Grand Teton National Park: A Cathedral for the Soul
The craggy snow-capped peaks of the Grand Tetons rise majestically above plush green meadows and picturesque sapphire lakes. With no frontal range to break them up visually, they appear even more massive than most mountains. They rise up suddenly and dramatically, almost out of nowhere. While I knew how beautiful they were from photos I had seen, standing before them filled me with an incredible sense of awe.
After all of our travels, the Grand Tetons have been my absolute favorite spot. With every visit I make to the mountains, I become more and more convinced I will live among them someday.
As I mentioned, sadly (so very sadly), our time in the Tetons was cut short by the car troubles we had on our first of the two days we had to spend in the park, which left us with only one real day to explore. However, we spent enough time for the park to leave a real impression on my soul.
On our first day in the park, we started our drive on Teton Park Road, planning to drive south out of the campground and check out scenic spots along the way. One of our first detours off the main road was a drive up the Signal Mountain Summit Road.
This road took us 800 feet up Signal Mountain to some overlooks with stunning views of the valley below. It’s like climbing a mountain with a lot less work.
When we found this cell tower at the top, we jokingly decided this must be why it was called “Signal” Mountain. True to its name, we had really great reception.
Not only did this area look beautiful, it also smelled lovely due to all of the wildflowers that left a light scent in the fresh mountain air.
The Tetons are graced with a string of crystal clear lakes. As if the mountains aren’t majestic enough, you have the added beauty of catching their reflection in these lovely jewels ringed in pines. Jackson Lake is the largest (and the one closest to the Colter Bay RV Park), while Jenny Lake is often pegged as the prettiest.
After our car troubles, we ended up with only a half a day for an actual adventure like hiking or paddling. We opted for paddling at Jenny Lake since our sons had greatly enjoyed rafting the Merced River in Yosemite the summer before, and we knew we’d be treated to some stunning views.
After embarking, we soon found a massive flat rock that was a perfect picnic perch. The kids jumped out of the canoes and enjoyed their pretzels and ham sandwiches. Looking at my boys as they looked at the mountains made me almost well up in tears. I hope they will treasure the memories of these moments as much as I do. I know someday they’ll be grown men with kids of their own, and I hope they take them to the mountains and tell them about our adventures.
After we made our way around a small portion of the lake, we cut across to head back to the marina. We had forgotten the warning about how windy the lake could be out in the middle. My poor husband said he felt like he was maneuvering a sailboat because our younger son was so light at the front of the canoe, making his end catch the wind. My husband paddled and paddled and felt like he was never going to make it across the lake.
My co-pilot and I didn’t quite have those troubles since our weights were a little more balanced. I was glad to have his muscles to accompany mine.
We did eventually make it back to the shore and returned our canoes. All in all, paddling Jenny Lake was an activity we all loved and one I highly recommend.
If you visit the Jenny Lake area, you’ll find a scenic drive, lots of hiking trails, a small visitors center, and more. Though it’s a hub of activity, that doesn’t spoil the natural beauty of the area.
One of the most famous locations in the Grand Tetons is Mormon Row. A portion of the land eventually acquired for the park had been settled by Mormons in the 1890s. Once the settlers left, the National Park Service planned to tear down the remaining homestead structures; however, they ultimately left them. This area has several historic sites, as well as one of the most photographed places in the park.
T.A. Moulton’s barn remains to this day, looking as timeless as the mountain range that stands behind it. Photographers from all around the world come to capture this picture perfect spot with the peak of the roof mimicking the distant mountain peaks.
Unfortunately, we arrived late in the day when the sun was behind the barn, so our pictures weren’t quite as perfect, but you can still get the idea. Though we love to take photos, we actually focus more on picture perfect moments, which means we don’t always stop to take all the photos we want to take or make plans for arriving places when the light is best. Someday, when we are traveling without kids, our adventures may be more accommodating.
There are several buildings to explore in the Mormon Row area, making it a good area to spend some time. Since we were short on time, we had to move on fairly swiftly, unfortunately.
The Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center is a great place to stop and learn about the park, with several informative displays. The large picture windows perfectly frame a view of the mountains outside. During our stop, we learned we had arrived just in time for a ranger’s talk. We decided to sit in and learn about Ranger Doug’s mission to collect the original Works Progress Administration (WPA) posters of the national parks. Many were produced in the 1930s-40s, but very few have been found still in existence. We had picked up some postcard replicas of these posters in previous park visits and never knew their history.
In addition to stopping at this traditional visitors center, we also opted to visit the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve Center for a totally different experience. Most visitors centers focus on teaching you about the history and geology of the location. Instead, the Rockefeller Preserve Center focuses on offering a unique sensory experience that is more like art than information.
One room has a multimedia display with photos and videos of the park. Sounds of natures fill the room. Another room has a large mosaic with photos of the park compiled into an image of the park.
The Rockefeller Preserve Center provides a zen-like place to meditate on the beauty of nature and to appreciate the efforts of the Rockefeller family in preserving this tremendous landscape for us today.
“Nature quiets the mind by engaging with an intelligence larger than our own”
My heart soared as we toured the Tetons. We barely got more than a taste of the park. When we return someday, I hope to take a hike to Inspiration Point, find the Hidden Waterfall, and take a walk along the String Lake Loop. Or maybe, I’ll just take a chair and sit and stare. As Anatoli Boukreev said, “Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” The Grand Tetons are truly a cathedral for me.
Tips for Planning a Visit to the Tetons
- Parking is extremely limited in the Jenny Lake area. We had to circle the lot for 15 minutes or more. Go early in the day.
- At the marinas, rentals cost $20 an hour for either canoes or kayaks. We opted for canoes so we could put 2 family members in one canoe. You don’t have to decide before you head out how long you’ll be gone…you just pay when you return, which is convenient.
- You can take a shuttle across Jenny Lake to the trailheads for the Inspiration Point and Hidden Waterfall trails, shaving some miles off your hike, but these shuttles are quite pricy.
- The Jenny Lake area is currently being revitalized, requiring some trails to be closed at different times. Check with the rangers to find out what’s accessible and what isn’t.
- You can also canoe and kayak on Jackson Lake, as well, but the larger portion of the lake is not safe for smaller vessels.
- Don’t plan on taking a swim in any of the lakes. They are created by freshly melted snow.
- The Grand Tetons are less than an hour north of Jackson, WY. Be sure to make a trip to this cool town.
- Take your bear spray, and drive very slowly. Wildlife is abundant in the park.
- Please don’t just drive through the Tetons on your way to or from Yellowstone–stay and explore! This area is completely different from Yellowstone, even though they are only miles apart.
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I’ve had that canoeing experience before! not the Grand Tetons background, unfortunately, but the too light kid, windy day, way too challenging to paddle experience….I actually couldn’t get back to shore and someone had to jump in and rescue me, which was embarrassing. If we go out on a lake here, I’ll make sure I get a bigger kid to help me out!
Ha!! What a story! We’ve generally canoed on rivers, so we were less familiar with lake paddling. They also warned us that you don’t want to end up in the water since it’s really, really cold. It was such a lovely place to canoe, despite these challenges. 🙂
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