Grand Teton Sunset Guide
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
It's been almost four years since I moved away from Grand Teton and to this day I am still best known for my sunrise and sunset photos of the park. My "great" sunset photos didn't just happen by luck, its because I studied the mountains and I knew where to place myself depending on the time of year for the best light behind the most iconic peaks. Sunrises are easy, the alpenglow hits all the peaks pretty equally. However the sun sets behind the Tetons, meaning the best light and color will be where the sun is, which changes depending on time of year. In this blog not only will I cover the best spots to photograph sunset, but the best times of year for each location as well. Hopefully by the end of it, you will be able to know how to chase the light just as intuitively as I know how to.
Before I begin, I want to include the following disclaimer. I lived in Grand Teton for four years, I started out as not a very good photographer or by just using my phone. Over the years my skills grew. In this blog I will be sharing photos from all four years, to illustrate my lessons about light, timing, and location. Some photos will be poor quality, some will be blurry, a few will be iphone photos. What I am trying to focus on here is the composition and where and when to be to get the best sunset photos possible.
For the purposes of this blog we will be talking about the spots and times to photograph the two most iconic peaks of Grand Teton National Park -Mt. Moran and Grand Teton itself. Grand Teton has no shortage of beautiful peaks to photograph, but whenever I am talking about the best location for light behind the peaks, these are the ones I am referring to.
Light is more dependent on clouds than anything, if you have good clouds, chances are you will have a good sunset. But where you are when you watch the sunset makes a big difference. For example, the three above photos were taken within a couple miles of each other during the same sunset. I don't know about you, but I much prefer the middle one. There are couple reasons this is the case, one the sun is setting directly behind the peak, creating the crepuscular rays behind it and two, the color is evenly dispersed throughout the entire photo. That's not to say that the other two photos are bad, they just aren't as good as the middle one. Below is another example where two photos were taken less than a half mile from each other during the same sunset but the angle of the light (from directly behind the grand to slightly to its right) is dramatically different.
That being said, the above examples were all taken within a relatively close shot of each other, if I had been, say, up at Colter Bay 30ish miles to the north, these spectacular sunsets would have been a busts for me. You don't have to be in the perfect spot, but you need to be in at least the right general area to get a good sunset photo. Let me illustrate below.
These two photos were taken during the same sunset (one of my very first Teton sunsets in 2012, excuse the poor quality). While it was a beautiful sunset, it was not possible to get both the peaks and the light in the same frame. The light is too far to the north of the mountains during the summer in this location. Compare to the photo above in the Peaks section which was taken during the winter in a location less than a mile away, but yet the light is directly above the peaks. So how do you avoid missing the light? How do you make sure you are in the right spot at the right time to capture the moment in the best way? How do you insure that you can get both the peaks and the main light in the same frame? Well this is what I hope to teach you.
From June 21-December 21 the sun is moving from north to south, and from December 21-June 21 it is moving back up the opposite way. Meaning that on December 21st the sun is as far south in the sky as it will ever be, and on June 21 it is far north as it will ever be. Typically, to get the mountains in the same frame as the best color, you want to be opposite of where the sun is. Meaning, in the summer when the sun is more north, you will want to be in southern locations of the park, and in the winter when the sun is more south you will want to be in more northern locations. In the spring and fall, you will want to be in the midpoints of the park. Sound confusing? Don't worry. Below I will detail it out for you by specific locations.
The wonderful thing about Grand Teton is that the mountains are visible pretty much everywhere in the park. You can easily pull off the road (make sure all four tires are on the right of the white line) anywhere and get a good shot of the mountains. But some locations provide better foregrounds than others, and these are the ones I will detail. In my head, I have Grand Teton divided into three sections, the South, the North and the Middle. Of course, its not as simple as that. Where do you draw the boundaries? I don't really. But to sum it up, this how it is divided for me.
South (Summer): Schwabacher Landing, Taggart Lake, Chapel of the Transfiguration, Mormon Row, Teton Point Turnout, Glacier View Turnout
Middle (Spring and Fall): Snake River Overlook, Cunningham Cabin, Elk Ranch Flats, Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, Signal Mountain
North (Winter): Oxbow Bend, Colter Bay, Willow Flats Overlook, Grand View Point, Jackson Lake Dam, Jackson Lake Overlook
Now let's dig a little deeper into some of these locations, the ones that I consider to have the best foreground.
