This is Part 3 of a planned 5 part series on Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks. We will spend 5 days and nights exploring the natural wonders of each park and the surrounding cities; our travels will take us on a circuitous route from Bozeman, MT to Jackson Hole, WY and back again. In Part 3, we'll travel south out of Yellowstone and down into Grand Tetons National Park. We'll visit Jackson Lake, take in the mountain reflection at Oxbow Bend, ascend Signal Mountain, hop a boat across Jenny Lake for the hike up to Inspiration Point, and survey the scenic panoramas at Mormon Row. After, we'll finish up the day exploring Jackson Hole, hiking around Teton Village and relaxing in Downtown Jackson.
It's day 3 of our vacation and the third day in a row I'm awake before dawn--this must be some kind of record for me. Today, we are heading south out of Yellowstone and into Grand Tetons National Park. After exploring Grand Tetons and the surrounding landscape, we'll travel on to Jackson Hole and spend the night there before our return back to Yellowstone.
First, though, we must work our way out of Yellowstone. From our current location at the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, it's approximately 40 miles to Yellowstone's south entrance (about a 1 hour and 20 minute drive). Along the way, we'll pass several sights, interestingly all with the name Lewis. Lewis Lake, Lewis Falls, Lewis River, and Lewis Canyon are all named in honor of Meriweather Lewis--of Lewis and Clark expedition fame. Oddly enough for how prevalent the name is within the park, the Lewis and Clark expedition never actually explored Yellowstone.
The first of the Lewis sights we will encounter on our drive is Lewis Lake. We travel west to West Thumb and turn south, passing the exit for Grant Village. Soon after that, we meet with a series of pullouts overlooking the lake. Lewis Lake is the third largest lake in Yellowstone. At midday, it waters are busy with fishermen, kayakers, and boaters. At this hour, though, the lake is reminiscent of a huge looking glass, with the sky perfectly reflected off its smooth-as-glass surface.
From Lewis Lake, the Lewis River flows south, and the road mirrors its path to Lewis Falls. Lewis Falls is situated just a little past the last pullout for the lake. From the roadside, we don't have an up-close view of the 30 ft. waterfall, but we get a good enough peek. After visiting Yellowstone's Lower Falls yesterday (which is more than ten times its height), this one seems quite tame in comparison. This stop does afford us our first glimpse of today's destination, though. It's a clear day, and we can just make out the Grand Tetons across the road to the south.
Photos: Left: Lewis Falls; Right: View of Grand Tetons to the South
Next, on our drive south meets with Lewis Canyon. As we enter the canyon area, it's evident that there was a forest fire here sometime in the recent past. The devastating fire was actually over 30 years ago, in 1988, but when trees burn in Yellowstone, they're left to let nature take its course. It takes about a century for burned trees to decompose, so they'll be here for a while. There are several pullouts for Lewis Canyon, and the view is definitely worth a look, but like the waterfall, it's too easy to compare it to the views we experienced yesterday at Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. I have a feeling, though, that the vistas we're soon going to encounter in Grand Tetons will be incomparable to anything we've seen so far.
Shortly after Lewis Canyon, we reach Yellowstone's south entrance and exit the park. Yellowstone is connected to Grand Tetons National Park by the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway. The area between the parks, as well as its 7.5 mile stretch of highway, is a recreation area maintained by Grand Tetons National Park.
Grand Tetons National Park stretches 45 miles north to south and covers an area of about 485 square miles. The park is home to an abundance of glacial lakes and wildlife. Much of the 40 mile long Grand Tetons mountain range resides within the boundaries of the park (thus the name). The range is made up of a series of impressive peaks, with its tallest summit (Grand Teton) topping out at 13,775 ft. tall. [source NPS]
Map of Grand Tetons
The mountain peaks are not the only impressive sight in Grand Tetons, though. The first alpine lake we encounter in the park is also its largest. Jackson Lake is immense--it covers nearly 40 square miles. As we get our first glimpse of the lake, the morning fog has not fully dissipated. Through the mist, we can't quite make out the tops of the mountains across the water. It's so quiet and peaceful here at this hour. It feels as if the world is enveloped in a blanket of low-hanging clouds, muffling all sound.
