After a year confined to downtown Charlotte, N.C., (aside from a few short road trips), my husband and I were ready for wide-open spaces. So in mid-April, when we noticed that American Airlines was starting non-stop flights from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, we jumped at the opportunity. In less than a month, we would make our first post-Covid journey—and celebrate our 41st anniversary.
Seventeen years ago, we had made a brief, north-south road trip through Yellowstone National Park to Grand Teton National Park where we entered the high valley known as Jackson Hole. As we drove south, a colonnade of snow-capped mountains appeared on our right, glowing in early morning light. At their base was the serpentine Snake River, winding through a broad sagebrush-covered plain. It was the quintessential Western landscape. We half expected to see a lone cowboy galloping out of the Tetons towards us. We vowed to return one day and base ourselves in the little town of Jackson for a longer stay.
Jackson Hole’s airport is the only airport in the United States located in a national park. When we stepped onto the tarmac, the snow-capped Tetons loomed in front us—a sight that would make any city dweller tear up—and I confess I did.
These are arguably the most dramatic mountains in the West. As 19th-century explorer T. Gustavus Doane described them:
There are no foothills in the Tetons. They rise suddenly in rugged majesty from the rock-strewn plains …. The soft light floods the great expanse of the valley, the winding silvery river and the deeply carved mountain walls.
First, a little history: Jackson Hole has been inhabited by Native Americans for over 11,000 years. In the early 19th century fur trappers appeared, followed by government-sponsored scientific expeditions, starting in the 1860s. In 1871 geologist Ferdinand Hayden led surveys to the Yellowstone and Jackson Hole regions. And he brought along photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran. Their images of these stunning mountains enchanted folks back east, spurring settlement and tourism.
Fortunately, sane minds had the good sense to set aside lands for conservation. Yellowstone National Park, America’s first, was established in 1872 and Grand Teton National Park in 1929 (expanding to its present size in 1950). Today the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) —an area of almost 22 million acres—includes two national parks, six national forests, plus federal, state and tribal lands. The GYE is said to be home to the largest concentration of wildlife in the continental U.S.
We planned our trip over a month in advance but nearly cancelled it at the last minute due to the national shortage of rental cars. Fortunately, American Airlines saved the day and connected us with Avis, which still had a few cars available.
When we arrived on May 16, Jackson was already abuzz with visitors. Hotels, we learned, were near capacity and already booked up through most of the summer. And the finest restaurants required reservations several days to a week ahead. Wasn’t May supposed to be the slower shoulder season? Covid changed all that. This year, it seems, people wanted to take their summer vacations sooner rather than later. To support our observations, the National Park Service just revealed that Grand Teton National Park had the highest number of visitors on record for the month of May.
On our first afternoon in Jackson, small indulgences were in order: a slice of gourmet pizza at a pub called Sidewinders; a “cowboy coffee” ice cream cone at Jackson Drug, complete with espresso nibs ; and a refreshing locally brewed IPA at the renowned Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where saddles stand in for barstools.
Despite Jackson’s reputation as a retreat for the rich and famous, its ambience is relaxed and casual. Visitors dress for adventure (hiking, camping, bicycling, mountain climbing or fishing in summer; skiing, snowboarding and sleigh-riding in the winter). But they also dress stylishly—in cowboy hats, leather boots, tight-fitting jeans and belts embellished with Navajo silver and turquoise buckles.
Although only a few buildings remain that date to or before the turn of the 20th century, Jackson’s ambience is all “Old West.” The buildings at the center of town are fronted by wooden sidewalks and more than a few are sheltered from the elements by porches covered with shingles. As you’d expect, decorative accents take their cue from nature: Carved wooden bears climb up beams and peer from rafters; a stuffed bison poses outside a clothing boutique, and an enormous raft of paddling grizzlies balances, perilously, on the roof of an outfitter’s store. Elk antlers are everywhere, either mounted on walls or made into chandeliers. The most amazing examples are the four enormous arches (each some 12,000 pounds) that adorn the corners of the town square. As you’d expect, it’s a popular spot for selfies.
