I now live, for the summer at least, within the borders of the Grand Teton National Park. Hiking alone in the park is severely discouraged. From the first hour of arrival, signs, posters, other employees, and orientation speeches warn you that to venture into the woods alone is practically the equivalent of offering yourself up as a small, between-meals-snack to a grizzly.
I find it difficult to credit that I am so appealing as a food that a bear would bother to lie in wait for me to venture out alone, but I also know how much trouble I would be in if I allowed any bites to be taken out of my person. All this I offer up to explain why after six weeks living inside a national park, I had only managed one hike. The twelve to thirteen hour days and six to ten day work weeks may also have been a small contributing factor.
But when one of my roommates and I (she works there as a wrangler leading horse back rides, I am a chef) ended up with coinciding days off, we both jumped at the chance to leave the dorms and head off into the hills. After the brief scurry of looking over trail maps, washing ants out of water bottles, lending/borrowing backpacks and stopping to replenish the chapstick supply we managed to find our way to the Hermitage Point trail head by Coulter Bay. I had opted for: shorts for heat management; my High Desert Trail Run shirt to remind me that I had been in hotter, drier, steeper places; and a bright red Shu’s Idaho Running backpack full of important supplies such as Nutella, raisins, and pretzels. The weather had been steadily warming up all day, but there were still some pleasant breezes blowing around the bay.
Feeling well-prepared and confident, when the wide path first forked by the “Jackson Lake Overlook” sign, no debate was necessary, and a 2-0 vote decreed that we should head up hill rather than continuing along the flat. The hill led to a proper hiking path, narrow and twisty with frequent fallen logs across the trail that needed to be climbed or jumped over. It meandered across a dead pine meadow where the bare trees blocked the sunlight in patches and allowed wide swaths of it to fall across spikes of purple lupines.
After dropping down to a lakeshore where several geese swam in an obligingly picturesque manner, the path began to twist in to a degree that seemed almost 180. Since Hermitage Point was supposed to be over four miles distant still, this change of direction was a hint that the upper fork may not have been the correct choice. We had no objections to the sagebrush clearings full of wildflowers, however and when the trail finally completed its loop and dropped us back onto the main path just short of the fork about forty minutes later, we simply shrugged and took the other turning.
When we passed what was probably Heron Lake – signage was not clear on this point and small expanses of still water waited around every other turn – we saw a heron standing in the grasses and startled it into wide-winged flight a couple of times. And once the trail dipped back into the forest, we spotted a doe and fawn. The doe stood obligingly still and close, but the fawn kept turning and traipsing further away, tempting us to softly pad a bit further along the trail in hopes of a bettered view, then back again as it stepped the opposite direction into the trees.
The next time we reached signposts, our intended destination was still several miles distant. Consultation with watches was necessary, as we hoped to return to our dorms in time to eat dinner in the employee dining room. Here the food is of dubious quality but comes in sufficient quantity and is deducted from employee paychecks weekly whether consumed or not. Straight ahead on the trail would only lead us further from the car, but the left hand fork soon turned back toward the bay and promised to take us along the shores of Swan Lake. Even if the route was slightly more circuitous, we should reach the car in time, as long as we kept up a good pace.
Bushes hid our view of the area behind the sign reading “Trumpeter Swan Nesting Area,” but as we continued walking we reached the Swan Lake Overlook path, which led to a magnificent view of the valley, meadows, lakes, and the Tetons rimming it all. It seemed like a good place for photos proving that we had, indeed, been the faces behind the camera during the scenic shots we had been snapping. Then, proof safely stored on memory cards, we trotted back down the hill and into the meadowy section of path that followed.
The trail led us on to a wooden post, dry river bed, and half a bridge - which began in the center of the river bed. A quick gathering and piecing together of the the man-made materials in the immediate vicinity revealed a non-encouraging, large print notice “TRAIL ENDS HERE.” We about-faced and another time check showed that we would have to cover some serious ground in order to keep to our schedule.
We were still resolute, however, and we picked up the pace, keeping more of our breath for oxygen transfers, than chatting, and more of our attention on our footing. This was not the most pleasant time to discover that my water bottle still tasted of soap from the hurried washing, but there was no better way to get fresh water than to forge on. The unmarked forks we continued to encounter had us racking our brains in an attempt to remember every turn we had taken or not taken during the previous two-and-a-half hours.
After only one or two more unintended detours, we came to the conclusion that speed walking was not enough to save our timeline from dead-end trails and weak senses of direction. The drop in pace allowed us to savor the last bits of scenery anew before we slowly walked across the asphalt of the parking lot and gratefully lowered ourselves into the seats of the car. We still don’t know what the scenery at Hermitage Point is like, but if the preface of our well-modified wanderings around Heron and Swam Lakes is any indicator, it must be well worth the four mile hike we didn’t take. Next time, maybe we’ll take a map and find the peninsula. But it’s hard to regret changes in destination when they turn out as nicely as ours did.