We continue south, skirting the shores of Jackson Lake and stop at Colter Bay Village to walk a short bit of the Lakeshore Trail. Colter Bay has a visitor's center, Indian Arts Museum, and marina. It's a popular spot to swim or launch a kayak. We park near the Colter Bay Marina and walk along the shoreline. If we did the whole trail, it would be about 2 miles round trip, but today we're just sticking to the beach, taking in the pristine alpine lake and wispy fog adorning our view of the towering 12,605 ft. Mount Moran in the distance.
After Colter Bay Village, we head to Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge itself is quite stunning; the interior is bright with floor to ceiling windows, and the upstairs lobby's design resembles a ski chalet with stone columns, a wood beamed ceiling, and moose patterned furniture. The real draw at Jackson Lake Lodge, though, is directly outside of its 60 ft. windows--the view. The outdoor terrace running along the exterior of the windows affords a perfect 180 degree panorama of the mountains beyond and the willow flats below. It's breathtaking.
Once we're done taking in the view at Jackson Lake Lodge from every angle, we drive about a mile south to the Willow Flats turnout. It's a well known spot due to its vista of several of the range's mountain peaks. There happens to be another couple stopped at Willow Flats when we're exploring, so we take advantage of the opportunity and each snap a quick photo for the other.
The view from Willow Flats is slightly more obstructed than the view from Jackson Lake Lodge. There are some coniferous trees between us and the mountains. However, we are a bit closer to the peaks here and have a slightly different angle from which to take in the view of the snow-capped mountains spread out before us.
We continue our drive southeast along the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Parkway, and after about five minutes, we are at what turns out to be my favorite viewpoint in all of Grand Tetons--Oxbow Bend. Oxbow Bend is located at a bend in the Snake River. It provides picture-perfect views of the mountains beyond and, given the right conditions, the calm surface of the river water reflecting the image of Mount Moran towering above it. [It's also this article's cover photo.]
After Oxbow Bend, we backtrack west and turn south onto Teton Park Road, and soon we find ourselves at the Jackson Lake Dam and Reservoir. The dam primarily controls the lake water level and diverts water to farmers who utilize it for crop irrigation. We stop for a few minutes to get a quick look at the damn and the pristine reservoir across the road.
Shortly after we get back on the road, we encounter a mule deer munching on some greenery. The deer is dining very close to the roadside, so we get an up close look at his impressive antlers. He remains calm during our entire stop, not remotely bothered by our presence. His breakfast must be too diverting.
Continuing on, we soon reach the Log Chapel of the Sacred Heart. The small wooden chapel was constructed in the 1930s and features a colorful stained glass window. The wooden interior is simple and mainly adorney with yet more wood. Masses (as well as weddings) are still held here in the summer, but today the chapel is quiet.
As our drive progresses, we find ourselves significantly closer to the mountain range. From the flat landscape below, the Grand Tetons appear to rise out of nowhere, suddenly piercing the skyline thousands of feet in the air. This jutting land displacement is a result of the mountain range's formation along the Teton Fault. Over the course of millennia, the eastern side of the fault line slowly pushed the western side upward. Six to nine million years later, we are seeing the resultant land displacement's work.
Our next stop is the top of Signal Mountain. At not quite 8,000 ft., it's certainly not the tallest peak in the park, but it is undeniably the easiest to ascend. The mountain has a five mile road that winds all the way up to its peak.
Photos: Views from Signal Mountain/Jackson Point Overlook
We ascend the road in our car, passing several cyclists. The incline of this mountain road on a bicycle looks like a punishing workout--I much prefer our car. Soon, we are near the top. We stop off to take in the view at Jackson Point Overlook and even get a look at the cell phone tower located on the mountain--seems appropriate given the summit's name is Signal Mountain. For the first time in three days, we have a decent cell phone signal!
There's no time to stop and chat, though. We pocket our phones and head back down the mountain, continuing south on Teton Park Road. The open road affords us unobstructed views on the mountain range ahead, and the views around us are simply stunning.
