We went to Grand Teton National Park for the first time in 1985 as an extension of our first visit to Yellowstone. The parks are virtually adjacent in NW Wyoming, so there is little sense in going all that way and doing one without the other. All of our trips are planned as loops with a primary destination in mind and several additional places going and coming. Thus, we have visited a thousand places on our way to or from someplace else.
The two parks, though neighbors, offer quite different experiences. You are undoubtedly familiar with the main reasons to visit Yellowstone: amazing wildlife, Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone Lake, maybe even fly fishing for cutthroat trout. Drive an hour south, and the primary focus at Grand Teton is definitely on the spectacular mountains themselves. The Tetons are awe-inspiring because of the way ragged peaks rise abruptly from the valley floor like a trumpet blast announcing the arrival of the king. No foothills, just whango! up they go all sparkly in the sun.
All winter long, winters before 2020 anyway, the mountains attract skiers from all over the world. In May, they are still mostly snow covered. As the snow melts, the wildflowers burst forth in successive waves of color as balsamroot gives way to lupines, Indian paintbrush, columbines, wild geraniums and roses, bluebells, spring beauty, and hundreds of other varieties. By midsummer, the dry valley floor is dominated by sagebrush but there are still flowering plants along any of the trails that take you to moister ground at higher elevations. When the huckleberries and thimbleberries are ripe, you may have to share them with the bears. The bears seldom object to sharing, though some may grumble among themselves about all the #$%& tourists.
We think the easiest and best way to get quickly acquainted with the Tetons is to make a scenic loop trip around the edge of the valley. And I might as well take this opportunity to get all pedantic on you. Jackson, Wyoming is the famous upscale resort town at the south end of the park. Jackson Hole is the valley itself, not the town, and most of the Hole is the national park.
Assuming you begin at Jackson, take the well-marked road from the elk-antler park in the center of town into the Tetons. Just past the National Elk Refuge and the airport, turn left and cross the Snake River to reach Moose Village. Actually, there is not much village at Moose Village, but there is a wonderful visitor center where you can view high-quality exhibits, pick up maps and advice from rangers, and buy a few tchotchkes at the park store. Before crossing the river, you will have passed Dornan’s where there are shops and restaurants, but we think you should save Dornan’s for the end of your loop trip. You have to go there, of course, but not first.
A park entrance station is just beyond the visitor center. Take a right for the historic Chapel of the Transfiguration and Menor’s Store and Ferry. Get pictures of the chapel with the mountains behind it. Then go inside and shoot the Cathedral Group of the Tetons through the window behind the altar. At Menor’s, an authentic old rustic store, you can buy old-timey stuff, including a cold sarsaparilla—the favorite beverage of wimpy guys in old westerns. If the cable ferry is operating, you can take the short trip across the Snake just to see how it is done. (One year the ranger even let Shirley drive.) The ferry lands at the back side of Dornan’s—but you don’t want to go there yet.
Continuing along the park road, you will climb a slight rise and round a curve where you will suddenly find your jaw resting in your lap. After you have pushed it back into place, pull into the parking area and take a few hundred more photos. Many of them should feature your companions jumping up and down, waving their arms, and grinning like fools. Yes, I know it sounds silly, but thousands of tourists do it every single day in the Tetons. Even little blue-haired ladies with aluminum walkers insist on jumping and grinning.
Watch out for herds of pronghorns as you continue along the road and herds of bicyclists on the paved trail that parallels it. The bike path occasionally crosses the road, so look out for small children and adults who are not quite clear on what STOP means. If you have more than one day in the park—it would be a crime if you did not—you might want to look into renting a bike or even taking an escorted bike tour.
Soon you will come to the parking lot for the Taggart Lake Trail. This is our favorite hike in the Tetons. It is a relatively easy climb of about 1.5 miles over a glacial moraine to a beautiful setting. If a breeze does not ripple the water, the mountains are reflected in the lake. We always arrive as early as we can because both the parking area and the trail get more crowded every year. When you have seen it, you will understand why. The trail follows a tumbling mountain stream and passes through an old wildfire area where new growth is rapidly replacing the standing dead trees. From the lake, you can just retrace your steps to the trailhead, but we prefer to have a snack on our lunch rocks and take the connecting 2.5-mile Beaver Creek Trail back down.
On up the road from the trailhead is Jenny Lake where you’ll find a ranger station, visitor information, places to get snacks and souvenirs, a canoe/kayak rental, and a ten-minute boat ride across the lake to Hidden Falls. Our second favorite hike is around the south shore of the lake to the falls and from there up the sheer cliff side to Inspiration Point for grand views of the lake and the Hole. Frankly, we have not done that recently because it has become extremely difficult to get a parking space even in the very sizeable lot that was recently made even sizeabler.
