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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