Jackson, WY: Shoal Falls Loop, Gros Ventre Wilderness

Escape the Tetons and Yellowstone crowds on this 18.9-mile loop, connecting Swift and Shoal Creek drainages in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.
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Escape the Tetons and Yellowstone crowds on this 18.9-mile loop, connecting Swift and Shoal Creek drainages in the Gros Ventre Wilderness.

Haven’t heard of the Gros Ventre? Neither have most people outside of Teton County. It draws a fraction of the hikers that the nearby Wind River and Teton Ranges do, and get this: The alpine lakes are every bit as stunning as those in the Winds; the wildlife is just as active and diverse as in Yellowstone; the ruggedly vertical high country is reminiscent of the Tetons; and the wildflower displays are the best I’ve seen in three summers of working as a USFS backcountry ranger in western Wyoming. The Reader Leader contest provided the opportunity to piece together the best weekend-size route within it, an 18.9-mile loop connecting the verdant Swift and Shoal Creek drainages.

Start at the Swift Creek trailhead, and hike through meadows to two intersections—take a right at the first and a left at the second to access the Shoal Lake Trail. From there, switchback 2.2 miles on the southwest flank of Peak 11,095. Cross Jack Pine Creek at mile 3.2, then walk through meadows blooming with lupine, larkspur, and sunflowers (in August), before ascending 500 feet to Deer Ridge with a balcony view of 11,404-foot Palmer Peak. Descend and reach an unsigned trail junction at mile 6.3 (go left). As Shoal Creek comes into view, an unmarked use trail to the left brings you to a nice campsite on its banks. Hear a muffled roar? That’s Shoal Falls. Walk up-creek to the base of the cascades, tucked into limestone cliffs, to reach the hidden 60-foot falls.

Next day, ford Shoal Creek (spicy in early summer) and reach a signed junction in .1 mile; head left to reach Shoal Lake in four miles, navigating a fading trail between miles eight and 10 (best bet: follow the path of least resistance upslope). Monster Snake River cutthroat trout thrive here (they crowd the lake’s outlet), and Indian paintbrush and bluebells color the bank with streaks of crimson and violet. If you’re not pressed for time, spend a few nights here to fish (pack hoppers) and sidehike to Brewster Lake at 10,000 feet.

To continue the route, climb out of the drainage (sheep, mule deer, and elk are abundant here in summer) and follow cairns across the tundra until you hit Trail 081. Take a left. From here, good signage leads you to the Swift Creek drainage (with Tetons views to the northwest), and a 5.5-mile descent to your car. Posthike bonus: Granite Hot Springs is just 1.5 miles north of the trailhead. You can soak off the miles in a clear pool built by a Civilian Conservation Corps crew in the 1930s.

Map Gro Ventre Wilderness Map ($12, see contact)

Contact (307) 739-5500; fs.fed.us/btnf

-Text and mapping by Paul Chisholm

Trail Facts

  • Distance: 30.1

Waypoints

SHL001

Location: 43.349189, -110.437048

Start the hike at the Swift Creek trailhead.

SHL002

Location: 43.35038, -110.428829

Take the trail that forks to the right, following the arrow on the sign saying "Shoal Falls".

SHL003

Location: 43.348088, -110.430272

A broken sign marks a trail junction. Take a left, following the arrow for "Shoal Lake Trail Junction".

SHL004

Location: 43.340099, -110.411021

The trail passes through intermittent meadows with views of the high Gros Ventre peaks.

SHL005

Location: 43.330199, -110.389953

Cross West Shoal Creek.

SHL006

Location: 43.330557, -110.364787

Crest Deer Ridge, then descend the other side.

SHL007

Location: 43.331862, -110.358219

An old, leaning Gros Ventre Wilderness boundary sign marks your entrance into the wilderness.

SHL008

Location: 43.331349, -110.356404

Unsigned intersection: Stay to the left.

SHL009

Location: 43.333985, -110.353981

A user trail to the left leads to a nice campsite near Shoal Creek.

SHL010

Location: 43.333813, -110.352999

Cross Shoal Creek.

SHL011

Location: 43.333125, -110.3524

Signed intersection: Stay to the left, following the arrow for "Shoal Lake".

SHL012

Location: 43.344792, -110.34413

Cross Shoal Creek above the falls.

SHL013

Location: 43.362011, -110.357526

Cross a small stream.

SHL014

Location: 43.364042, -110.35855

Cross Shoal Creek.

SHL015

Location: 43.369993, -110.360498

Cross Shoal Creek.

SHL016

Location: 43.37514, -110.362886

The trail reaches the eastern shores of Shoal Lake and the outlet creek; continue north.

SHL017

Location: 43.382891, -110.361099

Continue hiking north at the pass connecting the Shoal Creek and Gros Ventre drainages.

SHL018

Location: 43.395225, -110.377364

When you hit a discernible trail, turn left, heading west.

SHL019

Location: 43.394948, -110.382257

At the signed intersection, follow the arrow for Crystal Creek.

SHL020

Location: 43.394988, -110.386114

Take the left fork at the signed intersection, heading toward the Swift Creek drainage.

SHL021

Location: 43.393069, -110.398225

Crest a pass between Swift Creek and Crystal Creek drainages.

SHL022

Location: 43.358021, -110.413773

Cross Swift Creek.

SHL023

Location: 43.351623, -110.428114

A sign pointing to the left says "Shoal Falls"; take the right fork, which leads back to the trailhead.

A meadow in the Shoal Creek Drainage

Location: 43.36993, -110.360155

Meadow beneath Shoal Peak

Location: 43.340107, -110.410827

High Meadow

Location: 43.340196, -110.410087

Chipmunk

Location: 43.33729, -110.400195

A chipmunk munches on a sunflower.

A meadow near the top of Deer Ridge

Location: 43.33061, -110.369468

Campsite by Shoal Creek

Location: 43.334012, -110.353782

Shoal Falls

Location: 43.338944, -110.34977

Palmer Peak in Shoal Creek Valley

Location: 43.351397, -110.348225

Trout in Shoal Lake

Location: 43.375358, -110.363803

You may spot Snake River cutthroat trout in Shoal Lake.

Shoal Lake

Location: 43.376169, -110.36302

Shoal Lake

Location: 43.37698, -110.363417

Shoal Lake

Location: 43.377978, -110.36391

High Alpine Pond

Location: 43.380131, -110.362151

Corner Peak towers over an alpine pond.

Wildflowers below Black Peak

Location: 43.389924, -110.366936

Wildflowers grow in the alpine tundra below Black Peak.

Wildflowers

Location: 43.39086, -110.369811

Indian paintbrush and other wildflowers grow on the high Gros Ventre tundra.

Trail Sign

Location: 43.39496, -110.382171

Trail sign above treeline

Ramparts of Black Peak

Location: 43.394574, -110.384252

West slopes of Black Peak

Gros Ventre High Country

Location: 43.324179, -110.443497

The view from the road that leads to the trailhead.