Just north of Jenny Lake is the one-way Scenic Drive that doubles back along the shore. About half way is a parking area for String Lake, which is connected to Jenny by a very short stream. The trail around String is our third favorite hike because it passes through lodge pole pines on the east shore before climbing along the open slope on the west side of the lake. Great views—as there are literally everywhere—and wildflowers in the open meadows. Taking the Scenic Drive means duplicating a short stretch of your route north, but the time is well rewarded. Besides, you are going to be stopping again at all of the pullouts between Jenny and Jackson Lake anyway. Even if you are one of the poor souls with only one day in the park, you can spare a few minutes to stop and gawk. That’s why you are there after all.
What you may not have time for, more’s the pity, is the detour up Signal Mountain. From the summit you can look back the full length of the Hole and across Jackson Lake to the mountains. It is a great place for sunsets. Schedule permitting, you can do that the next day or the day after. Or on your next visit because, once you have been there, you will want to return.
Jackson Lake, the largest in the Tetons, was formed by a dam where you might want to stop for a look. If you walk out on the lake side of the dam, you can see thousands of trout just a few feet below you bunched up against the wall of the dam. Beyond the dam is Jackson Lake Junction. To the left, the Rockefeller Parkway takes you up to Yellowstone. On the lake shore, quite stunning in this stretch, is Jackson Lake Lodge with panoramic views through the 60-foot windows of the dining room. Sure, the view is spectacular, but it is exactly the same view you can get from the deck or from anyplace along the way. Still, there is something special about having a meal (try some bison) with all that magnificence spread out before you. If you are lucky, there will be free performances by orchestral musicians from the Grand Teton Music Festival.
Five miles farther north is Colter Bay Visitor Center with shops, food, and the Indian Arts Museum. But, if you are nervous about the time, turn right at the Junction, instead of left, and stop at one of the most photographed places in the whole world—the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River. Even if you don’t recognize the name, it is pretty much impossible for you not to have seen it on a calendar or a jigsaw puzzle or an old National Geographic. Then continue to Moran Jct. and begin the return drive south on the east side of the Snake. This is not a park road but the highway route through the park. You will be permitted to drive faster, but you will also find several more reasons to stop.
The first reason will probably be a herd of bison that tend to hang out just south of Moran. Get pictures of them with the mountains as the backdrop. A little farther on, stop to see the rather crude, sod-roofed, dirt-floored Cunningham Cabin that will make you abandon all those romanticized images of pioneer life we get from the movies. But it does clearly illustrate the three most important aspects of real estate—location, location, and location. Life in the Hole may have been challenging, especially in winter, but there were evidently some compensatory delights. Today, you can pretend to be a pioneer by staying in one of the private cabins (with actual floors, glazed windows, and shingled roofs) at the nearby Triangle X Ranch—the dude-variety ranch.
Stop at all three pullouts overlooking the Snake and the mountains, then take the road left into Antelope Flats. The three attractions there are the pioneer homesteads at Mormon Row, a good chance to see more bison, and the pronghorns (which are not technically antelopes) for which the area is named. You could continue through the Flats to the village of Kelly and thus back to the highway on your way to Jackson. But you would miss Dornan’s, and I promised you could go there, so turn around and go back to the highway.
Dornan’s is a shopping area with everything a tourist needs: fuel, outdoor sporting goods, food and drink, and T-shirts. In other words, it has what Jackson has but on a much smaller scale.
So, what else could you do in the park if you had more than one day?
- Outfitters offer rafting trips down the Snake inside the park, where the water is gentle, and through whitewater in the canyon just south of Jackson.
- There are seven campgrounds in the park. Jenny Lake CG is tents only, but the rest accommodate both tents and RVs. The days when you could just arrive at the park and feel confident of getting a site are over. See the park website for reservations.
- There are numerous commercial lodging and dining options in Jackson. Within the park, consider the lodges at Jenny Lake, Flagg Ranch, Colter Bay Village, Jackson Lake, or Signal Mountain.
- Horseback rides are available from several locations.
- Lessons in technical mountaineering are available through Exum Mountain Guides and School of American Mountaineering. Even if you are too sensible to do that yourself, you might want to spend a few minutes watching students clinging by fingernails to a sheer cliff, whining pitifully for help.
The Tetons and all the national parks have become so popular that campgrounds and lodges may be booked up six months or more in advance. An option chosen by a huge number of visitors to the Tetons is a guided tour that includes transportation, lodging, and meals. You don’t have to worry about reservations because someone else takes care of that for you. They also decide exactly where you will go and exactly how long you will spend there, as well as when and where you will eat. This works out nicely for people who want to avoid the stress of doing all that pre-trip research and decision making. Not to mention the stress of negotiating a thousand details with their travel companions. (A principal symptom of altitude sickness is irritability. You are hereby encouraged to use “altitude sickness” as the excuse for your totally uncharacteristic ill humor. I always do.)
Once you have acclimated to the altitude, there are no legitimate excuses for ill humor in the Tetons. Cerulean skies, vibrant wildflowers, wildlife, and the simply amazing mountains are guaranteed to make your visit just a walk in the park.
LeMoyne Mercer is the travel editor for Healthy Living News. There is limited space here for LeMoyne’s photos. You might want to see more at anotherwalkinthepark.blogspot.com. Please leave comments on the site.