Travel – Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton - sign

On one of our numerous road trips to around the United States we stopped at the Grand Teton National Park, it was part of a visit to the state of Wyoming where we also went to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole and Cody.  The Grand Teton National Park has beautiful scenery, numerous outdoor activities and a variety of places to stay overnight ranging from simple camp sites in the park to more luxurious accommodations in nearby Jackson Hole.  In this Travel Post, I will discuss the history of the park, general visitor information for planning a visit and a list of things to see and do.

The history of the Grand Teton National Park

The Grand Teton National Park is located in northwest Wyoming.  The Grand Tetons are the youngest mountain range within the Rocky Mountains that were formed approximately 8 million years ago.  The Teton Mountain Range runs from north to south and was thrust upward on west side and downward on the east through a period of seismic activity caused by earthquakes on the Teton fault.  As a result, the mountains rise dramatically above the floor of the Jackson Hole Valley as seen from the eastern side and gently slope into the Teton Valley on the western side.  The highest elevation within the park is the 13,775 feet high Grand Teton peak; the eight other peaks known as the Cathedral Group are over 12,000 feet.  250,000 to 150,000 years ago the canyons and valleys of the Teton Range were formed by glacier activity and then later carved even deeper by water erosion.  A few glaciers still remain within the park, the Teton Glacier that is located on the northeast side of Grand Teton Peak and it measures 3,500 feet long and 1,100 feet wide.

The Paleo Native Americans came to the Grand Teton region over 11,000 years ago.  The Paleo were a migratory tribe of hunter-gatherers that spent the summer months in the Jackson Hole Valley to the east of the mountains and the winter months in the Teton Valley to the west of the Teton mountain range, this pattern of moving from one area to the other was determined by the weather conditions in the region.  The Paleo movement throughout the area was also determined by the availability of the elk herds that would roam throughout the region.

Later, in more current times, the Shoshone Native Americans lived in the same area of Wyoming and established permanent settlements.  The Shoshone were divided into two groups, the first and larger group lived in the Grand Teton Mountains and the other group lived in the foothills, both groups followed the same migratory patterns as the ancient Paleo people that previously lived in the same area.  The Shoshone seemed to have been very spiritually connection with the land and this theory is supported by the stone structures that archaeologists have found in the upper areas of the Grand Teton, the possible use of these structures was for vision quests (a Native American ritual common with the Plains people in which young men would be secluded from the main tribe to participate in a ceremonial attempt to gain a vision of a guardian spirit, typically methods to achieve the vision quest were through fasting or self-torture).  In 1868, the Shoshone from the Teton and Yellowstone regions were relocated by the United States government to the Wind River Indian Reservation which is located 100 miles southeast of Jackson Hole.

John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, passed through the Grand Teton area during the winter of 1807.  When some of the members of the expedition disbanded on the return trip, Colter decided to join a couple of fur trappers in their search for the lucrative beaver pelts that were potentially available in the area of the Grand Teton.  Colter was eventually hired by the fur trappers and when he passed through the area now known as Jackson Hole, he became the first Caucasian to see the Grand Teton Mountain Range.  Colter became something of a legend in the area and was very successful at the profitable fur business.

It is possible that the Mountain Range received the name from the French fur trappers that frequented the area and called it Les Trois Tetons which when translated means “the three breasts”.  The name of Jackson Hole, the valley east of the Tetons, comes from a fur trapper named Davey Jackson who oversaw the entire region for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company.  By the 1840s, the fur trade supply of beaver had declined drastically from over trapping.  Meanwhile the settlement of the western United States began in earnest but the Grand Teton region of Wyoming was not impacted at all because the overland routes of the Oregon and Mormon trails were located farther to the south.

Then, in 1859 the U.S. Government sponsored a year long expedition into the Grand Tetons area.  The expedition was led by U.S. Army Captain William Raynolds which included Jim Bridger, a local guide, and F.V. Hayden, a naturalist.  The expedition explored the area, mapping the territory and identifying the regions plants and animals.  Unfortunately, the expedition was halted due to the Civil War and later resumed in 1871 in the Yellowstone area.  This time the Hayden Geological Survey Team was led by James Stevenson and at this time most of the mountains and lakes were identified and given names.  Included on the survey team was a photographer named William Henry Jackson who took the first photographs of the Tetons that were later published in National newspapers.

By the early 1900s, American settlers finally came to the Jackson Hole valley and started building permanent homes.  The winters were long, the soil was too rocky and the growing season was too short to cultivate crop farms but later the vast empty lands would be perfect for cattle ranches.  In 1907, there was an effort made by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to construct dams along the Snake River to regulate and increase the water flow in the Jackson Hole valley for crop irrigation.

Meanwhile, back in 1872, the Yellowstone National Park had been established further north and the superintendent, Horace Albright, tried to block any further dam construction plans because he felt it would impact the lakes and rivers within the park.  It was proposed that the area to the south of Yellowstone, including the Jackson Hole Valley and the Grand Teton, should be included into the park.  Millionaire John Rockefeller, Jr. who privately owned a large portion of the Jackson Hole Valley agreed with Albright.  The residents in the area opposed this idea and wanted to establish a separate park and a long battle over the land began.  Ultimately, in 1929 President Calvin Coolidge signed the executive order establishing the Grand Teton National Park.

Albright and Rockefeller were not deterred and they remained focused on keeping the Jackson Hole Valley from being commercially used.  So, as a result, Rockefeller started buying even more property in the valley under the guise of the Snake River Land Company and he planned to turn the land over to the National Park Service.  When this plan was revealed to the residents of Jackson Hole it was met with strong opposition because the residents wanted to take the opportunity to establish tourist-based businesses to serve both the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  In regards specifically to the Grand Teton National Park, congressional efforts to prevent its expansion were successful and Rockefeller’s Snake River Land properties would not be included into the park.  By 1942, Rockefeller was becoming impatient holding on to the properties and eventually at his urging he persuaded Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes to recommend to President Franklin Roosevelt that under the Antiquities Act the land could be protected without the approval of Congress.  In 1943, with President Roosevelt’s approval, the land was donated by Rockefeller and used to create the Jackson Hole National Monument which was adjacent to the Grand Teton National Park.

Rockefeller retained his other large personal property holdings in the Jackson Hole Valley for the private use of his family; it was known as the JY Ranch and it was located at the southern border of the Grand Teton National Park. Then, after World War II, the public focus shifted to preserving our national resources and the Jackson Hole National Monument that Rockefeller had fought so hard to establish was finally incorporated into the Grand Teton National Park in 1950.  Then, in 1972 24,000 additional acres located between the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks were added to the National Park Service, in honor and recognition of Rockefeller previous efforts the land between the two parks was named the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway.  Eventually the JY Ranch previously owned by the Rockefeller family was donated to the park to establish the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve in June 2008. (Laurance was the son of John D. Rockefeller)

Grand Teton - barnGrand Teton - wild flowers

Grand Teton National Park Visitor Information  

Today, the Grand Teton National Park has an average of 2.5 million visitors annually making it one of the ten most visited National Parks in the United States.  The National Park Service manages both the Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway jointly.  There are numerous activities available for visitors and a variety of accommodations ranging from campsites and rustic cabins or lodges within in the park to hotel accommodations ranging from inexpensive to luxurious spas and resorts in nearby Jackson Hole.  (Travel note: I would advise making reservations as early in advance as possible especially if you are planning a trip during the busy summer months)

Listed below are several points of interest, travel suggestions and tips to consider when planning a visit to the Grand Teton National Park:

  • Visitor Centers – I always recommend when visiting any of our National Parks, it is a good idea to start at the Visitor Center where visitors can get maps, brochures, hiking and boating permits and current weather information or road closures.  Also be sure to check the schedule of Ranger presentations or guided hikes which are a great source of information about the park.  The three Visitor Centers in the park are opened seasonally so check ahead for opening dates and times.  The Colter Bay and Jenny Lake Visitor Centers are the most popular but there is also the Moose Visitor Center.  (Travel Tip: Another recommendation for families with small children is the Junior Park Ranger program which is a wonderful way for children to learn about the wonders of our National Parks)

Grand Teton - Visitor Center exterior  Grand Teton - Visitor Center interior

Grand Teton - Colter Bay Visitor Center

  • Jackson Lake – Jackson Lake is the largest natural lake within the park, 15 miles in length and 5 miles wide.  Before the Grand Teton became a National Park a dam was constructed on Jackson Lake to control the water distributed to the area.  Sports activities available to visitors at Jackson Lake include fishing, canoeing, sailing and windsurfing.  Stand-up paddle boards are allowed but a park permit is required and available at the visitor centers.  Personal watercrafts are prohibited within the park.  (Travel Note: Jackson and Jenny Lakes are the only lakes within the Grand Teton where motorboats are permitted.  There is an interesting 2005 study concerning the water quality of the lakes that indicates that both lakes were considered clean and levels show that they had not been impacted by air or water pollution)

Grand Teton - Colter Bay Village Marina

  • Jenny Lake – Jenny Lake is another popular destination in the park, it is over 7 miles long.  Jenny Lake is also the starting point for many day or overnight hikes.  Located a short distance away from Jenny Lake to the west is the largest waterfall in the park, Hidden Falls is 100 feet high.


  • Snake River – The headwaters of the Snake River are located in nearby Yellowstone National Park.  The river flows south and west into Jackson Lake located in the Grand Teton National Park and from the Jackson Lake Dam, the river continues its southern course as it twists through the park past the city of Jackson Hole.  Throughout the centuries the river has gone been called many different names, the Shoshone Native American called the river “Yam-pah-pa” which was the name of a herb that grew abundantly along river bank.  The first documented “discovery” was in 1800 by Canadian explorer David Thompson who recorded the name as “Shawpatin”.  In 1805, the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed near the area on their journey to the Pacific Ocean and it was named the “Lewis River” or “Lewis Fork” for Meriwether Lewis the co-leader of the expedition.  Ultimately, the name reverts back to the Shoshone who would use sign language gesturing their hands into an S-shaped motion to indicate fishing in the river but explorer misinterpreted the gesture to mean a snake and it became officially known as the Snake River.  Please click on the link to the Grand Teton website for more information regarding fly fishing or river rafting,

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams

  • Mountaineering and Rock Climbing – The Teton Range has also become a mountain climber’s destination and there are many challenging routes that can be accessed from Jenny Lake area.  To speak in general terms mountain climbing can be divided into several different types, in this post I will briefly discuss two types – classic mountaineering when the mountain is traversed with the goal of reaching the summit and rock climbing, sometimes called bouldering, when the rock face is climbed with a minimum amount of equipment or with just the hands, also known as free climbing.  Evidence of the Native Americans climbing the Grand Tetons can be found at “The Enclosure” located about 530 feet below the summit of the Grand Teton Peak which was discovered in 1872 by members of the Hayden Geological Survey expedition, there is some debate as to whether the summit was actually reached.  The first official ascent of the summit of Grand Teton is credited to a group led by William Owen in 1898.  (Travel Note:  In the late 1950s a gymnast named John Gill came to the Grand Tetons and started climbing the large boulders near Jenny Lake.  He developed a new style to rock climbing that used many of his acquired gymnastic techniques, he was the first to use gymnastic chalk to keep hands dry while climbing and also to secure and improve better handholds for stability)

The Enclosure

  • Chapel of the Transfiguration – The Chapel of the Transfiguration is a small log chapel located in the park.  The 22 foot by 50 foot chapel was built in 1925 and is designed in the shape of a T with exposed log interior wall and stained glass windows on either side.  The large window behind the altar was specifically built to frame the wonderful view of the Grand Tetons Cathedral Group of mountains.  The chapel was originally built for the employees and guests of the dude ranches of the Jackson Hole Valley with the construction materials and labor funded by the local ranchers.  In 1980 the chapel was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  (Travel Trivia: The chapel was used in the 1963 movie “Spencer’s Mountain” starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Hara which was being filmed in Jackson Hole)

Grand Teton - church  Grand Teton - Chapel of the Transfiguration interior
Be sure to check out the other Travel Post this month about nearby Yellowstone National Park, just click on the link.