I knew it would happen. How could it not? A place this spectacularly scenic? A wealth of views around every turn in the road? Throw in a prime color season and what have you got? Days too short . . . choices too many . . . where to begin??? Trails to hike, waters to fish, views to lose yourself in. So what was inevitable? What did I know before ever setting foot in this paradise? Writing a post would take a back seat. Culling through photos and composing a blog just wouldn’t happen in a timely manner. Not if the Tetons had something to say about it.
The 57-mile drive taken to the Tetons leaves the dry, red-rock Wind River Valley at the small cowboy town of Dubois and heads over the southern end of the Absaroka Mountains via Togwotee Pass, following a high, lushly vegetated mountain route over the Continental Divide. Fifteen miles out of Dubois the road crosses into the Shoshone National Forest where the dry grasslands give way to green forested hillsides. More than half of the Shoshone is designated wilderness, much of it adjoins the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park.
Heading toward the Pass, the road ascends through a thick forest of spruce fir, and pine intermixed with lush, open meadows. Craggy peaks on the horizon ahead are the Pinnacle Buttes, which tower over Brooks Lake. We spent the better part of a day taking trails above that lake, seeing the elusive Jade Lakes. Known for their scenic beauty as well as holding good trout potential, we wandered for hours along intertwining trails known to be significant grizzly habitat. Never sighting our destination, we nevertheless had one of our most satisfying treks of the trip. And the photo potential wasn’t too disappointing either.
Sheer cliffs and rocky spires dominate the view as you cross over Togwotee Pass. I sat enthralled with the scenery, eliciting oooohs and aaaahs with each turn of the road as Chris’ grip increasingly tightened on the steering wheel. About the time he was applying the Jake brake, I gave one last exclamation of wonderment as the first view of the Teton Range came into sight. Soaring into the heavens, those serrated peaks spread out on the horizon. My ecstasy didn’t appear to be breaking through his apparent concentration, my sense of wonder didn’t seem to be a mutually shared emotion. When the highway took on an even more serious downward grade, I thought it prudent to just sit back and silently soak in the scene.
Eventually the road levels out, making its final approach straight for the mountains ahead. Most prominent of all the peaks from this vantage point, Mount Moran is a behemoth that can’t be ignored. I believe that was the moment my attachment for this particular peak was first forged. It would become a favorite photo subject of my tenure here.
Grand Teton National Park is home to one of the most magnificent mountain ranges on this earth. With incredible views from the many scenic turnouts, your camera will always be in hand. While the mountain range takes center stage, it isn’t the only act in town. There’s an abundance of wildlife roaming the sagebrush meadows and willow-lined river banks, there’s alpine lakes brilliantly reflecting those mountain peaks, and the clear waters of the Snake River twisting its serpentine way through the heart of the valley. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more pristine and perfect setting if you would travel the whole world over. Grand Teton National Park is breathtaking, awe-inspiring and majestic.
After the formation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, there was movement to extend its southern boundary in order to include the Teton Range, Jackson Lake and the headwaters of the Snake River. Although there was sound reasoning behind this movement (protection of migrating elk herds, conservation of pristine scenery, preservation of natural resources) and the men behind this movement held significant positions—superintendent of Yellowstone, head of the U.S. Geological Survey, the director of the National Park Service and his assistant—the proposal was met with an ocean of controversy. After much wrangling a compromise was reached and in 1929 the central peaks of the Teton Range and half a dozen lakes at their base officially became Grand Teton National Park.
But therein lay the dilemma, which some would say was a severe oversight. The park boundary pretty much ended smack at the base of these splendiferous peaks. From there on out was public domain. Land that was available for whatever development might ensue. At the time of the park’s formation, the land was ranch and farmlands. But when held in private hands, who could foresee what the future would bring?
Enter John D. Rockefeller who, in 1924, brought his family to vacation here at Jackson Lake. Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright met them and on an arranged picnic, escorted the family to a scenic spot adjacent to the Lodge (now appropriately known as Lunch Tree Hill) where spread out before them was the classic view of the magnificent Teton Range. He explained to Rockefeller the hope of protecting and preserving “this sublime valley” from unsightly development and the inherent obstacles that existed at the time. He asked for his support.
As a consequence, Rockefeller created the Snake River Land Company as a purchasing agent with the purpose of buying up the valley lands while masking his connection in order to keep land prices from escalating. Economic hardships of the late 1920s affecting the ranchers helped to make land acquisitions easier. In the end, his company had accrued 35,000 acres for about $1.4 million.
Roosevelt’s goal of donating the property to the federal government for an expanded park met with stiff congressional and local opposition, keeping the government from accepting the gift for 15 years. By 1943 Rockefeller forced the issue by threatening to sell his holdings on the open market. President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded by using presidential proclamation to create the Jackson Hole National Monument, thereby circumventing congressional approval.
Wyoming residents felt betrayed. Jackson Hole businessmen and other interested parties lobbied Congress to pass a bill that would abolish the monument. FDR vetoed it. The State of Wyoming filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service to overturn the proclamation, but the suit failed in the court system. In a final effort to show its objections, Congress withheld monument maintenance money from the Interior Department’s budget allocation.
Long story made shorter—a compromise was worked out in 1950. The original 1929 park was united with the 1943 national monument, establishing a “new” Grand Teton National Park with its present-day boundaries. Those that held the strongest objections—that supplanting grazing, ranching and dude-ranching businesses would adversely affect the area’s economy—have come to agree that the park is a valuable asset. Tourism has surpassed cattle ranching, becoming the economic foundation of the region. And, with the addition of this jewel to our national park system, our entire country has also been enriched.
