Ambivalence About Grand Teton National Park


After the jaw-dropping visit to Glacier, my wife and I headed for another national park we never visited. Grand Teton was predictably snowed in ten years ago when we drove past on our way to Yellowstone. We’d finally get to see what many consider the most beautiful mountain range of the Rockies. The experience was a mixed bag, as I’ll explain.

We had a choice of three routes between Butte (MT) and Jackson (WY). The fastest would have been to skirt Yellowstone altogether via I-15. Time was a factor; we had to get to Teton Village by 5pm for a tour. Still, to skip Yellowstone while in the area would seem like an opportunity lost. Could we at least witness Old Faithful?

Confident, I opted to drive into the heart of Yellowstone, then take the south entrance out. Big mistake. As is becoming more commonplace at national parks, Old Faithful was overwhelmed by tourists with traffic to match. A visitor center ranger informed me that Teton Village was another 2½ hours away. We couldn’t spare 45 minutes until the next Old Faithful eruption, so we reluctantly hopped back in the car but got to drive through a part of Yellowstone we missed last time, Yellowstone Lake.

I took this picture of Old Faithful in April 2007

Yellowstone and Grand Teton could almost be mistaken for a single park. They’re separated by a blink of an eye, a mere 8 miles via Highway 89 (half that, if you consider park boundaries) which traverses the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.

The parks couldn’t be more different in character. Yellowstone, of course, is a showcase for the world’s greatest geothermal attractions. An enormous caldera is all that remains of several stupendous volcanic explosions that literally wiped out all living things for hundreds of miles around. To me, the idea of a still active supervolcano that could literally go off at any time is a little unnerving.

The Tetons, on the other hand, are a picture-perfect mountain range that rises majestically above the Snake River plateau, the result of massive fault-blocking from the stretching of the North American continent and of plate tectonics. Glaciers gave the Tetons their present rugged shape.

As an anecdote, French Canadian trappers are linked to the naming of both parks. Yellowstone (or, yellow stone) is the English translation of the name given to the river by the trappers (Roche Jaune), the equivalent of the Hidatsa tribe’s name for it. Another story goes that trappers saw fit to name three peaks Les Trois Tetons after female breasts, the biggest called Grand Teton. Some historians, maybe motivated by Victorian propriety, insisted that they were named after the Teton (Titunwan) Indian tribe. Guess which story endures? Regardless, the park continues to be known by its French name which most of us can repeat without embarrassment.

Because of the Yellowstone detour, we barely made our rendezvous time with BrushBuck Guide Services in Teton Village for a wildlife viewing tour, the reason we were strapped for time after leaving Butte. It was also why I couldn’t afford to stop to take snapshots. I had to suck it up as we passed Snake River Overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous photo.

We only got to the Village a half hour before the tour. Over its four-hour length, we did get to see some animals: pronghorn antelopes, moose, ground squirrels, elk and bison, but no bears, bighorn sheep or wolves. It was too much to expect to see them up close, so we were happy enough with binoculars, telephoto lens, telescope or our own eyes.

At one overlook, our guide was able to spot with her telescope an animal practically camouflaged by trees and shrubbery.

See if you can spot what the guide saw with her telescope

As in any tour where wildlife sighting is hit or miss, the guide filled the time with lots of interesting facts on the area’s landscape, history and biology.

The next day, our hikes started on the other side of glacially carved Jenny Lake which we crossed by shuttle boat (for a fee). (You can also walk around the lake.) At the landing, the trail splits to the left and right, the left leading to Hidden Falls and Cascade Canyon, the right to Inspiration Point and Paintbrush Canyon. The falls were a real gem. There was no evidence of it at first, just Cascade Creek roaring through a chasm.

Cascade Creek

But a short walk to the side of a foot bridge revealed why it’s called Hidden Falls because it suddenly came into view.

Hidden Falls

Inspiration Point took longer to reach. It had expansive views of Jenny Lake.

Inspiration Point

Photographers have been inspired to capture the Tetons like Ansel Adams did—as a dramatic backdrop to the Snake River, a juxtaposition of craggy range and sinuous waterway. The most striking images are a combination of mountains, river, golden hour light and clouds. Because I never got an opportunity to take this shot, I’ll share again an image taken by Jim Brandt (who is husband of my wife’s cousin) in October 2013. It’s plain to see that Teton’s appeal owes much to how the absence of foothills accentuates the drama of the range.

