Grand Teton National Park in northwestern Wyoming is a dramatic landscape of sheer mountains that rise steeply from a valley floor without intervening foothills. At the base of these breathtaking spires, lakes and meadows provide wildlife habitat and scenic recreational opportunities. Many relatively flat hikes, some with excellent views of the Teton Range and Jackson Lake, begin at Colter Bay Village, including a 3-mile loop to Swan Lake and Heron Pond.
The Colter Bay Area
Colter Bay is a small bay on the eastern side of Jackson Lake, the largest lake in Grand Teton National Park. Colter Bay Village is a developed recreation area off Highway 89 that offers a range of facilities and services, most of which are open from mid to late May through late September. Some 200 tent-cabin and log-cabin lodgings are available through Colter Bay Cabins and Colter Bay Campground has over 300 tent and RV sites. The area also has a small convenience store and gas station, seasonal horseback riding, and a marina.
The Colter Bay Visitor Center is also open from May to September. The Visitor Center offers daily interpretive programs during the season, led by park rangers.
The parking lot and picnic area is accessible year-round and provides a great launching spot for many trails. I did the following loop in the off-season, when most of the services at Colter Bay were closed and many of the trails at the base of the Tetons were still under snow.
Swan Lake/Heron Pond Loop
A network of trails, including the Swan Lake/Heron Pond loop, begin at the Hermitage Point Trailhead at the south end of the Colter Bay Visitor Center parking lot. Here, hikers can choose from a variety of routes from loop hikes ranging from less than a mile to meandering treks of a dozen miles.
There are several ways to approach Swan Lake and Heron Pond, and maps are usually available at the trailhead. To start off with a nice view of the bay, I suggest going right at the trailhead. After skirting the bay for 0.4 mile, you will come to a fork; stay right to visit Heron Pond first. At the next fork (in about 0.2 mi.) you can choose either trail, the right fork climbs a bit up onto a hill while the left stays level; both come together in about half a mile, shortly after which you arrive at Heron Pond. Looking across Heron Pond, you can see Half Moon Bay. Large wildfowl are often present in this pond and bay.
At the far end of Heron Pond, you arrive at a 4-way trail junction. To see Swan Lake and return along a 3-mile (total) loop, take a left. The lake comes into view after about 0.3 mi. Swan Lake is a quiet habitat favored by ducks and beaver, which forage among and munch on the abundant pond lilies that grow there. Follow the trail along Swan Lake for about 0.8 mi. before it veers left to head back through the forest to the trailhead.
For a longer hike, the trip to Hermitage Point, depending upon the route you choose, runs about 9 or 10 miles in length and passes a variety of lakes, ponds, bays, and creeks. A trail across the northern part of the Colter Bay area passes the horse corrals and Cygnet Pond, and continues to Jackson Lake Lodge; it’s about five miles each way. Note that resource protection and the needs of migrating waterfowl sometimes result in closures of parts of the trail system. These closures will be posted.
Along the Colter Bay area trails, you might see moose, deer or bears. You will likely see waterfowl including osprey, herons, eagles, ducks (ring-necked, mallard, mergansers), geese, and pelicans. You probably won’t see beavers, but chances are good you will see their handiwork.
In my trek to Swan Lake and Heron Pond (plus a 2.4 mi. loop beyond), I saw plenty of bear and elk scat, numerous uinta ground squirrels and red squirrels, and an amazing array of waterfowl along with a bald eagle and an enormous pelican in the act of fishing. Northwest of the parking area, near the amphitheater and picnic area, I got a good look at a fox.
Visiting Grand Teton National Park Basics
Admission to the park when I went in 2015 was $25 per vehicle ($12 for individuals hiking or bicycling) and is valid for seven days. Always check for current rates, etc. The permit also gives you access to Grand Teton’s flashier, more famous sister to the north, Yellowstone National Park. Learn more about Grand Teton National Park at the official National Park Service website, http://nps.gov/grte.