Now, I’m not saying that we quit our jobs, gave away most of our belongings, moved into an RV, and traveled across the country in 6 months just so I could take the photo above. However, as we were planning our journey of American discovery, there were definitely certain camping locations that were on our list of “must-visit” locations. One of them was boondocking (free dispersed camping) in the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands just north of Badlands National Park, which lived up to every expectation we could have possibly had for that site. Another of those bucket list camping sites was in the Bridger-Teton National Forest just outside Grand Teton National Park. This location also did not disappoint.
We absolutely loved having a panoramic view of the mountains across the Snake River Valley. The Teton Range makes for spectacular viewing any time of day, and seeing the light play on the mountains throughout the day left us constantly in wonder at the stunning appearance of this great range. Needless to say, I took quite a few photos from our campsite. The fact that it was free – which is typical for dispersed national forest camping – made us even more appreciative of our public lands.
We configured our Airstream with an eye toward having plenty of capacity to live off the grid without sacrificing our quality of life, and our choices have definitely paid dividends in the form of camping experiences like this. Not only did the site have excellent views of the mountains and the valley, but the relatively open landscape made it perfect for solar power generation. The only real issue we encountered was the cold nighttime temperatures. Fall has definitely come to the Tetons, and while the flaming colors on the aspens were awesome the nighttime temperatures in the twenties and even the teens were a little challenging to cope with.
When not busy gaping at the whole mountain range, we found some time to leave our campsite and explore various areas of the park, taking plenty of hikes to get acquainted with the various terrains and environments. The highlights:
For our main foray up into the mountains, we chose the Garnet Canyon trail because it seemed manageable at 8.5 miles. The trail started out relatively tame but soon transitioned into a major ascent up the steep face of the mountains. We gained 2,650 feet of elevation in just over 4 miles, and topped out at just over 9,000 feet of elevation. We were proud of the effort and some of the results of our conditioning over the summer. Of course, there were plenty of energetic young hikers galloping past us on the steep ascent, but it’s obvious that they have mountain goat genes that give them special powers on mountains.
Getting up into the higher elevations of the mountains gave us impressive views back across the valley to the east of the mountains. We also had the chance to confirm for ourselves that the higher reaches of these mountains are just as rocky and rugged as they look from the distance. We learned from other hikers that the trail continues past our final destination, and can be followed all the way to the summit of Middle Teton without requiring any special climbing gear. All it takes is a willingness to hike up another 3,000 feet or so. We are not goat-people, so the thought of attempting to summit Middle Teton did not even cross our minds.
Colter Bay Village / Swan Lake / Heron Pond / Lakeview Loop
We experienced one cloudy, hazy day during our visit, and chose to spend it exploring several areas in the northern section of the park. The Colter Bay Village area is a bustling little community with lodging, restaurants, stores, a gas station, and a marina. It is also home to a network of trails that offer many trails of different lengths for exploring some wetland and lakefront areas. We enjoyed seeing several peaceful backcountry lakes, with calm waters full of water lilies, and deer browsing along the lakeside. Our 6 miles on these relatively easy, family-friendly trails were surprisingly empty and quiet, and a nice way to recover from our big mountain challenge the prior day. In the course of researching trails in this area on Alltrails, I also came across my all-time favorite typo in a review: “We had to cut our hike short due to a beer sighting.” This easily became a running joke for us. We also checked out the iconic Jackson Lake Lodge and marveled at the views from its famous lobby.
Clocking in at just over 8 miles, the loop trail that circles Jenny Lake was scenic from every side, which explains why this is one of the most popular hikes in the park. The trail was a little harder than we expected, since the park service is working on refurbishing the regular trail on the west side of the lake and the detour includes quite a few up and down sections. The benefit of that hard work was numerous impressive viewpoints looking out over the lake.
Out and About
We always hit the visitor center in any NPS unit to get an overall feel for the park and also pick up hiking maps and other information. At many parks, we’ve been quite impressed by the architecture and design of the visitor centers. Not only do we like and appreciate good architecture, but we also believe that our parks deserve to be shared with our own citizens and with visitors in the best possible way. At Grand Teton, our trip to the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center near the south end of the park was a revelation. This lovely structure of timber and glass fits in perfectly with the surroundings while offering breathtaking views of the mountains. The serene interior courtyard is reminiscent of a Japanese courtyard. My photos don’t do justice to the elegance and simplicity of the building. If we were ever to build a home in a mountain setting, we would shamelessly copy this building, though of course we would scale it down considerably – we wouldn’t need an auditorium that holds 50 people!
If it seems we have an awful lot to say about National Park Service visitor centers and 20-minute introductory movies, that’s probably because Grand Teton is the 42nd NPS unit we’ve visited. That may sound like a lot, but it means we have officially visited only 10% of the units… so we have several more to go.
Finally, we were excited to see vibrant fall colors on display in the park, mostly from gold and orange aspens. As Florida residents we haven’t had much recent experience with seasonal changes in weather or the environment. We were thrilled to see spring unfold during our visit to the Appalachians earlier this year, and even more excited to see the abundance of fall colors painting the landscape here at the Tetons. Here’s hoping we can keep chasing fall for a few weeks of colorful splendor!