Think of the Grand Tetons and your will mind go immediately to pristine snow covered jagged peaks against a brilliantly crisp blue sky. You would be correct. And there’s so much more to the Grand Tetons National Park: iconic ranches in the near distance, glacier carved lakes to reflect the mountain’s majesties, dramatic foliage at any time of year and especially in the fall, wonderful glimpses of wildlife, broad swaths of blooming wildflowers, hiking trails with discoveries around every corner, and water activities that take you where the roads cannot go.
Grand Teton National Park can be crossed south to north on US Highway 89. Route 89 is a two lane highway, leading out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You may want to make Jackson your starting out or your destination depending on your own inclinations; it offers a great array of shops, lodging and eateries. Stop first at either the Jackson Visitor’s Center or the Craig Thomas Discovery Center to gather information about your visit. Keep in mind that in prime tourist season the road is congested, and at any time of year traffic may stop unexpectedly to observe the scenery. You are always aware of the looming mountain ridge to the west, and as you move up the valley, you feel the peaks getting larger and more impressive. The range of mountains is every child’s drawing of mountains, in living rock, as you see the sweep of Albright Peak, Static Peak, Buck Mountain, South Teton, Nez Perce, Middle Teton, Grand Teton, Mt. Owen and Teewinot (the Shoshone Indian word meaning “many pinnacles”) Mountain.
Keep a sharp eye out for bison — you may find a herd of them crossing the road in front of you, or strolling leisurely down the yellow line in the middle of the road. Stay inside your vehicle, watch and enjoy the thrill. As you drive, you will probably see some if not all of the Park’s animals including, bison, wild horses, elk, bear, moose, muledeer, pronghorn, antelope, fox and coyote. Mornings are usually best for animal sightings.
Popular and not-to-be-missed elements of the park include the 42 Mile Loop, with its pull-out overlooks to give you views of the park’s features at Teton Point Overlook, Snake River Overlook, Cathedral Group Overlook, Teton Glacier Overlook and Oxbow Overlook. Teton Park Road runs to the west from Route 89; it offers drivers closer scenes of the Teton Range as well as Jenny Lake. The smaller roads to explore, such as Signal Mountain Road and Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, give you iconic views of the Park’s natural features. Do keep in mind that the seasons are very important to consider when you plan a visit. US 89 is the only one of these roads that are open during the winter.
Historic structures in the Park are few but evocative. See the Moulton family’s barns along Mormon Row, dating to the 1890s, by taking Antelope Flats road off the highway to reach them. The barns are in their best light at sunrise or soon thereafter. See the Chapel of the Transfiguration, in the community of Moose, oriented to frame the view of the Cathedral group of peaks through the window behind the altar. The chapel was built in 1925. Jackson Lake Lodge is a beautiful hotel in a fabulous setting; the view from the lobby or terrace are dramatically gorgeous. Even if you are not staying at the lodge do plan to stop and see it; you may wish to splurge for a meal in the Mural Room where bison steak and elk tenderloins are usually on the menu. Speaking of splurge meals, consider a sumptuous evening at the Dining Room at Jenny Lake Lodge. Plan to have lunch at Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company, in Moose, with its great food and incredible views; it is one of the local best-kept secrets.
The Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve is another of the Grand Tetons’ best–kept secrets, with the park’s only level hiking trails, verandah views and reflection area. Until 2007, this was a privately owned retreat on the shores of Phelps Lake, which was intentionally transformed at a cost of more than $20 million, and transferred to the nation, by the Rockefeller family.
Try to experience the park at sunrise, and sunset, as well as throughout the day. Watch the light. If you have a partly cloudy day, the dance of light and shadow across the valley will provide you ever changing visual wonders. The long deep shadow as sunset approaches is unfailingly dramatic.