What’s so great about this jagged mountain range is that there are no foothills. The east front of the Teton Range is practically flat as a pancake (average elevation 6,800 feet) covered in sagebrush meadows until the Teton Range begins soaring seemingly straight up into the sky. This made it very easy for the Park Service to build a very nice road called the Teton Park Road that practically drives directly underneath this great range. Pull-offs along this road lead to some awesome views as well as some of the park’s most popular hiking trails.
The Chapel of the Transfiguration is found just outside Moose Junction as the Teton Park Road begins. Built in the early 1900s, it was the first chapel built in this area, saving settlers and ranchers a lengthy trip to Jackson in order to attend Sunday church.
If one does his/her research well, then he/she will come to learn that just behind this chapel is found one of the picture postcard views of the Teton peaks. Fall colors only enhance this ideal scene.
But Highway 89, the main Teton road that runs through the length of the park is no second-rate road either. It can hold its own when compared to the Teton Park Road. You would be hard-pressed to find another state highway with so much scenic grandeur condensed into a mere 40+mile drive.
One of the first Jackson Hole ranches still stands next to the highway. In an effort to preserve the area’s history, the Cunningham cabin remains as evidence to the living conditions in a very difficult environment. Don’t let the beauty of the setting disguise how rough it was to live here year around.
If these photos haven’t convinced you yet, let me just say it plain out—the Grand Tetons should be on anyone’s national parks bucket list. For me, it was truly a photographer’s dream. Whether a bona-fide pro or a dedicated amateur, if you’re a camera-toting traveler and you miss out on this location, then your portfolio is sorely lacking. Any season here will give you some winners, but autumn is arguably best of all. With that being said, there are four top destinations in the park where those in the “know” will surely not fail to see. Appropriately, those spots are known as the “BIG FOUR.”
The Snake River Overlook was made famous by Ansel Adams in 1942. For many years after he got his shot, this was the iconic view of the Grand Tetons. Unfortunately, since then the trees along the river have continued to grow, and today obscure much of the ribbon of river that leads into the mountain range. Not the shot that it used to be, still today photographers make the pilgrimage to this photo op. I, of course, joined in with that parade.
Schwabacher Landing is the place to go when you want to capture the best part of the Tetons reflected in clear, calm waters. The braided channels of the Snake along with a series of beaver ponds makes for the perfect mirrors to catch clear mountain reflections. Good at just about any time of day, morning light enhances the mountain images and the hordes of photographers with their tripods nearly intertwined testify to sunrise shots. Of course, count me among them!
The Mormon barns are a popular draw—no doubt due, at least in part, to them being a drive-up easy access view. Still standing from the days (the late 1800s) of the early Mormon settlers, two barns in particular are really scene-stealers. Preserved by the park and backdropped by the Tetons, they might easily be the most photographed barns in our country. You don’t visit the Tetons without coming away with a picture (or more) taken here.
The last of the BIG FOUR destinations is not, by any means, the least of them all. In fact, I saved the best of the Teton locations for last. It is simply the scene stealer, the piece d’resistance, the encore to a sell-out show. It is by any measure the iconic picture of the Tetons, made famous time and time again. Oxbow Bend is to the Grand Tetons what Old Faithful is to Yellowstone and Bridalveil Falls to Yosemite. Like moths to a flame, the photographers converge—way before sunrise they are all lined up and ready. It was a no-brainer that I’d be there too. In the dark of the night with stars still studding the sky, I pulled up to claim my previously staked-out spot. With nerves a-quiver and my anticipation beyond measure, my shaking fingers were ready to shoot. Lo and behold, good fortune was smiling–I was blessed with unusually ideal conditions. And thus, the show begins!
Oxbow Bend, the Holy Grail of the Tetons, the epitome of these mountains, reflected in the clear waters of the oxbow of the Snake River’s course. In all possible conditions, in every season of the year, it stands as one brilliant scene that encapsulates the entirety of this park. Mt. Moran, the fourth highest in this mountain range, standing just over 12,000 feet, personifies all the Teton peaks. Perhaps it is fitting that it was named for the artist Thomas Moran, whose landscape paintings were critical to the creation of Yellowstone National Park and, by extension and location, later Teton National Park.
So, this is the scene that says it all. Once you become aware of it, you’ll come across it time and time again. In calendars, coffee table books, note cards and other photographers’ resumes. To the extent it has almost become trite, yet once you see it in person, stand and soak in the scene, then you’ll understand why it might be slightly overused. It is a breathtaking place . . . a place that easily can overwhelm. And, on this day, in the glory of a clear autumn morning, under crystal blue sapphire skies, for a moment it was all mine.
At the risk of stretching out a good thing, I’m not quite finished with the Tetons just yet. For sure, I’ve pressed my luck extending this post as lengthy as I have, so there will need to be a second installment to follow. This park is just THAT GOOD. There are more facets that deserve some attention given. So stay tuned, if you will.
For now, I will end with two last looks of that wonderful Mt. Moran—captured both in the predawn light and then backlit by what I overheard locals remark was the best sunset they had seen in twenty years. Be that as it may, both views deserve their fair due. And I was on hand to witness them both. Is it any wonder why we find traveling so enriching?
Melinda & Chris