Monday, January 12, 2009

Excursion Article Series 09.26.08: Delta Lake loop full of surprises.

Caption: I took this picture of me, believe it or not. I had to do this difficult 11-mile hike in four hours and still leave myself time to play. I set the camera on my high-tech tripod (also known as a small pile of rocks) and bounded over the rocks as fast as I could while counting to 10 with the timer in my head. This was the fourth of eight attempts. I was left pretty winded with a bleeding toe after all the scrambling and jumping. The reward of this picture was well worth it.

Excursion: Delta, Amphitheater and Surprise Lake loop
Length: Four hour death march to all day
Distance: About 11 miles
Difficulty: Expert
Directions: Take main trail from Lupine Meadows. Follow trail toward Amphitheater Lake. At the north end of the first switchback after Garnet Canyon Junction, follow faint steep trail down into trees and up to lake. (More directions below.)

If you don’t like a) route finding, b) boulder hopping, c) adventure, d) steep scree slopes e) mud or f) me, then you should probably opt out of this one right now. If you don’t like any of the things in a) thru e), then f) will be particularly bad off if you go.

I’ll go straight to e) before I come back to the rest. Delta Lake is fed by Teton Glacier and others that give off melt water throughout the summer. Of course, these permanent glaciers are fine sources of glacial silt – hence the name. Over the grinding course of their lives, these powerful glaciers happily reduce proud granite boulders into granite pebbles before taking even that minute dignity away from them and making a reluctant, silky sand out of them.

Then the melt water bears this grumbling sand downhill until it comes to a repository. As much of the granite silt that is able then jumps ship when the water slows and settles to the bottom in typical hard-headed granite fashion.

“If I can’t be a boulder, at least I can sit still,” the silt adamantly declares with a deep frown and folded arms. The finer silt that can’t lay down roots lends a brilliant turquoise color to the water in the lake.

With all the silt brethren united in strike at the western edge of Delta Lake, they create a perfect mud flat which opens itself to a new, unexpected indignity: my nasty bare feet slip-sliding across their collective heads. When viewed from above, this mud flat fans out in an arc from the lake’s source. It is easy to imagine a thousand-year stop-action movie of the deposit process.

All of this history is easily forgotten as I do my impression of a 14-year old gymnast rocketing off the line for a perfect pass. When I hit full speed, I gleefully slam both feet down and let the mud carry me as far as it wants. I paced it off afterward, and I was sliding as much as 35 feet. It brought new meaning to the word mudslide.

The setting couldn’t be more perfect. The Grand Teton herself cradles Delta Lake like a favorite child. The motherly mountain rises almost directly out of the lake, with Mt. Owen also standing watch. As much amphitheater as Amphitheater Lake has, it feels minute in comparison to the walls surrounding Delta Lake. The rough folds and dazzling colors of Teton Glacier are viewable from this proximity, and it seems it would be a short jaunt up the Grand from here – which I can assure is far from the truth.

Caption: A tribute to my Chacos, which take me everywhere I want to go.

The route to Delta Lake is sketchy. After leaving the main trail, the footpath becomes very faint, and is difficult to follow. Use common sense and a watchful eye to stay on the trail. A series of cairns leads over a boulder field sprinkled with wild raspberries that are miraculously still in season. After the boulder field, the trail resumes if you’re lucky enough to find it. Soon enough, the trail spits you out near a creek that seems to flow more underground than above. The roar of the creek is audible all the way up, even though half the time you can walk right up the creek bed without getting wet. Small half-underground waterfalls dot the final several hundred feet before the final rise reveals the paradise of Delta Lake.

Out of all the gorgeous backcountry lakes the Tetons have to offer, Delta may be my favorite. After sliding around, looking at animal tracks in the mud and wading in the lake, I reluctantly bid farewell to Delta Lake and headed up the steep southern scree slope separating me from Amphitheater and Surprise. After several stumbles and a lot of sliding rock on the slope that quickly gains more than 600 feet, I was for the first time in my life surprised to see Surprise Lake. I had been expecting to come out at Amphitheater first.

The fall foliage is stunning and the lakes even more so. Just take a chance and enjoy it, if you love a) thru e) like I do, then you'll thank f) for clueing you in.

Caption: This is a deceiving picture. Because of my tight time limit, I had little if any chance to relax at this, one of my favorite spots on earth. I was taking pictures and running to the next photo-op as fast as I could. Do this hike if you ever get the chance.


  1. Yeah for Chaco's. You don't have to live in the most beautiful place on earth to enjoy them. People, like me, who have to live in busy cities wear them with pride as our last link to the outdoors. :(

  2. I got the idea for Chaco tribute pictures from a mock outdoors magazine I put together for a class. One of the stock photos I got was of Chacos on a pier that I loves, and ever since then I take my own shots in favorite places.