Exploring Grand Teton National Park by Car - Wyoming
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Wyoming has two national parks, Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. If you visit one, it makes sense to visit the other, only seven miles separate these two parks. In between, connecting these two parks is the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, established in 1972 in honor of his contributions and dedication to the national park system. One of his philanthropic works was buying 35,000 acres of private lands in the Teton Valley and donating them to the federal government to be part of the Grand Teton National Park.
Visiting the Grand Teton National Park (as well as Yellowstone National Park) was a “spur of the moment” road trip for us this year. We didn’t do any hiking or camping - not enough time for that or to even plan for it. We just drove around and enjoyed the awesome scenery in the park, taking photos on a whim - "playing tourist” as they say. It was enough to be mesmerized by the beauty of nature in this place.
I can understand why it is one of the ten most visited national parks in the U.S. It will give any visitor a memorable impression of the place. You don’t have to be a climber or a hiker to appreciate the stunning beauty of the Tetons mountain range. It far exceeds anyone’s expectations.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
Grand Teton National Park, named for the highest peak in the Teton Range, was originally established in 1929 to protect the range as well as several lakes at the foot of the mountains. It then took decades to expand this park as we know it today. In 1943, Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared the remaining federal land in the valley as Jackson Hole National Monument. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. donated the land he purchased to the government to be included in the national park in 1949. Then in 1950, Congress finally combined the original park, the national monument, and the Rockefeller lands to establish the present-day Grand Teton National Park.
THE TETON RANGE
The Teton Range is the youngest range in the Rockies. It towers over the valley of Jackson Hole and is the focal point of the Grand Teton National Park. This range contains some of the oldest rocks in North America. For the Shoshone people, this range is known as Teewinot, meaning “many pinnacles”. Early French explorers, or fur trappers, called this mountain range “les trois tétons” meaning "the three nipples", due to the breast-like shapes of the three peaks - the South, Middle and Grand Teton.
There's a group of the tallest mountains in the range that are referred to as the Cathedral Group, peaks that are over twelve thousand feet. The best-known peak is of course the Grand Teton (13,775 feet), the highest peak in the Teton Range (and the second highest peak in Wyoming). The Grand Teton, Middle Teton (12,804 feet) and South Teton (12,514 feet), form the heart of the range. Other well-known peaks are Mount Owen (12,928 feet), Teewinot Mountain (12,325 feet) and Mount Moran (12,605 feet), the most prominent peak in the northern end of the range.
The rugged 40-mile long Teton Range is impressive, imposing and challenging. Qualities that any climbers would want to conquer, which is why the mountains here are among the top climbing destinations in the United States. There are no foothills in this range, just sharp rugged mountains rising straight up from the valley floor.
There are over ninety different routes to the summits of these mountains today, and many climbers have reached these peaks, but no one really knows who was the first to summit the Grand Teton. There are controversies; the 1872 Hayden Expedition claimed to be the first to reach the summit, but a group of climbers - William Owen, Franklin Spalding, John Shive and Frank Peterson - made the first documented summit in 1898. One thing for sure, the Native Americans have been climbing in this range even before the Americans came. They left behind evidence, an enclosure, or structure, found at the sub-summit of the Grand Teton.
The valley has drawn people here for more than 11,000 years. They helped shape the landscape that we see today. The earliest evidence of who entered the valley (Jackson Hole valley today) are the Nomadic paleo-Indians, right after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. They left behind ancient remains - tipi rings, fire pits and stone tools. Later, they were followed by other tribes such as Shoshone, Blackfoot and other native American tribes.
The first American explorer who entered the valley is said to be John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark “Corps of Discovery” expedition. After leaving the expedition in the fall of 1806, he traveled through the region in the winter of 1807-1808. Unfortunately, he left no record of his journey, but a stone unearthed by a farmer later on was found with his name and date on it. It was the only evidence that he was in the valley, although it is still questionable whether he was the one who wrote it.
The famous Snake River meanders along this valley, the largest river in the park and is an “Anglers paradise”. Congress designated this river as a Wild and Scenic River.
Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers sculpted the Teton landscape. There are seven glacial lakes in the park - Jackson Lake, Leigh Lake, String Lake, Jenny Lake, Bradley lake, Taggart Lake, and Phelps Lake. That is only those lakes that sit at the base of the mountains. There are many more small alpine lakes higher up. All were formed when the glaciers of the last ice age retreated, leaving behind terminal moraines which acted as natural dams. Some of these lakes can be found at the base of the Cathedral Group, and three have easy access from the road with spectacular views of the Teton Range.
Jenny Lake, the second largest lake in Grand Teton National Park was formed about 12,000 years ago by glaciers. The lake is named after a Shoshone Indian wife of an Englishman, Richard “Beaver Dick” Leigh, a trapper who helped guide the Hayden Expedition of 1872. The nearby Leigh Lake was named after him by the Hayden Expedition. Jenny, who assisted with camp logistics during the Hayden expedition, and their six children died of smallpox in 1876.
Jenny Lake is about 423 feet deep and encompasses 1,191 acres. Many hiking trails start here as well as access to the major climbing routes on the Teton Range. If climbing the Tetons is not on your bucket list, you can ride a boat, fish, or do some kayaking. Jenny and Jackson Lakes are the only lakes in Grand Teton National Park where motorboats are permitted.
