Virtuoso Life May 2019 The National Park No One Knows: Grand Teton

The National Park No One Knows: Grand Teton

Bison in the park. 
Bison in the park. 
Crowd-free outdoor adventure reigns in Grand Teton, the Serengeti of North America.

The first rose glow of morning light illuminated the jagged peaks of the Teton Range, their base still awash in blue and purple. At the Snake River Overlook, a spot that’s especially spectacular at sunrise and sunset, the river wound through the valley in the foreground as pink light turned to gold. There, nine miles north of the town of Moose in Grand Teton National Park, the only sounds were the breeze in the lodgepole pines, the trill of the song sparrow, and the shimmering clicks of insects. And, in contrast to sunrise at many national parks, I had the soundtrack all to myself.

This vista has been captured countless times by the likes of Ansel Adams and other landscape photographers. By all rights, it should draw hundreds daily, with the light show changing every morning, depending on the clouds or seasons. But at that moment, I was the only human standing there. Later in the day, when the sun warmed the air, the nature-loving masses would arrive. It’s one of the park’s more popular spots, but those who leave the cocoon of their beds to spy the sunrise are rewarded with solitude and majesty.

Scenery on point: A mule deer pauses in front of Teton peaks.
Scenery on point: A mule deer pauses in front of Teton peaks.
Unencumbered by foothills, the Teton peaks rise dramatically from the prairie, forming spectacular granite pinnacles that tower 7,000 feet above the valley floor. The park, established in 1929, initially included only the peaks and a string of glacial lakes set tightly against the mountains’ steep base. In 1950 the adjacent valley floors were incorporated, as well as Jackson Hole National Monument, establishing the current footprint.

Grand Teton National Park is joined to Yellowstone by the 24,000-acre John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. Visitors often combine the two on their itineraries, but the extreme popularity of the latter results in a much more peaceful experience at Grand Teton. Kasey Austin, vice president of operations for tour company Austin Adventures, has planned and led many trips in the park. “It isn’t quite as loved by the general public as Yellowstone because they just don’t know how special and amazing it is,” she says.

The town of Jackson (“One of the coolest towns ever,” Austin says) blends cowboy culture and an outdoorsy ethos – and is within an easy drive of the park. As for the park itself, the most popular times to visit – heading out late morning and returning late afternoon – will, predictably, mean getting caught in traffic. But if you adjust your adventure to avoid the main attractions at peak hours, you’ll have the park (almost) to yourself, and plenty of non-extreme adventure options with it. Here’s a guide to a few of its highlights – no ropes required.
Fly-fishing in Flat Creek. 
Fly-fishing in Flat Creek. 

Water Features

The Snake River, one of the West’s great waterways, begins its journey in southern Yellowstone National Park near the Teton Wilderness, eventually flowing west into Idaho, the Columbia River, and, finally, the Pacific Ocean. This designated National Wild and Scenic River meanders through Grand Teton National Park and provides a variety of choices for those wanting to get closer, from wildlife viewing to world-class fishing to mild rapids, depending on the time of year.

The Snake isn’t the park’s only liquid heart: For many visitors, the region’s lakes exert as much pull as its rugged peaks. From one of the largest and deepest mountain lakes in the country (Jackson Lake) to tiny high-alpine tarns, there are plenty to provide quiet respite, a spot for a refreshing plunge, or hours of boating enjoyment.

Surfers and white-water rafters in Snake River Canyon south of Jackson Hole.
Surfers and white-water rafters in Snake River Canyon south of Jackson Hole.

Trail Mix

The park has more than 200 miles of hiking trails, for everything from easy day hikes to multiday backpacking trips. A big draw for mountaineers is to “climb the Grand,” the Tetons’ highest peak, at 13,770 feet. But those who want a little exhilaration without committing to ropes and harnesses can opt for day excursions that blend outdoor fun with spectacular beauty.

Glacier-carved Cascade Canyon, off the west shore of Jenny Lake, provides views of towering Grand Teton flanked by Mount Owen and Teewinot Mountain – together called “the Cathedral Group” for their resemblance to church spires.

For beginners, Austin suggests the three-mile round-trip jaunt to Taggart Lake, one of the park’s more popular hikes, and String Lake’s four-mile loop. For those who want more of a challenge, she says, “There are any number of longer hikes where you won’t see a soul,” including the aptly named 15-mile round-trip Lake Solitude trek (most people shave five miles off this one by taking a boat across Jenny Lake).
An ascent of the park’s Exum Ridge.
An ascent of the park’s Exum Ridge.

Wildlife Immersion

One of my most cherished moments in Grand Teton National Park was watching three gray wolves play in the valley in front of the dramatic mountain backdrop. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the largest – and last – nearly intact temperate ecosystems in the world, is called the “Serengeti of North America” due to a higher wildlife concentration than anywhere else in the Lower 48. Pro tip: For your first day, ask your travel advisor to organize a wildlife tour. The right guide, with scopes and binoculars, can help you spy wild creatures and get the lay of the land.

Bison and moose often appear right alongside park roads, eagles and ospreys perch near the river and lakes, river otters play on riverbanks, and patient viewers may even see wolves and bears. In the quiet, pink moments of that early morning, when I was the only person at the Snake River Overlook, a rustle in the brush proved I wasn’t truly alone: A coyote joined me for the sunrise.
A great gray owl in the park. 
A great gray owl in the park. 

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