Go big or go home. When camping in Grand Teton National Park, the “go big” portion of that adage definitely refers to Colter Bay Village and it’s more than 300 site campground.
The village concept employed in national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton is interesting. Before witnessing them myself, I thought it was nothing more than a quaint marketing initiative. But they really are like small villages. They just happen to have a fluid population.
Regardless, when it came time to book a campsite for our two nights in Grand Teton, I was looking for something a little smaller and hopefully a lot less busy. I settled on Signal Mountain, and it served us perfectly.
That didn’t stop us from checking out Colter Bay. I’d also booked my daughter and wife on a two-hour horse-riding adventure that just so happened to depart from there. With a couple hours to burn, my son and I toured around the village to see all it has to offer.
This review is based on that bit of exploration. While this may not be the thorough, first-person review you’re accustomed to, I figure it’s better than nothing and will give you a taste of what Colter Bay Village is all about.
LOCATION AND SETTING
Colter Bay Village is located at the midpoint of Jackson Lake on the eastern shore off of John D Rockefeller Jr. Parkway. As the crow flies, it’s 7 km north of Signal Mountain Lodge & Campground. By road it’s nearly twice that distance.
With the large campground, group camping, tent village, cabins, restaurants, grocery store, and marina, not to mention lodgings for park staff and a gas station at the exit from the parkway, Colter Bay Village is the epicentre of activity in Grand Teton National Park.
Like it’s smaller sibling, the entire village is set within a predominantly pine forest. There are a couple sections where the trees thin out a bit, but few, if any, of the campsites are fully exposed to the sun.
Ground cover is thin and trends towards grass and weeds. This limits the privacy between campsites and honestly, with the close proximity of neighbouring sites, privacy was never going to be a selling point for this campground.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE GAS STATION
The first village service you’ll encounter at Colter Bay is the gas station. You’ll pass it when you turn off the parkway onto Colter Bay Village Road.
The gas station is nothing exceptional or strange. There are two pumps selling very expensive gasoline products (prices in pic are from July 2022). The main building houses a convenience store and small gift shop.
With larger offerings of both in the village proper, I sense the food and gifts at the gas station target passersby rather than those staying in the village.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE GENERAL STORE
The aforementioned Colter Bay Village Road funnels you right into the heart of the village. All the amenities are located in this central complex with the campground to the north and the cabins and tent village to the south.
The village centre is dominated by a gigantic ‘T’ shaped parking lot with a grassy, treed boulevard down the middle of each segment. The bulk of the parking is angle parking for vehicles but there are also many lengthy, horizontal spots for RVs.
The very existence of this parking lot suggests that Colter Bay gets exceptionally busy during peak tourist season. All the more reason to camp at Signal Mountain imho.
As you enter the parking area, to your right is the Colter Bay General Store. It’s not a full-sized, modern grocery store, but it’s definitely more than the average convenience store. A gift shop and sport shop are attached.
Food prices are elevated as you would expect in a national park, but the ice cream counter and butcher counter slash deli are nice touches. If you’ve shown up without sustenance or have simply run out of items and need a restock, you should be able to find what you need at the grocery store.
The gift shop and sport shop are practically a genuine outfitter type store and together cover a floor area equal to the grocery store. You’ll have no trouble finding a commemorative item to remember you visit or if you’re unprepared for a weather change or a piece of clothing gets damaged, a replacement awaits your credit card.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE LAUNDRY AND SHOWERS
Next to the General Store complex is the village laundry and showers. The laundromat looks quite contemporary with newer washers and dryers available. There was close to a dozen of each so hopefully there’ll be little wait should you need to freshen up your clothing.
Unfortunately, when I was making my investigative rounds, the showers were quite busy. As such I didn’t want to freak anyone out poking my head in and taking pictures. I cannot comment on what they look like or how they function. I’d imagine they serve their purpose just fine, but you’ll have to discover if that assertion is factual yourself. Sorry.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE VISITOR CENTER
Continuing towards the lake where the parking lot forms the ‘T’, you’ll come to the visitor center just off to the right. Here again I’ll be leaving you in the dark a bit as I didn’t enter the building. It too was very busy making pictures difficult to take covertly.