Best Months for Sunset: May-July
This area is known for its reflections of the Grand and it is my favorite place in the entire park. Seriously, do not miss it! This photo was taken on May 10 and if you notice in this photo the rays and color are just a little to the right of the Grand. While color is dependent on cloud placement, if you visited in early June or Mid July you would be able to get the rays (and the color that comes with them) right behind the Grand. You can still get good sunsets if you visit outside of those months. For example, the photo below was taken in early November. You can see the sun and the best color to the far left of the photo, away from the peaks. By being creative with my composition I was able to capture it all, but if I was shooting the typical Schwabacher Landing composition as above, it would not have looked this good. I also happened to get lucky in that the color spread, in most cases in tends to stick to the area of the sky where the sun is.
Best Months for Sunset: Early June-Mid July
The barns on this road are nothing short of iconic, but personally, I don't consider a Mormon Row a sunset location (It is a fantastic sunrise location however). However it is so popular a location, I would be remiss if I didn't include it. The reason I don't consider it a sunset location is because even during the summer solstice, when the sun is as far north as it will ever be, it still doesn't quite make it to the peaks. Consider the above photo which was taken on June 21, the sun is still to left of the peaks. However, if you want to include the iconic barns in your sunset shoot its still possible, just visit as close the summer solstice as possible.
Chapel of the Transfiguration
Best Months for Sunset: March-September
Let's be honest, I have never seen bad light at the Chapel. When the light is south of the peaks it comes through in a way that seems to light up the chapel as in the photo above. So either the light is behind the peaks or lighting up the chapel, win/win. The Chapel is not easily accessible in the winter, but if it were, I could tell you the sun would be much too far south to make this a good sunset location.
Snake River Overlook
Best Months for Sunset: Mid Feb- Mid April, Mid Sep- Mid Nov
This is the classic Ansel Adams shot of the Grand and although the trees have grown a bit since he took his iconic shot (he also used a platform to get higher), the image of the river snaking below the mountains is still just as gorgeous. Fall is a particularly fantastic time to shoot here as the trees below turn a brilliant yellow.
I have already explained earlier in the blog how depending on the clouds, you can still get a good sunset outside of the best months. The middle photo above is a good example, it was taken in early June and you can see the sun and the best color to the far right of the photo, north of the peak. While the photo is great, it would have been an even better image if I have been at Schwabacher Landing.
At Snake River Overlook, the main focus is the Grand, but you can also see Moran from this viewpoint. Although it doesn't appear as dramatic from this vantage point, it still draws your attention. Right around the solstice on June 21 , the sun is far north enough to get a dramatic sunset out of Moran from here, as illustrated in the iPhone photo from 2012 below. I won't include as a "best" time because the window of time to capture it is so brief, and because the Moran angle doesn't provide as interesting a foreground. But for those of you wanting an angle that most people overlook, here you go.
Elk Ranch Flats
Best Months for Sunset: Moran: Mid March-Early April, Mid September-Early October
Grand: Early-Mid November, Early-Mid February
Now, I don't particularly find the plain field foreground all that interesting, but I include it because you will very often times find animals -both wild and domestic- on these flats. Besides your typical horses, I have seen elk, bison, coyotes, pronghorn, and foxes here extremely regularly, and in those animals you will find an interesting foreground-if they are present. While I have only included photos of the Moran perspective, you can also get excellent shots of the Grand from this location, which is why I have included the best times for getting the light behind each of the peaks.
North Jenny Lake Area
Best Months for Sunset: Spring, Fall
In everything I have ever written about Grand Teton I mention my disdain for the Jenny Lake area. This is the part in this blog where I do it. Feel free to skip over. Look, I just don't like that area. Its not my cup of tea and I will NEVER understand the hype surrounding it. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. I avoid the area like the plague. That being said, I don't have too much knowledge of that area because well, I don't go there. What I do know is that there is a stretch of road that does stretch out picturesquely towards the peak on North Jenny Lake scenic drive. I don't have a photo of it, because well, I don't need to repeat myself. But since this is such a popular area I had figured I should probably include it. The geographic location and my ONE sunset (in four years) photographed there in September lead me to say that spring and fall are the best times to photograph it.
