Grand Teton National Park, located in Jackson Hole in the northwestern corner of Wyoming just below Yellowstone National park, has got to be one of my all-time favorite spots in the world. I guess you might say that I have a full-blown love affair with the Tetons that has gone on for most of my life. The jagged, craggy peaks of the Tetons are, I think, the most magnificent scenery in America and certainly deserve to be called the American Alps.
I first went to the Tetons when I was seven years old, in 1947. I grew up in Wyoming and when I was a little kid, our family used to take at least one vacation in the Tetons every year. One of my most vivid childhood memories is pulling into Jenny Lake campground, finding the world’s best campsite, setting up our antique, 100 pound, canvas umbrella tent and listening to the sound of stakes being pounded into the ground, ringing and echoing in the still, pine scented air of the Tetons. Oddly enough, that sound is one of my strongest childhood memories.
I remember the quietness of the Teton forest, the absolute crystalline clarity of the water in Jenny Lake, boat trips on the Jackson Lake, hikes around String lake, fishing in Cottonwood Creek, Crandall’s black and white photography studio, and most of all the towering, hulking, brooding, presence of the Tetons on the other side of the Jenny Lake.
When I was maybe twelve or so, I promised myself that I would be back and that I would climb these mountains one day. And I did; I have returned to the Tetons almost every year since then and I did climb a number of the Tetons including the Grand in my young manhood.
One of the things I most remember about my very early days in the Tetons is the old Crandall photograhy studio at Jenny Lake. As I write this, I look at the wall above my desk where the two black and white photographs of Jenny Lake that my mother bought on her first trip to the Tetons in the early 1930’s still hang. I suspect these photographs still look exactly the way they did the day my mother bought them for $1.40 each, eighty years ago. The price tags are still on the back of the matts. I suspect that these pictures are one of the few surviving remnants of Crandall Studio.
Today, Crandall Photography is long gone It first turned into the ranger station and then into the general store. And Jenny Lake campground now has a waiting list several months long, but almost nothing else here on the shore of Jenny Lake has changed
The Tetons and the surrounding forests and rivers and lakes are the same as they were in my childhood: the waters of JennyLake are just as crystalline, the sky just as blue and the peaks as majestic as I remembered them as a small boy. In the more than sixty years since I first visited the Tetons, few years have gone by that I haven’t found some excuse or another to come back for yet one more visit. If there is a single reason I’m a landscape photographer today, it is almost certainly because of these early experiences in the Tetons.
Even though it’s almost impossible to get a camp spot in the Jenny Lake campground these days, there are other larger campgrounds where it is easy to find a campsite. We usually stay at the Gross Ventre campground which is located at the southern end of the park. Turn east at Gross Ventre Junction which is five miles north of the town of Jackson and drive four miles to the campground. There are usually many shaggy, dark brown buffalo along the road to the campground. Gross Ventre means, more or less, big gut in French. As you drive in to the campground look off toward the east to the Gross Ventre mountains and try to find the large bellied Indian sleeping with his headress flowing out behind him. Signal Mountain and Colter Bay are the other two large campgrounds in the park. All three of the campgrounds are nice places to spend a week or so.
An after-note about the Jenny Lake Campground. If you are biking through the park you can almost always find a camp spot in the biker’s campground at Jenny Lake. You have to be a biker though and be completely car-less. I stayed here in July of 2018, at the high point of the tourist season. When we rolled into the campground at 3:00 PM not a single spot was taken. However, they were almost all taken by early evening.
If you aren’t into camping, there are many motels and hotels in the town of Jackson which is just a mile of two south of the park. A more unique lodging is the Jackson Lake Lodge which is one of the classic National Park Lodges. It isn’t as old or as rustic as the lodges at Yellowstone or Glacier national parks but the views of the Tetons from the grand front hall of the lodge are unforgettable.
The upscale, legendary place to stay in Jackson Hole is Jenny Lake Lodge near Jenny Lake. Be forewarned, you need deep pockets for this place. In the very old days we used to love to tromp into this ritzy place, hot, sweaty, and dirty after a hard climb in the Tetons, wearing our ragged climbing duds and try to gross out the tourists; young men have very silly ideas of what is cool and I definitely was once an inordinately silly young man. In reality, Jenny Lake Lodge is a lovely place and the management was perfectly right to kick us out before we ate all their free cookies.
