Grand Teton National Park rises above the rest with majestic views along a scenic drive.
By Kathryn Lemmon
Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park will forever stand out in my mind as the first place I saw a wolf in the wild. It easily could be the one and only time. Oddly enough, I wasn’t on an arduous backcountry hike, but standing directly in front of the Jackson Lake Lodge. It howled three times before I realized it wasn’t a large bird off in the distance.
In my defense, the howl was much higher-pitched than I expected “” not like the kind you hear in movies. I saw the wolf standing in a low-lying area to my left. The sighting was brief, maybe two minutes at most, but still enough to produce a lasting memory. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a soul in sight with whom to share this extraordinary moment.
The longer you stay in the park, the better your chances to see a variety of wildlife. In four days at the park I spotted several elk, two bears, a moose and her baby, and antelope. But according to park staff, a wolf sighting is something special and rare.
The mama moose and her offspring were adorable. To the delight of staff and guests, they seemed to prefer staying within sight of the lodge buildings. Wherever the pair wandered, an entourage of camera-toting humans followed. Driving from the lodge entrance one morning, we saw the moose wading in a shallow pool of water. Fifteen cars were lined up along the side of the road, their occupants watching the pair. Talk about a fan club!
It has been said that when small children are asked to sketch mountains, they draw something very similar to the Grand Tetons. These are the classic-shaped peaks that most of us see in our minds before we ever get a real glimpse. The jagged mountains seem to soar directly skyward, with no foothills to ease the transition. When I visited, the peaks had a covering of snow, still clinging firmly in June, adding sharp contrast to the color scheme.
Each peak has a name; the tallest is Grand Teton, at 13,770 feet, give or take a few inches. The most prominent peak in the northern end of the range is Mount Moran, at 12,605 feet. In early summer large chunks of snow can be seen sliding downward, casualties of the sunshine and gradually warming daytime temperatures. Whether you are age 9 or 90, these are the mountains of our imagination. They can be mesmerizing, too, drawing one’s eyes away from all else.
The mountain range and the desire to protect it resulted in the establishment of Grand Teton National Park in 1929. Over time, more land was added, creating the present-day park. The park’s northern boundary touches the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and its southern portion reaches nearly to the town of Jackson. It encompasses Jackson Lake, a portion of the Snake River, and several other lakes as well.
This is the great outdoors, meant to be enjoyed by whatever means “” foot, boat, or wheels. The wildlife alone makes the visit worthwhile, but you won’t soon forget the mountains.
You do not have to be a river rafter by any stretch of the imagination to thoroughly enjoy a two-hour float trip on the Snake River. Note the word “float.” The gentle current makes this adventure suitable for all ages, with no experience necessary. Participants sit on the rim of the raft (life jackets are required). The pace is leisurely, and the trip is narrated.
While on the river trip we were privileged to spot a mature bald eagle. From its position atop a lodgepole pine tree, the white head was unmistakable. Unlike some of our other feathered friends that quickly flit away, eagles remain still until they find prey, allowing their audience a long, thorough look.
A lunchtime cookout at water’s edge was included, rounding out the excursion. More than one concessionaire offers this watery trek; for a list, visit www.jacksonholenet.com or contact the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce using the info provided at the end of this article.
Hiking is another way to fully experience the park. More than 200 miles of hiking trails are available, and you need not be a serious hiker, since some are easy walks. Wherever you go, be aware that this is bear country. If you travel on foot, make some type of noise. This alerts bears to your presence and helps you avoid surprising them. Some hikers wear bells, shout, or sing as they go.
Horseback riding, fishing, and boat cruises on Jackson Lake are other popular activities within the Tetons.
The Moose Visitor Center, the southernmost facility in the park (12 miles north of Jackson), contains endangered species exhibits, a relief model of the park, and an introductory video. A bookstore, maps, activity schedules, and even a post office are located nearby.
Near the Moose Visitor Center, you can visit both Menor’s Ferry and the small but lovely Chapel of the Transfiguration. William Menor came to the valley in 1894 and made his homestead beside the Snake River. He constructed a simple platform ferry that became a vital crossing point for the early settlers. Menor’s original whitewashed cabin still stands, and today is accompanied by a general store and other outbuildings. Pick up a pamphlet at Menor’s Ferry for more details about the site.
