Grand Teton National Park was our last summer stop before heading to Denver for our annual visit. It was our second visit to the park. We had great memories of the place and couldn’t wait to see the beautiful Teton Range once again.
Our friends Leigh and Brian gave us GPS coordinates and detailed directions to a very special spot on Shadow Mountain, which allows free camping for 16 days. The area is near the Cunningham Cabin in the national park. As always on back roads to unknown public lands, we scouted the area in the Subaru before taking Island Girl up the road.
When we reached the area that matched the coordinates, the view took our breath away, we were looking over the valley directly across at the Teton Range. A few tents and trailers were camped on a couple of “sites” (designated by a flat area and a fire ring), but several sites were available.
We found a perfect spot at the very end of the road on the edge of the cliff. There was the minor inconvenience that we couldn’t turn around and would have to back out on the short road when we left, but that was no big deal.
I drove Hector back down to Island Girl and drove up the forest service road past the entrance to the dispersed camping area to stop traffic coming down the mountain. Island Girl came up the road easily, but there was no room for any other vehicles going the other way.
As Hector drove Island Girl up to our perfect spot, he noticed several signs saying the area was reserved for a wedding on the following Saturday (we arrived on Tuesday). The signs listed a phone number for further information. Hector called, turned out it was the groom’s phone number, who said he had a permit for several sites that were located in an area at the center of the field where the tents were (with an even better view of the mountains on the other side of the cliff) but that it was OK for us to camp in our nearby spot. Yes!
Grand Teton National Park protects 485 square miles vs. 3,468 square miles in Yellowstone National Park. There are several visitor centers inside the park and two main roads cross the park. Although there was also some construction, it was not as extensive as in Yellowstone. Grand Teton is much easier to navigate than Yellowstone.
We took a couple of dawn and dusk drives in search of wildlife. And visited Mormon Row, various structures that were built by Mormon homesteaders establishing new communities in support of their population expansion. There are a couple of picturesque barns there that are iconic images seen in many photographs of the park.
We also visited Oxbow Bend, one of the most beautiful viewpoints in the park located by the Snake River. There we spotted a bald eagle, American white pelicans, and river otters (too fast for photos).
Next we signed up for a “wildlife caravan”, one of the great programs the park offers. The group met before dusk, and participants followed the ranger in their cars as she drove to various spots known for wildlife sightings. Angel came along with us to help.
We initially did not see much wildlife (those pesky animals don’t always cooperate). But what made the program interesting is that because it’s a fall program, it focuses on how the animals survive winter. Ranger Julie was an enthusiastic leader and had lots of “show and tell” props which were lots of fun. And she was adorable!
A few interesting facts from the ranger talk:
Antlers grow as an extension of the animal’s skull as a single structure, made of bone, usually found on males, and shed once a year.
Horns consist of an interior made up of bone covered by a sheath grown by specialized follicles similar to our fingernails which are not shed and continually grow (with the exception of the pronghorn’s horns which they do shed).
Pronghorn are the fastest animals in the U.S. because their original predators were American cheetah. In winter, they have a mass migration of 150 miles but cannot jump fences, so the park works to create underpasses and overpasses along their “migration corridor”.
Moose’s long legs keep them out of the snow, and they can lift their legs to chin level to walk through deep snow.
Buffalo shake their bulky heads sideways in the deep snow to clear paths for themselves in the winter.
Bears eat up to 20,000 calories in the fall to help them survive winter hibernation The best place to spot bear in the park is Moose-Wilson Road but because it was full of hawthorne and chokecherry bushes, it was closed due to bear activity. Darn.
Our final three stops were fruitful. We walked over to a group of people looking up through binoculars and found a great-horned owl. Even our ranger was surprised to find one there. The owl was sleeping, and didn’t seem to be bothered by all of the photographers.
Then we drove over to Schwabacher’s Landing and walked a short way to a beaver pond, where we found a very fat beaver and some of his friends and family. The beavers were busy storing food in their lodge for the winter. Love those little guys!
Last on the tour, we saw a group of elk in the distance, a bull elk and his harem of cows. All of a sudden, the bull elk started to bugle. Rutting (mating) season was just beginning and this is one of their mating behaviors. So cool to hear the elks bugling.
We took a short side trip to the town of Jackson, which I’d never visited. It’s a cute ski town with quite a few shops and restaurants. So we made our one and only touristy stop for lunch at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, pretty cute but probably a lot more fun when there is live music playing.
A couple of days into our stay our friends Leigh and Brian arrived in their beautiful Airstream trailer. We met them last winter on the coast of Oregon, spent a couple of fun evenings together, and when we realized we’d both be in the Jackson area in September, agreed to meet again. And so began a few days of social outings and gatherings.
Angel took quite a fancy to their dog, Curtis. Although Curtis was not quite so smitten, he was a perfect gentleman.
Leigh and Brian were expecting a fellow Airstream fulltimer. They “met” him through their blog, Aluminarium. Vince arrived shortly thereafter in his Airstream with his friend Spencer (a cool lady with a great name). Cocktails and sunset ensued.
We now headed out at dawn and dusk in groups looking for more wildlife. One evening we finally spotted a bull moose, who was sitting in the grass and never moved while tons of photographers surrounded him. And, on our way home spotted a red fox – beautiful!
Another morning, Hector and I finally spotted several moose. A bull moose sat in the grass surrounded by photographers. We waited for what seemed like forever then he finally got up, raising his head and curling his lips. Moose do this to gather and interpret female scents during rutting season, which was just beginning.
Then he headed slowly up to a hill where he stood motionless facing away from us for another long stretch of time. A couple of moose cows were grazing nearby. The photographers circled the bull moose, and I noticed two that got awfully close to him.
Then, suddenly, the moose started running full speed after the cows all across the field. It was amazing how fast and agile they were. The three moose all ran around changing directions, easily hopping fences and sagebrush.
In an instant the bull moose turned and ran towards the two photographers, who quickly scattered. Hector shouted out a comment to the two guys, when the moose turned and ran towards us, but we were further. Still a bit scary. I think this was the moose’s way of saying “I knew you all were there all along, take this!”.
That evening we went in search of Mr. Owl with some of our friends but couldn’t find him. Then we visited Schwabacher’s Landing once again to look for the beavers. And there they were, once again busily working (and eating). They are such fun to watch.
A campsite with a stunning view, good times with friends, sunrises and sunsets and abundant wildlife. What could be better?