Emerald Teton gem is no longer hidden

September 26, 2018

The eastern shorelines of the picturesque emerald pool glistening in the gut of Glacier Gulch now provide as famous a view as any of the Teton Range’s core cathedral peaks.

The vantage point is Delta Lake, but it wasn’t always this way. The alpine pond that’s become a fixture of phone-scrolling Instagrammers and Teton visitors willing to hoof it 9 miles and 2,300 vertical feet was for decades an off-the-beaten path destination. Locals quietly detoured to Delta Lake to escape the crowds of nearby Surprise and Amphitheater lakes.

“I think we found more people this summer going to Delta Lake than we did hiking around String Lake,” Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

A third of the hikers who set off from the Lupine Meadows trailhead are now peeling off the main drag on the first switchback turn past the Garnet Canyon turnoff. The unsigned “social” trail they step onto is now traveled and trammeled enough that it’s visible by satellite. It’s also funneling thousands of monthly hikers.

The use trends are eye-opening.

Over the course of Teton park’s three peak summer months, an average of 125 daily hikers passed by a Delta Lake trail counter that was erected two years ago. July is the peak, with 153 daily hikers this year. Numbers the counter came up with this August represented a 164 percent increase over August 2016.

Along the way, some of the masses are stumbling along the steep, loose trail that’s a result of repeated use and erosion, rather than planning, engineering and deliberate drainage.

“Delta Lake, it’s eating people up,” Jenny Lake climbing ranger Nick Armitage said.

It’s “slip, trip” kind of follies, he said, that are getting the best of people.

The numbers, again, affirm the observation. In July alone, a 14-year-old female was carried out by a ranger after spraining an ankle, and a 21-year-old broke a leg and needed a helicopter lift out of the mountains. There have been Delta Lake medical emergencies every month since.

“This year twice they had to short-haul [helicopter carry] someone out of there,” Germann said. “And one time they had to utilize a wheeled litter to get someone out.”

“Obviously, if there’s more visitation,” she said, “the probability of more SAR responses increases as well.”

In total this summer there were five major search and rescue operations as a result of Delta Lake hikers, Germann said. “Major” means the accident cost at least $500 to respond to.

While it would be tough to scientifically quantify how social media promotion has contributed to Delta Lake’s newfound popularity, it’s clear there’s a connection.

A search of the #DeltaLake hashtag on Instagram pulls up more than 5,000 images, and dozens are added each month. Delta Lake itself is the focal point of most posts, but others employ the alpine imagery as a setting for marketing products or flexing their “Instagram influencer” muscle.

In August, for instance, Instagrammer @emilycarterwellness snapped a pic of two plant-based omega fatty acid pills, pitching them as an environmentally friendly alternative to fish oils. Obscured behind the pill-pinching hand is Delta Lake.

Weeks later @body_by_whitney got into the Delta Lake Instagram fray, posting a shot of a scissor-legged handstand, with Delta’s emerald water and the Grand Teton looming above as a backdrop. She accompanied a note about training, motivation and goals.

Word’s getting out on online news sources, too. Just last week, local scribe Andrew Munz posted a blurb about Delta Lake on the Thrillist.com article, “Everything you need to visit Jackson Hole like a local.”

“Lastly, my personal favorite on the strenuous side of the spectrum, Delta Lake in Grand Teton Park is roughly a 7-mile hike (round trip) that will kick your ass and deliver some of the most majestic photos you’ll ever take,” Munz wrote.

The News&Guide isn’t immune from the promotion, having posted a couple Delta Lake “Excursion” columns over the years that are specifically geared toward getting people out.

Regardless of the medium and content, the effect is more eyeballs on Delta Lake — and increased likelihood of finding it with a few clicks of the keyboard.

When Renny Jackson, a Grand Teton ranger from 1976 to 2010, thinks back on his decades patrolling the Tetons, he does not recall seeing a soul during the times he hiked past Delta Lake.

“It was not very heavily used at all,” Jackson said. “You would never expect to see anyone in Glacier Gulch.”

The fundamental change in use, he said, is “sad.”

“It’s happening all throughout the Park Service and the national parks,” Jackson said, “and I don’t see it getting any better.”

On the flip side, Jackson said that other crannies of the Tetons he’d rather not name in print seem to be less trafficked than they were decades ago.

“One of the pluses,” he said, “is that other places perhaps are getting a rest because of this social-media-driven frenzy getting people to Delta Lake.”

The past four years, Grand Teton National Park has set its annual visitation record, though the rate of increase in overall park tourism falls well below what’s been witnessed at locales like Delta Lake.

The crowds headed uphill from Lupine Meadow are dispersing differently throughout the trail system, Germann said. Overall, she said, use of the popular trailhead is up just 8 percent since 2016, a far cry from the 164 percent rise at the unofficial Delta Lake Trail. Use of the Taggart Lake and Death Canyon trailheads are up more over the same period — 22 and 33 percent, respectively.

Park officials are feeling out how to respond to the situation. Two years ago, they brought social scientist Jenn Newton on staff to quantify and qualify the changes and determine how it affects resources and visitor experience.

“It’s not just that one user-created trail; there’s lots of trails branching off,” Newton said. “This year we went through and used high-accuracy GPS units to mark and inventory all the vegetation-related resource impacts that are occurring in the Delta Lake area.”

The plan is to not look at Delta Lake in isolation, Germann said, but as a part of the spectrum of changing and growing use of the Tetons. The backcountry management plan that prescribes desired conditions for Glacier Gulch and other reaches of the Tetons dates to 1990, when visitation to the park was less than half what it is today. The plan’s in need of an update, Germann said, though nothing is scheduled.

Delta Lake sits in Teton park’s backcountry “zone four,” according to the 28-year-old plan. This means it’s geared toward “wilderness purists” and the objective is to provide hikers and campers “with superb opportunities for solitude free of human use.”

In Jackson’s view, the current well-trammeled and peopled state of Delta Lake — which he has not seen firsthand — is incompatible with the plan.

“I don’t think the backcountry management plan, at least as it was written, would necessarily tolerate that kind of activity,” he said.

At least one group in Teton County is trying to take steps to reduce the social-media-driven influxes of people to backcountry gems like Delta Lake. The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board and Colle McVoy advertising agency’s “Stay Wild” campaign, though aimed at promoting the region, is attempting to educate visitors to geotag their social media posts more vaguely.

“How many likes is a patch of dead wildflowers worth?” one of the recent ads reads. “Tag locations responsibly. Keep Jackson Hole wild.”

Grand Teton National Park is not necessarily on the same page, perhaps partly because of its parent agency’s charter. The first sentence of the National Park Service’s mission calls for resources “preserved unimpaired,” but also maintains they be managed for the “enjoyment, education and inspiration” of the people.

Germann’s hope is that Delta Lake trekkers go prepared, but the journey itself to its ever more popular emerald waters is being welcomed.

“We’re not discouraging it,” she said.

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