Over the next few days, we purchased a Stetson had from Beaver Creek Hats and Leather and enjoyed a relaxed anniversary dinner at the Snake River Grill, one of Jackson’s finest restaurants. But, sadly, we would miss the town’s annual Old West Days parade, the longest-running horse-drawn parade in the West. It was cancelled this year due to Covid restrictions.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
On our first day, rising before dawn, we hurried to photograph the locations that are best captured in early morning light when the first light turns the mountains pink: Schwabacher Landing and Oxbow Bend.
Although we were primarily interested in photographing landscapes, it was hard to overlook the wildlife. Bears are easy to spot; just look for a traffic jam—a line of cars parked on each side of the road with a line of tourists walking alongside, cameras and binoculars at the ready. Controlling this crowd is up to a volunteer group of wildlife managers called the Wildlife Brigade. Clad in bright yellow vests, they struggle to keep the crowds at a safe, respectful distance. Not an easy job.
These days the buzz is all about Grizzly 399, an internationally famous sow who gave birth to quadruplets—a rare event in the bear world—two years ago. (Believe it or not, Grizzly 399 has a Wikipedia page and fans follow her hashtag on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Search for #grizzly399.)
Grizzly 399, like other sows, tends to hang out by the road, near humans. She does this to protect her cubs from males who, eager to mate, will kill and eat cubs not their own. With the cubs gone, the females go into heat and the guys are happy again.
We were fortunate enough to encounter Grizzly 399 late one morning as they crossed the road, her four cubs trotting proudly alongside her. The cubs engaged in mock fights, throwing short furry punches and tumbling about in a wide grassy area beneath the soaring Tetons.
But the wildlife experiences didn’t end there. In the Tetons and in adjacent Yellowstone National Park we saw bison babies bounding like spring lambs, a leggy moose stepping daintily over a low guardrail, and a herd of female elk, white tails barely discernible in the morning hazy, dashing across a meadow.
Finally, we made a pilgrimage to the site where Shane, one of the greatest westerns ever made, was filmed in 1953. In fact, many film aficionados, ourselves included, consider it the one of the best in any genre. Directed by George Stevens, the film starred Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur, Jack Palance and Brandon de Wilde. In this very place, a mysterious loner called Shane (Ladd) rode out of the mountains to greet—and ultimately rescue—a family of homesteaders tormented by an evil cattle baron. We confess, being at the cabin was one of those priceless experiences!
THOUGHTS AFTER A YEAR OF SECLUSION
I’ve been thinking a lot these days about why I had such an emotional reaction when I stepped off the plane and looked up at the Tetons. Was it a feeling of relief that I was finally free to travel again, free to find new adventures, free to start checking destinations off my bucket list?
Yes…and no. Beyond those feelings, I was immensely, immensely grateful. I now realize the incredible value of things I sometimes took for granted—things like health, mobility and the beauty of what was right at my doorstep.
You wouldn’t think you’d have to remind a photographer and a writer to notice the details of life–but Covid was a wake-up call for me.
Invoking the spirit of the West, I’ll leave you with the words of a man who clearly took nothing for granted and knew how to look closely at the world around him:
What is Life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset. —Black Elk, Oglala Sioux and Spiritual Leader 1863 – 1950)
IF YOU GO
Here are resources to help you plan your trip. For more, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Park Service’s official sites have information on current conditions, lodging and campgrounds, regulations, special events or activities, scientific papers, history and more. You can also download park maps from the site.
Grand Teton National Park: www.nps.gov/grte/index.htm
Yellowstone National Park: www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/index.htm
Jackson Central Reservations has information on the town and the area around Jackson, including lodging, restaurants, shops and attractions: www.jacksonholewy.com
Jackson Hole Magazine, published twice a year, offers well-researched articles about the area–from natural and local history to local celebrities, artists, events, adventures and advice on how to see the area. View the magazine free online and be sure to check their excellent archives: jacksonholemagazine.com