National parks, as crown jewels of a nation’s physical patrimony, are a development of modern times. In exactly one year, on August 25, 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) will turn 100 years old. Yellowstone was the first national park, established even before the NPS, in 1872. We decided to spend a couple of weeks discovering for ourselves the lure of the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. For Steve, this was completely new territory; for me, it had been over 40 years since I saw Old Faithful shooting mist skyward with my parents and siblings. The other memory I retain from that trip was that our family stayed in a cabin, which was a revelatory event for me, the only “outdoorsy” activity I can recall from my suburban childhood. Talking about this with my mother after our return from 2 weeks exploring Wyoming and Montana, she remembered the cabin differently:
“It was so cold we had to move into a motel room.”
Indeed, even in late August, we did encounter cold. Dressing for the daily temperature fluctuations in the Grand Tetons was challenging. Rising early for sunrise photography, we had to pile the layers on, with frost on the ground and temperatures in the 30s (F). Those same afternoons would see temperatures soaring into the high 70s, almost 80 degrees one afternoon, sending me scrambling off trail, trying to find a discrete outdoor dressing room to doff long johns worn under my summer-weight pants. Of course, wearing hiking boots, this required some in-the-field gymnastics.
To plan our trip, we tapped into the expertise of our friends, Monica and Charley. They have spent portions of every summer for over 20 years in this area, centered around stays in their house in Bigfork, Montana, less than an hour’s drive from Glacier. Another San Diego friend from my book club , Rosanne, spends the entire summer with her husband Joel in the same area, and has for decades. What was the draw? What would lure people away, summer after summer, from sunny San Diego and the beach?
Although starting in February might seem like plenty of time to plan a trip for August, that was actually rather late. Yellowstone, in particular, is so popular that we had limited choices for lodging. An astounding statistic I ran across recently is that one-third of Americans have visited Yellowstone. It isn’t easy to get to, so that says a lot about the power of this corner of the country.
Monica was a great resource in deciding how to divide our time, and where to position ourselves. She and Charley fly in and out of Salt Lake City, rent a car and meander through these parks each year, winding their way to and from Montana. Based on discussions with her, I decided to schedule ourselves 3 full days each in the Tetons and in Yellowstone, with a day between to transition between parks, which we could spend at either. It would take a day to drive from Yellowstone to Bigfork, where we’d have a day to relax before we all headed to Glacier for 3 full nights, before returning to Bigfork, with a couple of days to spare before heading home.
Saturday, August 22, 2015:
The Grand Tetons: Our first glimpse was a great disappointment-they were completely cloaked in an obscuring halo of smoke. Flying into Jackson, Wyoming, brought Chinese landscape paintings to mind. Instead of evocative peaks ringed with fog, the craggy granite peaks were barely visible, thanks to haze produced by wildfires raging in nearby Washington state.
Almost as surprising was learning the origin of the name. Mountain men and fur-trappers, on the trail of beaver skins for top hats then fashionable in the 1800s, are said to have dubbed 3 adjacent peaks, Les Trois Tetons, the 3 breasts. Presumably, there was a paucity of female company and/or propriety. So, the Grand Tetons…yes, big breasts. I actually speak French, but somehow hadn’t realized the name of this signature range bore any relationship to, say, Hooters. I can now see the derivation of the words “tit” and “teat.” A French breast imaging radiologist friend, Chris, drew this connection even closer when he sent me back his manipulation of one of my Grand Tetons shots:
The town of Jackson is in a flat valley, referred to as Jackson Hole, which is ringed by mountains. It is an attractive Western town, and I can completely see its draw as a chic wintertime ski destination. The Tetons rise up as a startlingly bold backdrop, with no preambulatory foothills on the eastern side. As they were the major attraction, we elected to stay north of town near Jackson Lake, at the Jackson Lake Lodge, to minimize driving back and forth.
We made it just in time for a late dinner at the Mural Room, known for panoramic views of the Tetons, as well as the namesake Rendezvous murals by Carl Roter, which depict the Rendezvous of 1837, an annual gathering of fur-trading companies and trappers, spurred by the hunt for beaver to fuel the craze for beaver fur top hats. Roter was an art professor at Syracuse University, who won a commission sponsored by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to do a large scale mural commission for the Lodge, on the theme “The Fur Traders and Trappers of the Early West.” It was installed in 1959. This commission was a seminal event for Roter, who settled in Jackson after retiring from Syracuse.
For my first meal at the Mural Room, I selected elk, served medium rare with a cherry sauce, with white beans, a delicious end to a long travel day.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Although we overslept, we mobilized quickly, and were out by 6:10 am, still the first car at the Oxbow Bend pull-out. Although the Tetons were still enshrouded in haze, there was mist arising from the Snake River, with ducks drifting downstream.