Our next stop is the Jenny Lake Overlook. The mountain views here are slightly obstructed from the overlook's lakeside path, but the vistas are still spectacular. The trail also offers us our first glimpse of Jenny Lake, which is our next planned destination.
We turn back out onto the road to drive the rest of the way to the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center. Jenny Lake is the tourist mecca of Grand Tetons National Park. This is where the park's crowds tend to flock, as is evident by the visitor's center's busy parking lot. Jenny Lake is situated in the lower half of Grand Tetons National Park, and since most of the tourists entered the park traveling north from the opposite direction we did this morning, it is also quite busy already today.
Jenny Lake covers 1.9 square miles and is Grand Teton's National Park's second largest alpine lake. While Jackson Lake dwarfs Jenny Lake (it's over 20 times larger), Jenny Lake is the more famous of the two. The lake is particularly popular for its hiking trails, boat rides, and wildlife sightings. Today, we hope to experience all three.
First, though, we are going to take the boat across Jenny Lake and attempt the hike up to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. We have to hike at least a little of the Tetons while we're here! This is one of the park's most popular summer activities, and there can be a bit of a wait for the boat if the park is crowded. Our delay isn't too bad, though, and soon we find ourselves seated on a motor boat, taking in the panoramic views of the mountains as we head toward the dock across the lake.
Photos: Jenny Lake Shuttle Boat and Views
[Jenny Lake Boating Note: In summer, shuttle boats run regularly between the visitor's center dock and the lake's western shore (the jumping off point for the Hidden Falls, Inspiration Point, and Cascade Canyon Trail). Boats are operated by Jenny Lake Boating and run every 10-15 minutes (reservations not accepted). The ride takes approximately 12 minutes each way and provides some spectacular views of the surrounding mountains. If you'd prefer to skip the boat ride, you can take the 2 mile hike (each way) around the lake to the Cascade Canyon trail head or you can also opt to take the boat one way from either direction. When departing, if you plan to return via boat, pay attention to the boat's posted closing time so you don't find yourself stranded on the other side of the lake later. If you'd prefer to skip the hiking altogether, Jenny Lake Boating offers a one hour lake cruise, as well as canoe and kayak rentals).]
[Hiking Tips: Wear a hat/sunscreen, dress with climate fluctuations in mind (as altitudes increase, temperatures decrease), bring plenty of water, carry bear spray, and choose sturdy hiking shoes. Don't hike alone, and if headed off the busy tourist route, ensure others know of your travel plans. Be bear aware--always make plenty of noise when hiking; you never want to inadvertently surprise a bear. And don't forget your camera!]
Photos: Hidden Falls/Inspiration Point Hike on the Cascade Canyon Trail
When we disembark the boat on the opposite shore, we begin the steep hike up to Hidden Falls (as do the others traveling on our boat--this is the most well traversed trail in the park). Hidden Falls, a 1/2 mile hike up the side of the mountain along the Cascade Canyon Trail, is essentially the halfway point to Inspiration Point. The best spot to view the waterfall, thought, is a short detour left off the main trail. The 100 ft. cascading waterfall is quite pretty, as are the small rapids of Cascade Creek running through the forest floor blow it.
Photos: View from Inspiration Point
Back on the main route, we hike the rest of the way up the Cascade Canyon Trail to Inspiration Point. Most of the climb is steep, but the last stretch is rocky, narrow and perched over a very sheer drop-off. I'm not one to have a huge fear of heights, but the spot is enough to make me a bit nervous. There's also a slight human traffic jam at this section of the trail as people navigate through the narrow point, headed in both directions, making it somewhat more precarious. When it's my turn, I practically hug the side of the mountain as I traverse the narrowest part. I'm not looking forward to heading back down this way.
Once we reach Inspiration Point, we stop to take in the view of the lake below. We are now at an elevation of 7,200 ft. The scenery is quite pretty; we can see for miles around. Unlike at Signal Mountain, here we have the sense of accomplishment in knowing we reached this little summit on our own two feet. Drinking in the view, we debate whether to hike the trail a bit up into Cascade Canyon beyond. We even start in that direction (more uphill climbing), but we decide we really don't have enough water with us for a long hike and instead turn around and head back down the mountain.