The chapel continues as a house of worship today. It sits alone and austere, against a fine backdrop of mountains. The structure may be simple, but its setting is nothing less than spectacular, and you’ll itch to grab your camera.
The Colter Bay Visitors Center, located on the eastern edge of Jackson Lake, is home to the Indian Arts Museum. The center offers a nice selection of books about the park and the region, no doubt hard to find elsewhere. Rangers are on duty to answer questions and hand out maps. The museum contains a variety of American Indian artifacts, including a fine exhibit of decorative moccasins.
In terms of great scenic drives, Grand Teton National Park has them. Teton Park Road is part of a 42-mile loop, with access points at Moose Junction to the south, Jackson Lake Junction to the north, and Moran Junction to the east. Turnouts afford a place to take in the views.
Off of this road is Signal Mountain Summit Road, a highly recommended, five-mile drive (10 miles round trip) that offers terrific views of the entire Tetons Range, Jackson Lake, and most of the Jackson Hole valley. This narrow road climbs 800 feet and is full of turns, so a towed car or SUV is your best vehicle choice.
The Snake River Overlook offers yet another classic panorama of the mountains, with the gently curving Snake River as the foreground. Blacktail Ponds Overlook is a great place to spot deer, moose, osprey, and eagles.
If you prefer to relax for a bit and leave the driving to others, scenic bus trips around the park are another option. These trips are fully narrated and provide a great introduction to the area. You can go farther afield, in fact, all the way to Yellowstone National Park for the day via motor coach “” the tour bus variety. Be warned: the overview will only whet your appetite for more.
Since Yellowstone National Park is just north of Grand Teton, many visitors arrange to see both parks in one trip. If you decide to do this, I’d suggest at least three days at each. And here’s another tip: for optimum wildlife viewing, be sure to bring your binoculars.
For a dinner experience with a view, try the Mural Room at Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge is located northwest of Jackson Lake Junction. As you might guess, this restaurant is so named for its murals; these were painted by Carl Roters and illustrate scenes from the historic fur-trading period in Jackson Hole “” mountain men included. However, the large picture windows might keep your eyes riveted in the other direction, toward nature’s artwork. Either way, your taste buds will be happy. Dinner reservations are suggested (307-543-2811, ext. 1911).
If you do visit Jackson Lake Lodge for dining or simply to stop at the gift shop, make a note to see the special pine table in the lobby. In 1989 one of the most important meetings ever to take place at the lodge brought together U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze. The representatives of the two nations signed a statement of peace and friendship on this very table, an event that helped establish the end of the Cold War.
Another fine dining option in an intimate setting is the five-course dinner offered at Jenny Lake Lodge. Jackets for gentlemen are appreciated. This cozy cabin in the wilderness has played host to many celebrities over the years. Again, be sure to make reservations (307-733-4647).
Other, less-expensive restaurants include the Chuckwagon Steak and Pasta House and the John Colter Cafe Court, both at Colter Bay Village.
If time allows, ride the aerial tramway to the top of the mountain at Teton Village, just south of the park. The view from above is wonderful. But wear your jacket, as the temperatures are much cooler up there.
Grand Teton National Park
P.O. Drawer 170
Moose, WY 83012-0170
(307) 739-3300 (headquarters)
Entry to the park for seven days costs $20 per vehicle. This fee is good for both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. The National Parks Pass, Golden Eagle, Golden Age, and Golden Access passports are honored.
Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 550
Jackson, WY 83001
Grand Teton National Park operates five campgrounds within its boundaries (Jenny Lake is for tent camping only), and sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. The fee is $12 per night per site. Check with the park headquarters prior to your visit, because some campgrounds have length restrictions of 30 feet.
Two campgrounds within the park are operated by a concessionaire, and they offer full hookups and ample accommodations for motorhomes: Colter Bay RV Park (800-628-9988) and Flagg Ranch Resort (800-443-2311). Other commercial campgrounds are located outside the park; check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at www.fmca.com.