Back at the lodge, we headed to the diner, sharing corn beef hash and curry tofu scramble. Fortified, and back in the car, we headed south to Jenny Lake. Looking for options to dodge the smoke haze still obscuring the Tetons, we were in search of chapels and visitor center stores, now in search of nasal steroids for Steve’s running nose.
At Chapel of the Sacred Heart, an a cappella choir group of serious-looking young men in suspenders rehearsed this song:
“I’m in love with Jesus, the man of Galilee.
I’m in love with Jesus, and he’s in love with me.”
After touring Menors Ferry site and the Chapel of the Transfiguration, we admired the contemporary architecture of the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, and took a short walk from there to the homestead of an important conservationist family, the Muries.
Monday, August 24, 2015
After shooting the sunrise at Oxbow Bend, we headed to the Jenny Lake boat shuttle at 8 am for the short hike to Hidden Falls. For a while, we had the falls to ourselves. Heading back when the light was spent, the crowds emerging from breakfast had swollen the line waiting to board the boat.
We rewarded ourselves for our industry with an early lunch at Jenny Lake Lodge, fried brussel sprouts with cranberries and sunflower seeds, parsnip soup and grilled watermelon salad for me, and buffalo burger for Steve.
After recharging with an afternoon nap, we walked up behind Jackson Lake Lodge to check out the vantage from Lunch Tree Hill. Back at Oxbow Bend for the sunset, we were rewarded with competing subjects, with first one, then another, then a group of deer across the river quietly supping, while the sunset heated up with orange lenticular cloud accenting the blue silhouettes of the Tetons.
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
After some negotiation, we headed south for sunrise to Jenny Lake. On the way, I caught a glimpse of tall haunches and antlers, bringing us to an abrupt halt. Three elk were feeding in the pre-dawn glow of a pink sky. We had hopes momentarily of strong silhouettes against the vivid colors, but the untimely passage of several more vehicles seemed to spook the elk, who quickly retreated out of range of our lenses.
At the Jenny Lake overlook, we were thrilled to find the parking lot empty, save for one other truck. Crowd avoidance in the national parks dovetails well with a nature photographer’s natural predilection to shoot early and late, in search of low angle, beautiful light and softer shadows.
The schedule can be grueling: rising at 5:30 or so, depending on the time of sunrise and the distance to the intended site. We want to be there early enough to stake a claim for prime spots, and to be set up and ready when the light sweetens.
We had to scoot under a barricade closing off a partially collapsed trail segment leading down to the water’s edge to evade the tall lodgepole pines blocking the sharply etched peaks and their reflections on the still surface of the lake.
The solitary other admirer was probably lonely, striking up a conversation with: “What’s the best time to take photos?” Concentrating hard, trying to be polite but not encouraging, I responded: “Whenever the light’s good…usually early and late.”
Back across Jenny Lake via boat, we hiked up to Inspiration Point, a steady but beautiful climb through a fragrant forest of towering pines, to above the treeline, with a view across the lake. The views up Cascade Canyon were gorgeous.
Tinkling accompanies us on our hikes, as our packs are newly adorned with a regional accouterment: bear bells. This hike was only marred by an unfortunate incident, an inadvertent wilderness faux pas. We could clearly hear the falls from Inspiration Point. Taking my pack off at an overlook, I swung it around to reach for the camera, sending my $40 canister of bear repellent sailing down into the abyss. There wasn’t much question of trying to climb down and retrieve it, I didn’t even hear any contact sounds below. Oops…
We had enjoyed our lunch so much the day before that we returned to Jenny Lake Lodge. We were sadly disappointed, having to reject burnt brussel sprouts. The grilled watermelon salad I had loved the day before was devoid of pistachio brittle and even the namesake watermelon was not in abundance. Evidently, the B team was manning the kitchen that day.
Steve’s nose drove us down to Jackson in search of nasal steroids (how many times do we have to learn this lesson: always travel with allergy medicines, even if you’ve never been there before!).
Wednesday, August 26, 2015
Our early morning shoot at local favorite Oxbow Bend was cloudy without much color, but the mountains were the most sharply etched in outline yet and the water’s surface was still. Having had to wait for the smoke to clear to actually see the peaks, we had really come to appreciate their drama when it did.
Lest this post never be finished and published, our transfer to Yellowstone seems a natural place to wrap this up. No surprise, we loved what we came to call “America’s Patagonia.” The dramatic thrust of the Tetons as seen from Jackson Hole is visually compelling and I dream of returning to see it dressed in fall color. Coming soon, posts on Yellowstone, including that signature thermal symbol, Old Faithful, and wildlife (buffalo, pronghorn and bears, oh my!). Stay tuned,