The campground at Jenny Lake dates to the early 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps arrived in the valley to complete several projects, but Jenny Lake has been used for campsites for thousands of years. The Native Americans were the first to arrive in the area and recognize the Lake’s valuable resources and beautiful scenery. Several archaeological sites remain to remind us of the long history of human use the Lake has supported.
During the era of homesteading settlement in Jackson Hole, the U.S. Forest Service managed the earliest campground at Jenny Lake. In 1926 alone, more than 30,000 visitors arrived in the valley, in need of certain comfort services for their vacations. At the road entrance to the Lake, there was a store, gas station and guest cabins. There were boat and horse concessions, as well as a dance hall, hot dog stand and more stores and guest cabins. Some were beginning to comment that the development was ruining the natural views of the lake. With few regulations, the thousands of visitors created their own trails and roads throughout the area, contributing to erosion around the lake’s shores. The concessions began to block the view of the lake, rather than compliment it and there was a growing fear that the land might be subdivided should the wrong party purchased the adjacent homesteads.
In 1929, Grand Teton National Park was established, its boundaries just protected the Teton Range, along with the several small lakes at their base. Jackson Lake was not included. Jenny Lake, however, was included and with newly protected lands, much of the concessions were removed and the area was protected from future development. Because so much of the southern portion of the Lake had been built up for visitor services, the horse and boat concessions were allowed to stay and the first visitor services headquarters were established here in a small log museum. Today, the museum serves as the Jenny Lake Ranger Station. The Park management soon realized that the aging Forest Service campground was in need of updates and expansion.
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) arrived in Jackson Hole in 1933 and constructed a camp on the south end of Jenny Lake, past the boat and horse concessions. They remained here for several years, working to upgrade the visitor services around the lake. They expanded the campground, adding a northern loop and reconfiguring the existing southern and now central loops. The campground was in need of serious repairs, having been used with minimal regulation prior to Park management. The CCC also constructed an amphitheater to provide church services, ranger talks and other types of entertainment and education.
New roadways were designed to reconfigure the travel patterns in order to create a new spatial relation between the campground and the surrounding environment. The roads became strictly one-way, allowing them to be narrower, less intrusive, and to prevent traffic from having to back up and turn around. The paths for the roads were designed carefully to minimize the amount of trees and vegetation that would have to be removed to construct them. They became full circuit loops, also preventing the traffic from having to make any sharp turns. Lined with large boulders, they prevented cars from exiting the established roadways and protected the already damaged vegetation.
Each campsite was designated with a pullout for a car, and to be secluded from the road and other campsites, creating a new sense of privacy. The sites were also fitted with stone fire pits, wooden picnic tables and graded tent platforms. The platforms were lined with logs to prevent the gravel from dispersing into the grass, and also to keep ground disturbance to a minimum. The campground was carefully designed by a landscape architect, utilizing new standardized plans. The southern (formally central) and northern loops retain much of their original design, creating an authentic experience for campers.
Previously, campsites were treated very differently. A field or area of forest would be chosen and cleared of all brush and any under story. Cars were then allowed to drive through these areas, and motorists would choose a place to park and camp anywhere there was space. Almost immediately the vegetation would be destroyed and with the “natural” setting gone, the campsites would spread out further to greener areas. There was minimal management or rule enforcement on how to treat the land, what to bring and what not to leave behind. The planned campground at Jenny Lake stands in stark contrast to those earlier practices, with a clear intent to preserve as much of the natural topography as possible.
The CCC also constructed three comfort stations to provide modern amenities such as running water and sanitary toilets for the campground. They were built between 1933 and 1935. Each is slightly different, but they are excellent examples of CCC architecture from standardized plans. The southern and central comfort stations remain the same as when they were constructed, but the northern one was removed in 1952. The two remaining buildings are incredibly valuable historic resources, as most CCC buildings have been demolished, modified or moved from their original locations.
By the 1960s, it was clear that the demand for visitor services in the expanded Grand Teton National Park was outgrowing the facilities at Jenny Lake. The Colter Bay and new Moose Headquarters were constructed as part of the Mission 66 program. The Grand Teton Lodge Company also assumed management of the campground and visitor facilities at Jenny Lake. In 1973, an intense windstorm blew through the area and destroyed roughly 80 to 90 percent of the trees in the southern campground loop. With so much damage, and so little privacy for campers, the southern loop was closed and dismantled in the 1980s. The amphitheater was removed along with it, having also suffered the wind’s destructive power.
In the 1990s, as part of the 75th anniversary of the National Park Service, the aging, century-old facilities at Jenny Lake were renovated. For years there had been discussions about making a central, easily accessible visitor services cluster but nothing had been done. This plan was finally carried out, with more formal trails for lake access. Many buildings were removed, or moved, and new restroom facilities were constructed. Today, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, the Jenny Lake Renewal Project is underway. It is a multi-million dollar effort to repair, restore and rehabilitate the landscape, archaeological sites, and historic buildings along the lakeshore. With plans for completion in 2018, Jenny Lake will be prepared to continue to host the now-millions of visitors that come to the valley to camp and recreate in some of the area’s most beautiful scenery.