Photos: Inspiration Point Hike
Once we are back at the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center dock, we decide to walk around the lake a bit--at least it's flat! I have had my mind set on seeing a moose at some point during our trip, and based on my research, the area around Jenny Lake seems the most likely spot to encounter one. It’s not really the correct time of day for moose, though. They tend to be most active in the mornings and evenings. After a bit of exploring, I give up on my moose search for the day and decide that we can continue on in our park explorations. I'll be back tomorrow morning, though!
A short distance south of Jenny Lake, we encounter the Teton Glacier turnout. It affords us some spectacular views of the glaciers above us. The Teton Glacier, the largest of the park's 11 active glaciers, is the most clearly visible from here, but we also get a glimpse of Teepee Glacier and Middle Glacier on the adjoining peaks. [You can read more about the park's glaciers and how glaciers are formed here.]
Photos: Teton Glacier Turnout (Left: Three Glaciers From Afar; Right: Teton Glacier)
We continue our drive south until we hit Moose Junction where we decide to stop off to get something to eat for lunch. There are a few dining options in Moose, all run by Dornan's--Pizza & Pasta Co., Dornan's Chuckwagon, and Dornan's Deli. We opt for the deli, each choosing a sandwich from the counter and a caffeinated beverage from the cart out front. We select a bench and sit down to eat. I certainly wouldn't describe the food as gourmet, but we have a nice dinner planned this evening in Jackson. So, on the bright sight, I'll have plenty of room!
From Moose Junction, we drive through Antelope Flats. Antelope Flats is well known for its dining attraction to some of the larger area wildlife. We don't spot any animals grazing through the grasslands, though.
From Antelope Flats, we drive south to Mormon Row. Mormon Row is a famous historic district dotted with picturesque barns and farmhouses. It's a photographer's dream. Mormon Row’s most photographed sight is the log Moulton Barn, with a pitched roof that mimics the line of jagged mountain peaks beyond it.
After the Moulton Barn, we stop at another barn to take in the wooden structure and surrounding fences, as well as the impressive mountains in the distance. I can't seem to tire of this view. The Tetons are simply awe inspiring.
Another fairly constant feature at Mormon Row are Uinta Ground Squirrels. I initially think I will have to carefully look for them if I want to spot one, but there are plenty of the little critters scurrying about, both looking for food and trying to avoid becoming it (they're a favorite snack of predatory birds). The ground squirrels spend 8 months a year underground--thus the name--but they come out during the warm weather to forage for food (and probably to get a rare bit of sunlight).
Photos: Uinta Ground Squirrels
While I can understand what drew the ground squirrels here—the soil is excellent for tunneling—as I look at the vast, empty landscape in front of us, I can't imagine what drew a few Mormon families here in the early twentieth century. The summers are short, and the winters are long and harsh. Living here must have felt so remote, but maybe that was their goal. Regardless, I can definitely see how the spectacular view would be a selling point.
After Mormon Row, we work our way back to Teton Village, the Jackson Hole ski area, continuing to take in the breathtaking landscape. There's no shortage of photogenic homesteads along this route. The challenge is not stopping repeatedly to take yet more photos of picturesque fields giving way to the mountains beyond.
Soon, though, we are at Teton Village. Teton Village is home to the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and lies about 12 miles from downtown Jackson. Rendezvous Mountain, where the resort is located, is significantly quieter in summer than in winter when skiers and winter sports enthusiasts flock to the mountain's snow covered slopes. Summers attract adventure seekers, as well, though.
While in winter, Jackson Hole is known for its well powdered slopes, in summer, those same mountain sides are frequented by hikers, mountain bikers, and even paragliders. Just as you'd find ski rentals adjoining the slopes in winter, bike rentals occupy the same position in summer. The slopes even house a bike park that is accessible via chair lift, featuring downhill mountain trails and jumps.
