Grand Teton National Park

Prologue

In early September 2021, I journeyed by car from San Diego for my first visit to Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park. As a lover of mountains, I planned my trip so that I could bookend my visit to Yellowstone with time spent in Grand Teton National Park. Finally, on the way home, I detoured to Cedar Break National Monument just outside of Cedar City, Utah.

Rather than cram all three destinations into a single blog post, I’ve chosen to create three separate posts, one for each destination on this same trip. Please be sure to read each. (Or at least look at the photos from each.)

One final request. Please be patient if the photos are slow to load. I try to maximize quality and minimize file size, and I’m not so sure I’ve got that tweaked in yet. Oh. And please use a big screen to view them for a much better experience.

Not My First Visit

This is not my first visit to the Grand Teton National Park. On one of my many cross-country trips in the mid-1980s while serving in the U.S. Navy, I detoured off of Interstate 80 and poked my nose into the park for a few brief hours. I certainly didn’t do the park justice, and about the only thing I remember distinctly from that trip was a visit to the Chapel of Transfiguration.

When I was planning this trip, I noticed on the park’s map that the Teton Park Road ran along Jenny and Jackson Lakes to the west of the Snake River, and the U.S. Highway 191 paralleled the Snake River on its east side. I thought I would take one route on my northbound trip and the other on my southbound trip. Which would go first would depend on the weather conditions but, in the end, I covered the full distance of both.

Northbound Trip – Monday

One of my biggest concerns for the northbound leg of the journey were the smoke and haze from wildfires burning in California, Oregon, and Idaho adversely impacting the ability to take photos. You’ll see in the photos below that the morning started with a light haze that turned into a mountain-obscuring fog by afternoon. I started out by taking the Teton Park Road heading towards Jenny Lake.

Chapel of the Transfiguration

The chapel had importance to me on my first visit to the Tetons, and again this time around because my parents took their honeymoon by driving from Chicago to the Tetons and Yellowstone National Park in Summer 1951. Buried somewhere deep within one of my closets at home are photos from that trip in general, and photos of the chapel in particular. I tried to emulate my dad’s photography with my own photos 70 years later.

You can see that there was no need for a stained glass window behind the altar when you had that view.

Jenny Lake Loop

After leaving the chapel, I drove the Teton Park Road and it felt as though the mountains were so close that you could reach out and touch them. Fortunately, the haze was minimal in the morning, and I was able to stop at the Jenny Lake Overlook and capture these images.

The Smoke and Haze Prevailed

Rather than continuing north along the lakes, it was midday and it was time for lunch, so I headed back south to Dornan’s near the main visitor center to grab a quick sandwich. By the time lunch was over, the haze had pretty much obscured the mountains.

Instead of squandering that time, I spent the rest of the afternoon scouting locations for possible photos on my return trip: Mormon Row, Schwabacher’s Landing, and the Snake River Overlook where Ansel Adams took his famous image. You can see how badly the mountains were obscured when you compare my photo with his.

Mormon Row is known for its collection of early settler’s homes and barns. One barn in particular is probably photographed more than any other structure in Jackson Hole. (Did you know that Jackson Hole is the name for the valley, and that Jackson is the name of the nearby town?)

In any case, you can see that the mountains behind the barn were barely visible. On a clear day, it makes for a wonderful image.

As I was driving away from Mormon Row, I came across this lone tree among the grasses and haze and thought it would make for a compelling, minimalist image when done in black-and-white.

After completing my photo location scouting exercise, I drove north into Yellowstone National Park.

Southbound Trip – Saturday

A high pressure system over western Wyoming late in the week helped clear the haze from the smoke, so I was hopeful that my southbound trip might be a bit more fruitful. But then came the forecast for rain Friday night and into Saturday morning.

On the one hand, I thought that if it cleared out by sunrise, the rain will have scrubbed the haze from the atmosphere making it better for photography. On the other hand, I thought I was going to get washed out altogether. Complete overcast and rain.

One other complicating issue was that I had to check out of the hotel Saturday morning and drive two hours to one of my scouted locations. Sunrise was around 7 a.m., so I had to be on the road not later than 5 a.m.

Soggy Saturday Morning

For once, the forecasters were correct and the rain arrived Friday night and, when my alarm went off at 4 a.m., there was still a light drizzle.

Those who know me well not that I am not a morning person, so it was very easy for me to procrastinate the start of this trip, especially with the rain falling. I almost rolled over and went back to sleep, but a force within told me to get up and do this. Even if it wasn’t going to be a perfect sunrise, clearing storms can lead to some dramatic images. I knew that I would have zero chance of capturing any image by staying in bed, so off I went.

The drive through Yellowstone at 5 a.m. when it’s complete and total darkness and wet pavement was a bit unnerving. Making it even more unnerving was seeing a female elk standing on the shoulder of the road not more than ten minutes into the trip. Further down the road, another elk and a coyote did the same. Needless to say, I drove a bit slower than the speed limit. No sense in having a full-grown elk visit me through the windshield of my car.

Excitement Builds

As 6 a.m. rolled around and then 6:30 a.m., the light in the eastern sky told me that there may be a possibility that the sun would break through the cloud cover. Perhaps not in a full-blown sunrise, but in enough places to cast first light on the eastern faces of the Tetons.

Amid that excitement, though, was the realization that I wasn’t going make it to my desired location in time. I needed a Plan B, and I needed it now.

I found an area near the Triangle X Ranch where I could safely pull off the road and I had a decent view of the mountains, and then this happened:

First Light on the Tetons through Clearing Storm Clouds

Needless to say, I was beyond elated that I was able to capture that because that scene lasted for only a few seconds. The clouds were moving rapidly from left to right, and the sun kissed the mountain face with a warm glow in contrast to the remaining rain clouds.

I spent the remainder of the morning chasing light and clouds as they played with the mountains.

Signal Mountain Overlook

Not far from Jackson Lake Dam is the road that takes you to the summit of Signal Mountain, where you have a commanding view to the south of Jackson Hole and to the west to see Jackson Lake and the Tetons.

The drive up was through an amazing forest of sweet-smelling pine trees and other deciduous trees that were beginning to turn color for autumn. About 100 yards from the road was a young male elk with a rather scrawny set of antlers. Still, it was great to see him.

The Grand Tetons and Jackson Lake from Signal Mountain

It was early afternoon and I was getting hungry so I decided it was time to end my visit to this amazing place. I stopped in Jackson to fill my gas tank and my stomach, and then started my four-hour drive to Evanston, Wyoming where I had booked a hotel for the night.

Epilogue

Mountains—big, towering monoliths of granite—have an effect on my soul like the rain had on the haze. They cleanse my soul and bring me to a very happy, peaceful place. I value my two short days in Grand Tetons National Park more than I do the four days I spent in Yellowstone. I know that may be blasphemous to some, but so be it.

I’m already plotting ahead to doing a visit in the spring when the mountains may be capped in snow and everything is turning green.

The mountains are calling, and I must go.

John Muir

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