A Grand Teton Winter

Experience a simpler, quieter side of Grand Teton National Park.


By Scott Kirkwood


The first thing I notice upon arriving in Grand Teton National Park in early March is that there is snow absolutely everywhere. I mean everywhere. As I drive the five miles from Jackson Hole Airport to Dornan’s rustic cabins, a short walk from the park’s main visitor center, I can’t see beyond the walls of snow on each side of the road. In the summer months, the small complex of log cabins is bustling with visitors picking up groceries, dining at the restaurant, or renting outdoor gear. But things are different now. A sign advertising “FISHING GUIDES” is barely visible behind the avalanche of snow that covers the front of the building. The restaurant doesn’t open until the dinner hour. And the hotel staff clocks out at 1 p.m., so my afternoon arrival is greeted by a manila envelope tacked to the wall outside the main office, keys inside. Thankfully, the hosts have plowed a path the short distance from the street to my cabin, and a sled is left out front so I can slide my luggage to the door if need be. Clearly, these people are used to a little snow—they’ve thought of everything.

Winter wonderland

Most of the iconic Western parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton are overrun with visitors from June to September, and you might struggle for elbow room in the fall. But if you enjoy solitude, silence, and a healthy dose of skiing and snowshoeing in a stunning landscape, it’s hard to do much better than this part of Wyoming.

Yellowstone winters were once a well-kept secret, but that secret is out. If you want to wander among mud pots and steaming cauldrons of sulfur while watching bison simply ignore wind chills of 30 below, then a trip to the first national park is still your best bet. Bison are plentiful up in Yellowstone because the park’s thermal features keep the ground warm and allow animals to munch on grasses year-round. The Tetons offer no such conveniences.

But there are still many species that find a way to make it through a Teton winter. In five days in March, I saw two trumpeter swans fly overhead during a ranger snowshoe tour, three coyotes walk across a wide expanse at Elk Ranch Flats, a handful of deer browse just outside of downtown Jackson, and three moose wander along the Gros Ventre River. Ten thousand elk also spend their winter at the National Elk Refuge, sandwiched between Jackson and the park. Although their names don’t appear on the marquee, dozens of bighorn sheep also make themselves at home on the Elk Refuge during the winter months; sometimes wolves and cougars are clever enough to visit the refuge in search of prey.

To learn as much as you can about the wildlife you might spot on your travels, and to get some tips on navigating the snow, plan to spend one of your first few days on the two-hour ranger-led snowshoe trip that leaves from the Craig Thomas Visitor Center at 1:30 every afternoon from late December to mid-March ($5 suggested donation for adults, $2 for kids; call 307.739.3399 to make reservations). Get there a little early to check out the film, the modern displays, and the panoramic view of the Tetons. You can bring your own snowshoes, but I’d suggest coughing up the five bucks and using the old wooden snowshoes that the Park Service provides, some dating back to the 1940s. Surprisingly, when it comes to lightly packed snow, ash trees bent into three-foot-long teardrops with deer hide proved superior to the more compact modern snowshoe made of aluminum covered with nylon.

Never snowshoed before? Not a problem. Tour guide Ann Mattson told us as we gathered near the fireplace, “If you can walk, you can snowshoe.” She was right. Stretched out behind her like a cold-weather conga line in clown shoes, we stopped occasionally as Mattson showed us how the shapes and sizes of wild animals’ feet make them more or less able to move through the snow. She also gave us all a crash course in winter survival techniques for wildlife—pulling out swatches of animal hides from moose, elk, and even weasels and discussing how their fur helps them adapt to the climate.

The next day I ventured out on my own, snowshoeing Taggart Lake-Beaver Creek Loop, which I’d hiked in the middle of June five years earlier. This time the 3.2 miles took me about two hours. The only sound I heard was the squish-clink of my snowshoes’ metal teeth hitting the snow. By the end of it, I could barely summon the strength to remove the shoes from my feet.

Going cross-country

The sheer exhaustion of walking on water led me to jealously eye the dozens of visitors who seemed to glide across the surface on cross-country skis. The Tetons offer plenty of challenging backcountry terrain and easier, groomed routes that are perfect for newbies. I’d been cross-country skiing a few times as a teen in Michigan, and I’d spent more than a few hours in the basement, using a NordicTrack machine to keep those winter pounds at bay, so I was pretty used to the mechanics. But I wasn’t used to the challenge of newly fallen snow that greeted me as I headed out from the Taggart Lake parking lot on a Saturday morning. Although three or four people had broken trail ahead of me, their prints were quickly filled in with new snow. At times it felt like I was skiing atop a huge treadmill made of sushi rice—all that sticky white stuff prevented me from gliding more than a few inches. Snow fell so quickly, the whiteness that surrounded me made me wonder if I was getting anywhere at all.

At one point I got so tired that I started looking for a bench, then I quickly realized the benches were several feet beneath me, under three feet of snow. I spotted some historic cabins in the distance and considered the wisdom of skiing in their direction and sitting on the roof, but instead I found a nice wood-hewn sign with a log as its top, just two feet above the snow’s surface. Perfect. I took a break and watched as a dozen people skied past me, and nodded their approval, no need to exchange a word.