In addition to helpful park staff who will answer all your questions about Grand Teton National Park and help you out with any back country or hiking adventures you plan to partake in, there is an “Indian Museum” inside. Again, I didn’t see any of this so cannot comment as to its worthiness to visit.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE RESTAURANTS
Looking over your shoulder, diagonally back from the visitor center, is a dining structure housing two restaurants. According to Google, they are known as John Colter’s Ranch House and Café Court Pizzeria. The former is a restaurant and bar, the latter a pizza joint. I think Café Court is also a café with the expected offerings.
We were visiting in 2022 at the tail end of the pandemic and neither of these establishments was open. Nobody was inside and the surrounding picnic tables were void of consumption. And that means … yup … I can’t attest to the quality of either.
COLTER BAY VILLAGE MARINA
Without question, the biggest shock of my short time in Colter Bay Village was state of the large marina.
Running two-thirds the length of the ‘T’ portion of the parking lot behind the visitor center, is the ghostly remains of a marina. There are five strips of slips jutting out from the shore into a vast, empty mud pit with only a small, remnant pond of water.
There were no boats in the slips or in the water. The lake bottom was growing over with grass and weeds. It was as unexpected.
Now, I don’t know if this is another lingering post-covid aberration. Perhaps with social distancing and such, they’d let the reservoir water level drop since nobody was going to be boating anyway? In 2022, the marina shop, home to boat rentals, gift shop, and fishing equipment sales, was closed up tight. Yet another place I never got to see the innards of.
More likely, though, the sun-bleached remains of a marina are a testament to the dropping water levels in Jackson Lake reservoir thanks to overuse and climate change. I’d like to be wrong, but that grass ain’t growing there due to a summer or two of exposure.
At the south end of the marina is a long boat launch. It too is not currently functioning. Sad, all this. A boat ride or a paddle around the lake would be a nice vacation activity.
Perhaps prayer will turn the tide and once again refill Jackson Lake to its former boating glory. You can pitch in for the cause at the interdenominational faith services held at the Colter Bay Village amphitheater.
I saw the same signage at the Signal Mountain campground amphitheater, and it fascinates me. I’ve never seen church services at these outdoor gathering places anywhere else and I’ve been nearly everywhere within a three-hour drive of my home, so, yeah, umm, it’s not a statistically valid observation.
I don’t even know if these services happen, having not been there on a Sunday morning nor having any interest in finding out. I hope there is non-religious programming happening at them as well. Colter Bay is big enough such parks programming should still be viable. Sadly, so many of these outdoor gathering places are unused these days.
If you’re looking for the amphitheater, it’s found in the woods north of the visitor center and marina. You’ll see it, or even pass through it, on your way to the beach.
If the marina at Colter Bay is dry, you can easily guess the current state of the beach area. It’s huge. In fact, the current Google satellite imagery of the beach area is rather cool as it shows the current beach width to the south end and then splices in an older image with a fuller lake and narrower beach to the north.
Jackson Lake is an artificial water body next to a mountain range, so I assure you that the term “beach” is used liberally here. You won’t find any luxurious sand to lie upon or build sandcastles with. It is endless gravel with many large rocks and boulders scattered about. I’m not so sure the water would be pleasant to swim in either, temperature-wise. Unless you like genital-punishing cold water.
In the woods along the east edge of the beach are several tables and open spaces to enjoy a nice, lakeshore picnic. A strip of additional day use parking resides beyond the picnic area.
The one thing my son and I did take the time to do was hike. You didn’t think we just drove around village for two hours, did you?
There is a blunt peninsula and island, hmmm, former island, in the bay north and west of the marina. Both are fully forested with a small strip of land joining them (it’s no longer all that small). Around each, and across the land bridge, is the figure eight shaped Lakeshore Trail.
The total length of the dual loop trail is approximately 3.5 km and it’s an easy trail with relatively little elevation gain throughout. At the western tip of the island, you get a lovely view of the mountains, most notably Mount Moran.
The trail around much of the peninsula is wide and well-maintained gravel. Several people can easily pass each other side-by-side here. On the island, the trail becomes dirt and much narrower. Roots could trip you up and you’ll need to progress single file much of the time.
We explored the beach and then hopped onto the trail to explore the island before returning along the marina side of the peninsula. During our hike we ran into a family getting a guided hike by a park ranger. The ranger was sharing geological information about the Teton Mountains and Jackson Hole, so of course I latched on for a few minutes to hear the details.