Jackson Lake is one of the largest high altitude lakes in the United States (6,772 ft. above sea level). This lake is the remnant of glacial gouging from the nearby Teton Range to the west and Yellowstone Plateau to the north, fed by the Snake River flowing from the north. This natural lake was enlarged by a dam, the Jackson Lake Dam, of which some of the water is used to irrigate farms in Idaho. Several species of fish inhabit this lake such as Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout and mountain white fish, including the non-native brown and lake trout.
String Lake is an outflow of Leigh Lake. A creek connects String Lake to Jenny Lake. This lake is a favorite among locals and visitors, due its shallow and warmer water and beaches and picnic areas nearby. A wetland area located on the northwest of the lake is a prime habitat for moose. If you have time for hiking, trailheads can also be found here.
THE MORMON ROW
Jackson Hole was one of the last places to be settled after the Homestead Act of 1862. Harsh weather, rocky soils and difficult access made this a challenging place to settle. The Homestead Act granted ownership to any person willing to build a house and cultivate this area for five years. But homesteaders did not arrive in Jackson Hole until 1884.
The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, from Idaho were sent by their leaders from the Salt Lake Valley to establish a new community here in the 1890's. They settled in a community east of Blacktail Butte that was named Grovont by the U.S. Post Office, which is now known as “Mormon Row”. They grew crops in spite of the harsh conditions, digging ditches by hand and with the help of horses, to irrigate their fields with water coming from the Gros Ventre River - water still flows today in some of these ditches.
However, the homesteaders struggled raising crops and cattle in the valley. The soil is sandy and rocky, summer is dry, and winter is long and cold. They shifted to "dude ranching" when they realized that catering to the wealthy wanting to experience the wild west was easier and more profitable. This led to the golden age of dude ranching in the 1920's.
Two picturesque barns have become popular in Mormon Row today, the John Moulton barn and his brother's, the T.A. (Thomas Alma) Moulton barn. We did not know about T.A. Moulton's barn's existence when we were there, so unfortunately we don't have a picture of it. Anyhow, these two barns are the most photographed barns in America. You can see why, with the Teton range as a backdrop, this is a perfect photo opportunity for photographers, professional or not.
The John Moulton Barn is part of John and Bertha Moulton’s homestead. The barn and their more modern-style, pink stucco home are one of the 27 homesteads built at Mormon Row. Only six remain today. The Mormon Row was acquired for Grand Teton National Park and was added to the National Register of Historic Places on June 5, 1997.
CHAPEL OF THE TRANSFIGURATION
There's a small charming log chapel in the park called the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Located in the community of Moose, the chapel was originally built in 1925 for the employees and guests of the dude ranches of the Jackson Hole Valley. The construction materials and labor were funded by the local ranchers.
The chapel was built with exposed log interior walls and stained glass windows on either side. There's a canopied entrance to the complex which serves as a bell tower. In 1980, the chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This chapel also has the advantage of having the Teton Range as a backdrop. A perfect photo opportunity. Inside, the large window behind the altar was specifically built to frame the stunning view of the Tetons - enough of a distraction, I think, when trying to hear the word of God during a mass. As a famous saying goes, "when I am in the mountains, I think of God, when I am in church, I think of the mountains". It seems kind of fitting.
JACKSON HOLE AIRPORT
At the base of the Teton Range is Jackson Hole Airport, the only airport in the U.S. located inside a National Park. It is the largest and busiest commercial airport in Wyoming. Built in 1930’s, it became part of the national monument that was declared in 1943 and became part of the Grand Teton National Park in 1950. This is the only airport inside an American National Park.
HISTORIC TOWN OF JACKSON
At the edge of the national park is the historic town of Jackson. A nice place to stay when visiting the Tetons. It is the only incorporated town in the valley, named in late 1893 by Margaret Simpson, the local postmaster at the time. The post office was non-existent and she was receiving mail at her home. She named the town Jackson, after David Edward “Davy” Jackson, a beaver trapper in the late 1820's, in order for easterners to forward mail west.
He was one of the first European Americans to spend an entire winter in the valley. The term “Hole” was used by early trappers, or mountain men, as a term for a large mountain valley that provided good habitat for beaver. Hence the name “Jackson Hole”.
Town Square/ George Washington Memorial Park
Jackson is a resort town and is well known for its small town square with arches made out of elk antlers. Yes, they are real antlers and make one-of-a-kind arches.
This square is actually named George Washington Memorial Park, designated in 1932. There are arches on each corner, so if it takes forever to wait for your turn to take picture with the arch, there are three more. People usually go for the first one they see, which is by the intersection of the two main streets.
The first unique arch was built in 1953 by the local Rotary Club, Boy Scouts, and community members of Jackson Hole. The remaining three arches were built in 1966, in 1967 and in 1969. It took them thirteen years to complete all four and they are rebuilt about every 50 years. Each arch has more than 2,000 antlers, collected from the National Elk Refuge in the valley nearby, which hundreds of elk use as a grazing range in the winter.
Surrounded by beautiful shops, galleries and restaurants, the center of town has an old wild west vibe, with sidewalks built of wooden boards. The town square is a hub for festivals and events. In May, the community celebrates ElkFest, a multi-day festival with vendors, music, and food. During ElkFest, the harvested antlers are auctioned off to bidders from around the world, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the National Elk Refuge.
There are many hiking trails and backpacking adventures in the Tetons, but it is recommended to consult the Visitor Center Park Ranger before venturing out.
The Teton Mountain Range is open year-round, but much of the park is inaccessible during winter time. Winter sports are available and there are ski resorts nearby.