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By Alfred Runte
As others have noted on this website, I too am frequently asked whether I have a favorite national park. As a writer and historian, I have spent a lifetime loving them all. But yes, I do have a strong favorite – Grand Teton in Wyoming.
I should say it began as my mother’s favorite park. She had always dreamed of seeing the American West. When my father died in 1958, she grabbed at her chance. In the spring of 1959, she bought a tent, three sleeping bags with air mattresses, and a small green Coleman stove. July 4th weekend, my brother August and I packed our station wagon – a 1954 Chevrolet Bel Air. We planned to be on the road six weeks, Mother budgeted $600 from her survivor’s Social Security. She had no job, no education past ninth grade, and still no prospects for the future. She never admitted it in so many words, but she was hoping the trip would give her direction.
In the Tetons, it all came together – her future and ours. We arrived after nearly three weeks on the road from our home in Binghamton, New York. Behind us lay Badlands National Monument, Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, Devils Tower, and Yellowstone. Each in its own way had proved a thrill. Grand Teton National Park aroused a new awareness that a national park could offer peace. Every evening beside our campsite on Jackson Lake, we gathered with our neighbors just to sit and look. Hearing my brother and I talk about becoming rangers, mother knew her investment had paid off.
I returned right after college in 1969, indeed, the day after graduation. A friend, Irving Reed, agreed to come along. The summer was to be a graduation present to ourselves. Although our draft boards interrupted those plans, we had six weeks before being called. Three of those we spent on the trail, first from our base camp at Jenny Lake. After that permit expired, we moved to a campsite at Colter Bay. Our money finally gone, we found work in the Colter Bay Launderette, cleaning toilets and scrubbing showers. Even then, we felt the sadness go straight to our hearts when we had to resign and start for home.
This is to explain what we mean by a favorite park. Somehow, it is the one that bears our soul. What do we want to be in life? How do we wish to be remembered? Young or old, we come to the national parks asking those questions, always to love the park that answers first.
There is no need to "see" Grand Teton National Park. The mountains are forever in sight. That said, give yourself time to experience their many moods. My favorite sites and activities include the following, depending on how much time you have.
Okay, but next time plan a longer visit. Meanwhile, here is how to make the most of yours. Climb Lunch Tree Hill, which begins at Jackson Lake Lodge. The .8-mile loop is entirely paved and ascends only 80 feet. No need to bring your lunch, but you might bring a pair of binoculars. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the great benefactor of Jackson Hole, made the hill famous. Beginning in the 1920s, Horace M. Albright, as superintendent of Yellowstone, encouraged Rockefeller’s interest in buying up private lands in the valley for donation to the federal government. Most of those lands were farther south, but you get the idea here. Without the wildlife habitat spread before you (Look, there’s a moose!), Grand Teton would be just a mountain park and its wildlife in constant jeopardy. We owe the bigger dream to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and his indefatigable advisor, Horace Albright. If you have time for just one stop in the park, make it here. Even without the history lesson, the view is unforgettable.
Have a couple more hours to spend? Take the road up Signal Mountain, just a few miles farther south. Same Tetons, but an entirely different perspective, now with a great view of Jackson Lake. You may have noticed when you crossed the dam that Jackson Lake has been raised. The stored water irrigates farmlands in neighboring Idaho. Because of the dam’s construction, some considered Jackson Hole hopelessly despoiled. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and purists accepted the compromise of a reservoir inside the park. That left John D. Rockefeller, Jr., to weather another storm of protest, accusing him of "interfering" in Wyoming’s affairs. His land remained outside the park for 20 years. The first Grand Teton National Park was just the mountains (1929). Spread before you is the park of 1950, that finally adding these visible (and vital) portions of Jackson Hole.
Managed to find a bit more time? Okay, you should see the new Visitor Center at Moose. No need to go indoors until you have experienced the actual park. Enjoy the wonderful exhibits, and be sure to stop at the store operated by the Grand Teton Association. After administrative costs, all proceeds go to supporting the park – a formula from the 1920s when the first "cooperating associations" were established.
Do not (and I mean do not) miss the Snake River Float Trip, one of the finest in North America. Options and distances vary, but most trips are between 15 and 20 miles. I prefer the longer trips lasting 4 hours and more. The views are incredible, as are the bald eagles, and don’t worry about equipment. The licensed operators provide life jackets – even lunch. For the rest of the day, you might relax in the sitting room of Jackson Lake Lodge with its 60-foot floor to ceiling windows. This was the last of the great park structures designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood (1954), whose other park lodges include the Ahwahnee (Yosemite) and Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. In 1969, Irving and I came here to write our postcards – and recover – from our all-day hikes in the mountains. Some people find the lines and materials in this building much too modern (Underwood was originally famous for the rustic style), but no one disagrees with the windows. As an architect, he knew how to bring the mountains close.
Get off the roads as much as possible, even if it is just 100 yards. In any park, you will be surprised what a walk can offer, whether short or long. My favorite hike is around Jenny Lake. Don’t worry about your bunions; it is virtually all level ground. Just be ready to see a bear, perhaps even a grizzly. Wear a bear bell and keep making noise. For more incredible views, add the hike around String Lake or the east shore of Leigh Lake. For those again not able to hike, there are several wonderful pullouts along the road. Either way, don’t miss Jenny Lake. Afterward, include a visit to the Laurence S. Rockefeller Preserve, formerly the JY Ranch. Another legacy of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., this is a story you will want to trace in person. Briefly, the preserve’s 3100 magnificent acres, in two installments, mark the latest additions to Grand Teton National Park.
Stop again at the Visitor Center for more ideas. For hikers, Paintbrush Canyon and Cascade Canyon still await. For backpackers there remains Lake Solitude. The point is that you are hooked, and anything you do will be wonderful. From now on, your only disappointment will be going home, there to find yourself forever longing for the mountains and valley that set you free.
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