Teton range (by Jim Brandt, October 2013)

We spent only two nights in Jackson. Is that enough time to spend in the Tetons? The answer is an obvious ‘no,’ but we had little choice. My wife and I would love to have stayed longer, but the rate at one of the chain motels (hint: it has a number in its name, and it isn’t 6), nothing to write home about, was an astronomical $265 per night! This is what you can expect to shell out during prime summer months. Most other inns and lodges, including those throughout the park, will ream you even more. It’s hard to know if ‘gentrification’ by the rich and famous who live here caused this or the properties are just taking advantage. While the Tetons are a beautiful public treasure, it’s likely I’ll never return, the first time I’ve ever felt this way about a national park.

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Even Mounting Problems Won’t Take Anything Away from Glacier National Park


“It doesn’t get any better than this.”

So beamed the driver to a passenger on the park shuttle to Logan Pass. “I love this job,” he added, admitting he’d been doing it for many years and still amazed by the mountainous spectacles he sees day in and day out. You can imagine the effect they have on first-timers, like me, wowing us with mouth-dropping views spread over a million acres.

It wasn’t too long ago that visitors to Glacier National Park were able to see many more glaciers than today (150 recorded in 1850), which surely heightened the dramatic impact. But, global warming has been taking its toll here as elsewhere, to the point where the vestiges of 26 remaining glaciers will disappear by 2030, a mere thirteen years from now. Just before our arrival, temperatures had been in the 90s for two straight weeks.

Even with this unfortunate circumstance, the park will continue to draw ever more visitors, easily 3 million last year, with more expected this year. And why the popularity?

There are unparalleled vistas for sure. For me, it’s the dramatic shapes of these mountains, like Mount Grinnell or Mount Clements, standing solo, with knife-edged ridges or pyramidal shapes, thrusting up thousands of feet. The most popular way to see many of them is along the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road, 50 miles of thoroughfare into the heart of the park. Its narrow width at precipitous heights and switchback course demand that you drive slowly and attentively. Many drivers are intimidated by fear of heights or congestion. For those who aren’t, chances are high that they won’t find a parking space at the most popular stops, like Avalanche Creek and Logan Pass. Visitors may choose instead to take the free park shuttles that deliver them to various stops along the road or, better yet, to take the famous Red Buses (not free), vintage buses originally introduced in the 1930s and since restored (and updated) by the Ford Motor Company.

I was too late to reserve any red bus tour, so we took the shuttle on the first day. We waited in line at the Apgar Visitor Center for 1.5 hours, a real test of patience when I wanted to maximize my park experience.

When we got to Logan Pass, the triple continental divide and highest point (6646ft/2025m) reachable by car in the park, the fields were covered in wildflowers, especially glacier lilies, and a mountain goat, marmot and ground squirrel made brief appearances.

Mount Clements and alpine scenery at Logan Pass

Mountain goat in a field of glacier lilies, Logan Pass

Ground squirrel, Logan Pass

The following day, I did drive on the Sun Road to get from West Glacier to East Glacier. Not a problem, though I had to keep my eyes fixed on the road. Fortunately, there were many pullovers for gawking at one breathtaking vista after another, the contrast between towering peaks and glacier-carved valleys, waterfalls tumbling over jagged rock, wildflowers in abundance.

Going-to-the-Sun Road

Haystack Creek Falls

The most beautiful sight, in my opinion, is the one from Many Glacier Hotel that looks out over Swiftcurrent Lake at Mount Grinnell and its neighbors. It would be grand to have this view out the window of one of the hotel rooms, but the privilege would cost you a pretty penny, in the neighborhood of $220 to $460 per night, depending on type of room, less for rooms with no lake view.

Mount Grinell overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake behind Many Glacier Hotel

Spectacular in its own way is Highway 49 that originates from East Glacier Park northward. It too is a two-lane winding road that joins Highway 89 along the eastern edge of Glacier.

Lower Two Medicine Lake from Hwy 49

National parks are more popular than ever, Glacier included, but they are challenged to handle the growing attendance and to fix their crumbling infrastructure. I had to maneuver carefully over and around lots of potholes on the road to Many Glacier. Parking lots are routinely filled to capacity. I had to pass up several along the Sun Road nor could I park at the St. Mary Visitor Center. The free shuttle system is scrambling to handle the expanding number of riders. Some of the more popular trails are abundant with hikers. These are the unfortunate realities nowadays.

Despite a list of mounting problems, I highly recommend a visit to Glacier National Park, but during the summer months, be sure to reserve your room (and red bus tours) well in advance and be prepared for a human onslaught.

Beyond Lake McDonald (Glacier National Park)


How much more reward could I get when I first got to Glacier National Park than to have this view just steps from my room? Lake McDonald was only a teaser for the best was yet to come.