Best Months for Sunset: Mid October-Mid February
Oxbow Bend is known for its iconic reflections of Grand Teton, but unfortunately when the sun is in the best position for sunset, the bend is typically frozen over. It is for this reason, that I would typically recommend it as a sunrise spot, but sunsets can still be good here. Late October may be the only time in which you catch it at sunset with the light directly behind the peak and a reflection. The photo below was taken in late September, and as you can see the main light is still to the north of Moran, although it is close enough to be in the frame (this would not be the case in June or July).
Also to be considered at Oxbow Bend is fall foliage. The photos above and below were taken less than five days apart in real time -September 25th and October 1, 2013 respectively. Things can change quickly. While it is too dark to really see the fall color in the top image, I can assure you, it was not present. Fall color can really vary in Grand Teton, and especially at Oxbow. I have seen peak fall color be anytime between the first week of September and the first week of October. If it is a late year, Oxbow Bend may very well be the best spot in the park for a combination of fall color and a sunset.
Best Months for Sunset: Mid October- Mid February
Willow Flats is stunning area, teeming with wildlife. You can view them from both Willow Flats overlook and the back deck of Jackson Lake Lodge. While the flats themselves are interesting because of the wildlife they contain, but you can also catch glimpses of Jackson Lake from here. This is another area from which you can see both peaks, but I don't separate the best months for each peak because from this angle the range appears more condensed (as in, you can get entire range in one frame) than say, Elk Ranch Flats and as long as the sun is somewhere over the range you are able to get a good shot, as illustrated below.
Best Months for Sunset: Late October- Early February, November especially for reflections.
In looking at the difference between the last two photos, you can see how the range appears more condensed the farther north you go. I particularly like Colter Bay not only because you can see the entire range, but also because of the reflections the water provides. Eventually the lake will freeze over and those reflections will be gone, which is why I particularly like November for sunsets here. All five pictures here were taken in the same week of Mid November in 2014. While nearer to the solstice on December 21 the light would be more centered on the peaks, the lake is typically frozen by that point.
Also worth mentioning is that at Colter Bay in of itself, there are two locations. The Bay itself and the swim beach. If you are looking for still waters and reflections, the Bay is your best bet. However, there is a downside in that Bivouac (the peak to the right of Moran) is obscured as illustrated in the bottom right photo. If you are looking for dramatic waves, ice, or to shoot Bivouac, you will want to head to the swim beach. On an especially calm night you can still get reflections at the swim beach, but since it is not protected from wind like the bay is, it is much harder to find mirror reflections here.
Jackson Lake Overlook
Best Months for Sunset: Late November - Late January
This is one of the northern most viewpoints of the Tetons and is best photographed at sunset when the sun is farthest to the south during the winter solstice on December 21st. From here the range appears more condensed than at any other spot in the park. Moran and the Grand appear right next to each other. Unfortunately, when the light is the best here, the lake is generally frozen over, meaning that the foreground really isn't all that interesting. But since it offers an angle different than anywhere else in the park, I include it.
Now that was a lot of information I know. Still confused? Won't remember it all? Here are the main things to keep in mind. In general to get the main light in the same frame as the peaks, in the summer be in the south of the park, in the winter be in north, spring and fall be somewhere in the middle. Once you are in the general area and the the light isn't exactly where you want in relation to the peaks drive away from the light, in the direction of the mountain. For example, in the above photo, the light is to the left-or south- of the Grand. To get the light behind the mountains I would want to drive north away from the light and towards the mountains. Let's try another one.
In this iPhone photo, the main light is to the right-or north- of the peak. To get those stunning rays above Moran I would want to drive south, away from the light and towards the peaks. Make sense? I hope so.
Preparing for a trip to Grand Teton? Check out my list of essentials here!
Want even more Grand Teton? Check out my original 2014 blog of favorite things to do here!
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