I’ve posted four photo essays on our visit to Grand Teton National Park. Here is the final Grand Teton post – the narrative.
Grand Teton National Park is in northwestern Wyoming, just north of the town of Jackson and bordering Yellowstone National Park to the north. Located anywhere else in the country Grand Teton would be a headliner but it often finds itself an understudy for being on Yellowstone’s southern border.
A Little History
It was in the early 1800’s that the famous range got the first version of its unorthodox name. French trappers set eyes on the three prominent peaks of the Teton range and christened them “Les Trois Tetons” which translates to the “The Three Breasts.” Men, right? It’s always about the boobs. The name would be shortened to Tetons and then the park would be given its final and current name. The original name for the range was teewinot given it by the Shoshone, the nomadic tribe that occupied the area for thousands of years before the arrival of white fur traders.
Fur traders plied the area and the valley just south known as Jackson’s Hole named after trapper David Jackson (A “hole” was what mountain men termed a high valley surrounded by mountains.) For some.decades fur would be the valley’s big attraction; bringing the Rocky Mountain Fur Company to work the streams for beaver pelts. Beaver hats were all the rage with the rich back east and in Europe. In history there are constants and one of those is that when the rich have an itch that needs scratching someone inevitably gets screwed. In this case it was the North American beaver. Later on it would become the bison.
An area of the park that is half of the current park was designated a national park in 1929 by Calvin Coolidge. Shortly thereafter John D. Rockefeller bought up over 100,000 acres of land south of the new park in the name of what was apparently a shell company called the Snake River Land Company. Rockefeller’s intention was not to develop the land but to help to preserve it. After years of political squabbling between Rockefeller, the federal government and the State of Wyoming, the Snake River Land Company’s holdings were incorporated into Grand Teton National Park in 1950.
A Little Planning
Cora and I visited the park in the autumn when kids were back in school and the summer high season was done. It was a part of a larger trip that included Yellowstone; Cody, Wyoming and a side trip to Pinedale, Wyoming to visit my family.
I’m a planner. Well before a trip I buy one or two travel guides, bury myself in the internet and plan an itinerary that’s as detailed as possible. Before I became a planner Cora and I would arrive in a hotel room, look at each other and say, “Now what’ll we do?” Unfortunately before this trip I miscalculated on two things. One would cost us opportunities and the other would cost us money.
My plan was to avoid the crowds which turn Northwest Wyoming into Disneyland with trees. Cora and I went a little too late in autumn when the park lodging and some of the restaurants were closed as well as all of the outfitters and tour guides. That was mistake number one, costing us the opportunity to go bike riding or horseback riding or to take a boat ride on Jenny Lake. Autumn is apparently a sort of dead time between the busy seasons of summer and winter.
Jackson was still packed, though not as much as it would be in the high season. We spoke with a business owner who told us that on a busy summer day a San Francisco traffic jam would have nothing on Jackson. It was, for her, a double edged sword; good business but lots and lots of people and brutal traffic jams.
Lodging is available both in the park itself or in the town of Jackson on the park’s southern border but make sure that you have reservations. If you plan on staying in the park reserve well in advance and be prepared to spend plenty of coin of the realm for the experience. When we were in the area, the park was a short drive from Jackson. In the high season you might be battling some traffic in and out of the park.
Plan your trip early and check when the outfitters and tour guides close in the fall and reopen in the spring. My suggestion is to squeeze into those few weeks when the crowds are smaller than in the peak season and the guides are still in operation so that you can go rafting or horseback riding, or take a boat or hiking tour or a guided fishing excursion. That would be early autumn and late spring.
Here’s my take on accommodations; as long as I don’t get infested with creepy crawlers or fear for my life when I leave the hotel and I have a place to hang my clothes, take care of the physical necessities and lay my head for a quiet, comfortable night’s sleep I’m usually satisfied. I don’t need a spa or a massage or an in-room whirlpool or plush robes or an adjacent 18 hole PGA approved golf course. That means we’re somewhere north of Motel 6 and light years south of The Ritz-Carlton. But that’s just me. Some want the full experience with a luxury hotel and all the extras being part of the package. For me the destination is the attraction.