I think this was a scheduled educational hike starting at the visitor center. It’s nice to know these are happening here and I’m glad I was able to enjoy a little bit of it. The ranger was pleasant and well-versed in the subject matter. Interesting stuff for rock nerds.
There are obviously many more hikes all over the park to enjoy. If you’re just looking for an easy-going saunter to a nice viewpoint, you can’t go wrong with Lakeshore trail. It’s close to your temporary home and won’t stress your body too much. Plus, there’s ice cream or other treats waiting in the village when you’re done.
COLTER BAY CAMPGROUND
Had we chosen to camp in Colter Bay Campground, we’d have had 350 sites in 15 loops (A through O) to choose from. Yeah, it’s a big campground.
The loops are grouped into two supergroups, for lack of a better term. A through G are the southern group whereas H through O are the northern group. The latter are laid out like pairs of leaves on a central stem. The former are exclusively present on one side of a central stem. I’m just filling space at this point.
According to the reservations website, only loops H, J, K, M, and O permit generators. Loop J also has 13 accessible sites that are paved and have electricity. All the other sites do not have electricity. Nor do they have water or sewer.
A couple dozen tent only sites are available in loops F, G, and N. I’d also say that loops F and G appear to have some additional appeal as they are somewhat insulated from the remainder of the campground complex. As well, some sites along loops N and O will also have the benefit of no additional loops existing between them and the lake.
The majority of campsites in Colter Bay Campground are the arcuate pull-through style we’ve seen in all national parks in this part of the USA. And those pull-through sites are located on both sides of the access road, so half the campsites will be “backwards” with your RV door opening onto the road rather than the site.
Each site sports a level, gravel pad for your RV or tent. Next to the pad is a dirt area for your picnic table and firepit.
I wouldn’t say the sites are especially attractive. The pine forest provides decent shade, though the nature of the pull-through pads leaves them open to the sun more so than the living quarters of the campsites. Underbrush varies but can be quite thin in places. Where thin, privacy is accordingly diminished.
The loops aren’t piled on top of each other, so there is some space between one set and the next. The central portions of loops are narrower but still offer some buffer. It’s a setup very much like what we camped in at Grant Village in Yellowstone. Not great but not awful. If you’re spending all your time in the campground you’re missing the point of the park, anyway.
COLTER BAY RV PARK
South of the A through G loops is a separate entity known as the Colter Bay RV Park. This sister campground offers 112 full-service (20/30/50 amp power, water, sewer), pull-through campsites. These are non-arcuate, pull-through campsites that can accommodate units up to 45’.
The sites are packed much closer together in the RV park. Despite the same pine forest setting, I’d be very reluctant to camp in here just because of the proximity to everyone else.
GROUP AND BIKER/HIKER LOOPS
An additional double/stacked loop located northeast of the H through O loops hosts Group and Hiker/Biker campsites. These are non-serviced sites and to some degree, more private than the main camping loops.
The group camping mimics that which we encountered in Yellowstone’s Grant Village. It caters to tent camping rather than RV groups, with strips of sites and communal areas clustered together in a “Group Site”. Each has a handful of parking spots near the walk-in camping and gathering spaces. There are twelve such group sites.
The 10 hiker/biker sites share the same loops as the group sites but are singular and do not have much/any parking for vehicles. Each has space for a tent, a picnic table, a firepit with grill, and the all-important bear proof food storage bin.
They’re a neat idea, but I didn’t see any being used as we drove by that day.
BATHROOMS AND POTABLE WATER
Flush bathrooms with a clean-up station are found throughout all loops in all campgrounds at Colter Bay. They’re very similar in style and layout to those we encountered at Signal Mountain though with a dated exterior more akin to their interiors.
The men’s bathrooms typically have two stalls, a urinal, and a single, old-school sink beneath a mirror. I didn’t personally try the water, but I doubt there is hot water available judging by the replacement of the original dual faucets with a single tap.
Potable water is found either next to one of these bathrooms or sticking out from the wall of one. RVers camping outside the RV park can fill up their unit at the dump station.
The official map for Colter Bay Campground shows one dump station in the campground, but there are, in fact, two.
