback Junction; to return to Jackson from here, it’s about 13 miles. For about half of the return to Jackson, the road parallels the Snake River and meanders through additional cottonwood forests.
If you fancy the chance of wildlife sightings along with fall colors, consider floating the Snake River from Wilson to South Park. This is a scenic stretch of river, and it does not have any whitewater. (Although debris in the river and channels can make navigation difficult for those unfamiliar with the area; several Jackson Hole outfitters offer guided trips here.) From the launch at the bridge across the Snake River near Highway 22’s junction with Highway 390 (aka Teton Village Road), the riverbanks are lined with giant cottonwood trees, and the parade of color continues all the way to South Park, where you’ll take out. In addition to admiring the cottonwood’s colors on this float, keep your eyes peeled for Bald Eagles. There are several nests along this stretch of the river.
You can hike the two-ish miles from South Jenny Lake to the lake’s western shore on a newly rebuilt trail or take a ten-minute passenger ferry between the two points. While South Jenny Lake is the most visited spot in Grand Teton National Park and has an abundance of amenities like a ranger station, convenience store, bathrooms, interpretive signs, benches and tables, and a small museum, the lake’s western shore is wild. Aside from a small pier where the ferries dock, the only amenity you’ll find on the west shore is a trail system, which features an ancient dry stone masonry technique that is almost as interesting as the surrounding forest. While both hiking and the ferry ride to the west shore show off fall color, our favorite autumn, Jenny Lake experience is to park at the small boat launch on the lake’s southern end, carry our stand-up paddleboards the 100 feet to the lake, and paddle along the western shore. Almost every time we’ve done this, in addition to witnessing changing colors, we’ve seen moose. (Fair warning: We always do this it early in the morning; even though temperatures can be in the 30s, we find the chill a worthy trade-off to have the lake to ourselves). Know that any watercraft in Grand Teton National Park must have a permit, which is available at the Moose Visitor Center.
The, most easily accessible and family-friendly fall colors in Jackson Hole may be found at Rendezvous Park (also known as R Park). On the Snake River near the intersection of Highways 390 and 22, R Park is a 40-acre natural playground and community gathering space with thriving wildlife habitat, ponds, meadows, and knolls. The park opened to the public in 2014 after three years of reclamation. (The area was formerly a gravel pit.) There are colorful cottonwoods and aspens along the river and around a central pond. You can drive to R Park or use the valley’s extensive pathway system to get there. The pathway that links the Town of Jackson with Wilson and Teton Village passes right through the park.
Grand Teton National Park’s best-kept secret might be the Bar BC Ranch, which was founded in 1912 as the valley’s second dude ranch, decades before the Park, as it is known today, was founded. The Bar BC welcomed dudes until the early 1940s, and today it has colorful stands of cottonwoods everyone can enjoy. The ranch and its guest cabins are tucked on a bench above the Snake River, near Moose. In 1987, when the last surviving family member of the ranch’s founders died, the Bar BC was incorporated into the park that had come to surround it. In 1990, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. For the past two summers, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, the Western Center for Historic Preservation, and Grand Teton National Park have been conducting preservation work on two of Bar BC’s most important cabins. Take a picnic lunch or dinner, wander the cottonwood-lined banks of the nearby Snake River, and enjoy the newly conserved cabins.