Monday, July 25, 2011

Wyoming's Terrific Tetons

The Valley of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park. Because my son lived in Wyoming for so many years, my husband and I saw this park in every season. Spring weather was still chilly and winters are just plain cold. Summers are hot and tourist-packed, but autumn is most agreeable. Peasant days are accompanied by cool nights, perfect weather for snuggling in a sleeping bag.

There is no way to prepare the senses for the awesome reality of the Teton Range. Likening it to other mountains is inaccurate, photos lack dimension, and descriptions fall short. So imposing is their presence that first-time onlookers are stunned into slack-jawed unbelief.

Many mountains are higher; most are longer. But few explode from the earth as do the Tetons, rising straight up to stand 7,000 feet above the grass and sagebrush flats of Wyoming's Jackson Hole. It is one of the boldest spectacles on the American earth. Little wonder its rugged beauty is forever preserved within the 485 square miles of Grand Teton National Park.

Compared to most of our parklands, Grand Teton is small. But don't let its size fool you. Here are concentrated grandeur--mountains, lakes, valley, and river all oozing with more scenery, more wildlife, and more history than many parks twice its size.

Much is visible through the windshield, and while the mountains themselves are roadless, more than 300 miles of asphalt and graded gravel traverse the rest of the park, with most of what's readily accessible lying along the wonderfully scenic Rockefeller Parkway and the Teton Park Road.

When the roads end, trails begin--245 miles that offer everything from short, easy strolls to long, strenuous hikes. And while those with limited time can enjoy much of the Teton landscape without once shutting down the engine, the one caught in the spell is the one afoot. Or astride a horse. Or peddling a bike. Or rafting the aptly named Snake River. For those with time to savor the magic, I offer a closer look.


The 40 mile-long and 10-15 mile wide Tetons are the youngest section of the Rockies and began as a gigantic fault block that was thrust from beneath the earth and overtime, glaciated into a pyramid-like tangle of knife-edged ridges and headlong slopes.

The mountains themselves appear stark and foreboding, an austere wilderness devoid of life. But it is not so. Glaciers nest in shaded cirques, alpine lakes dot upland basins, wildflowers spill and infinitude of color along rocky terraces, streams cascade down precipitous cliffs, conifers creep up ice-carved valleys and hundreds of birds and mammals homestead every shadowed canyon and sunlit crag.

String Lake
At the base of the range lies a necklace of glacier-formed lakes that seem rather a string of mirrors with names like Jenny, String, Leigh, and Jackson. Their titles are incidental; their reflective capabilities are monumental. For whether the mountains wear the rosy light of dawn or the soft glow of sunset, the waterways repeat the likeness with such clarity one can almost believe their azure depths hide a host of Teton clones.

Because the mountains are so accessible, their wilds are generally filled with an array of day hikers, backpackers, and mountain climbers. And while trailheads fan outward all along the base of the range, most originate in the park's southern section, at or near Jenny Lake.

Campground at Jenny Lake
The park's longest and deepest waterway is Jackson Lake, an 18-mile-long sapphire beauty that is actually an impoundment of the Snake River. Its shoreline is deeply forested and tucked amidst its eastward ramps is a host of visitor facilities: lodge, marina, trailer village, tent cabins, campgrounds, and a National Park Visitor Center.


As the Teton block lifted ever skyward, its faulted eastern edge sank lower and lower, creating a wide, grassy floor where the ancestral Jackson Lake alternately appeared and disappeared. But then the glaciers came and when the last of the icy bulldozers melted away, Jackson Hole was but a gravelly trash pile scraped clear of life.

Grant Teton NP is home to a small herd of buffalo
Eons of stream-carried silt and windblown sand gradually accumulated, building up the soil. In time the plants moved in. The animals were not far behind. Today, Grand Teton is inhabited by more than 300 different species of birds and mammals. Those most easily spotted frequent the edges of the Snake River, especially along Oxbow Bend. Ducks and geese are common, bald eagles soar the heights, and now and then a clumsy moose lumbers through the trees that line the banks. A buffalo herd roams freely through the park's southern perimeter, antelope graze along Antelope Flats, elk usually seek the shade of the coniferous forests.

There is no off-season in Grand Teton and to say which time of year is more inspiring would be sorely opinionated. Winter's chill gradually gives way to spring's effusiveness and by mid-May a wildflower cavalcade begins creeping into the high country. Summer turns the valley into an emerald sun-spot; autumn's gold blazes through the cottonwoods and aspens.

Rising impetuously above it all are the mountains--a wondrous, jagged outline that has enamored onlookers for more than 100 years. It is an enchanted landscape and so indelible is its impression that once seen, it is seldom forgotten. This is the land of the Tetons and the valley of the Snake. It is perfection tucked into one little corner of Wyoming.
Oxbow Bend of the Snake River

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