Looking for a unique half-day trek in Wyoming’s Teton Range without the national park tourists? The hike to the Wind Cave along the western slopes of the Tetons in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness is a fantastic choice!
This moderately difficult hike offers impressive wildflower displays and a beautiful waterfall, before reaching the entrance to the Wind Cave.
The large opening to the cave is easily accessible to all and makes for a great place to have lunch and cool off during warm weather.
Distance and Elevation Gain
The one-way distance from the trailhead to the mouth of the Wind Cave is 2.7 miles, making for a round-trip distance of 5.4 miles and a solid half-day hike.
The elevation gain is about 1,800 feet and the steepness level is pretty consistent throughout the hike. The trail is in good condition and easy to follow, though it does get a bit rocky and “scrambly” as you approach the cave.
The elevation of the cave is at approximately 8,800 feet.
How to get to the trailhead
The Darby Canyon Trailhead is a quick 25 minute drive from Driggs or Victor in Idaho. From Idaho Highway 22, there is a forest-service sign marking the road to Darby Canyon on the right if coming from Victor or the left if coming from Driggs. This road is Country Road 3000.
Once you drive about 3 miles down County Road 3000, you’ll come to a T-intersection, right around the Idaho-Wyoming state line (which, oddly enough, isn’t marked). Take a right here and then follow the dirt road about 4 miles to the Darby Canyon Trailhead.
This dirt road can be narrow at times, but in dry conditions is passable for 2wd vehicles. However, in wet/muddy conditions (think late spring/early summer or late fall), it could get a bit sketchy for low clearance vehicles.
From Jackson, Wyoming, the driving time to the trailhead is about 1 hour, and from Idaho Falls, the driving time is about 1 hour and 35 minutes.
Trail Breakdown and Logistics
The Darby Canyon Trail is straightforward as it is the only trail leaving from the parking area. The incline starts out mellow at the very beginning, but then quickly steepens and remains steady for the rest of the hike.
While not located in the more renowned Grand Teton National Park, this trail does receive a fair amount of traffic, especially on weekends, as it is a popular hike for those living in Eastern Idaho (Driggs, Victor and Idaho Falls especially).
The first mile and a half of the hike winds its way through a pleasant mix of fir and aspen forests interspersed with open meadows that afford views of the mellow western slopes of the Tetons.
As you climb higher above the valley bottom, the views start to open up a bit more over the second half of the trail.
When my partner and I did this hike during the third week of July, the wildflowers were popping — a good enough reason to do this hike even without the promise of a cave at the end!
Once you have hiked approximately 2.2 miles, you’ll cross a shallow section of Darby Creek and come to a marked trail junction right before this crossing. Make sure you stay right to continue on to the Wind Cave.
The left trail junction takes you farther up Darby Canyon on a more primitive trail that eventually peters out. From my understanding, you can access a different cave — called the Ice Cave — on this route, or you can hike/scramble up toward the divide at the headwaters of Darby Canyon.
I haven’t found much information about the Ice Cave, but get the sense that it is not as easily accessible, and is more of a destination for experienced spelunkers rather than day hikers. Still, it might be worth exploring this route to at least get a view of this cave if you have the time and don’t mind getting off the beaten path!
Continuing past this junction on the main route, it’s only about another half mile to the Wind Cave, but this final section is steeper and also spectacular.
First, you’ll come right up on beautiful waterfall from the stream that is flowing out of the Wind Cave above.
The trail then climbs up the steep slope to the left of the waterfall, and once you reach the ledge above the falls, you’ll cross a shallow stream and the cave will be waiting right in front of you!
Here is where the fun really begins. The cave has a wide opening and high ceiling at this point, and you can easily walk through the first 50-100 feet back in the cave provided that you have a headlamp. Be sure to tread carefully so that you don’t slip on any of the wet rocks.
This is a fun spot to have lunch or a snack break, but it’s definitely chilly in the cave so make sure you throw some extra layers on.
There is a hole at the end of the large entrance to the cave that you can crawl into, but I would only recommend taking a quick peek into this entrance if you do decide to crawl in. Going too far back gets you into more technical terrain, and people have become lost back here before.
I did not crawl into this hole since I was coming off of knee surgery from the previous winter, but my partner Jennifer and our two black labs did crawl in there just to check it out.
