The eastern two-thirds of the country has some lovely scenery. But it’s not until you get out west that the really stunning scenery comes into view. And I mean hit-over-the-head-with-an-iron-skillet stunning. The scale of the mountains and canyons out west is so much grander.
Grand Teton National Park was our first park in what I think of as the west — the Pacific-draining side of the Continental Divide. The park was established in 1929 to protect roughly 310,000 acres of alpine terrain, lodgepole pine forest, sagebrush flats, wetlands, lakes, ponds and river habitat. Many visitors combine the Tetons with Yellowstone National Park to the north (which is what we did; read our Yellowstone recap here), and both rank among the nation’s top 10 most-visited parks.
As we descended from the mountain pass in the Bridger-Teton National Forest to the east, we could see smoke from the Berry Fire burning in the area in late August. Because of the fire, the road connecting Grand Teton with Yellowstone was closed. That included the Flagg Ranch area, where we had originally booked a tent cabin. Fortunately, we were able to switch to a tent cabin in the park’s still-open Colter Bay section on the eastern shore of Jackson Lake. We ended up being very pleased with our new accommodations — a cross between a yurt and a rustic cabin with two sets of bunk beds and a wood-burning stove inside as well as a large covered patio and bear-proof food storage box outside.
Like Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park has a small and growing grizzly bear population in addition to the more common and less aggressive black bears. Rangers recommend making regular noise while hiking — clapping, singing, and talking (much more effective than bear bells) — as well as carrying bear spray in grizzly country, so we picked up two canisters of bear spray in the park store before beginning our exploration of Colter Bay.
We spent a day hiking from the Hermitage Point Trailhead, looping around through forest, meadows, sagebrush flats, pond habitat and lakeshore with fantastic views across the water to the Teton Range. A few glacial patches remained on the naked, jagged peaks, and the water in Jackson Lake was now far too cold for swimming at the end of August. The entire time we watched for bears but saw only a ruffed grouse, a beaver and a handful of deer.
The next day we drove south, following the Snake River, for a hike to Bradley and Taggart lakes. Ringed with pine and fir forest, these small but picturesque lakes offered delightful views across the water to the Teton Range’s canyons and glacier-dotted peaks, most of which top 11,000 feet. On our way back along the Valley Trail, we kept a sharp eye out for grizzlies that might be foraging amid the shrubs on the hillside. No bears this time, either.
On another day, we hiked the seven-mile trail that circled Jenny Lake, one of the park’s most popular attractions. Along the western shore that abuts the mountains, we passed through a rocky slope that stretched to the water’s edge. We heard intermittent squeaking sounds and saw a small, tan creature dashing in and out of crevices in the rocks. It was a pika, a cold-weather cousin of the rabbit with round ears and a small, tail-less body. So far during our travels, the pika has been Hector’s favorite mammal because it’s just so darn cute. Common in rock-strewn, high-elevation terrain in western North America, pikas have been disappearing from suitable habitat as global climate change affects their food source — alpine grasses — and their bodies cannot tolerate warmer temperatures.
We circled around past the boat dock. Many park visitors short on time ride the ferry from the car-accessible southeastern side of Jenny Lake to hike the short trail up to the Inspiration Point lookout on the lake’s west side. We opted to skip the crowded march up the hill and continued along the north shore. Here, the trail passed an area burned in a 1999 wildfire. Although it is slowly regenerating, the open terrain allows for even better views of the mountains and high meadows, and large dead trees served as good perches for ospreys.
At String Lake, we turned south and had even more glorious views of the mountains across the lake. A spur road branching off the scenic Teton Park Road runs near a section of the trail here, making this another popular spot. With all the people, it’s also the least likely place to encounter bears, making us wonder whether we really needed to carry bear spray with us at all times.
A welcome sighting along this section of trail, for us anyway, was a ruffed grouse hen and her chick moving through the forested underbrush. Throughout the hike, we came across a plentiful array of songbirds, so our binoculars were definitely worth carrying with us at all times.
What we really wanted to see, however, were moose. Yet during our entire time in the park we saw only two — a mother and calf. They sloshed around in a willow-lined pond near Jackson Lake Lodge on the main road, causing a backup of cars. As in many national parks, a traffic jam is the best indication that big mammals are nearby. Rangers often have to remind visitors to move along, or at least stay inside their cars instead of getting out to take a selfie with bison, moose, elk or bears.
Although Grand Teton National Park did not offer quite the bonanza of wildlife we had expected, we did see many bison, elk, and feral horses. Deer with fawns regularly wandered through our tent cabin village, and chipmunks and squirrels chattered at us on every trail. We also got our first glimpse of a most endearing animal — the pika — which helped make this a grand and memorable stop on our national parks tour.