Though it's the “off season,” most of the restaurants and bars are open, catering to the summer weather enthusiasts out and about. We spend some time wandering along the shops, restaurants and bars dotting the foot of the mountain. Summer is a relaxed time here, and no one seems to be in a rush today. It's the first time we've slowed down a bit on the trip, and it's a nice feeling. Luckily, the rest of today is going to be pretty relaxed, as well.
Back in the car, we are on our way to downtown Jackson. While the entire general area is known as Jackson Hole, Jackson is the designated urban area situated about 20 minutes from the ski resort. Jackson has a picturesque, compact core great for shopping and strolling. It's certainly not a cheap zip code in which to live, but with that comes a foodie's paradise--my favorite kind of destination.
When we arrive in downtown Jackson, we decide to first check into our hotel and clean up a bit. We are staying at the Springhill Suite Jackson Hole. It's right in the center of town, and I was able to use hotel points for the night which is a plus. Our room features a king sized bed and a small sitting area with a couch and desk which is a nice bonus. The hotel also has an outdoor pool, but while the weather is extremely nice, it's not quite warm enough that I want to go swimming, either.
Instead, after changing, we decide to head to a brewery across the street from the hotel. The Snake River Brewing Co. is a family owned local brewery that features a comfortable outdoor seating area, an indoor dining area, and two bars (one upstairs and one downstairs). We check out the interior, which has an industrial feel, and then begin our visit upstairs, selecting a beer from the bar's list of microbrews. After collecting our selections, we decide to move outside to hear the live music that has begun to play.
The guitarist playing at Snake River Brewing Co. today is quite good, and his voice reverberates across the lawn. The brewery has a hip vibe--like much of Jackson Hole. We find two lounge chairs in the grass and settle in with our beers for a bit. Sometimes it's nice to just need to relax with the locals and stop being a tourist for a few minutes.
That being said, I can't help myself for long--I'm an explorer at heart. After we've finished up at Snake River, we head into the heart of downtown to check out the city's historic core. Downtown Jackson is situated around a central, verdant square logically named Jackson Town Square. Jackson Town Square is most well known for its unique arch entrance, completely constructed out of elk antlers. (Don't worry, no elk were harmed in the making of this design. Elk's antler fall off each spring, and they grow a new set.) Surrounding the square are shops, bars, and restaurants. From this central point, downtown Jackson spirals out a few blocks in each direction.
We wander into several of the shops fronting the square, browsing the goods. There is everything from a storefront selling cowboy boots to one specializing in taxidermy pieces. We check out the local wares and try a few things on. It's fun examining all of the different western themed goods, and we even purchase a wood-carved moose Christmas ornament for our tree at home--a tradition we have whenever taking a trip.
After we've had our fill of shopping, we decide to try out some of the local bars. There are several to choose from in the immediate vicinity surrounding the central square. The first, we agree, must be the rather loud-looking Million Dollar Cowboy Bar located directly across from the city's antler arch.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a touristy, over the top bar with saddle bar seats (real leather saddles with stirrups and all), detailed woodwork, and a rather large dance floor in the back for the energetic evening crowd. Since it's currently daytime, it's not overly crowded, and we're able to get a seat on the saddles at the bar (we had to at least try them out). We order one of the bar's own beers--an aptly named Cowboy Beer--to share (we still plan to visit a few other places in town tonight) and decide to explore the bar's interior a bit while we finish our drink.
The decor around the bar is a bit kitschy, but that's to be expected with a name like Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. The interior features a case of spurs, western murals over the bar, and even a steer skull hanging on the wall. It's a fun place for a drink, and I imagine the evening crowd is equally entertaining to watch.
After Million Dollar Cowbow Bar, we head over to the nearby Roadhouse Brewing Co. Roadhouse Brewing Co. is less kitschy than the previous bar and a bit more local feeling. The upstairs comes with a view of the square below and even a stagecoach parked across the street--appropriate given its name. We share a drink at the bar and check out the food menu. My husband wants to get something to try, but I'm excited for dinner tonight and don't want to ruin our appetites this late in the day.
