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Lake of the Crags

Posted by Jim Steele on November 11th, 2008 filed in Grand Teton National Park

I had some friends in town earlier this summer that wanted to get a good taste of what the Tetons are all about, so I took them up to the Lake of the Crags. I had hiked up to Lake of the Crags earlier this year and am convinced that it might just be the best half-day hike in the park. Lake of the Crags sits at the end of Hanging Canyon above Jenny Lake, and the walls of the canyon seem to rise directly from the pristine waters of the lake. We all agreed that the setting was simply stunning.

Lake of the Crags, photographed by David Phelps

That said, this is a really tough hike. From the west Jenny Lake boat dock, it’s only about three miles to the Lake of the Crags, but you’ll be gaining almost 3,000 vertical feet and the entire hike is uphill.

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But what an amazing hike it is – there is no doubt that the stunning Hanging Canyon is worth all of the pain and agony necessary to get there. In the Hanging Canyon you will see a series of three lakes, with the final one, Lake of the Crags, tucked near the end of the rugged canyon with jagged peaks, including Rock of Ages and The Jaw, rising above the shores on three sides and a cool view toward the Gros Ventres to the east. In his book “Day Hiking Grand Teton National Park,” Tom Carter writes “Many believe it to be the most picturesque spot in all of Grand Teton National Park.”

The view looking down onto Ramshead Lake and into Jackson Hole from just below Lake of the Crags. Photographed August 30, 2008.

One important note: The Hanging Canyon trail is not officially maintained. This doesn’t mean that you can’t venture into the area, but it does mean that there are no signs along the way, including at the trailhead, and that the trail becomes somewhat ambiguous as you get near the mouth of the Hanging Canyon. However, if you are familiar with the Jenny Lake area, it will be fairly obvious where you’re going. And once you get into Hanging Canyon, there is only one direction to go. I wouldn’t make this your first adventure ever in Grand Teton National Park, but if you’re comfortable on a trail like Paintbrush Divide, you can handle this hike. Just be careful – the trail is steep, the footing isn’t that great in places, you cross some boulder fields, and snow lingers in this area well into the summer. The difficulty of the trail, of course, also means that you won’t be sharing the lakes with too many other people.

To get to the trailhead, make your way in the direction of the West Jenny Lake boat dock, either by hiking north around Jenny Lake from the south Jenny Lake area (about two miles), by riding the Jenny Lake Boating shuttle across Jenny Lake (be sure to check the schedule if you’re planning on riding it back), or by hiking south from the String Lake area.

From the west Jenny Lake boat dock, follow the signs to the trail that leads north to String Lake – unless you want to detour to Hidden Falls or Inspiration Point first. From the boat dock, it’s about a 10 minute hike along the Jenny Lake shoreline to the unmarked junction with the Hanging Canyon trail. You will pass a junction with the Cascade Canyon horse bypass trail. Between the boat dock and the Hanging Canyon trail, you’ll pass a series of approximately five small bridges. After the fifth one, you’ll see a trail heading west. It’s not as well defined as the Jenny Lake trail but is defined enough that you won’t have to bushwhack; a ring of rocks marks the junction. This is where the fun begins. I should note that I said “approximately” five small bridges because some work has been done on this trail system fairly recently and more bridges could have been added. The trail will be reasonably obvious.

From here, you start the climb into Hanging Canyon. The distance from Jenny Lake to Lake of the Crags isn’t that far at all – less than two miles as the crow flies. But it’s a steep trail with some switchbacking, so plan on a couple of hours. As you climb, you’ll pass Ribbon Cascade and follow a creek to your left. You’ll also soak in some really cool views of the Cathedral Group of the Tetons, including the Grand. Jenny Lake rises expansively behind you, with Timbered Island looking like a small bump, Blacktail Butte looking like a slightly larger bump and the Gros Ventres rising beyond. Jackson Lake spreads out to the north. This is wildflower country and depending on your timing, you could be treated to a plethora of colors.

A view of the Tetons from near the Lake of the Crags trailhead. Photographed August 30, 2008.

The trail remains fairly easy to follow for most of the hike. Mountain climbers along with hikers have gradually defined the route. However, once you get into the Hanging Canyon, the route gets somewhat harder to follow. That said, it is plenty obvious where you’re going. For best results, stay closer to the creek instead of climbing closer to the canyon walls when you have the choice.

The shadow of the Tetons falls on Jenny Lake from the Lake of the Crags trail on July 13, 2008.

The first lake you’ll see is Arrowhead Pool; it lies near the mouth of the canyon. The trail, such as it is, doesn’t take you right to the shores of this lake, and you’re really not missing much. This pool is much smaller than the other two lakes and really isn’t that noteworthy. Keep proceeding into the canyon; better scenes await.

An enormous snowcave formed by water flowing near the mouth of Hanging Canyon. The snowcave was tall enough to stand in. Photographed by David Phelps on August 30, 2008.

After a few hundred feet of elevation gain, you’ll come to Ramshead Lake. This is where the hike starts to get really worthwhile. The circular Ramshead Lake is beautiful, with the severe walls of Hanging Canyon rising above it and pristine waters drawing you in. There are some backcountry campsites in Hanging Canyon, including some near Ramshead Lake and a small area near Lake of the Crags. Although I’ve never camped there, I’m sure it’s a truly inspiring place to spend the night.

The view into Hanging Canyon from Ramshead Lake. Lake of the Crags lies just above the rock field above Ramshead Lake. Photographed August 30, 2008.

It’s just a short hop over a boulder field to Lake of the Crags. As you climb the boulder field, look behind you for a really cool view, with the walls of the canyon towering above Ramshead Lake and an expansive view of Jackson Hole below.

And in just a minute, you’ll get another awesome view: Lake of the Crags itself. The long, narrow cirque, at 9,565 feet above sea level, is tucked into the back of Hanging Canyon. It’s one of the most beautiful settings I’ve seen in Grand Teton National Park. The walls of the canyon rise steeply above the shores on three sides, with Rock of Ages rising prominently above the western shores, The Jaw a little further up the canyon and Mt. St. John to the north. You’ll want to jump in for a swim – although the waters are ice cold. There was still some snow lingering in the area at the end of August 2008. Bring some binoculars and a snack – these shores are a great place to take in the grandeur of the Teton Range. The area is rocky enough that there isn’t much vegetation but in this case, that enhances the beauty, rather than detracts from it. The sight of the jagged mountains rising above the pristine waters is one you won’t soon forget.

Lake of the Crags remains frozen on July 13, 2008.

Lake of the Crags winds through Hanging Canyon. Photographed August 30, 2008.

You come in at the east shore of the Lake of the Crags. It’s possible to hike further along the shores into Hanging Canyon, although I never have, and it is also possible to scramble into the mountains above Lake of the Crags. Otherwise, retrace your steps to get home.

I did this hike in early July this year and encountered considerable snow once I got into Hanging Canyon. Even in late August there was still some snow. An ice axe would be a must early in the season and I would guess this trail becomes inaccessible sometime in September. It’s too late to hike to Lake of the Crags this year, but put it high on your list for Summer 2009. This was one of my favorite hikes of the year.

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