The primary facility is found along the main campground road just beyond the entrance kiosk near the access to loop A. It appears to be a dual lane, dual outlet dump station. It’s moderately sized with space for a few RVs to pull off the main road, but at busy times will surely still get backed up.
A second dump station is located on the main road within loops H and I. I think this is an older dump station that, though still operating, was meant to be supplanted by the larger, newer option mentioned above.
It’s a single outlet with only a small pull-out space for users. I can’t help but think this thing causes more grief that it’s worth with RVs blocking the road.
Colter Bay Campground has a small registration kiosk in the middle of the road prior to the 15 loops.
The Colter Bay RV Park has a small, stand-alone registration building off to the side of the access road to that area.
COLTER BAY CABINS
What makes Colter Bay a village, and not just a campground, is the additional accommodation options available to visitors. The coolest of the alternatives are the myriad log cabins found in the woods behind the restaurants.
The cabins come in various sizes and configurations and from the outside look like genuine pioneer log cabins. In fact, they are. Apparently, they were bought and moved here by John D. Rockefeller Jr. when he first purchased this land prior to it becoming a national park.
Interiors have been modernized to some degree, most notably the flushing toilets and showers in some units (or shared between units).
Surprisingly, some units were left unlocked, and I was able to peak in and get a couple pictures of their innards. They look nice, retaining a vintage aura with a few modern conveniences but no distractions like televisions.
COLTER BAY TENT VILLAGE
Another unique offering at Colter Bay is Tent Village. Located east of the cabins, Tent Village has 65 large, canvas tents to stay in. It’s a glamping option somewhere between portable tents and log cabins and I think it’s a great option for folks wanting something more rustic than a cabin or hotel but not wishing to invest in camping gear.
Each unit appears to be a three-sided canvas tent with a log fourth wall on which two bunks are affixed. An old wood stove is in each and out front is a sheltered concrete patio, picnic table, and firepit. A parking spot for a single vehicle rounds out the accoutrements.
What makes Tent Village even more appealing is the robust central office and bathroom structure. Here, in addition to modern toilet facilities, you can rent camping gear to use in your unit. They have sleeping bags, coolers, and other necessities so you truly can “camp” without owning anything yourself.
Firewood is also for sale and on one side of the building there appears to be an ice machine next to a cleaning station and water fountain. It’s quite the place.
One criticism I’d have is that the southern grouping of tents are rather open to the sun. The northern grouping is in forest like the cabins and campground, but for some reason the southern units are mostly unsheltered.
HORSEBACK RIDING IN GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
All of which, brings us back to the reason I’m even writing this Colter Bay Village review, horseback riding. The road taking you past the cabins and Tent Village eventually ends at the corrals and facilities housing the horses.
I didn’t know what to expect when we got to ride staging area. I’d hoped that being a national park supported activity, the facilities would be respectable, not to mention that the horses would be healthy and well looked after. I’ve seen some shady stuff over the years. Thankfully, all was good here.
I didn’t partake in the ride myself, but my daughter and wife had a great time. The scenery, of course, was second to none which makes almost any means of transportation worthwhile in getting there. I’m not a horse person at all, but I was a tad jealous looking at the pics afterwards.
If you’re looking for a unique experience in Grand Teton (or Yellowstone … they have rides there too) I suggest giving a horse ride a ponder.
I never know if it is fair of me to rate a place I’ve not personally stayed at. I spent all of two hours at Colter Bay, half of which was expended hiking around an island and exploring a “beach”. Who am I to tell you how good or bad the camping facilities are?
Well, I’ll do it anyway, because tradition. I’ll give Colter Bay Village in Grand Teton National Park 4.4 Baby Dill Pickles out of 5. That’s generous but I’m full of delicious pasta at the moment and am thus oozing charity.
The village certainly has everything you could need for a vacation in a national park. It’s missing a playground, I suppose. And the unusable marina is a pity. Some facilities may be dated (bathrooms) or a tad undersized (dump station) but everything works. Plus, there are some interesting additions you won’t find at most other destinations (tent village, horse riding). It wouldn’t have been the worst place to spend our two nights of camping had we been unable to secure space at Signal Mountain Campground.
If I’m completely wrong, just tell me to keep the “go big or go home” to my card playing.