Grand Tetons: Wonders of the Wild
The people who take the time to catalog such things report that there are about 900 species of wildflowers in Grand Teton National Park. That’s good to know, because most of us are never going to look down while we are here: We are going to be looking up.
The Grand Teton range is a relentlessly spectacular, 40-mile-long series of serrated peaks. Jutting dramatically from the broad Jackson Hole (pioneers’ term for a valley), the Tetons may be North America’s most impressive mountain panorama. To stand awhile gazing at them is to ponder mankind’s tentative position in the planet’s scheme.
As with Yellowstone, just a few miles to the north, this park is the result of massive geologic activity: About 9-million years ago, two huge slabs separated, one rising to fashion the mountains, one dropping to form the valley.
While the tallest peak, Grand Teton, soars to 13,770 feet, it has to vie for attention with 11 partners that top 12,000 feet. Their jagged, gray granite faces are laced with patches of snow and with glaciers. Trees seem to quit their climb early on these slopes; even the valley’s green carpet abruptly halts to let the mountains rise.
Awesome yet approachable
But the Tetons can be approached and even scaled: There are more than 200 miles of hiking trails that wend around the sparkling lakes and up into the mountains.
For instance, you can circle pretty Jenny Lake in just six miles or take a turn-off at the south end to find the aptly named Hidden Falls, whose sound reaches the hiker’s ears long before the waterfall appears through the trees.
Two paved roads run north and south through the park, roughly parallel to the mountains on the west, and there are enough scenic overlooks to fill even a big memory card.
But for a languid look at the Tetons, get aboard one of the popular raft-floats on the Snake River, flowing about 6-8 miles from the mountains. The trip is calm, the young people handling the steering oars are full of history, corny jokes and naturalist lore. They are also quick to point out the eagles, ospreys, waterfowl, wading birds and beavers’ lodges on the river and its shores.
When people lived here
While several Indian tribes had migrated regularly through the flat valley, the first white settlers brought cattle herds here in the late 19th century. Just a trace of this pioneering effort remains, so it’s worth a stop at the Cunningham Cabin Historic Site, on the eastern edge of the park.
Pierce Cunningham had led the effort to have the area proclaimed a national park, which came to pass in 1929; more land was added in 1950, making the park 485 square miles.
Another remnant is the Menor’s Ferry Trail, where a half-mile path takes visitors to look at homesteading ways, including a replica of a turn-of-the-century ferry across the Snake.
Close by is the 71-year-old Chapel of the Transfiguration, a tiny church that features a special backdrop to its altar: a picture window showcasing the Tetons.
Horseback rides, lasting from an hour or so to overnight camping trips, are a special way to enjoy the back country, or you can pedal your bicycle along the paved roads – no bikes allowed on the trails.
For a brief foray on the water, check at the Colter Bay Visitor Center for the breakfast and dinner trips to an island in big Jackson Lake. The grilled steaks taste special amid the natural splendor. The wildlife enhances the meals: Rare sandhill cranes shatter the stillness as they call from their nesting area, and white-tail deer prance by the picnic tables.
Back at the Colter Bay Visitor Center, make time to visit the well-done Native American art. Creativity and craftsmanship are the focus. The center also shows films on wildlife and on Native American history.
Best of all, when you step back outside and turn around, those marvelous mountains are there, defining the horizon and encouraging you to dream.
If you go
Grand Teton National Park is on the western edge of Wyoming, just north of the city of Jackson, which has commuter plane service.
The park is open year-round, but visitor centers and concession services in the park close in the late fall through the winter. Snowshoe and snowmobiling trips are available in the winter.
For information about Grand Teton National Park, call (307) 739-3300 or go to www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm.
The park has five campgrounds with 865 sites, and five hotels that offer rooms and rustic cabins. For information on accommodations, contact the Grand Teton Lodge Co., (800) 628-9988 or go to www.gtlc.com.
For lodging in Jackson, a few miles to the south, go to the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce site, www.jacksonholechamber.com/lodging/hotels-motels-lodges.php.