Grand Teton National Park derives its name from the towering peak that appears to pierce the skies above. The Grand Teton massif, which includes five consort peaks (Middle and South Tetons, Mount Owen, Teewinot, and Nez Perce), dominates the central part of the range.
To the north, Mount Moran is a stark granite hulk 12,605 feet high. It rises in splendid isolation from the shore of Jackson Lake, the largest of six jewel-like lakes strung along the base of the mountains.
Many people who visit the Tetons are surprised at their first sight of these rugged mountains. They find that they are somewhat familiar with these mountains, having seen them in western movies, such as the classic Shane, and in countless ads and television commercials. The Grand Tetons have become a recognizable symbol of the long gone American West -- tough and proud.
From the foot of Mount Moran, the Snake River flows peacefully out of Jackson Lake along a 30-mile-long stretch that traverses the park. The river is braided into several channels that run through a forested, serpentine trough. Rafting down the Snake provides a unique perspective on some of America's most spectacular scenery.
Wildlife flourishes in the river's valley. Bald eagles nest in dead trees alongside the stream, as do the great ospreys that cruise above the river casting their sharp eyes about for the native cutthroat trout that is their favorite meal. Moose, otters, and beavers also frequent these waters.
Plant life ranges from open grass and sage communities at the lower elevations to subalpine forests of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce, and Douglas fir. The Tetons are famous for summertime wildflower displays. Common flowers include wild rose, Indian paintbrush, blue columbine, and yellow balsamroot.
Today, winter is increasingly popular at the park, with numerous opportunities for snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and wildlife viewing on the adjacent National Elk Wildlife Refuge.
Regardless, most visitors still come in summer, when the hiking trails are free of snow.
Hiking to Lake Solitude
Hiking through a deep slice in the mountains called Cascade Canyon, just north of Grand Teton, gives visitors a good feel for some of the geological wonders of the park.
The hike starts on the west side of Jenny Lake. In the lower part of the canyon, rushing water, here and there in the form of cascading falls, seems to be constantly at work, eating away at the granite walls. Cascade Canyon originally was cut as a V by running water. Now it has been formed into a U shape, its nearly vertical sides sculpted by the powerful activity of glaciers in the last ice age.
As you walk through a series of switchbacks, granite walls rise 2,000 to 3,000 feet above you. Two miles into the canyon, the peaks tower a mile above. Abruptly, the canyon drops away, the rocky trail begins a steeper ascent into a broad bowl, and you suddenly discover that you have walked around to the north side of Grand Teton. After a total of seven miles, you arrive at Lake Solitude.
There, in an incredibly beautiful valley, the air is intoxicatingly clear, and wildflowers abound. Grand Teton and Mount Owen are reflected in the lake, and a circular granite wall rises in the west.
Grand Teton National Park Photo Opportunities
The Tetons are hypnotically alluring, and there are no bad views of these mountains from any place in the park. There are, however, sites that offer especially striking views, such as:
- Blacktail Ponds Overlook: An excellent place for spotting osprey and moose, Blacktail Ponds Overlook is located about a mile north of Moose Junction on the Scenic Loop Drive.
- Inspiration Point: This overlook does require some rather strenuous hiking, but the sweeping vista of Jenny Lake is well worth the climb. The trail to Inspiration Point begins at Solitude Lake and climbs more than 400 feet in altitude.
- Snake River Overlook: Considered by many to be the best panoramic view of the Tetons, Snake River Overlook is located along the northeast route between Moran and Moose junctions on the Scenic Loop Drive.
- Oxbow Bend: Unusual wildlife such as moose, bald eagles, and elk frequent the Jackson Hole region, and the view from Oxbow Bend is fantastic. From one of the turnouts on the south side of the road, onlookers will note the stunning peak of Mount Moran shimmering in the Snake River waters.
The Tetons are the youngest range in the Rockies, at 12 million years old. To learn about the geology and history of the Tetons, read the next page.