Oxbow Bend is an essential stop if you're a keen photographer. It's the place from which to capture the Tetons in all their glory, with Mount Moran reflected in the Snake River. The bends in the river create a series of still backwaters, meaning that it's particularly calm here - hence the near-perfect reflection. The best pictures are to be had if you take the trouble to scramble down the slope from the parking lot to the water's edge.
This is also reputed to be a great place to spot wildlife, including moose, but we weren't lucky on our visit. Nevertheless the reflections and the tranquility of the setting made it a great first stop in our exploration of the park.
Stop at Jenny Lake overlook for great views of this lovely lake. The blue water is surrounded by pines, which incidentally smell fantastic - the scent of the pines is one of my abiding memories of Wyoming. Beyond the water you have one of the best views in the park of the Tetons in all their glory, including Mount Moran, Mount Owen and of course Grand Teton itself. You can take a short walk down to the shores of the lake for a closer look and some good photo opportunities.
After spending most of the day in Yellowstone National Park, it was about 5:30 PM by the time we exited via Yellowstone’s South Entrance and drove the 13-km (8 mile) John D. Rockefeller Jr. highway that links with the northern entrance to Grand Teton National Park. We had arranged our accommodations in the peak of the summer holiday season with little lead-time, and ended up with two nights booked in Jackson Lake Lodge (the only place with available rooms in either of the Parks), just a few miles further south.
It had been a full day of touring in the sunshine in Yellowstone NP but we had to put up with a torrential rain shower before the Old Faithful geyser blew in late afternoon. On our arrival at Jackson Lake Lodge in Grand Teton National Park, we were ready to sit on their rear terrace area overlooking both Jackson Lake and the Teton Range mountains on the far side. However, between 7:30-8 PM the weather was not quite ready to give up yet as a dark rain squall blew in and fought with the mountain peaks for a while! We stuck it out along with quite a few others at our terrace seat at the rear of the Lodge while we watched the battle take place. It was a dramatic introduction to Grand Teton National Park! Luckily, the wind continued to blow and soon the dark clouds were gone.
What is unusual about the Teton Range is that it suddenly rises up without any ‘foothills’ to get you gradually used to a mountain range appearing in front of you. One minute you are driving through relatively flat forested areas and the next thing you know a majestic snow-capped (even in July) mountain range is staring you in the face! The reason for this is that a geological fault line runs through this area and, about 6-9 million years ago, it suddenly let go – lifting the western side upward to form these impressive mountains when viewed from the lower lying eastern side. These are still relatively ‘young’ granite mountains that have not yet eroded into softer shapes since the sudden uplift.
This photo was taken from the terrace on the back-side of Jackson Lake Lodge on the morning after our arrival, with a view across Willow Flats and Jackson Lake to the 12,605 foot (3.8 km) Mount Moran at right as well as the 13,770 foot (4.2 km) dark-topped leader of the pack Grand Teton at the left. It is believed that the first European explorers to see these mountains were French fur-trappers from Portage la Prairie (now in Manitoba, Canada) in ~1743 as they explored these unknown western lands. Due to the shapes of these non-eroded peaks, they were named “les Trois Tétons" (the three breasts) by these fur trappers.
In the foreground of this view is Willow Flats, a large area of freshwater marshes that can be viewed from the terrace-side of Jackson Lake Lodge or from a roadside Overlook a few miles south. This habitat of bushes and streams is prime territory for both Moose and Elk as well aquatic creatures such as Beaver, Muskrat and waterfowl. There are also various hiking trails that can be taken through the Flats to reach the shore of Jackson Lake.
It was a Sunday morning when we left the Lodge, taking the Teton Park Road along the south shore of Jackson Lake as we headed further into Grand Teton NP to check out its attractions. One of the first things that caught our attention was Mount Moran Turnout, where we were able to pull over into a small parking area with interpretive signs pointing out some of the geological features we were seeing. This view shows our little highway leading down to a closely packed group of three mountain peaks at centre-left. From left to right they are Teewinot Mountain (12,325-ft), the tallest in the park Grand Teton (13,770-ft) and snowy-topped Mount Owen (12,928-ft). The second photo gives a closer view of these three peaks.
Turning to the right, we also had a nice view (3rd photo) of 12,650-ft Mount Moran with its signature 150-ft wide dark sandstone dike headed straight down from the peak. It briefly disappears beneath Falling Ice Glacier but emerges again below the glacier just on the edge of the cloud shadow. This dark dike was formed during the late-Precambrian era when many vertical cracks appeared in the Earth’s crust and were subsequently filled with dark magma which then solidified. The sudden shift in the earth's crust combined with erosion over the ensuing centuries has now resulted in it being exposed. The 4th and 5th photos show the actual view of Mount Moran and the sagebrush covered flat from our turnout as well as one of me standing beside the interpretive signs while I scan the distant peaks for their various features.