There is no shortage of memorable views in Jackson Hole. Almost every turnout in the park has a stunning, eye-popping view of America’s grandest mountains. Try to time a least one drive through the park early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Morning views are best, as the Tetons face east and thus catch the morning sun. Here are a few of the most famous views as you drive north from the town of Jackson:
The view from Schwabacker’s Landing is one of the very best and one of the most famous of the dawn views of the Tetons. Schwabackers is just off the main outer road, US 191. Turn west on a signed dirt road (very easy, no problem for passenger cars) that is four or five miles north of Moose Junction. Drive to the end of the road to the parking area and walk north up a small backwater of the Snake River. The views begin right away. There are a series of beaver ponds that reflect the Tetons, and if it’s a good dawn, the rosy light of the rising sun catches the peaks and high ridges of the mountains. In the last few years the beavers have been quite busy and have built such huge dams that a lot of the trees have unfortunately been drowned. However, it is still one of the best places to see the Tetons at dawn and in the early morning. In the summer, the views are good until nine o’clock or so. After watching the dawn, hike north along the slough; this is gorgeous country that really needs to be seen upclose and on foot.
About twenty years ago my life Joan and I were at Schwabacker’s, walking the small path through the tight bushes before dawn, in the dark, with a single almost worn out flash light, on our way to one of the better dawn reflection pools. Suddenly a huge black beast reared up right in faces and went smashing though the bushes what seemed to be scant inches from us. It turned out to be a two ton buffalo that had been sleeping the night by the beaver ponds. We were told later to watch out for the rogue buffalo that had taken to sleeping at the ponds after he had left the main herd; maybe he was sick, maybe he was dying but he definitely was not friendly.
Definitely don’t get close to any of the Buffalo in the Tetons or Yellowstone. They look like slow, friendly docile cattle. Believe me they are not. They are very fast, erratic and violent. I never even think of approaching them.
Back to the scenry. Further north on US 191 is the Snake River Overlook on the west side of the road. This is another great place to greet the rising sun. I have taken many pictures from this overlook over the last 40 years. Ansel Adams took a very famous photograph here in the 1940’s. It’s amazing how little the place has changed since then. The trees have grown up quite a bit and it is hard to see the entire S curve of the Snake River as it is seen in Ansel’s photograph, but little else has changed. Many of the rocky bars in the river and groves of trees and folds of the earth are just as they were when Ansel took his famous picture seventy years ago.
Keep driving north and when you come to Moran Junction turn west toward Jackson Lake Lodge. You will shortly come to the Oxbow of the Snake River. You’ll know you are there when you see all the cars parked along the left side of the road. In spite of all the people, this is great place to watch the sun rise and watch for wildlife. There is almost always a moose or two in the area as well as pelicans, cranes, swans, otter, muskrats, beaver, elk and deer. The dawn reflections of Mount Moran are outstanding.
The three scenic views described above, Schwabackers, the Snake River Overlook and the Oxbow arethe most famous places tourists and photographers congregate to view and photograph the Tetons. Most of the published pictures of the range have been taken at one of these points. However, there are innumerable other great scenic locations where you won’t meet throngs of people. One of our favorite secret places is Hedrick Pond, picured just below. This pond is entirely hidden from the road, it is totally unsigned and almost no one ever finds it. It is located about a mile past The Snake River Overlook on the east side of the road. Go down the hill from the overlook on the highway. Park near the bottom of the hill near a metal and wooden post guard-rail and explore off to the east. There are several unmarked trails that will take you to the lake. It may take you a while to find it, but it is worth while. There are a pair of trumpeter swans that always nest on the lake so be sure to keep a good distance from them as it doesn’t take much to disturb them. The view of the Tetons from the east end of the lake is sensational, especially at dawn. The lake is shallow and full of lilly pads and reeds and can even be dry in a drought year, but it always seems to come back to life the next wet year just fine.
The Jenny Lake, String Lake, Leigh Lake area is also quite spectacular. All three lakes are interconnected by short waterways. Jenny Lake is hugely busy in full summer but it is so special that it can’t be missed. Park at the large parking area and walk around lake or take a motor boat across it to Inspiration Falls on the other side. When I was a very little boy I spent a lot of time in this area playing on the boat dock, throwing pennies to the fish under the boat dock, and fishing in Cottonwood Creek which is the outflow creek of Jenny Lake. Back in the late forties and fifties the main road went directly from Jenny Lake to String lake on a narrow, fir lined road right along side Jenny lake. I have manly great childhood memories of bike rides (complete with memorable bike crashes) along this road. Nowadays this once main road has been turned into a one way road that goes south from String Lake to Jenny Lake. People do drive this road now but the best way to see it is still to bike it. The views are wonderful and Jenny Lake is always magical.