The views looking out at the surrounding landscapes from the mouth of the Wind Cave are spectacular as you head back out.
Best time of year to hike to the Wind Cave
The best time to hike this trail is from July to September. Mid July through early August is prime time for wildflowers, while mid to late September is good for fall colors.
You can do this hike earlier or late in the year as well, but there will be more obstacles. Through most of June, lingering areas of snow will likely persist across the upper reaches of the trail and the water coming out of the cave will be higher and possibly too dangerous to cross.
Once October rolls around, colder temperatures and less sunlight could lead to some dangerous icy sections around the upper reaches of the creek near the falls and the entrance to the cave.
In the winter months, the 4-mile Darby Canyon road closes beyond the Stateline Road intersection once there is enough snow. You can ski up the road, which is packed by snowmobilers and cross country skiers in the winter, and technically could take a winter trek up to the Wind Cave.
However, you’ll encounter avalanche terrain on the way up past the summer trailhead, so this generally isn’t recommended as a winter route unless you know what you’re doing and avalanche danger is low.
Deer and moose are both commonly seen on this hike. Moose are always exciting to see, but give them plenty of space.
Black bears are sometimes seen on this hike, and although less common, grizzlies do inhabit this area as well.
How bad are the bugs?
In July and early August, you will likely encounter some bugs on occasion (mosquitoes and biting black flies), but compared to many areas, they do not seem to be too bad here. Bring the bug spray just in case, but don’t be too concerned.
Wind Cave is generally done as a day hike, but there are plenty of free dispersed camping options on the Darby Canyon Road on the way to the trailhead.
If you’re looking to do some backcountry camping, you could hike farther up into Darby Canyon at the left fork of the trail junction a half-mile from the cave. Dispersed camping is allowed in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area.
Afternoon thunderstorms are common in the Tetons in June, July, and August. Although less common, they do occur in September occasionally as well.
While this route keeps you below treeline and doesn’t seem like an obvious place for lightning danger (compared to ridges or mountain tops), the upper section of this hike was the scene of one the greatest lightning tragedies to ever occur in the Tetons.
In August of 1951, a large group of teenage girls and adult leaders as a part of the Darby Canyon Girls Camp had just left the cave to hike back down when a thunderstorm hit. Tragically, one cluster of girls was taking shelter under a tree when a lightning bolt hit, killing five of the girls and injuring others.
There is a memorial located on the trail near the cave in honor of the girls who lost their lives.
This incident is a reminder of the danger of lightning and the fact that you should never seek shelter under a lone tree. Also, it might seem like a cave would be a good place to take shelter during a lightning storm, but this is not true.
CAVES ARE NOT A SAFE PLACE DURING A LIGHTNING STORM. The reason is that when lightning strikes, electricity can jump small gaps between rocks, rocks are good conductors of electricity, and the rocky surfaces that you are standing on in a cave is also susceptible to ground currents from a lightning strike.
Despite the frequency of afternoon thunderstorms, overall July and August are the driest months in the Tetons, making it a great time to hike. However, be sure to watch the forecast closely, and to plan your hike for the morning hours to lessen your chances of being caught in a storm.
In September, the frequency of rain showers and thunderstorms decreases, but when it does rain it tends to last for a longer time and accumulate to higher amounts. This is because organized low-pressure systems packed with Pacific moisture start to arrive at this time of year.
Cold and wet systems start to become more frequent in October, and snow becomes more common across the higher elevations of this trail as well, though deep accumulations hold off until late October or November in most years.
Here are a few items I consider to be essential for this hike:
- Extra layers (remember, it’s chilly inside the cave!)
- Bear spray
- 3 liters of water or a water purification system
- Personal locater device, such as a SPOT or DeLorme beacon
- First aid kit
Here are a few items I might bring depending on current conditions:
- Bug spray with DEET (if hiking before mid-August)
- Rain jacket and rain gear (if anything but a dry forecast)
- Down jacket
- Ski hat and gloves
- Microspikes or YakTrax + trekking poles for snow and ice
Quick Note About COVID-19 and Hiking
At the time of this posting (early April 2020), we are in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders or recommendations are prevalent across the country and across the world.
Despite the timing of this post, I am NOT encouraging people to get out and travel and hike/explore new areas while we are going through these tough times.
Instead, I hope this and other posts serve as an inspiration to plan future adventures once things start to return to normal and we can all get out and explore again.