You can take the shuttle boat from the Jenny Lake boat dock (near the South Jenny Lake parking lot) across to the Cascade Canyon dock, or walk around the lake. From the dock it's a half mile walk up the canyon to the falls. The path is uphill most of the way, and rocky in places, but not steep or difficult. You follow the stream through the pines with their wonderful scent to an overlook with a view of the falls, but I have to say I thought they were a little disappointing. However the walk is pleasant and well worth doing.
Part way up a wooden bridge crosses the stream and gives you a clear view of the rushing water. Be careful if you decide you'll get a better photo by bending down close to the edge of the bridge or you could like me find your sunglasses tumbling into the waters below. And if you do spot a pair of rather nice sunglasses hidden among the rocks, they're mine :)
Another more serious hazard to be aware of here is that it's bear country, so keep your eyes open and make a noise as you walk - although when we were there, there were so many other tourists around that I don't think any bear would have wanted to show himself!
We stopped at this overlook quite late in the afternoon when the sun was already dipping low towards the mountains beyond. It looked fantastic, but made it hard to get really good photos. It was early September and the leaves on the trees ahead of us were just turning golden, and in that late afternoon sun they really seemed to glow.
The Willow Flats are a good place to spot moose. We didn't see any from the overlook but the next morning from the similar vantage at Jackson Lake Lodge were lucky enough to see a cow and calf slowly making their way back from an early morning visit to the lake below.
Because the Teton Range lies to the west of the park, you’re guaranteed to be able to find a good vantage point from which to watch the sunset over the peaks, and this is something not to be missed. We enjoyed a special sunset from the terrace of Jackson Lake Lodge, but you’d get the same view from the Willow Flats overlook if you’re not staying at the lodge, and I’m sure from many other places too. The mountains take on a different character at dusk – they look more distant and have an unreal beauty, although as you can see this is hard to capture on camera!
Continuing our drive south, the Teton Range mountains were always right there beside us, with no ‘foothills’ to block our view as with normal mountain ranges. The Tetons are one of the youngest mountain ranges in the world, being formed about 10 million years ago due to the effects of the Pacific plate butting up against the North America plate. The pressure of these two large land masses of the Earth’s crust colliding caused the Grand Teton part of North America to bulge upward from the force, until the distorted crust eventually snapped along a fault line here. The western side of the fault line suddenly rose skyward (forming the Tetons) while the eastern side dropped downward (forming Jackson Hole), with an elevation differential of 30,000-feet (equivalent to the height of Mount Everest)! Over the ensuing centuries, the height differential has been reduced due to glaciation and weathering effects that have eroded the mountains into the peaks seen today in Grand Teton National Park.
Not yet far enough off the beaten path, we turned even more off the path when we started to head east on the Gros Ventre Road while climbing various hills leading toward Bridger-Teton National Forest. This road follows a traditional route from the mountains of the east into Jackson Hole by Indians, fur hunting mountain men and settlers.
In our case, it turned out to be a very peaceful part of the west, with hardly any other traffic on 'our' little road. It was not long before we came across this abandoned old log cabin, known locally as “Bear Cabin” and it might be a left-over from the fur-trapping era. However, those nearby aged log fences give it more of a “ranch” look! The cabin had such a scenic setting, with its roof now gone, and the Teton Range in the distant background that we just had to stop and explore it a bit. This view shows Sue wandering around outside the cabin before I joined her for a few photos.
After our pleasant stop beside the old cabin, we continued our drive and actually went about seven miles (10 km) outside Grand Teton NP as we wanted to have a look at the Gros Ventre Slide area. This opening photo shows where the mountainside ‘slumped’ in June, 1925 after several weeks of heavy rain saturated the slope. According to Wikipedia, fifty million cubic yards of sedimentary rock slid down off Sheep Mountain, into and across the Gros Ventre River and continued onward up the other side of the valley for another 300 feet! The result was the sudden formation of a dam more than 200 feet high and 1200 feet in length that stopped the river flow and created Lower Slide Lake.
Of course, rivers cannot be stopped forever so, almost two years later, this natural dam partially failed and released a massive surge of 6-foot high water down the Gros Ventre River, which wiped out the small town of Kelly just inside Grand Teton NP, killing six people in the process. Lower Slide Lake still exists today (2nd photo), but is much smaller in size than it was prior to the partial failure of the natural dam.
