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The two national parks in northwest Wyoming have very different personalities. The larger, perennially-popular Yellowstone is the extrovert. It puts on an exuberant show of spurting geysers and weird boiling geothermal formations. It provides seemingly endless “ooh! and ahh!” entertainment for even the youngest occupants of the minivans and SUVs that clog its roads in the summer.
Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone’s southern neighbor, is the introvert. It has no geothermal pyrotechnics. But it might be just as spectacular in its own way, if you’re open to a more subtle sort of spectacle. It’s a place perhaps best suited to contemplative exploration in the off season.
Spring can be a beautiful time to visit. But in the Rocky Mountains it may not always coincide with the normal calendar definition. Snow and heavy overcast can persist until June. Early autumn, usually from the beginning of September through the middle of October, may be the best choice. The summer crowds are gone; and if you’re lucky, golden cottonwoods and aspens will enhance the views.
The park is named for a mountain called Grand Teton. At 4,200 meters, it’s the highest peak in the distinctive Teton Range that figures prominently in so many views around the park. The prevailing story is that French-Canadian fur trappers in the nineteenth century named a group of three adjacent, roughly conical mountains Les Trois Tétons. Seen from the east as most visitors view them, the Three Tetons are, from left to right, South Teton, Middle Teton, and Grand (“Big”) Teton.
To protect the precious innocence of any children who might be reading this, I won’t provide a full translation. But the unprintable English cognate of téton is so similar that you’ve probably already guessed the meaning. If you haven’t, I’ll note that those unfortunate fur trappers seem to have gone far too long without female companionship. I have long found it amusing that the self-proclaimed Guardians Of Family Values in Congress and elsewhere have never got their righteous knickers in a twist over a federally-owned (and federally-funded) national park with a name so clearly inappropriate for children.
To avoid this problem, some guidebooks offer a family-friendly, politically-correct alternative. In their version, Teton derives from Tetuwan, a Sioux word that means “prairie-dwellers.” It refers to the Lakota people, also known as the “Teton Sioux.” The Lakota are Plains Indians whose territory once included the Dakotas, the Great Lakes region, and part of Wyoming. The mountain and the park are thus named for the Lakota.
As rather little imagination is needed to recognize the mammiform shapes of the Three Tetons, the traditional French origin seems much more likely. And the Lakota never ventured anywhere near Jackson Hole, the valley that includes the park. The Indians who actually lived in Jackson Hole— or more accurately, hunted and camped there during the summer— were the Crow, Gros Ventre (French for “Big Belly”), Blackfeet, and Shoshone.
The Shoshone called the Teton Range Teewinot, meaning “many pinnacles,” which is now the name of one mountain in the Teton Range. But whatever the name or its origin, the Tetons and the park are entirely appropriate for all ages.
Mount Moran looms to the north of the Tetons, overlooking Jackson Lake.
Also part of the Teton Range, this glacier-covered 1,830-meter granite
mountain is named (unambiguously and uncontroversially) for Thomas
Moran, a landscape artist best known for his paintings of Yellowstone.
Ranchers and homesteaders settled in the Teton valley before it became a national park in 1929. Some of these properties are historic sites on land now controlled by the Park Service, and are open to visit. But over 100 privately-owned “in-holdings” remain in the park. These include working ranches, demarcated by distinctive buck-rail fences and wooden gates meant to keep livestock in and park visitors out.
Many of these in-holdings are in the southern section of the park, near the town of Jackson. (Just south of the park, Jackson is the largest city in this corner of Wyoming. Visitors who like indoor accommodations better than campgrounds can easily make day trips into the park from there.) This area became part of Grand Teton in 1949, after years of opposition from ranchers and bureaucratic turf wars between the National Park Service and the Forest Service that manages the federal land surrounding the park. Since then, the Park Service has been gradually buying the in-holdings.
While not a private in-holding, Jackson Hole Airport is one of only two airports in the United States inside a national park. For those families who don’t drive their SUVs or minivans from around the country, this airport is probably the most convenient gateway to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone parks. A window seat provides a great view during approach and landing.
For many visitors, Grand Teton is something they drive through on their way from the airport to Yellowstone. That drive on Highway 191, which runs along the Snake River and Jackson Lake, offers enough “drive-by” scenery to provide a reasonable overview of the park. There are also a number of turnouts with great scenic views, if the kids aren’t too impatient to get to Old Faithful.
Teton Park Road splits from the highway at Moose Junction, near the park headquarters. It provides access to the park’s “back country,” and to over 320 kilometers of trails for hiking and backpacking. But one of the wonderful things about Grand Teton is that you need not stray very far from either of the main roads to experience both the sweeping views and small details that, together, give the park its quiet grandeur.