We’ve heard friends up in Anchorage call it 'termination dust.' 'It' being the first snow in the mountains that seems like it will stick around. 'Termination dust' because it ends the year’s main hiking, running, and climbing opportunities. You might be able to do these after the first termination dust flies, but it won’t be without significant added effort.
We don’t usually count on September snow sticking around. But when the high peaks get snow in October, it’s highly possible that will be the termination dust.
But even when the termination dust flies, there are still lower-altitude adventures to be had... but you better hurry. The Grand Teton National Park’s road closures start November 1, and the USFS and Game & Fish have winter wildlife habitat closures which start December 1. Both of these happen regardless of snow levels. Here are 5 low elevation hikes to experience before it's too late:
1. Soak in Yellowstone
October is our favorite time of year to hit Yellowstone’s Dunanda Falls and the natural hot springs pool 100-feet from its thundering base. Yes, you could end up hiking the 9-miles (one-way) in a cold rain shower as we did last year, but that just makes the hot pool feel even better. Also, the Bechler Meadows, which the trail traverses, are so boggy, your feet will get soaked anyway. What does it matter if the rest of you is also wet? As far as scenery, we think the beginning of the trail, along the Bechler River , is prettiest when the trees along its banks are clinging to the last of their yellow leaves. Horace Albright, the first superintendent of the park, named this remote and rarely-visited area of Yellowstone, “Cascade Corner.” Modern day visitors are as likely to also call it “Grizzly Corner.” In the late fall especially, as these giants are stocking up on last-minute calories to get them through the winter, it’s important to follow the recommendations for traveling in bear country—make noise, don’t hike alone, don’t run if you do encounter one—and carry bear spray.
2. Flat and Furious
Running up the north and south sides of Cache Creek Canyon, Hagan (south) and Putt Putt (north) trails are open year-round. Between that and the fact they’re wonderfully rolling—as opposed to the super steep trails typical of most other Jackson Hole hikes—and within an elk’s bugle of downtown, it’s no wonder they’re among the valley’s most popular trails with locals. Both trails connect to the main dirt road (closed to cars) running alongside the creek at several points, allowing you to create a near-endless combination of loops and distances. Once the termination dust is replaced by full snow and even the valley floor is buried, the lower sections of Hagen and Putt Putt usually get enough foot traffic to stay hike-able and run-able—and sometimes even bike-able with a fat bike--through the winter.
3. Get your Elk On
One of our all-time favorite experiences in Grand Teton National Park happened during October around String Lake . Hiking the four-(ish)-mile loop around this long, skinny lake linking Jenny Lake with Leigh Lake, a herd of nine elk ran in the shallow water along the southern side of String. We watched—snapping as many photos as we could—from the trail on the lake’s northern side. Water was flying everywhere and the lake clearly reflected the lodgepole pines behind the elk. You can’t imagine the noise. The whole thing was truly awe inspiring. We’ve since returned to this trail several times hoping to re-witness an elk stampede, but, so far, our efforts have been fruitless. Still, it’s always a relaxing and mellow hike or run. If you come in the morning or evening, chances are you will be able to hear elk bugling. Once the Inner Park Loop road closes to cars on Nov. 1, you can no longer easily access the String Lake Trailhead.
4. No Need to Hurry to Here
The trails to sister Taggart and Bradley lakes start right at the point Grand Teton National Park closes the Inner Park Loop Road on November 1. So they are accessible year-round—they’re great cross-country or snowshoeing destinations in winter—but we do love them best this month before they get busy with skiers. (Many of the backcountry skiers in GTNP start from this trailhead.) If you can make it here before the last leaves fall off the aspens lining the several creeks, glacial moraines, and lakes, all the better. If you want one of the most scenic runs on pavement in the world, from this parking lot, you can also pick up the multi-use pathway that extends to Jenny Lake.
5. In-Town Super Workout
We’ve never been shy about our preference for Crystal Butte over Snow King. On the other side of the Cache Creek drainage from the King, Crystal Butte gets only a fraction of the traffic Snow King does, is higher than Snow King, and most of it is in the Gros Ventre Wilderness. The only reason we’d suggest the King over Crystal is if you can’t or prefer not to descend steep trails. Crystal Butte is steep. Of course, that’s what makes it such a great workout. We’ve seen a couple of people jogging up this trail, but we’ve never seen them continue all the way to the top. Whether walking of jogging—because it’s in a wilderness area, mountain biking is not allowed—be aware that sage grouse often lurk behind trees and small boulders on the top ridge. More times than we’re willing to admit, we’ve been startled by an explosive ruckus caused by something unseen and prepared our bear spray (imagining not a bear, but an angry moose) only to find it all coming from a single sage grouse.
If you can't make it to these trails in time, there's still plenty of adventure to be had in Jackson Hole throughout the year. We'll see you out there!