I’ve traveled to many of the great US national parks in the west, from Montana to New Mexico and California to Colorado. In these travels, I somehow skirted by Grand Teton National Park but I finally arrived as part of a 16-day, 3000-mile Rocky Mountain Road Trip with my friend Mike. These mountains are some of the most scenic in the US, which is saying a lot. They are massive, springing up from a valley without intervening foothills. They have jagged, snow-covered peaks reflecting in large freshwater lakes. Here and there are cabins and churches of early settlers which are the perfect foreground for photography.
In the early 1800’s, French-Canadian trappers were inspired by the shapes of the mountains, particularly the highest one which they referred to as Grand Teton (big breast in French).
When To Go
This campground is next to the Gros Ventre River (pronounced “grow-vont”) and the only one open this early in the season. We spent a lot of our time talking to the camp caretakers, Jimmy (pictured below) and his wife Becky.
They are from southern Mississippi and from time-to-time drive their large RV, with satellite TV, to work this type of gig. We spoke to them for many hours, listening to their entertaining stories and getting info on the park. Jimmy mentioned that this campground was never full until last year when park attendance dramatically increased as international travel was shut down by Covid-19. Before 2021, campgrounds were on a first come, first serve basis and vehicles started at midnight making a queue to enter the most popular ones, eventually extending for miles. Now all campgrounds are reserved through Recreation.gov and the fees are paid online.
Where to Go
There are too many trails, lakes, rivers, peaks and scenic overlooks to list them all. Here are some of the places we went.
The park is composed of the Jackson Hole Valley, which is between the Teton Mountain Range and the Wind River Mountain Range. The main road is US 191 which runs north and south near the Teton Range and roughly parallels the Snake River.
Upper and Lower Mesa Falls are not in the park, but nearby in Idaho. You can access them by taking Highway 22, crossing Teton Pass, going north on US 20 and turning off on the right to Highway 47. Surprisingly, the turnoff is not well marked, so keep an eye out for it. After seeing the falls, you can continue north on US 20 to West Yellowstone, MT and the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
Grand Teton National Park
There are a number of recreational activities in summer and winter in the park. Besides short hikes, we mostly stopped frequently and looked at the vistas in awe, including the Jenny Lake Scenic Drive.
At the picturesque Jackson Lake, where there was about a 15-minute break from the near constant cloud cover, I saw amazing views on the partially frozen lake with mountain reflection.
At the beginning of the Taggart Lake Trailhead, I wandered around as the clouds continually blew over.
I photographed the Chapel of the Transfiguration, built in 1925, in front of the Teton Range.
The park is full of large animals and it’s unlikely you would miss seeing them. Once on the eastern border, we saw hundreds of elk.
At our campground, I saw a huge moose early in the morning. We didn’t have an extra set of keys for the truck (put this on your list of things to bring) for the car where my Nikon with a zoom lens was locked in. Mike was sleeping with the keys and I didn’t want to wake him. So, I got as close as I could (a moose is dangerous) and took a photo with my iPhone 11S.
iPhones can take excellent photos, however the image deteriorates when digitally zoomed and in low light, as was the situation here.
One thing to know, the town is called Jackson, not Jackson Hole which is the entire valley. This is an upscale community (population about 10,000) with a full complement of fancy restaurants, specialty coffee shops and high-priced art galleries. It’s thought of in the same breath as Aspen CO, Sun Valley ID and Park City UT, where the wealthy ski on nearby slopes.
The place to go, as with almost all of my travels, is the old town. The town square has entry arches on each corner made of elk antlers, which are shed annually by herds of thousands living in a nearby reserve.
In case you are short on animal antlers and skins, this is a place where you can replenish your supply.
Everything has an outdoor vibe, so it’s fun to goof around the town.
One food recommendation is Persephone Bakery, a great place for coffee and light meals. Sitting on the terrace, we had a good view of Broadway Avenue activity. They don’t have Wi-Fi so tables are not occupied excessively. If you need camping or other outdoor supplies, try JD High Country Outfitters with its large stock of useful items and knowledgeable employees.
Upper and Lower Mesa Falls
Most visitors combine Grand Teton National Park with Yellowstone National Park, which is just a few miles to the north. If the south entrance is open (closed in the snowy months), you can take US 191 to Yellowstone. Instead, I recommend going west over the Teton Pass and following US 20 north to the turnoffs for these powerful waterfalls on the Snake River. On the way, you will see a series of interesting farms with huge silos.
Upper Mesa Falls is the most accessible with nearby viewing platforms.
In contrast, Lower Mesa Falls is over a mile away from the designated viewing point.
Traveling To Grand Teton National Park from Dinosaur National Monument
Mike and I spent the morning in Dinosaur National Monument, stopped in Vernal UT to buy an external charger for my phone (also should be on the list of things to bring) and gas up. It was mid-afternoon when we finally started rolling. We took US 191 north. Just south of the Wyoming border, we passed through Flaming Gorge with a gigantic dam on the Green River and an attractive steel through-arch-bridge, named Cart Creek Bridge.
Continuing a few miles north on US 191, the highway joins Interstate 80 until Rock Springs, WY. There it splits and continues north, soon following the Wind River Mountain Range. When it became dark, we decided to stay in a hotel in Pinedale, WY. It’s a small town of a couple thousand people and an outfitting center. The next morning we stopped at the Great Outdoors Shop so I could buy a sleeping bag. I found it too cold to sleep with just blankets.
I liked the metal guitar player outside the store.
Final Thoughts on Grand Teton National Park
There are certain Western-US national parks which you shouldn’t miss, such as Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce and Yosemite. On that list, you certainly must include Grand Teton.
Next stop: Yellowstone!