September 17th to 18th, 2011
The Grand Teton National Park is located in the Jackson Hole valley of Wyoming near the playground of tourists and the rich and famous: Jackson (it is close to the parks and ski fields). Jackson is a relatively small place, but has one of the nicest downtown districts I have ever seen. It is kind of set out like an old west town with wooden verandas and foot paths out front of each business which are mostly upscale stores, restaurants and bars around a small central park/town square (which has entrance arches made out of hundreds of Elk antlers). There is a lot of money in this town!
The scenery of Grand Teton National Park is spectacular with majestic snow-capped mountains, pristine lakes and rivers, wetlands and diverse wildlife. The Teton mountain range is impressive in itself, with giant granite spires, especially Grand Teton mountain (4197 metres/13770 feet) and the Teton Glacier.
The drive from the southern entrance of Yellowstone National Park is a relatively short 13km trip through the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway to the start of the Tetons. You are quickly presented with the fantastic view across Jackson Lake to the mountains, and as you drive further south into the Jackson Hole you encounter forests, more lakes such as Jenny Lake, the Snake River Valley and a much closer view of the awesome mountains and alpine regions. Once you reach the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Centre and Moose Junction you start to enter Sagebrush flats and open plains. It is a diverse place indeed.
The history of the park is quite interesting and it was a real struggle to have the entire area declared a national park (which seems unbelievable today given the beauty of the place) due to claims on farming and sheep grazing rights. Initially the national park was declared in 1929 (discussions first started in 1987!), but it only included the Teton Range and the lakes immediately at the base of the mountains.
Famous oil magnate and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller (1839-1937) was appalled by the haphazard development ruining the landscape of the area when he visited Jackson Hole in 1926, so he started to buy up land to protect it from development and in 1943 donated 35,000 acres to the Federal Government when they declared other government-owned property near the park including the Teton National Forest as the Jackson Hole National Monument (The John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway commemorates his contribution to the national park).
It was not until 1950 that both the national park and national monument lands were combined into the present day Grand Teton National Park. On the other hand the nearby Yellowstone National Park only took 2 years to become a national park, long before in 1872!
After not seeing a Moose or Grizzly Bear in Yellowstone, I was pretty keen to see one here (especially a Moose). In 2006 I travelled through British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba in Canada at a time of year when it was possible to see all the bear species Black, Grizzly and Polar Bear (October to November). I was lucky to see many bears on that trip, but I was also searching for Moose and spent a lot of time in places like Jasper and Banff National Park trying to spot one to no avail. I eventually got a brief glimpse of one in a forest near Dauphin, Manitoba but did not get a clear photo of it. I did eat some Moose in Helsinki, Finland last year, thats about the closest I had been to one!
Flash forward to 2011 and the Tetons where I had been advised they were quite common to see. The visitor centre gave me a lot of hope as they had 2 life size statues of Moose there. Upon asking a Park Ranger, she gave me directions to various spots where I was likely to see a Moose (Moose-Wilson Road, Phelps Lake, Oxbow Bend and Gros Ventre Road which were all near water), so map in hand I went exploring.
My first day had been mostly spent in Yellowstone and travelling through Grand Teton, but there were still plenty of hours of daylight left and Moose tend to be spotted here more late afternoon/early morning, so my timing was perfect. I set off for the nearby Gros Ventre Road that runs along the Gros Ventre River, then along Antelope Flats road to do a loop that would eventually lead back to Jackson for dinner (A tasty Elk burger in the crazy Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, imagine lots of ten gallon hats, cowboys, cowgirls, stools with saddles and lots of gawking tourists!) , then onto my accommodation in the nearby ski resort Teton Village (my accommodation was just at the Hostel, but there were some pretty fancy hotels out there that’s for sure!).
Although I saw plenty of Bison and Pronghorn I did not see a Moose. The next day I met people who had seen one out that way around the same time I was there, but I was probably slightly further north on the road out on the sagebrush plains when they spotted it. Once again this wildlife watching game is often a matter of total luck!
So the next day (my last in the park) I was up early driving along the Moose-Wilson Road to the Laurence S. Rockefeller Reserve for a hike to Phelps Lake. It was pretty cold, but I saw many large hoof prints (either Elk or Moose) whilst on the trail, so I was getting hopeful. The Teton Range looked magnificent shining in the early morning sun and the lake was so still, the reflection of the mountains on the water was beautiful. Around the lake I saw Mule Deer and Elk, but still no Moose. The quest continues!
To take a break from wildlife viewing I went to Jenny Lake to take a boat trip across the lake, for a hike up to Inspiration Point and Hidden Falls along the way. Once again this trip had spectacular views and the lake water was so clear it was a magic place to be. The driver of the boat told me that 2 male Moose had lately been hanging out near Moose Junction late in the day. This is right near the visitors centre, but the Park Ranger had not mentioned it (my thoughts were…..hmmm worth checking that out for sure).
