JACKSON, WYO. — Grand Teton National Park is hardly an unknown gem in the park system especially since its familiar peaks have been the backdrop for numerous Hollywood films but it isn't as well known or as intensively used as its close neighbor to the north, Yellowstone. Situated just north of the resort town of Jackson, Wyo., Grand Teton hosts fewer than half the number of Yellowstone's overnight visitors. Many see it as just a pretty drive on the way to the more famous park.
It is more than that to me.
Yellowstone is certainly a wonder of nature. No place on earth can duplicate its geysers and bubbling hot springs, and it dwarfs Grand Teton in size and in the diversity of its ecosystems. Even if you never get more than a few yards off the road into Yellowstone and tourists often don't you can see an amazing variety of flora, fauna, and geologic marvels.
You can also expect crowds and traffic jams.
In contrast, you can drive the more than 50 miles of Grand Teton Park roads without being part of a convoy of anxious and impatient tourists. And for those who love Grand Teton, the park's wonders only begin at the road.
Mind you, that road is as spectacular a drive as you will find anywhere, running through the valley known as Jackson Hole at an altitude of about 7,000 feet, parallel to the striking heights rising precipitously without foothills to almost 14,000 feet.
I always catch my breath at first sight of those nearly perfect peaks, and I can rarely resist stopping along the way at the view turnouts, each offering a different perspective.
Though there is plenty of camping, it isn't necessary to be a committed backpacker to enjoy most of Grand Teton's attractions. Accessibility is one of the park's greatest virtues. Most of the main hiking trailheads can be reached from parking lots at Taggart Lake, Lupine Meadow, Jenny Lake, Jackson Lake Lodge, and Colter Bay.
You could easily spend a lifetime exploring this place. I have visited a dozen times and barely scratched its surface.
The variety of wildlife at Grand Teton is no less varied than in Yellowstone, though you won't happen upon traffic jams of tourists ogling bison. If you get up early enough you can watch the elk herd awaken on Willow Flats just behind Jackson Lake Lodge and begin their daily trek to the forest.
On most days you can also see moose feeding among the trees just below the lodge; sometimes one even climbs the small hill and grazes on the lodge's grounds, unimpressed by the tourists jockeying to take its picture.
If you opt for one of the Snake River float trips offered at the lodges, you will certainly see osprey and eagles, as well as mule deer, elk, and the occasional bison. If you walk a little into the lodgepole-pine and aspen forest areas, you might even see a bear most likely a black bear, but possible a grizzly. I've seen a black bear within 100 feet of the Jenny Lake shore.
Jackson Hole has for me a sense of "place" more powerful than any other I know. I will gladly detour 500 miles just to look at those peaks. I don't even have to go hiking. An afternoon reading a book near Jackson Lake or a drive to the top of Signal Mountain for the view is enough to recharge my batteries.
There is no shortage of places to stay in the Jackson Hole area, but there are only a few within the park.
The Jackson Lake Lodge is the largest, with almost 400 rooms. This is a full-service family resort, with several restaurants, a swimming pool, a stable, and tour services.
The most luxurious and expensive of the park accommodations is Jenny Lake Lodge. Although it appears and is unpretentious, it caters to an upscale crowd. Rates for one of the 37 small cabins start at $418 a night for two. That includes breakfast and dinner in the lodge's outstanding dining room, free horseback and bicycle riding, and an amazing view of the Tetons from your front porch.
Even if you don't stay there, make reservations for dinner.
My favorite of all the park's accommodations is the Signal Mountain Lodge, on Jackson Lake. It has a range of units, including log cabins, but my favorites are the Lakefront Retreats: rustic one-bedroom efficiencies overlooking the lake and Elk Island, with the Tetons as backdrop. You will never find a better view.
There are many things to do in the park. The Jackson Hole Mountain Guides and Climbing School, for one. You can also fish, rent a boat, take a float trip, ride horses or bikes, or take a day trip to Yellowstone or Jackson. Or you can hike the more than 225 miles of maintained trails in the park. Some are long, steep, and demanding, but most are easy enough for the casual walker.
None is completely predictable, however. You might even spot a bear, as I did on my last visit. Just remember to make noise on the trail, and try not to interrupt his lunch.
For more information about the park, see www.grand.teton.national-park.com.