As we drove US 26 westward on our journey to the famous Grand Teton National Park, we came upon the crest of a hill that provided us with a view of one of the most dramatic and sublime scenes that North America has to offer. The expansive Grand Teton mountain range laid before our very eyes. The massive gray peaks with their sawtooth appearance were juxtaposed against deep green meadows and pine trees; the peaks pierced the deep blue and cloudless sky. There are few few places in the world that mountain ranges have such an imposing appearance. We spent about an hour just standing and absorbing the all encompassing view, wondering how such a beautiful place came into being.
We were excited to explore the Grand Tetons and all they had to offer. Below are some of the many things we found to do at Grand Teton National Park.
1. Cruising Through Scenery
The Tetons uplifted about 9 million years ago, pretty much just yesterday in the span of geologic time. It was about the same time the San Andreas Fault was starting to tear California apart; the Grand Canyon was still pretty full of dirt. The youth of the Tetons is the very reason why the mountain range has such a classic and striking relief to it. There hasn’t been much time to weather down the craggy peaks. Because of the shape of the mountain range and the lines created by the uplift and erosion, the mountains look as if they’re in motion, still reaching and thrusting ever higher into the sky.
But the mountains, although the main feature of Grand Teton National Park, are not all of the scenery. There are beautiful streams that feed into the Snake River, the awesome and powerful river that winds its way in front of the range, carrying the debris shed off the mountains for millions of years. Then there is the expansive Jackson Lake, when on a clear and windless morning provides a second Grand Teton range, equal in beauty and piercing the earth downward in reflection.
Many of the scenes are enhanced by giant pines, grand cottonwoods, bison, elk, and coyotes, and early settlers’ rough wooden fences and rustic cabins and barns. The beauty of this place is all around, we never had to look for it. Cruising the roads around the park provided incredible views in every direction.
Grand Teton National Park has some excellent hiking trails. Like many of the national parks, the trails allow you to explore rivers, lakes, historic cabins and farms, waterfalls, and of course the Grand Tetons themselves. The Grand Teton National Park website has a great page dedicated to hiking options with a bunch of simle but helpful hiking guides whether your destination is a tranquil lake, mountain meadow, or long trek into the high country.
3. Jenny Lake
Jenny Lake is a popular and beautiful lake in Grand Teton National Park that is easily accessible to anyone wanting to enjoy the water by the mountains. The lake was created by an ancient glacier that flowed out of the Grand Tetons and down into the valley below. It pushed huge amounts of debris in front of it, and as the climate warmed and the glacier retreated, it left a giant dam of material. The glacial meltwater filled the depression to form Jenny Lake. The melting snow and glaciers continue to provide a source of freshwater for the crystal clear lake.
We hiked around the south side of the lake to some nice cascades of one of the streams rushing down from the mountain peaks into the lake. An added treat at Jenny Lake is the optional boat ride we took from the west side of the lake back to the east side where there are many places to buy food and picnic spots to enjoy the view with a meal. The ride lasts just a few minutes, but for about $10 each, we were afforded a unique perspective of the mountains right from the lake itself.
4. River Rafting
It had been a long time since we had last taken a river rafting trip. Probably our rafting trip in Haines, Alaska was the most recent, in 2000. There are two river rafting companies that do rafting trips in the Tetons, one was born out of the other. At one time, there was just one outfit and they were the only ones doing rafting trips. Over time, the owners split up, now offering different trips, one inside the park and one outside. There are many options for whatever you’re looking for. There are day long trips, whitewater trips, sunset trips to spot animals, and the trip we took which was a 2-hour float through the park on the Snake River through Grand Teton National Park.
The rafting trip was a great experience. Our guide from Barker-Ewing Scenic Float Trips turned out to be one of Jackson Hole’s City Councilman, Jim Stanford. Jim was a great guide and clearly knew so much about the area, the park, and the history of Jackson Hole. He was able to simultaneously explain the life of the river, point out wild life including beavers and bald eagles, and with the next sentence talk about the challenges of balancing nature preservation with the desire for land development and use of the beauty that surrounded us. He did all of this while effortlessly (seemingly so) guiding us down the powerful Snake River.
The views from the river were spectacular. At times we were so deep in the valley we couldn’t see the mountains, and then all of a sudden, there were the Tetons in full and glorious view. It was peaceful to watch the deer, beavers, and bald eagles all going about their daily lives, almost oblivious to our presence. What a great experience to enhance our trip to the Tetons.
5. Animal Watching
One of the greatest assets of our National Parks is the preservation and protection of wildlife. Nowhere else can you get so close to majestic beasts that seem oblivious to us and don’t view us as a threat. At one time, there were millions of North American Bison roaming the plains the United States. It was an amazing sight to see, now recreated for us only in the movies, giant herds of bison roaming the grasslands. At least were still fortunate to be able to witness these great beasts, in smaller herds to be sure, in some areas of the west.
We were riding back one evening from Jackson to our campground int he park when we rounded a bend and were presented with a most sublime view of a herd of perhaps 300 bison, lazily grazing in a meadow. We stopped the motorcycle and shut off the engine, and we pulled out our cameras to capture the peaceful moment. The bison are such magnificent beasts. They are so beautiful with their massive bodies, powerful heads, durable coat, and imposing horns. But all they could concern themselves with at that moment was just feeding their massive bodies.
We did get the chance to see them running around, rubbing up against trees, and engaging in what appeared to be battles. I only imagine they were likely just “playing” almost like kids running around and bouncing of of each other, releasing the energy of the day. But simply to see them at sunset in this gorgeous place, just peacefully existing as they have done for millenia, was the end to a perfect visit at Grand Teton National Park.