TravelInsider's Guide

A Park Ranger's Guide to Grand Teton

The peaks of Grand Teton National Park, regal and imposing as they stand nearly 7,000 feet above the valley floor, make one of the boldest geologic statements in the Rocky Mountains.

Idaho native Jackie Skaggs first moved to Wyoming in 1976, happily landing a job with Signal Mountain Lodge, one of the park’s authorized concessioners. Several years later, in 1984, she was accepted for a seasonal position at Grand Teton, and has lived in the shadow of the majestic mountains ever since—most recently in the role of official spokesperson.

“This incredible landscape has become an important part of my life—it’s almost a part of my DNA,” she says. Here’s a look at Grand Teton National Park through Jackie’s unique lens.

Grand Teton Is My Park

Hands down, the best time to visit Grand Teton National Park is the month of September. Fall unveils a burst of vibrant colors, ushering in rut season with otherworldly bugles of bull elk and bringing the first dusting of snow on the Teton peaks. The month also offers mild, sometimes brisk, temperatures—the perfect conditions for hiking into the canyons and beyond. With fewer people and no pesky mosquitos or horse flies, September is a delightful time to be at one with nature with all its wonders.

My park’s biggest attraction is the impressive and rugged Teton Range, followed closely by the fascinating and captivating wildlife such as moose, wapiti (elk), bison, pronghorn, wolves, pikas, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes. But a visit isn’t complete without catching sight of one of the park’s iconic grizzly bears, especially a sow with her young cubs in tow.

If I could offer one practical tip for optimizing your visit, it would be to acclimate yourself to the altitude and stay hydrated on any trek into the Teton Range. While the imposing peaks beckon, the rugged terrain can mask challenges for the unsuspecting and unprepared hiker. Anyone venturing into the Teton backcountry should bring rain gear or a warm jacket, plenty of water (or a filtration device), high-energy snacks, and sunscreen, sunglasses, and a shade hat because the high elevation means more intense sunlight. Also plan for a trek to take more time than you expect: You’ll want to linger among the peaks and pikas of the high country, relishing the destination you’ve reach and savoring its solitude, beauty, and enchantment.

My favorite “park secret” is the splendor of the Milky Way and its millions of stars on display in the night sky. Another secret few people realize is just how intimate and inviting Grand Teton can be. At only 310,000 acres, the park packs an incredible amount of scenic, wildlife-viewing, and recreation opportunities into its relatively compact size. You can optimize your time and energy on several exciting pursuits and still find time to relax and soak in the natural world on its own terms by listening to the wind song through the aspens or sniffing the fresh scent of a pine forest.

Watch out for sudden weather changes, such as a fast-moving thunderstorm or a winter blizzard, and be sure to bring a good camera to capture the indescribable beauty that awaits around each bend in the road or trail.

Head to Willow Flats, the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River, or Antelope Flats Road to catch sight of moose, elk, bears, river otters, eagles, ospreys, bison, pronghorn, and coyotes. If you’re really lucky, you’ll spot a lone wolf or pack of wolves loping across Elk Ranch Flats, just south of Moran Junction. Grand Teton has been called the “Serengeti of North America” for good reason. Wildlife viewing is absolutely one of the highlights of this national park—second only to trying to capture the spectacular and ever-changing Tetons through a camera lens.

For the best view, head to the top of Signal Mountain summit. A five-mile drive along a narrow paved road takes you about 800 feet above the valley floor, offering 360-degree views of the Teton peaks and shimmering waters of Jackson Lake to the west, the expansive Jackson Hole valley to the south, the Gros Ventre Mountains and Mount Leidy Highlands to the east, and the volcanic Yellowstone Plateau to the north. From this vantage point, you’ll easily grasp why early fur trappers called these high-elevation valleys surrounded by mountains “holes.”

For the best trails in the park, head to Cascade Canyon off the west shore of Jenny Lake for easy access to a glacially carved canyon and an introduction to towering Grand Teton flanked by Teewinot Mountain and Mount Owen. These three peaks are called “the cathedral group” because of their resemblance to spires on a church. Tip: Take a shuttle boat ride across Jenny Lake and shave off two miles of trail so you can spend your energy hiking into Cascade Canyon itself. The first highlight along this popular trail is Hidden Falls, followed by the breathtaking views from Inspiration Point. Don’t stop at this overlook, however. Continue deeper into the canyon to catch sight of a moose along Cascade Creek or hear the high-pitched squeak of a tiny pika as it scampers across a rock-strewn slope.

