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The awe-inspiring Grand Tetons

Posted by on September 25, 2014

Big Sky and Yellowstone were incredible, but the pièce de résistance for me was the nearby Grand Tetons. I am well aware that I’m a sap, but the fact that they brought me to tears at first sight, well, that was new for me.

These mountains are breathtaking and raw. Jagged teeth rising amidst glacial lakes and crisp, clean air, they inspire feelings of exhilaration and freedom. Oh. Oh. Oh.

Goodbye Yellowstone, hello Tetons. Bring it on!

Driving south on J.D. Rockefeller Memorial Highway and into the park, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Could it be nearly as beautiful as the iconic Ansel Adams photo suggests? Oh yeah, baby, oh yeah.

Here is the first glimpse we got – the lesser known view from the east with Mount Moran (12,605 feet [3,842 m]) in the center and Grand Teton (13,776 feet [4,199 m]) to the left.

Stitched Panorama
I quickly learned the reason these mountains are so jagged and raw. It’s their youth — aren’t we all jagged and raw when we’re young?!?!?!? The youngest mountain range in North America, the Grand Tetons are still making themselves known. Spectacular.

Young Tetons w Sign
Much smaller than Yellowstone, the mere 42-mile loop road makes visiting the Grand Tetons a more intimate experience.

Turning right onto Teton Park Road, we looked past Jenny Lake and into Cascade Canyon. The boat across Jenny Lake allows access to Hidden Falls, nestled in the canyon, which is a popular day hike for visitors.

Cascade Canyon

The below picture was taken further around the loop road. I’m not sure which Teton this is, and don’t much care. Most importantly, can you feel the crispness? Can you smell the fresh air? Delicious.

Jumps off the page
Farther around the road was the Chapel of the Transfiguration. There’s just something about well-placed churches with panoramic views. Lake Tekapo, Big Sky, and now the Grand Tetons…

Chapel 2

With a spectacular view of Grand Teton from the altar…

Chapel of the Transfiguration

The remainder of the afternoon was spent checking into our rustic cabin in nearby Kelly, a tiny town chosen for its gorgeous views of the range, before grabbing some grub at Dornan’s chuckwagon. (I’d love to tell you there was something wonderfully authentic and western about the chuckwagon, but it really just was a vehicle for sustenance.)

Then it was off to find Oxbow Bend, a bend in the Snake River that is famous for its myriad of wildlife at sunset. The nature guide was right — there are two seasons in the Tetons — winter and construction. So it took us a bit longer to get there than distances would suggest.

No worries. We’ve got nothing but time…

But for us, nary a speck of wildlife could be seen along the river that afternoon. That said, the view was idyllic. But we quickly realized that what we thought was a wildlife strikeout…
Oxbow bend at dusk

…became a gold mine, when we rounded the curve away from the river and encountered our first wildlife in the park. Score!!!!!!!!

Not nearly as exciting as it sounds, what we really came upon was a gaggle of cars pulled off on the side of the road. Stopped cars always indicate wildlife so we leaned out of the car to ask a passerby what was sighted.

“Grizzly!” he bubbled, as he pointed with glee.

Giddy, we pulled over and took a gander. Bear spray in hand, we stayed farther away than the required 100 yards — but we did venture close enough to try to watch her. She was traveling on the hill, parallel to the road. And before we knew it, her smaller friend joined her. We think it was a mother and (big) cub, but couldn’t be sure.

The mamma was a beauty…so majestic, so huge, and so free!!!

Grizzly
What a formidable animal! (I’m glad we didn’t meet her in a dark alley!) Jeff photographed her while I retreated to the car to watch from afar as she ambled along eating grasses and pulling leaves off the trees. She seemed oblivious to all of us staring in awe at her elegance and power.

Simultaneously wanting to experience her and give her the space and solitude she deserves, we watched for awhile before moving on. The rangers had everything under control — making sure that the bears and humans all remained safe and respected.

Grizzly 3
After the grizzly, I could have gone to bed happy. But instead, we continued to drive around the park to see what we could see. Beginning our second lap of the loop road for the day, we watched the sun set over Jackson Lake…

Jenny Lake at night

…before being surrounded by antelope as we headed home. This one separated from the herd before crossing the road in front of us.

Antelope
And finally, once we reached our rustic cabin, we got to savor the view of the Grand Tetons under the night sky. The grandeur reminded me how small we are amidst the universe.

Cue: Contented sigh.

Tetons at dusk

Both inspired and perturbed by our self-inflicted wake up call to go watch the sun rise, I pinched myself that I was immersed in such a gorgeous place, chilling with the man I love, witnessing Mother Nature at her best.

