Backpacking to Surprise, Amphitheater, and Delta Lakes in Grand Teton National Park
Surprise, Amphitheater, and Delta Lakes are three beautiful alpine lakes nestled high in the Teton range. The hike to all three begins at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead and while it is possible to hit each of the trio of lakes in one day that would be a long and tiring day. Not wanting to cut our time at any of the lakes short I reserved Alex and myself a backcountry camping spot at Surprise Lake (online reservations available HERE). There are only three permits available so if you know you want to spend a night at Surprise it is best to book right away.
Date Visited: 7/2/16 - 7/3/16
Distance: 11.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 2,980 feet
Trailhead: Lupine Meadows Trailhead
There is plenty of parking at the Lupine Meadows Trailhead but on weekends and nice days it will fill up quickly so it is best to arrive as early as possible. The trail starts relatively level before quickly beginning to ascend and once the ascent starts, it doesn't stop, so be prepared for a strenuous uphill slog. At around two-thirds of a mile the trees will break and you will be graced with your first view of The Grand from the trail. These views will continue intermittently as the trail rises. At 1.7 miles you will reach the Valley Trail junction where a left at the fork would take you to Bradley and Taggart Lakes and continuing straight will lead you to Surprise Lake. Head straight! From the junction the trail follows a few long, sweeping switchbacks. These switchbacks are entirely exposed so be sure to carry plenty of water and wear sun protection (I got a nasty burn on this portion of the hike). The views of Jackson Hole and Bradley and Taggart Lakes on this section are also stunning. We stopped often to snap photos and enjoy the view.
From here the trail rises via 18 switchbacks. When we hiked the trail a fellow hiker placed stones after each switchback so we could countdown to 18, although those pebbles are probably long gone by now. After the sixth switchback you can see a small, but well-worn social trail branching off. This trail leads 0.5 miles to Delta Lake. Alex and I made a note of which switchback the trail branched off of so we could easily find it the next morning. From here we continued up towards Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes. This portion of the hike is seemingly unending. The hike ends at around 10,000' and the almost 3,000' elevation gain really began to wear on me as I proceeded up the trail. I needed multiple breaks to deal with both the elevation and heat. At about 4.8 miles you will reach a sign that directs you along a short side trail to Surprise Lake. The campsites are located uphill to the right of the trail. The Surprise Lake backcountry site has its own bear box so immediately after Alex and I arrived we stashed our food and scented items in the bear box and set up camp in the second site. Then we headed back to Surprise Lake to explore.
Surprise Lake is a tiny alpine lake. It is so small that it barely registers on the park maps but what it lacks in size it makes up for in scenery. The lake offers one of the most outstanding views of the 13,770' Grand Teton from its southeastern shore. The water of the lake is also crystal clear and in early July it was the perfect temperature for jumping in after a long, hot hike. The water was cold, but not so much that I couldn't wade around a little after jumping in.
Alex and I spent the better portion of the afternoon just sitting on the shores of Surprise Lake and enjoying the view. A couple groups came and went while we were there but for the most part we had the lake to ourselves, which was incredible.
It is only a short quarter mile hike from Surprise Lake to Amphitheater Lake. We visited Amphitheater Lake for a sunset dinner. Once again we had the entire lake to ourselves. The day hikers had left and it was looking like we wouldn't have any company at either of the other two backcountry sites. It's always a little unnerving to know you are entirely alone in the woods, 5 miles from the nearest road, but it also is exciting and adds to the sense of adventure. During dinner we were visited by a mule deer. We were eating mac n' cheese when, about 20' down the shore from us, a deer popped out of the trees for a snack. I was taken by surprise when he started walking towards us but after a few steps he headed in the other direction. This was only the beginning of the wildlife encounters I was about to have on this trip... After the sunset we retired to our tent for the evening.
Alex and I had planned on taking night photos but as we were lying in the tent in the early evening we heard some huffing and the sound of twigs cracking under a heavy weight. Alex sat bolt upright in the tent bear spray in hand, safety off, finger on the trigger. We sat in complete silence as the large animal(s) walked around the woods near our campsite. Finally, I had built up enough courage to peak my head out the tent. I unzipped the fly and squeezed my head through an impossibly small hole and peered into the twilight. About 40' away were two deer, Alex and I both breathed a sigh of relief and nervously laughed. We heard similar noises throughout the night and each time we attributed the sound to a passing deer and nothing more, because we didn't want to even think of the alternative. It seemed night photography was off. But then, at 3am, Alex and I were both awake and agreed we would regret not trying some night photography when we were so close to such a picturesque location. We loaded up our gear, I readied my bear bell and Alex unsheathed the bear spray and we headed a quarter mile uphill to the shores of Amphitheater Lake. By the time we arrived true darkness was almost over. We were able to take a few photos before dawn began. Not wanting to miss any of the changing light we stayed through sunrise and then headed back to Surprise Lake for some more early morning photos.
Once sunrise was over we packed up our gear and began the hike back down at 7am. It took less than an hour to arrive at the social trail that leads to Delta Lake. While Delta Lake was my favorite of the three lakes we visited on this hike, it is also the trickiest to reach because the trail is unmaintained. There is a worn-in social trail created by people hiking it over and over but it is not maintained by the park service. The trail has a number of cairns and is relatively easy to follow but involves crossing two large boulder fields and climbing at a crazy incline. It is only about a half mile from the main trail to Delta Lake but it took us almost an hour to hike. The going was especially rough because we still had our overnight backpacks on, so we not only had to haul ourselves up the trail but we also had to haul our 30lb. bags up it as well. There were moments I said "let's just turn around", but we pushed on and I'm so thankful we did because after some strenuous hiking we found ourselves at the shore of my favorite lake to date.
Delta Lake sits directly below The Grand and is the most vibrant aquamarine color. Our early arrival time meant that the day hikers that would be arriving on the shores later still had quite a bit of climbing to do before they would be joining us. We had the lake to ourselves for at least an hour before anyone else showed up. We sat on the rocks and just soaked in the view, I took another glacial dip, and we drank the last of our water, and ate the last of our food.
Finally, we decided to peel ourselves away from the view of the alpine lake and begin the difficult hike back down. We ran out of water thanks to my guzzling it on the hike up the previous day and we didn't want to be subjected to more hours under the blazing noon sun. Despite these efforts we didn't reach the parking lot until 1pm, over 24 hours after we set out the previous day. We were parched, burned, and yet elated.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Special Notes: This is bear country! Black and grizzly bears call the Teton range home and you should be well prepared in case you encounter one on any hike you take in the area. Carry bear spray (and know how to use it!) and be loud as you hike.
Required Permits: In order to stay overnight you will need a backcountry permit. These are available for advance reservation online HERE or you can stop by the Jenny Lake Ranger Station not more than one day before your trip to pick up one of their first-come first-serve campsites (two-thirds of their campsites are set aside for this purpose).
Trailhead: Lupine Meadows Trailhead
Gear to Pack:
- The 10 Essentials
- Sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent
- Bear spray
- Insect repellent
- Camera gear
- Trekking poles
- Water filter
See more photos from Grand Teton National Park HERE!