We stayed at the Elk Country Inn in the town of Jackson (with the exception of one expensive night at The Rustic Inn at Jackson Hole – more on that later). When possible, I like to opt for a small cabin with a kitchen, giving us the option of cooking if we feel like it. Our Elk Country Inn cabin was clean, and comfortable and well situated on the southern end of Jackson within walking distance of restaurants and the center of town. We had all the usuals that you might ask for; internet, TV, a small fitness center, a clean well equipped kitchen and excellent customer service. Our cabin had two televisions; one in the bedroom and one in the small living room/kitchen area (Cora watched the news which I refuse to watch while travelling and I watched football). The property also has a nice family barbecue and picnic area.
Which takes us to miscalculation number two. DO NOT go to Jackson (or any other travel destination) and assume you can just find a room for the night. We (more properly – I) made that mistake. Our plan was to drive from San Francisco to as far as we could in Nevada and find a room. That was not a problem. The next night we would stop someplace in Idaho and find a simple motel and then get to Jackson on the third night when I had a reservation.
Ah, but I was greedy and wanted to steal some extra hours at Grand Teton and so we made a brutal drive from Fernley, Nevada all the way to Jackson where there was no vacancy to be found. We drove all around Jackson and there wasn’t so much as a cot available.
I was just about to turn the car back down the winding road to Alpine, the next town down, when we finally found a place that said VACANCY. I pulled into the lot of a posh looking inn and dropped Cora off in front of the entrance. “I’ll park the car. If they have a room, take it.” I parked the car and as I walked towards the office two biker guys walked out shaking their heads followed by my wife looking very unhappy. I started to imagine the dull ache and stiffness in my back from spending a night in the car parked at some turnout on a mid-twenty degree night.
“They have a room but the man said it’s 339 dollars,” she told me in a disappointed tone. Well no wonder the bikers left, I thought. I told Cora we’d take it and before she could lodge the protest hovering on her lips I told her that I wasn’t going to take a chance on going back down the road, find nothing only to come back to Jackson and find that the last room in the county was sold.
We were tired, we were depressed, we were hungry and we were sore but we also have a credit card with a 40,000 dollar credit line so hell yes we were taking the room. What good is a credit card if you don’t have it to fix a flat tire, pay for a late night plumber’s visit or get fleeced at a hotel when you were too stupid to not have a reservation?
We went into the reception area and I asked the man, “You have a room available for 339.00?” From the back of the reception desk a humorless woman corrected me; “That’s 389.00, not including fees and taxes.” Well, apparently the meter was running or inflation increases by the minute in Jackson. Cora rolled her eyes at the new price and I could see her temperature start to rise. This is usually where the little Filipina stomps her foot and exclaims “NO!!” The look I shot her warned, “Keep quiet, I’m not going to piss this woman off.” I didn’t know if I was being gouged or not. What I did know is that I wanted a shower, a warm bed and some food in no particular order and I was prepared to pay out the nose; or any other orifice the innkeeper wanted me to pay out of.
I suppose I could’ve suggested to the woman that at this late hour we needed a room and she just happened to have a room to sell that might go empty at that late hour so maybe we could come to a middle ground? I could’ve suggested it but I didn’t because she was clearly not in the mood to play Let’s Make a Deal. I would like to have suggested to her that if she was going to screw me she should at least be pleasant while doing so, but that would have only earned us a cold night in the car. We got the “deluxe king cabin by the creek,” which was a nice room but not for 400 bones. The next morning we went to the place that we had reserved. No problem, all good and I decided to forget my dented credit card until the bill arrived. (Note: I later checked the hotel’s website and found that we were not gouged. The room actually went for what we were charged).
Grand Teton N.P. is where you commune with nature and the town of Jackson is where shopkeepers commune with your wallet; boutique and souvenir. I have a faint recollection from childhood vacations of Jackson as a sort of frontierland with lots of log buildings and wild west trappings like cowboy hats, lever action rifles, six guns, lariats and animal heads on the wall. Wyoming isn’t called the Cowboy State for nothing.
You can still see that at Jackson but the Old West seems a bit understated; almost as if that western stuff is a bit unsophisticated for the Chamber of Commerce. We only saw two cowboy hats during our stay in Jackson and one of them was sitting on my head. It’s a picturesque little town that has apparently decided that it wants to be a mountain version of California’s Napa Valley. In fact I made that remark to a gallery owner who was delighted by the comparison. The comparison translates to a quaint town with expensive charm.
I guess part of that is due to the Jackson area being home to Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock, Dick Cheney and a countless number of corporate big giant heads who get big giant paychecks and have big giant stock options to buy big giant custom homes. That always tends to run up the price tag for both residents and tourists.