So, we decide once our drink is complete that we are going to head back to the hotel to change before dinner. The hotel isn't far from where we are, and the restaurant is only a short distance from the hotel, as well. I want to dress a bit nicer since we are in the city, and we have some celebrating to do. For dinner tonight, I've made reservations at Gather. I planned this trip to celebrate our 10 year wedding anniversary, so I wanted to ensure we had a nice dinner the one night we weren't staying over in the parks. There were plenty of good options to choose from in Jackson Hole, but this restaurant's menu really stuck out to me. Gather's menu focuses on fresh, local ingredients with a western flair mixed in. I'm excited to sit down and enjoy a delicious, leisurely dinner. After several days of waking up early, eating on the go, and dashing from place to place, I am very much looking forward to slowing down.
Since the restaurant is only a few blocks from our hotel, we walk over. Once we are seated, we look through the menus, starting with cocktails. After perusing the special cocktail list, we each choose something from the menu. My drink includes huckleberry cream liquor (it tastes like it sounds), and my husband chooses a more classic martini. We toast to a (hopefully) delicious dinner and start perusing the appetizer and entree selections. We have difficulty settling on only one starter, so we order two--the Mediterranean burrata cheese and a taco on special. For my entree, I select the elk bolognese, and my husband chooses the pork shank. The first appetizer to come is the Mediterranean burrata cheese. It features fig jam, herb babaganoush, Mediterranean vegetable salad, and grilled naan. The smoky flavor of the grilled naan and babaganoush in the dish is a perfect contrast to the more mild burrata. Next, the the taco special comes. The tortillas taste housemaid and the salty bbq flavor of the meat is an ideal pairing with the sweet sauce drizzled on top. I love when restaurants take the time to put complementary flavor profiles and textures together. (Maybe it makes me a bit of a food snob, but good food just makes me happy.)
Finally, our entrees arrive. My house made pasta is cooked perfectly and combined with a garlicky red sauce, local tomatoes, and ground meat. It's topped off with a gilled baguette and grated pecorino cheese. The elk reminds me of a leaner ground beef. It's all so good; I wish I had more room. My husband's local pork comes over carrot puree and red rice with lentils. It's topped with a tequila jalapeño jam, pickled peppers and carrot chips, with tortillas served on the side. He let's me taste his, and again, all I can think is it's a spot on pairing of flavors and textures. It's so much food, but it's all so delicious!
When it comes time for dessert, neither of us can fit another bite, so we pass. We decide to stroll a bit while we digest and then stop somewhere for a nightcap. The city is well lit at night, and we enjoy ambling along in the evening breeze. We pass the main square and take a turn around it.
Eventually, we find ourselves at the Silver Dollar Bar & Grill, a more local hangout. Apparently, we have picked the right night to stop by because they have a local band playing (One Ton Pig), and all of their fans appear to be out and ready for a night of dancing. These people can move. Some of the couples appear to be dance competition level. The band is also quite good. It's wonderful to just watch the dancers and listen to the music. Unfortunately for my husband (who loves dancing), I am not a dancer. I most definitely do not want to join in the melee, but it's a lot of fun to watch.
Photos: Downtown Jackson & The Silver Dollar Bar and Grill
We stay at the Silver Dollar for quite a while, listening to the band, watching the dancers, and just relaxing. Eventually, my husband makes friends with some local fans of the band and even buys the two CDs they have for sale to bring home. We're pretty exhausted, though. So, we eventually decide to head back to the hotel and call it a night. It has been yet another very busy day, but something about the immensity of the Grand Tetons got me to slow down to contemplate a bit today. Standing on a flat plain staring 13,000 ft. up at a glacier-capped mountain range millions of years in the making will do that to you. Today was a reminder of just how insignificant we humans are in the grand scheme of the universe. Our time flies by in the blink of an eye, and sometimes, it's really important to take a second to slow down and enjoy it. It's a valuable lesson we should all remember. That being said, I'll still be up tomorrow before dawn (for a fourth day in a row) in pursuit of a moose!
Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins