Published in May, 2009
By JoAnne C. Broadwater
It was dusk in the Grand Teton National Park, and a handful of fishermen stood along the rocky shoreline of the Snake River just below the Jackson Lake Dam. Pelicans floated serenely overhead, then plunged into the water to snatch cutthroat trout away from the fishermen’s lures. The water churned and crashed, drowning out any hint of the drama unfolding in the willow flats to the rear.
Suddenly, a newborn moose calf and its mother dashed from the cover of thick brush and shot through the open field.
“Look behind you!” someone shouted, but the words were lost. Even the vigilant wildlife watchers a short distance away failed to spot the newcomers.
The moose and her youngster quietly disappeared behind a leafy willow bush. The calf peered out, staring with wide-eyed wonder at a few human visitors just 25 feet away. The mother—who could have been dangerously protective–ignored the intruders, intent upon her munching.
Wildlife comes and goes quickly in the Tetons and so it was with the moose. The pair abruptly moved into the thick brush, hoping to avoid the claws of a grizzly bear and three hefty cubs prowling the area for easy prey.
For those who saw them, it was a moment of pure magic, an experience that was the defining moment of a vacation. Such are the spoils of wildlife viewing if you keep your eyes on the horizon. Add a bit of luck and just take your time in this scenic northwest Wyoming park that has so much to offer.
Hiking, biking and wildlife
There’s a lot more to the Tetons than just wildlife watching. Boating on Jackson Lake. Rafting on the Snake River. Hiking more than 250 miles of trails. Native American artifacts on display in the Indian Arts Museum at Colter Bay Village. When water levels drop, there are rides on a replica of the early-1900s Menor’s Ferry. The wooden raft on pontoons has a cable system that enables the pilot to harness the power of the river and steer straight across. Early passengers paid 50 cents for a wagon and team and 25 cents for a rider and horse. Today, visitors ride for free.
Lodging includes campsites, cabins and comfortable rooms. Buy some bison burgers and grill them yourself, stop for a pizza at Leeks Marina, have soup and salad on the patio at Signal Mountain Lodge or dine in elegance at the Jackson Lake Lodge.
And, of course, save time for a visit to Yellowstone National Park, just a few miles to the north.
Town of Jackson nearby
We started our trip with a stay in Teton Village, home of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort just outside the south entrance to the park. It has great eateries like the Mangy Moose Restaurant and Saloon and luxury hotels with discounted summer rates. We rented bikes and embarked on the paved community trail for a 25-mile trip past ranches and stunning mountain vistas. The shops and restaurants of the town of Jackson are just minutes away.
Soon, though, we were drawn into the park to look for wildlife, just as we always are during our vacations.
During our six trips, we have ventured into almost every corner of the park. We have followed its trails into the mountains, gazed into its deepest canyons and thrilled at its cascading waterfalls and rugged peaks. We have explored its river and lakes. We have hiked with rangers and learned the local lore. We know where to look for wildlife—and have become skilled at spotting them. We have seen a moose swimming across the Snake River at Oxbow Bend and cross the road right in front of our car. We have started our own bear jam on Signal Mountain road.
To be sure, the wildlife can sometimes be elusive. On hot summer days, visitors may have to work harder to see them. The grizzlies and black bears may wander off into the mountains in search of cooler temperatures, huckleberries and other favorite foods. The moose enjoy the peace of the valley but often rest in the shade until dusk.
Wildlife active in spring
In late spring, lingering chilly temperatures and the interactions of hunter and hunted keep the animals on the move. Park visitors are treated to frequent sightings of moose, elk, grizzlies and black bears—and their young. Close encounters can occur almost anywhere—along the roadways, in the campgrounds, in hotel parking lots and along hiking trails.
The wildlife is so prolific in this park that we became spoiled and greedy in our sightings. During one two-week stay, we lost count of the grizzlies, black bears and moose we saw. We came to expect them everywhere we drove or hiked—and rarely were we disappointed. Every day we experienced the raw thrill of their presence.
Now, getting up close and personal with wildlife does carry its risks. Most park visitors emerge from their vacations unscathed, though many fail to stay a safe distance from the animals as the rangers warn. During our stay, there were reports of a mauling and a few other scary encounters with bears. One early morning runner was injured near the Jackson Lake Lodge parking lot when he happened upon a grizzly and her cubs feeding on a carcass. Some popular hiking trails had to be closed for the safety of visitors due to bear activity.
Such happenings were in our thoughts when we left the Lupine Meadows trailhead and headed up the path through the woods. This is the only trail in the park that leads right up the face of the mountain—so it’s an uphill climb all the way. As we trudged higher and higher, we focused on the ground at our feet and forgot to keep our eyes on the trail ahead.
Bears on the trails
Suddenly, we looked up and gasped. The leader in our group was standing just ten feet from a black bear. We were surprised to see that it wasn’t afraid. The trail was narrow and steep on both sides so we backed cautiously away. The bear followed, first at a casual walk and then at a jog. He was clearly a bear with places to go and we weren’t about to stand in his way. We headed back to the car. Later, we learned that he had gotten a “food reward” from hikers who broke park rules and left a backpack unattended. Perhaps he was hoping for another.
Enthralled by our experience, we decided to continue our hike on another day. We hoped to see the bear again, but we also wanted to finish the steep 9.6 mile round trip trek that switchbacks up the mountain to Surprise Lake and Amphitheater Lake. We started out early and enjoyed our lunch high in the mountains. Then we trudged off down the mountainside.
We hadn’t gone far when we heard a commotion–shouting voices, shrieking whistles, jangling bear bells. Just some overly enthusiastic hikers following park safety rules and making their presence known so they won’t startle a bear, we thought. We hurried along and soon came upon a different reason for all the excitement.
Four hikers were doing their best to frighten away a nonchalant black bear that was blocking the trail. We joined the group, increasing its size to seven—apparently a sufficient number to convince the bear to move off the path.
We watched until it disappeared and then we continued downhill. We were glad for our winter coats. Summer comes late and winter returns early in the Tetons and several inches of snow greeted us at the beginning of our visit. When we trudged high into the mountains each day, we occasionally had to clamber over lingering snowpack.
Searching for moose
It was chilly again on the morning that we boarded a shuttle boat for the ride across Jenny Lake to the popular trail leading to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. But the skies were sunny and we peeled off layers as we ventured five miles into Cascade Canyon.
We were disappointed because we didn’t see the moose for which the canyon is known. We decided to hike just a bit farther toward Lake Solitude. We had only walked a few minutes when an enormous bull moose crossed the trail. Finally satisfied, we turned around and started the long hike back.
We were tired when we reached the ranger station. There we heard that some park visitors had seen a black bear with cubs right near the boat dock. They didn’t even have to do any hiking. We sighed and headed back to the comforts of the Jackson Lake Lodge.
A perfect ending
The heart of the lodge is its upstairs lobby with massive picture windows framing a view of the peaks of the Tetons. Guests settle into comfortable couches here and enjoy piano music at night. There’s a restaurant and grill, a cocktail lounge and a morning coffee bar offering steamy espresso drinks.
Outside, a patio overlooks the vast willow flats and offers effortless wildlife viewing. One night we saw a moose and her baby drinking from a pond. Moments later, they were joined by another moose and baby. They watched each other carefully and then dipped their faces for another drink.