TRAVEL ESSENTIALS

Unless you’re going to Yellowstone before or after your visit to the Tetons, you’ll probably fly into the Jackson Hole Airport or the Idaho Falls Airport, a couple of hours away. (The former is the only airport in the country located within a national park, which is convenient for visitors but poses serious threats to the park’s natural values, making it an ongoing concern of NPCA’s Northern Rockies Regional Office.)

Most people stay in the nearby town of Jackson, about six miles from the park. Teton Village offers more hotel options near a huge downhill skiing resort only a mile from the park’s southern boundary. If you want to wake up and snowshoe or ski right into the park, your options are Dornan’s cabins, on the southern end of the park, steps from the Craig Thomas Visitor Center (www.dornans.com), and the Triangle X Ranch (www.triangleX.com) on the eastern side of the park, near the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Both are rather rustic options, priced at about $120–150 a night. Dornan’s has a small restaurant and a grocery store with some rental equipment. The rooms have no televisions but do offer wireless service for those of you tethered to the Internet. Triangle X is a dude ranch on the eastern side of the park that offers some of the very same amenities.

The park’s main roadways—Highway 89/91 and Highway 26/287—are plowed during the winter months and open for travel from Jackson to Flagg Ranch near Yellowstone’s South Entrance, or east to Dubois over Togwotee Pass. Teton Park Road is closed but groomed for snowshoers and cross-country skiers.

If you want to get out of your car and explore the Tetons in any meaningful way, you’ll need something strapped to your feet. The grocery store at Dornan’s rents skis and snowshoes, but most visitors head to downtown Jackson, where Skinny Skis and Sports Authority will gladly rent you equipment for about $20 the first day and $10 each additional day—it’s a small price to pay for access to 99 percent of the white landscape that spreads out before you.

For snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, you’ll want several layers and a waterproof jacket and pants to keep you dry in case you’re caught in nasty weather or take a spill in the snow, which is pretty likely given the awkward mechanics of both sports.

Once you’ve burned off a thousand calories or so, you’ll want to find a good way to refuel. The Merry Piglets serves the freshest salsa I’ve ever tasted, in a colorful atmosphere with warm yellow stucco walls, Mexican music, and whimsical murals of pigs that surround you. On the other end of the scale is Nikai, an Asian restaurant with great sushi and a bamboo-covered dining room that would make you forget you were in Jackson if it weren’t for the HDTV screen that shows stunning video of skiers throwing themselves off cliffs as sheer as skyscrapers. Lotus Café downtown offers great organic/vegetarian cuisine and has the vibe of a modern hippie hangout that’s perfect for lunch. Snake River Brewing, Rendezvous Bistro, and Trio American are also popular among locals.

If you’re the kind of person who loves winter sports but prefers to let gravity do the work, Jackson Hole has excellent downhill skiing options. In town, there’s Snow King, a smaller mountain conveniently located downtown, perfect for beginner skiers. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village, a world-class ski resort, has dozens of runs for all abilities, including lots of expert terrain, and it’s just 20 minutes away via the cheap and convenient StartBus shuttle, which makes stops near most hotels. Get more vital information for your winter visit on the park’s website: www.nps.gov/grte/planyourvisit/winter.htm.

SIDETRIP
THE ART OF JACKSON HOLE

One of Jackson’s best features is its vibrant arts scene—it’s possibly the only gateway town with more galleries than T-shirt shops, each one of them comparable to galleries in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, or San Francisco. You’ll find classic and contemporary Southwestern art, wildlife abstracts and photography, sculpture, pottery, handcrafted furniture, and American Indian collections that include rugs and handmade jewelry. I saw price tags ranging from $80 for an intimate charcoal sketch of a buffalo to $300,000 for a contemporary painting that would fill an entire wall of your million-dollar mansion in the mountains. Check out the Jackson Hole Gallery Association (www.jacksonholegalleries.com) for links to the major galleries and their current exhibits, special events, and even a map of the downtown area. Some of my favorite galleries were Altamira, Diehl Gallery, and Tayloe Piggott. For national park photography, don’t miss Tom Mangelsen’s “Images of Nature” gallery and Henry Holdsworth’s “Wild by Nature” gallery, both of which are just off the main square.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art is another great place for art aficionados. The beautiful building perched on a bluff overlooking the National Elk Refuge is well worth the $12 price of admission (www.wildlifeart.org). During my visit, the exhibits included paintings, charcoal drawings, etchings, and sculpture; photography seemed oddly absent. Contemporary local artists have plenty of work on the walls, but old-school artists like Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington also are featured here.

Want to create some of your own art while you’re in town? The Center for the Arts in Jackson Hole offers free art exhibits and inexpensive films, classes, and short workshops for locals and out-of-towners—check the offerings at www.artassociation.org. Classes in the winter months are scarcer, but you still might be able to schedule a trip around a workshop if you do a little planning. As you’ll see, even if your idea of a winter vacation doesn’t include layers of polyester, fleece, Gore-Tex, and down, you’ll be just fine holing up in Jackson.

Scott Kirkwood is editor in chief of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Fall 2011 issue.

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