It was still early in the day so I took a drive north to Oxbow Bend, then south along the highway that runs through Jackson Hole to visit the historic Cunningham Cabin site and various scenic outlooks along the Snake River and the Teton Range. I saw lots of Bison and Pronghorn along the way.
I then decided to hit the Gros Ventre Road and Antelope Flats area again, stopping along Mormon Row to see an abandoned 19th century Mormon settlement. The settlement still has abandoned houses, cabins, barns and a forlorn looking outhouse. Shining in the sun with a mountain background these buildings made for a good photo shoot.
Nearby were a couple of large herds of Bison and further on I came across a group of 4 Pronghorn bucks, then after a break in the tiny town of Kelly I came across a herd of Pronghorn protectively being overlooked by their buck. Alas still no Moose!
It was almost 5.30pm, so I headed to Moose Junction. Immediately I was excited as I could see a lot of cars stopped on the highway. Sure enough there they were, 2 magnificent Moose brothers (lets call them Marty and Bullwinkle)!
At first they were a fair way off from the road, so myself and about 50 others trudged across the scrubby tundra to get closer (this was against all the park rules, but the excitement sort of took over for us all). It wasn’t an easy walk as the there was no open ground, so it was quite a scramble to get to the ridge. In one comical moment this guy fell down a deep hole and literally disappeared in the scrub, to not appear again for 30 seconds! He was OK though. This eventually provided a good view though and was worth the effort! One guy got way to close to one of the Moose which caused it to lay down in the scrub all you could see were antlers (yeah good one idiot, ruin it for everyone!).
Eventually a Park Ranger appeared and it was time to move on. Fortunately the Moose moved closer towards a restaurant on the other side of the tundra. I quickly drove over there and got a very up close view of both Moose as they crossed the road. I can not fully explain the significance of this experience, but lets just say all present were so happy and had the biggest smiles on their faces. I was ecstatic, it was a fantastic moment and my quest of 5 years was finally over! WE HAVE MOOSE!!!!
Then out of nowhere, as if it were some sort of grand finale to my visit to this park, 3 vintage military jets (a strange combination of a North American FJ Fury, Rockwell T-2 Buckeye and a Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15) roared low down the Jackson Hole valley! I couldn’t believe it! I had an even bigger grin on my face after this! Perfect! Ironically even though my camera had been by my side constantly for days, I was so surprised that I didn’t get any good photos of the jets! Oh well, today it was all about the Moose and I couldn’t be happier!
September 19th, 2011
Teton Pass to Boise, Idaho
Another early morning start lead me across the Teton Pass for a great view across the foggy Jackson Hole and then onto Idaho. I drove for about 3 hours through Idaho Falls, then across the desert to the town of Arco. I was quite surprised that most of Idaho is prairie and desert. Given that it is famous for potatoes (even their car number plates say so!) I expected much more green farmland.
Arco was the first town in the world to be powered by nuclear power (1955) and whilst passing through I had to do a double take. Yes I did see a nuclear submarine conning tower back in that park with number 666 painted across it! I went back and parked, to be greeted by an elderly man who was once in the air force and a nuclear physicist who now ran a museum on this submarine (USS Hawkbill SSN-666) and the history of nuclear power in the area.
After a visit to this museum, the desert plains actually proved to be quite a history lesson for me. Out there is a large complex run by Idaho National Laboratory which is the Department of Energy’s lead nuclear R&D facility. Over 50 nuclear reactors have been built here for power stations and also for nuclear submarines and ships. In fact the first training simulator for nuclear submarine reactor operations was based here and trained 40,000 sailors. Hence the reason parts of this submarine were in Arco.
I also learnt that since 1994, the US has been recycling Russian nuclear warheads for use in nuclear power plants, a much smarter way of disposing of this material rather than dumping it in Siberia somewhere or leaving it open to possible theft by terrorist groups (the program is known as Megatons to Megawatts)! A very interesting stop over indeed.
Not far from Arco was my intended destination the Craters of the Moon National Monument. This is a vast and weird lava flow landscape in which virtually everything is black! There are various lava flow fields, collapsed volcanic craters, extinct volcanic cones, lava flow tunnels and caves (full of tiny bats) to explore. Atop the Inferno Cone I was almost blown away by the incredibly strong winds, but it provided a spectacular view across the lava flow and the desert plains. It was quite fascinating being in such an arid, wind-swept lunar like place, yet plants and animals still manage to survive out there! Mother nature at her best.
Another 3 hours further on and I made it to Boise, the capital city of Idaho. Boise has a very nice downtown area, with an impressive domed State Capitol Building and many stores, restaurants and bars. I quite liked an art project going on there called “Freak Alley Mural Project 2011” where lots of cool street art adorned laneway walls (including Jimi Hendrix, Star Wars, Bob Marley, evil looking Care Bears and even Chairman Mao). The laneways reminded me of back at home in Melbourne, Australia.
Next morning I took an early morning flight back to Seattle, passing a sunlit Mount Hood in Oregon, then a very close fly by of the snow covered Mount Ranier in Washington. What a spectacular way to finish an awesome week away!