We stopped on a hillside above the naturally formed lake while we took in the entire scene of the disaster, then turned around and headed back to Grand Teton NP. The view from these foothills of the distant Teton Range and the landscape in between was awesome as we re-traced our route (3rd photo).
On returning to Grand Teton NP, we turned north up the eastern side of the park taking in sights along the Snake River as we drove along Highway 191. Strangely, about a half-hour after leaving ‘our’ cabin we spotted the Cunningham Cabin Historical Site which looked like a carbon copy of the other one.
This called for a stop so we could take a closer look. It turns out that this converted Appalachian-style cabin was built by fur-trapper John Cunningham in 1888 when he decided that maybe a small ranch was the way to go. When Grand Teton NP was being formed in 1928, Cunningham sold his property to the government and moved on to Idaho.
According to Wikipedia “The cabin is a double-pen or dog-trot style building with a room on either side of the central breezeway or 'dog-trot.' After 1895 the Cunninghams used the cabin as a barn or a smithy. A small fortification was erected in 1895 during unrest involving the Bannack Indians. Traces of foundations survive. The cabin was the scene of a shootout in 1899 between a posse and two horse thieves, who were killed at the scene.”
Based on this information, I’d say ‘our’ cabin was from about the same era. I went into the Cunningham cabin for a look around and only bumped my head once on the low main door cross-beam! That was the end of our exploring on this day, so we headed back to Jackson Lake Lodge for an evening meal in their deluxe ‘Mural Room’ restaurant. The next morning we were off for one final day in Yellowstone NP and then a 1200-km drive home the following day.
At the boat landing on Jenny Lake you can catch a shuttle boat across the water to the Cascade Canyon Trailhead dock. From there you can take a variety of walks: follow the lake shore back to your starting point or up through the trees to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point.
The crossing takes about 20 minutes and you get great close-up views of the mountains as they loom over the lake. The ride costs $9 for a round trip or $5 for one-way, and the boats leave every 15 minutes to the following schedule:
May 15 - 31 10am - 4pm
June 1 - Sept 15 8am - 6pm
Sept 16 - 30 10am - 4pm
Driving a bit further south along Teton Park Road, we soon came to Jenny Lake Overlook located at the edge of the forest high above the lake. We decided to stop for the views and even try a little hike on this beautiful sunny day. Initially, we started out on a forest trail high above the lakeshore but really could not see anything due to branches blocking our views. We also did not have any bear spray with us, so we decided to head back and just explore the lake itself.
Descending a set of steep steps cut into the hillside we made it down to the lake, where I just had to see how ‘fresh’ the water felt! It was very cool but at least not numbing like the Bay of Fundy waters in Atlantic Canada where I grew up! The water was crystal clear with a mixture of pebbles and larger rocks littering the bottom (2nd photo) and I enjoyed my different viewpoint of the lake. Sue did not want to get her feet wet, so she stayed onshore taking photos (3rd photo) while other visitors played nearby (4th photo). There were quite a few tourists enjoying this part of the lake, thanks to a large parking area above where several tour busses had pulled in.
Jenny Lake was formed approximately 12,000 years ago as glaciers pushing rock debris from the mountains above formed this canyon. As the glaciers melted, the debris they released formed a dam which resulted in the 260-ft deep Jenny Lake as the water backed up behind it.
Continuing our drive south, it was not long before we arrived at the Jenny Lake Visitor Center. It was coming up on 11:30 AM by then and the Visitor Center parking lot was packed – it took us quite a while circling around before someone pulled out and opened up a spot for us. It was so busy with visitors that we only picked up a few park brochures and grabbed a quick bite to eat there before we were on the road again, heading along the Teton Range as we continued toward the town of Jackson.
One of Jackson’s trademark features are its arches made of Elk horns that are shed every winter by male Elks. In our wanderings about town, Sue was impressed by this private arch beside a very scenic hotel complex on the north side of downtown Jackson. This arch even features two Moose horns tied up in the centre of the arch!
The custom of using the antlers for decorations was started in 1968 and is due to the availability of large numbers of horns at the nearby National Elk Refuge, which is home to more than 7000 of the animals. The Refuge was established in 1912 as a large protected area just a few miles north of Jackson, where the Elk can safely stay when they come down off the mountains in the December-April winter period. The local Boy Scouts collect the fallen antlers every Spring and then hold an auction to raise funds for their various projects. In addition to using the antlers to maintain the four arches at the entrances to the main Town Square (2nd photo), they can also be used by artisans to make jewelry and other crafts as well as furniture. There was a continuous stream of tourists taking photos of themselves and the arches when we were there – you just have to grab your moment!