My wife Joan and I were married in a little chapel just inside Teton National Park; Transfiguration Chapel, as it is called, is just north of the Moose Visitor’s Center near the Moose entrance gate. We spent our honeymoon in the park camping in secret, illegal camping spots that no one knew but us. (You’ll have to forgive us, we were young and poor and not very ecologically wise in those days and we camped in places we shouldn’t have, but we were always very, very careful to leave no trace of where we camped except for a few crushed stems of grass.
However, I certainly don’t recommend this practice; I seem to have gotten slightly wiser in my old age. We really do need every blade of grass left in our national parks and the only way we can save them is if we refrain from walking and camping and having fires where the park rangers tell us not to. I would never dream of camping in an unauthorized spot in any National Park these days and I hope you won’t either. Anyway, in our youthful, ignorant bliss we parked at String lake, canoed the waterway to the short portage to Leigh Lake, carried our canoe over to Leigh Lake and then canoed out to Mystic Island at the northern end of the Lake where we camped illegally for several days. We spent a lot of happy hours there hiking in the mostly trail-less area north-west of the lake and climbing the lower slopes of Mount Moran.
There are lots of wonderful places to eat in Jackson Hole. We love all the fresh baked breads and other goodies at the Bunnery in the town of Jackson for both breakfast and lunch. Nora’s Cafe in Wilson is an out-of-the-way place where lots of locals eat breakfast, lunch. In my opinion, breakfast and lunch are Nora’s best meal, plus the prices are very reasonable for a tourist area. I’m not all that fond of their dinners and they are to way too expensive for what you get for me.
The Snake River Grill in Jackson provides the best high-end, gourmet dinners in town. Dornan’s bar and restaurant in Moose is another place where locals congregate. They have wonderful lunches that can be eaten in the rooftop dining area that has some of the best views of the Tetons in the park. Dornan’s bar is also very special; it is well known for its gigantic wine list and the views of the Tetons through the huge bar windows are absolutely breathtaking–the best anywhere.
Signal Mountain Lodge is on Jackson Lake near Signal Mountain. One night after a long, wet, cold, rainy evening of taking pictures on the top of Signal Mountain, we once stopped at Signal Mountain Lodge and had the best bacon-cheeseburgers, sitting in the bar by the warm fireplace that I have probably ever had. It probably wasn’t really the cheeseburgers but the wet, cold rainy evening that preceded them that really made the difference, but still it was a memorable evening. Unfortunanately the great old fireplace in the bar was recently replaced by a gas log fire, but it’s still pretty nice. The main restaurant at Signal Mountain Lodge is pricey and sadly not all that good.
I am often asked when is the best time to visit the Tetons. I suppose the best answer is anytimeyou can make it, as there is something wonderful about each of the seasons. Each time of year has something special to offer. We usually go in the fall, after labor day. The crowds are pretty much gone by then, the aspens are turning their gorgeous yellows and reds and golds, the elk are bugling and the air is usually crisp and clean. We find that the aspen color is usually best in very late September and early to mid October. Most of the campgrounds close around the 12th of 15th or October however.
Winter can be especially beautiful but it is also pretty challenging. There is often a lot of snow in January, February, March and even April and the wind blows a lot in wintertime Wyoming. It is possible to have day after day of snow and ground blizzards or at the least, dull, gray skys. Jacksonites are well know for getting cabin fever around February or March. On the other hand, the cross country skiing can be gorgeous and the downhill skiing is renowned world wide; the ski area at the southern end of the Tetons has some of the largest vertical drops anywhere in the US.
Spring is late and short. It usually happens in mid to late May and early June and is accompanied by lingering snowdrifts, lots of mud, and the breakup of the ice on the lakes. There isn’t much in the way of wildflowers yet, but the moose, elk, deer, buffalo and all kinds of other wild animals are having their babies at this time. The potholes area near Signal Mountain is one the best places to see all see baby wildlife. This makes wildlife watching especially interesting at this time of year.
Summer, which lasts from June through August, is a great time to visit; June is wildflower time on the valley floor with lots of yellow mule ears, sticky geraniums, indian paint brush and many other flowers. June can be a bit rainy but in the hotter, dryer climate we are experiencing now, it’s generally not too bad. All in all, summertime is probably the best time to visit the Tetons except that it is also the time when everyone else visits the Tetons. Even so, as soon as you get off the highways and onto the trails, most of the crowds are gone. Also, I have never failed to find a campsite at the Gross Ventre campground without a reservation, even in mid summer, if I arrive on a week day and not too late in the afternoon.
Here are some other sources of information on Teton National Park