For us part of the fun of traveling is the eating. I noted that Jackson has a restaurant run by famous chef Michael Mina. At Michael Mina’s joint you could get a single (one) appetizer pretzel with American cheese for 13 bucks. And if you wanted a beer with your 13 dollar pretzel you could get a Bud Light for 5 dollars. So for 18 dollars you got watery beer, one pretzel and cheese that probably wasn’t real cheese. I’ve done much better at the ballpark and let’s face it ballparks are notorious for being a rip off. And so we opted for a different place to eat.
On that night we went to a restaurant called The Gun Barrel Steak and Game House. If you want a taste of The Old West this would be the place for you. From the log walls, wooden floors and Western motif furniture to the antique cowboy artifacts and a meat loaded menu the place dripped Wild West Wyoming. The building used to house a business called Wyoming Wildlife Museum & Taxidermy and much of the decor was retained. In fact, building used to house The Gun Barrel Steak and Game House; as of this writing it is permanently closed.
I love meat and so I had the Mixed Game Grill, a combination of elk steak, buffalo prime rib, and a venison bratwurst. As a side I ordered a baked potato which was roughly the size of a football. Cora ordered Rocky Mountain Rainbow Trout, lightly breaded, sauteéd and stuffed with a mushroom crab dressing. It wasn’t a cheap meal but it was excellent and a better value than a single 13 dollar pretzel.
Rainbow Trout, Mixed Game Grill, Some Gun Barrel decor,
The next night, staying with the flavor of the Old West we went to The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. It’s a fun place that’s a hangout for locals and tourists alike where you can belly up to a long bar inlaid with silver dollars, sit on a saddle (the bar stools are actual saddles) and enjoy a game of pool, dance to country-western music or just look at all the memorabilia in the place. Understand that the menu is simple bar food so you won’t find a Nicoise salad or oysters Rockefeller. And if you’re looking for quinoa you’re lost – try Chef Mina. At the Cowboy Bar you can have a cold beer, a nice basket of hot wings and a unique experience all at a moderate price. I’m the first to admit that it’s simple and not gourmet but it is fun. We had a snack of chicken wings and burgers at the Cowboy Bar. The wife wasn’t at all impressed with the saddles. She found them uncomfortable and noted that sitting in one hurt the, uh, female area (what Cora terms in Filipino jargon as peck-peck). As we were sitting at the bar a woman asked me if the saddle was comfortable.
“It’s a saddle,” I shrugged.
“As least it isn’t moving,” she said.
I offered that with enough tequila shots it might appear to be moving.
A short while later another woman approached me and asked if the saddle was comfortable.
“It’s a saddle,” I shrugged.
“As least it isn’t moving,” she said. First Pete and then repeat.
Our last supper (so to speak) was at The Merry Piglets, a Mexican restaurant which is more or less like all the other cookie cutter Mexican restaurants that have tile floors, some thatched roofs, arches, mariachi music, bright colors and offer chips and salsa in a basket and Margaritas in a glass big enough to bathe your Great Dane in. The food was good, the price was reasonable and we walked out stuffed and satisfied.
Jackson’s population is listed at just over 9000 but if you throw in the tourists that number would fluff up considerably. And when you add in the tourists Jackson becomes like a sort of cultural crossroads, a Wild West Istanbul. There are the aforementioned rich folk who contrast with the blue collars that populate the taverns; but it’s the tourists that account for a United Nations gathering in a mountain valley. The families in vans; the retirees in motor homes; the tour bus crowd confined to busses except when allowed fifteen minutes off the bus for good behavior to take in a spot that really deserves a couple hours; the car campers and the backpackers:the hikers geared up in Patagonia boots and Marmot jackets walking past a middle aged guy wearing Bermudas and dress socks with his hiking boots and all of them weaving through forests of selfie sticks wielded by tourists of every conceivable nationality. In the summer you can add to this stew the leather clad bikers who use Jackson as a stopover on the way to Sturgis and in autumn the hunters geared up in camo and toting high powered rifles.
Unless there’s an event going on in town shopping is the main attraction and it runs the gamut but it can be pretty darn frou-frou. There are a number of jewelry stores along with galleries that display paintings and photographs of the scenery and the history of the surrounding area. The works are beautiful and I was tempted to buy but I’ve found that when you attach the word “gallery” to the back end of a retail store’s name it means that whatever‘s for sale inside is well beyond my budget. So I window shopped.
