There’s a wonderful simplicity about the Grand Tetons. Drive into the park and there they are: the meanest-looking monuments to tectonic activity in the West, a jagged, saw-toothed range that rises to snow-capped summits straight out of a child’s drawing. They are the perfect mountains, visual shorthand for the entire Rocky Mountain range.
Wherever you go, they’re there, rising and falling sharply like a line graph charting The Nightmare on Wall Street. The viewpoint may change, but the overall impression is constant. Such is the dominance of this one physical feature that it defines Grand Teton like no other National Park I can think of, with the obvious exception of the Grand Canyon.
Yellowstone, Zion, Death Valley … all are breathtakingly beautiful but ask a dozen people for their favourite views and you’ll get at least half a dozen different answers. Visit Grand Teton and there’s no debating what’s centre stage.
We approach the park on US Route 89, leaving a bitterly cold Afton to head north up Star Valley, a name it owes, if Wikipedia is to be believed, to either its bounteous glory (early Mormon settlers called it the ‘Star of All Valleys’) or, conversely, to its cruel inhospitality (a series of bitter winters in the 1880s led to it being named ‘Starvation Valley’). Today’s rich-looking farmland suggests the former is more likely.
At Alpine we enter the Grand Canyon of the Snake River, one of the most scenic sections of Highway 89. It’s famed for its white-water rafting, kayaking and fishing but the freezing weather means we have it virtually to ourselves.
We see deer, coyote and – with the help of binoculars and Carole’s keen/patient eyes – a pair of bald eagles in the trees on the opposite bank of the river. As a prelude to the main event it’s perfect, putting us in just the right frame of mind to appreciate natural beauty at its finest.
On the way into the park itself, we pass by the National Elk Refuge, which, as you’d hope, offers a distant view of a herd of many hundreds of elk seeking refuge from the harsh winter up in the mountains. To my mind though, this is a bit like passing a ranch and seeing cows, or visiting a Ford dealer and seeing F-series trucks. If they’d just created the refuge and not told anyone about it, we’d have marvelled at our luck. As it is we drive past with a sense of entitlement; if anything, we’re slightly aggrieved at them having decided to chew the cud on the far side of the valley.
So, into the park. And yes, there they are, filling the skyline to the left. At around 10 million years old the Tetons make up the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains and it’s this relative youthfulness that gives them their distinctive shape; there hasn’t been time for the erosion to round off the peaks, fill the valleys, and create foothills to soften their impact.
First stop is the Taggart Lake Trailhead with its promise of ‘stellar views’ along a 3.0-mile moderate-to-difficult walk. We kit up, lace up boots, pack rucksacks, don hats and sunglasses, check camera lenses and spare batteries … and get all of 400 yards before the crisp surface of snow starts collapsing beneath our feet. We push on for maybe another five minutes, breath getting shorter as feet sink deeper, until it becomes apparent that pushing any further would not only be exhausting but dangerous too, a fact confirmed by a guy – much younger and much, much fitter than us – who’s been forced to turn back by worsening conditions further up the trail.
So, top tip when visiting the Tetons in winter: when the NPS officer in the visitor center suggests you might enjoy your hike more if you hire snowshoes, it’s not because she thinks you’ll look funny wearing them.
Ok, onto stellar view #2, the John Moulton Barn, aka The Most Photographed Barn in America, on Mormon Row. John Moulton was – no prizes for guessing – a Mormon settler and his great legacy was the construction of a timber barn.
The barn itself is fairly unremarkable, a perfectly handsome erection but no better or worse than dozens of others we’ve passed in the last 24 hours or so. What makes it special and attracts photographers from the world over is its situation, or to be more precise, its backdrop, the Teton range. Put the two together and you have an image that speaks of western ruggedness and pioneer spirit, the arch of the barn’s roof mirroring the sharp outline of the peaks behind and delivering a sense of scale to the scene.
In order to capture the classic Moulton Barn image, you need to get up when it’s pitch black, drive into the park, make the 1.5 mile walk from the parking area to the barn (the road’s closed to traffic in winter) and keep your fingers crossed for a perfect sunrise. And one day, when the light’s just right, you replicate the image that appears on every glossy, coffee table book of the Tetons.
Alternatively, you might opt to arrive at about 11 in the morning, use the barn’s location as an excuse as good as any other to stretch the legs, enjoy the walk through this winter wonderland for its own sake, grab a few photos even though the sun’s a bit hit and miss, then buy the book.
From here we continue north on Highway 89 and allow the beauty of the place to engulf us. We stop to take in the views at Teton Point Turnout and Snake River Overlook, the latter made famous in Ansel Adams’ brilliant 1942 photograph ‘The Tetons and the Snake River’.
We watch a sluggish, semi-frozen Lava Creek pass under the bridge close to Moran Junction. And we take the short diversion to look out over the unbroken expanse of ice at Jackson Lake Dam, a bitterly cold wind making this a fleeting pleasure.
Other visitors are few and far between. Two photographers at Moulton Barn grunt a grudging acknowledgement of our presence, sneak a surreptitious glance at my gear, and then revert to fiddling with their f-settings. What is it about photography that attracts people so completely lacking in social skills?
We meet three women following a cross-country ski trail near Colter Bay. They show us their pepper sprays, offer to share their cookies and tell us about their visits to Yorkshire, England. A woman approaches me at one turnout and asks what I’m looking at through my binoculars. I tell her I think it’s a family of elk in the river far below and she walks away, singularly unimpressed. (She’d have been even less impressed if she’d bothered to take a look; it turned out to be a group of rocks.) And at another turnout, a shiny black SUV with tinted windows pulls over and a smartly dressed woman attempts to press upon us various materials extolling the wonder of a forgiving Jesus.
Other than that, we have the place to ourselves, and it’s magical. As is our accommodation for the night: a warm, fully furnished log cabin overlooking the Snake River at Dornans, Moose.
The Dornans homesteaded these parts almost a century ago and the family business – cabins, grocery, restaurants, and sports/adventure outfitters – has grown to become a park landmark. We buy food and wine (oh yes, there’s a world-class wine shop too), pick up the keys and settle in. There’s no TV, no telephone, not even the distraction of Wi-Fi; just a deep blanket of pure white snow, magnificent views of the peaks, the muffled sound of the river, and the warm glow of an unforgettable day.
Click here to read: Day Four: Grand Tetons to West Yellowstone
(To read the narrative from the other days and see more of Peter's awesome photography, click here for the table of contents.)
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Author Bio: Over the last several years, Peter Thody has written some of the best-read travel commentary on RoadTrip America, the world's leading resource of advice, inspiration and guidance on that most American of pastimes. His on-the-road reports have provided readers with a fresh perspective on the whole concept of the American roadtrip. That's because Thody is an Englishman -- clueless about some things Americans take for granted, unafraid to poke fun at heroes and traditions, and unabashed in his wonder at the beauty of it all.