Gajillions of tourists flock each year to Yellowstone, but for our dime, it’s all about Grand Teton National Park.
True, you could scale a mountain face or tramp through a dozen hikes, discovering a little-seen waterfall or tracking a herd of tule elk. But Grand Teton offers more passive pleasures for those, like us, who care to see nature unfold from a seated position.
The roads here are beautifully paved, so you can always put the car window down and gape open-mouthed. But you could also float the willful Snake River, dream awhile by Jenny Lake, wait patiently for the sun to blaze behind the jagged Teton Range, watch wild animals graze in the sagebrush flats while you enjoy a glass of wine, or wander to a hand-hewn bench to see a magnificent floodplain stretch out before the mountains, lake, and forest.
One sixth the size of Yellowstone, Grand Teton is the only national park that boasts an airport within its borders; Jackson Hole is just ten minutes’ drive away. The flight into this area is nothing short of spectacular, unless it’s always been your worst nightmare to swoop down into a towering line of mountains.
The park’s dramatic landscape soars from its snow-sprinkled namesakes to:
Forests in a dozen shades of green;
spongy golden hills like shaved wheaten terriers;
dry plains of bonsai-esque sagebrush;
squishy-soft meadows and marshes;
great big lakes;
and the twisting, braided Snake River.
If you’re looking to stay inside the park, we didn’t find a setting comparable to Jackson Lake Lodge. I initially ran into this little slice of 1950s history to use the ladies’, and ended up fetching Adam in from the car to see the cathedral/lounge.
The fireplaces here are massive, and so are the 60-foot tall windows; inside or out, the sweeping view of the lake, the Tetons, Willow Flats, and a handful of pristine ponds will leave you speechless. If you’re just stopping in, check with the front desk about booking a boat trip on Jackson Lake or dinner in the Mural Room.
Our one meal in the park was a lovely lunch at Jenny Lake Lodge. At this elegant, polished-pine cabin with a mountain meadow view, meals are served on white tablecloths and good china, but the food isn’t overly fussy. Adam loved his portobello panini, my salad had actual green lettuce (not always a given in a national park), and the soup of the day, mushroom lavender, was the perfect accompaniment to the scene outside. Apparently, the rooms here are the fanciest to be found outside of Jackson Hole (and at $500+, you’re definitely paying for it), but the lake is across the road and through the trees, not viewable from the lodge. Your call, but at $269 with a view at the Jackson, this wouldn’t be a hard choice for us.
Jenny Lake itself was our favorite part of the park. Stash your car midway along it — keeping an eye out for foraging elk — and stroll down to the water’s edge for a pebbly little spit of beach cushioned by a fringe of pines. The water is clear and teal blue at the edges, an sun dapples through the shade of the trees; on our late-August visit, a light breeze quietly ruffled the surface. Here, the Tetons themselves appear to rise from the center, and you can clearly see each crag and snowdrift. An occasional canoe will drift by, and so will your sense of time. Not a bad place to fall in love all over again.
A Snake River float will seal the deal. If you have time for only one adventure in Grand Teton National Park, this is it. We had the concierge at our hotel, the Rusty Parrot, set this up for us, but you could also contact Barker-Ewing Float Trips on your own. They offer whitewater trips as well as floats, but going slowly enough to catch animals in their wild habitats appealed to us far more.
We were two of eleven passengers in a sturdy rubber raft, floating for the two prime animal-viewing hours just shy of sunset. It’s calm and quiet on the water, and as the light grows soft, the reeds and marshes glow. Seeing the sun glint over the Tetons just before dusk was especially silent, save for the harp music in our heads.
Our guide, a young guy born and bred just minutes from the park, pointed out every beaver, deer, eagle and osprey, and spun yarns about the river in every aeon and season. The Snake gets choppy and tree-choked in places, but he never lost his bearings or his narrative thread.
In late summer, it’s advisable to wear sneakers or Teva-type sandals, take along a sweatshirt or jacket, and if it doesn’t make you feel too dorky, bring a little pillow for your tush. After two hours, though happy and relaxed, we were lamenting our partial loss of coccyx function.
After ending our float at dusk, we drove one minute up the road to the commercial center of Moose and the ever-popular Dornan’s.
A two-story cafe, bar and comprehensive wine shop, Dornan’s is where locals and tourists alike come to listen to concerts at the Chuckwagon across the parking lot, or have excellent wines, simple salads, pizza and good company in the open air. The hot tables here are first-come-first-serve on the second-floor deck; they look out over a brushy plain beside the Snake and Tetons, a prime viewing spot for evening-foraging elk and bison. By the time we arrived at 8pm, it was wall-to-wall jammed, so we gave up waiting; it was enough for us to just drink in the scene and check out the dizzying array of California reds.
The animals will keep in this protected space — no reason not to go back and see them some other night.
For more of our photos from Grand Teton National Park, please click here.