The best scenic drive in the park can be found on Teton Park Road, which delivers a close-up view of the impressive Teton massif and provides access to most of the park’s lakes, trailheads, and other attractions.

If you’re up for an adventure, try signing up for a lesson or excursion with one of the park’s guided climbing services, Exum Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. If you prefer water sports, try a rafting trip on the Snake River or paddling across String or Leigh lakes.

To experience the park’s cultural side, visit one of the many historic districts. I recommend Menor’s Ferry, the Murie Ranch, Cunningham Cabin, or the Mormon Row area, which features some of the most photographed barns in the United States.

There are several great places to stay while you’re visiting and these options are found in the park’s newspaper, Grand Teton Guide. With its history of cowboys and pioneer settlers, the park makes you want to experience a traditional barbecue or devour a juicy hamburger or steak. It’s not hard to find these eats and more eclectic cuisine throughout Grand Teton, or at one of many fine restaurants located in the town of Jackson, just a dozen miles south of the park’s headquarters.

If you only have one day to spend in the park, first, sit down and cry! There is so much to see and do that a mere day is hardly enough time to do justice to the many nooks and crannies that await your exploration and enjoyment. At the very least, you should drive the Teton Park Road, stopping off at the many destinations along this route. Take a stroll around Menor’s Ferry Historic District, visit the Craig Thomas and Colter Bay visitor centers, and look for wildlife along Antelope Flats Road.

If you’re interested in a guided tour, check out the numerous ranger-led walks, hikes, and educational programs that are offered in the summer. One of the classic ranger-led hikes takes you to Inspiration Point overlook from the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. It’s a great way to get introduced to the rugged landscape while also learning about the geology, natural history, and irresistible allure of the Tetons.

The most peaceful place in the park has to be the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. This 1,106-acre property within Grand Teton is reached via the Moose-Wilson Road, offering a quiet, contemplative experience—one deliberately designed by Mr. Rockefeller himself before he gifted his treasured family retreat to the park in 2001.

Horace Albright, former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park and the second director of the National Park Service, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., are both “unsung heroes” of this national park. Albright advocated for the creation of a national park to preserve this area in the mid-1920s with great determination and enlisted the help of Mr. Rockefeller to make his dream a reality. Convinced of the value of protecting Jackson Hole from undesirable development, Rockefeller eventually bought and held in trust more than 35,000 acres until Congress accepted his generous donation of land, in 1949, to be included as part of present-day Grand Teton National Park.

Catching the first golden rays of sunlight as they kiss the Grand Tetons, watching a grizzly bear with furry cubs wander a flower-strewn meadow, launching a boat on the Snake River or Jackson Lake, or capturing a fiery sunset behind the jagged Teton peaks on camera could only happen in my park.

If you have kids (or are a kid at heart), you won’t want to miss taking a dip or a plunge in one of the park’s crystal-clear lakes—especially String Lake, the warmest of the piedmont lakes that lie at the foot of the Teton Range. Why should young people visit? This is a park filled with opportunities to be physically active and discover new things—a place for kids old and young to spread their wings and test their stamina.

Just outside park boundaries, you can visit the National Elk Refuge, National Museum of Wildlife Art, the town of Jackson, and the Teton Village resort area, where an aerial tram ride will take you over 4,000 vertical feet to the top of Rendezvous Mountain for an introduction to the Teton’s alpine zone and a bird’s-eye view of the Jackson Hole landscape. Teton Village also hosts concerts by a world-class symphony orchestra and other musical artists during the summer months at Walk Festival Hall. Jackson, which takes pride in being an Old West town, is also a recognized center of fine art, a legendary spot for Wild West rodeos, and celebrated for its unique watering holes, eateries, and shops.

If I had to choose a mascot for Grand Teton National Park, it would have to be either a moose or an elk. A moose because park headquarters is located in Moose, Wyoming, and because moose are regularly found along the Snake River in search of food and refuge. The elk is another good candidate because concerns over conserving habitat for the Jackson elk herd sparked the very first conversations about establishing a national park in Jackson Hole.

The biggest threat to this park’s future is being loved to death by the increasing crush of visitors and the influx of new year-round residents. Another current and ongoing threat is the adverse effects climate change will have on this critical safe haven for wildlife.

In 140 characters or less, the world should heart my park because the grandeur of the Teton Range contrasted against the sage-covered valley floor is absolutely spellbinding. The wild landscape and animals—from bison and grizzlies to wolves and elk—provide all the elements of the authentic Old West.

Before you visit (or when you arrive), make sure to check out these great resources:

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