Jackson Hole: Water Playground
For views, hardy exercise and good old-fashioned "beachside" relaxation, Jackson Hole's offerings run deep. Winter snows are long gone by July and August, but the many lakes, rivers and streams fed by snowmelt—including the Snake River watershed—offer a bounty of ways to fend off the heat while enhancing the already fantastic views.
Time for H2O
Though Jackson Hole is world-famous for epic ski terrain and the "Cowboy powder" that falls from the sky each winter, the area gets quite hot and arid during the summer months. The alpine desert climate would be downright hostile were it not for a serpentine waterway churning through the Hole.
Born in the trickles of melting snow high in the Teton Wilderness, the Snake River is America's 10th-longest river, running roughly 1,000 miles from its origins in the Wyoming high country to its confluence with the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington.
The Snake's whispering riffles and roaring rapids provide a haven for wildlife and recreation and the 69 miles that wind through Jackson Hole comprise one of the most scenic and pristine stretches of river in America. Close to 300,000 folks float, fish, and paddle the Snake each summer.
Floating on the Snake River can begin at the northern end of Grand Teton National Park, just below Jackson Lake. From here, there are more than 70 navigable river miles, offering something for everyone. The first 60-plus miles consist of swift yet smooth water and one fun, eight-mile whitewater stretch for the finale. Not many rivers flow from a valley to a canyon and head north on the continent before merging with an ocean—yet another testament to the uniqueness of Wyoming's Snake River.
Barker-Ewing Whitewater "Ten of the most beautiful miles of river in the world," and that's why we run our float trips only inside Grand Teton National Park. For more than 50 years, Barker-Ewing (barker-ewing.com) has provided scenic and wildlife viewing opportunities that are unique to this portion of the Snake River, now recognized by special designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Come join us on an experience that will be a highlight of your visit to Jackson Hole.
307-733-1000 | 945 W Broadway, Jackson
Rafting the Snake
For a first-time visitor, the best way to experience the river's grandeur is to take a guided float trip. There are three main stretches of water where Jackson Hole's commercial operators run trips: Grand Teton National Park, South Park and the Snake River Canyon.
The first two are used for scenic tours and fishing trips that are usually 10 or 13 miles in length and last about three to four hours. Further south, the Snake River Canyon is home to a popular eight-mile stretch of whitewater that takes an outfitted trip around four hours to float.
Beneath the Tetons
In the park, the Tetons tower above the river, only a couple of miles from the islands and gravel bars that send the calm Snake meandering through braided channels. This spectacular panorama is sure to coax many a photograph, particularly during the early morning when the light is brightest on the east-facing peaks. The river corridor is rich with wildlife, too: Bald eagles, moose, mule deer, elk and white pelicans are often spotted near the water, with beavers sometimes making an appearance around dusk. Otters and bears offer rare, magical sightings.
In South Park, the river flows mostly through ranch land and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Float outfitters run 13-mile trips from the Wilson Bridge to the South Park Bridge that generally feature a lunch or dinner stop. This stretch provides a different feel from both the Grand Teton and canyon sections, with long views of the Teton, Gros Ventre and Snake River ranges, as well as an abundance of birds including pelicans and bald eagle nesting sites.
Thrills and Chills in Snake River Canyon
For those thirsty for whitewater, the party is in the canyon, where a narrower channel, steeper gradient and a series of rock ledges produce Class II and III rapids. The spring runoff makes features such as Lunch Counter and Cottonwood rapids fearsome; Big Kahuna and Rope rear their frothy heads later in the summer when the river settles into a sparkling emerald. With the water temperature rarely above 60 degrees, each splash is especially exhilarating.
RELATED STORY: Jackson Hole Whitewater Rafting: The Essentials
Those looking to paddle their own boat can rent rafts, canoes and inflatable "duckies." The best stretches on the Snake for canoeists and novice boaters are from the Jackson Lake Dam to Pacific Creek—where the placid river glides through the wildlife paradise of the Oxbow Bend—and South Park to Astoria, where the current is faster but only one minor rapid, King's Wave, challenges paddlers to stay upright.
For the experienced whitewater paddler or those looking to learn more, the kayaking in and around Jackson Hole is top-notch. Though the season is relatively short, there is plenty of challenging paddling to be had. Check in with one of the knowledgeable whitewater outfits, such as Leisure Sports or Rendezvous River Sports, for timely local tips on paddle-friendly sections of the Hoback, Greys and Gros Ventre rivers
Beyond the Snake
The Snake River isn't the only aquatic oasis in Jackson Hole. Boaters also have a variety of excursions to choose from on Jenny, Jackson, String and Leigh lakes. There is a quick shuttle to ferry hikers and sightseers across Jenny Lake to Hidden Falls, and the Grand Teton Lodge Company offers tours (with and without meals) whisking boaters across the vast expanses of Jackson Lake to spots such as Elk Island in the shadow of Mount Moran. Motorboating is allowed on Jackson Lake, where one will find cruisers intermingling with water skiers and wakeboarders. Though sailing is also popular on Jackson Lake, it is often made especially challenging by quickly changing conditions and mountain weather.
The many waterways of Jackson Hole and Yellowstone are fast becoming attractions for paddlers of the touring family. Canoeists and sea kayakers will find solitude plying waters including String and Leigh lakes in Grand Teton National Park, Slide Lake in the Gros Ventre River valley and the lakes of Yellowstone, such as Lewis, Shoshone and Yellowstone. Boats are available for rent from several outfitters, some of which also offer multi-day touring packages.
There is something magical about every trip on the water in Jackson Hole. The Oglala Sioux writer Zitkala-Sa said the Great Spirit could be heard in the "rippling of the mighty waters." Anyone who has taken a trip on the Snake River or spent a day on an area lake will agree.