But don’t be discouraged. There are plenty of shops that cater to the larger percentage of tourists who can’t afford an 8000.00 dollar giclee print of a comely Native American maiden wearing inauthentic, cleavage revealing buckskins and what appears to be makeup (yes such prints are available). In fact you can probably find the same bogus representation of a Native American woman for 20 dollars in one of the souvenir shops. It just isn’t signed and numbered. You can find affordable souvenirs and western wear in many of the shops.
Jackson has a nice plaza with an arch that’s fashioned out of elk antlers. Your first reaction might be to ask why anyone would want to celebrate the wanton slaughter of so many elk and then you come to learn that elk shed their antlers. It’s a great picture spot.
Located between Jackson and Grand Teton National Park is the National Museum of Wildlife Art. The impressive stone building set into a hillside above Highway 26 isn’t hard to miss. The museum houses sculptures and paintings from such renowned artists as Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Robert Kuhn, John James Audubon, and Carl Rungius. The museum includes an interactive children’s gallery and an outdoor sculpture trail. Adult tickets are 14 dollars and there are tickets priced for seniors and children. Cora and I spent the better part of an afternoon there. It’s definitely a worthwhile attraction but you might want to weigh this option against all of the possible outdoor activities.
The main attraction is of course Grand Teton National Park. For a magnificent scenic ride (by car or bike) take the Teton Park Road. A short easy hike is the HIdden Falls Trail that departs from the Jenny Lake Trailhead. The hike offers views of Jenny Lake and 200 foot Hidden Falls. Since Cora and I went too late in the year, we missed the chance to take an interpretive cruise on the cobalt blue waters of Jenny Lake. There’s also an interpretive ranger led hike to Inspiration Point which was cancelled for the year when we visited.
One late afternoon, we took a drive to the summit of Signal Mountain and took in a cloud decorated sunset. The caveat with this drive is that it’s closed to RV’s and trailers and it might be a slog for your car’s engine. It’s a 5 mile paved road that ends at the the 7720 foot summit. The views of the valley below are spectacular and ours had the extra bonus of splotches of fall colors far below. It was the elk rutting season when the males bugle. From the summit we could hear the sounds of the males far below on the valley floor.
There was a lot that I’d hoped to do but didn’t get a chance to due to the closures. If you plan a trip to that area a good guidebook or the internet can give you the options. For a family experience you might look into a dude ranch.
Don’t assume from this post that the area goes dead in the winter. In fact the area starts to come alive again in winter with different wintertime activities. I would love to visit the area when it’s got a blanket of snow but I would probably be going solo – Cora isn’t a fan of snow. Jackson is home to a ski resort; there’s snowshoeing; winter ecotours, wildlife tours and photography tours.
Don’t be an idiot. Grand Teton is home to wildlife; BIG wildlife with teeth, claws, horns and antlers. The first stop that we made before entering the park was the visitor center where we bought bear spray and watched a video on how to use it. Chances are you won’t round a bend in a trail and come face to face with a 500 pound grizzly bear and we didn’t, but I decided that a 10 dollar can of bear spray was worthwhile insurance. Cora and I took a hike on a trail near Jenny Lake and I was astounded to find that we were the only ones carrying bear spray.
Likewise give wildlife a wide berth. During my trips to Yellowstone and Grand Teton I’ve seen people get far too close to bear cubs; approach within a few feet of bison and park their cars near a bull elk to get a better view. I’ve also heard stories of people trying to take a selfie with a bison and getting launched, or having a bull elk ruin the paint job on a car; they will ram cars.
A final note. If you do plan to visit Grand Teton National Park I strongly suggest that you bring a camera; a real one and not the one in your phone. I have a DSLR with a variety of lenses that go up to 600mm. Unless you’re really into photography like I am you don’t need that much but if you want memorable photos that won’t disappoint when you get home bring a camera. If buying isn’t an option you can always get a rental online.
The guide book that I used is:
Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, by Brian Kevin, Copyright 2012, published by Fodor’s Travel, a division of Random House, Inc.
Internet resources include:
Grand Teton National Park (U.S. National Park Service), https://www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm
Grand Teton National Park | Travel Wyoming. That’s WY, https://www.travelwyoming.com/national-parks-and-monuments/grand-teton
Jackson Hole Traveler Visitor’s Guide, http://www.jacksonholetraveler.com/
Wildlife Art – National Museum of Wildlife Art | Jackson Hole WY, https://www.wildlifeart.org/
All of the usual travel guides, Trip Advisor, Booking.com, Expedia, etc, I find useful only as starting points.