What a fantastic way to start a day.

Stitched Panorama

We photographed for an hour or more and soaked up the serenity before heading back to pick up Matt and Sarah in time to get to the meeting place for our float trip down the Snake River. So exciting!

Tetons at sunrise
While we were planning our trip, I knew I wanted to see the Grand Tetons, but equally, I knew I just had to do a float trip down the Snake River. Why? I have no idea! I just knew I had to. And it was the Best. Decision. Ever.

Floating ~10 miles down the winding Snake River in the chill of early morning surrounded by utter beauty was incredibly calming and rejuvenating. It felt good. Every turn in the river revealed a gorgeous landscape — close to the shore we focused on the trees, extensive damage bestowed by unseen beavers, and the bird life — then we’d round a corner and the Tetons would come back into view and blow my mind.

The next two and half hours were heavenly.

Pano from Snake

I still can’t get over the beauty. Deep breath.

Our Barker-Ewing guide was an incredibly knowledgeable local-turned-councilman who provided the perfect balance of commentary, knowledge, and silence. He not only explained why its not possible to get the iconic Ansel Adams shot anymore (the trees have grown too much) but also how the Snake River got its name.

I always assumed it was because it “snaked” through the valley. Not so — the name came from the symbol of the Shoshone Indians who lived here. The undulating wave of a snake ~~~~~~, originally intended to symbolize their profession, weaving.

You learn something new every day!

Thankfully, our guide also provided the manpower for our inflatable raft, which held 8 wide-eyed tourists who were anything but useful, and mainly, just gawking. [Truly, his only shortcoming was that he was a Duke graduate -- tehe, my college nemesis!]

View from Snake
The most unexpected part of the trip was how many of our flying friends we saw. Our guide pointed out several bald eagles who were keeping watch over their territory.

Bald eagle

So weathered, wise, regal, and strong, it’s easy to see how they were chosen to be our country’s emblem. (No political comments, please!)

Bald Eagle 2

Along with the mature eagles was an awkward eaglet, still learning to master his eagle skills…you know, the important ones, like flying and landing. His landings were more like skidding to a stop and almost falling off the branch. So even the regal start out a bit unsure of themselves…

Eaglet in flight

In addition to his novice landing skills, the eaglet was easily discerned from his elders by his coloring. Dark feathers, without the trademark white head, he was still learning to become a man. That said, his profile was easily identifiable.

Eaglet

Less known, but equally interesting, was the red hawk against the backdrop of the mountains. Dead treetops were a popular spotting post for birds of prey. We glimpsed several osprey as well, but they were camera shy.

Hawk2

The least impressive flying life we saw and heard was of the manmade sort. The occasional buzz of a scenic flight (or commercial carrier) overhead was an unwelcome mar on the sublimely serene surroundings. Our guide was clear that their recent addition was contentious, and implied the locals are still fighting their presence. I hope they win.

After the float ride, instead of staying in the park for the afternoon, we decided to end our brief trip on an incredibly positive note. The float trip was everything we could have hoped for and more — we left incredibly satisfied and enamored with the Grand Tetons.

In addition, a haze had started to descend slowly into the park. According to the guide, that is normal—smoke from wildfires in the west, or just dust carried on the wind during Idaho’s harvest, will make its way over the range. We felt incredibly lucky to have experienced the Tetons on a crystal clear day, and left while we were ahead.

Our first visits to places are often quick day trips like this, just to see what/if there is a place we want to come back to. We will absolutely revisit the Tetons—and next time we’ll stay long enough to partake of the hikes, boat tours, and stunning photography. I can’t wait!

And with that, the proverbial sun set on our first trip to the Tetons.

Entrance to Park

On our way home, we grabbed lunch at nearby Jackson (Snake River Brewery: good food and beer, fewer tourists!) before heading through the Teton Pass.

In order to avoid the long detour through Yellowstone due to road closures, we decided to go back to Big Sky via the Teton Pass and through neighboring Idaho. Interestingly, the Tetons could barely be seen from the Idaho side, until we’d driven 30 to 45 minutes up the road. Unexpected, and good to learn! The view of the Tetons is definitely best from the east. (I guess that’s why they put the National Park on that side, eh? I know, my brilliance amazes me sometimes…)

We hope you’ve enjoyed this trip through the Grand Tetons. We barely scratched the surface but it was an incredible introduction. If you are up this way visiting Yellowstone, do not overlook the Tetons!!! You will be sorry…

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