Sunday, October 2, 2011

Totally Photoshopped: Grand Teton National Park

When I left Yellowstone, I was kind of exasperated and ready for a little break. So I treated myself to a "cabin" at Colter Bay Village in Grand Teton. It was a real log cabin, but functioned like a free-standing motel room. I was grateful for a bed and a shower and the feeble heater (the cabins were not winterized; the entire "village" shut down for the season while I was there). I was even more grateful for the laid-back attitude in Grand Teton National Park

There aren't really "sights" to see at Grand Teton, except one: the mountains themselves. And you can see the mountains from absolutely anywhere, including every hotel, gift shop, and campground bathroom, so no one clogs the roads with their giant tripods hoping to capture that one amazing shot, like they do with wildlife or thermal features at Yellowstone.

In person, the Tetons look like every postcard you've ever seen, which is to say they look totally fake.

I mean, they really do look like that.
Even when you're sitting in front of them, or hell, sitting in them, they look like a set painting. I took about seventy-five pictures of the damn things, almost none of which are any good, because they look so striking and strange.

The view is also spectacular in the back country. I started with a four-day, three-night trek through a popular series of canyons and passes. The first day was harder than I expected, mostly because I hadn't looked carefully at the elevation gain. Trudging up a couple thousand feet, laden with four days' worth of food and fuel, I kept getting passed by retired British couples on day hikes. They were all refreshingly fit and chipper. In another contrast with Yellowstone, no one seemed surprised to encounter a camper. In fact, after one couple asked the inevitable, "... by yourself?" I got the best response I've ever heard: "Well, you're very good. Right then, on you go!"

Teton has designated camping "zones" where you set up a tent anywhere you like. This makes for neat camping--you feel like you're claiming a little part of the wilderness for yourself. I found a flat spot in a tiny bowl that tipped over a steep edge, giving me a great view of the canyon I'd climbed and the lakes of Jackson Hole.

Fires burning in the valley added a layer of smoky haze on the horizon.
My view to the south
I can't remember the name of the alpine lake below the campsite.
Dawn from my tent
It was as pretty as you'd expect at 10,000 feet. What I did not expect were my constant and very social companions:

Skeeters! ("Mozzies," as another British couple called them.) Clouds of them hummed around my tent all afternoon. Luckily, they quit when temperatures dropped after sunset, so I was able to have dinner and stargaze in peace. Other than the bugs, it was a lovely campsite; I wished I could have stayed another night.

The next morning, it was a short but steep climb to Paintbrush Divide, the first mountain pass. The trail was rubble and snowbanks, but there were lots of other hikers to encourage everyone along, including one guy who was nice enough to take my picture on the way up.

It was warm and sunny every day. Take that, Yellowstone!
Once you're above the treeline, the jagged peaks make you feel like you're in the Himalayas

The trail then went down to pretty Lake Solitude, not far from my next night's camp. It was a short day, so I took it slow.

I camped at the next site for two nights. The first night, it was crystal-clear when the sun went down, so I left the rain fly off the tent. When I briefly woke at about 1:00 a.m., the stars were perfect. Then at about 3:00 a.m., I was awoken by rain sprinkling through the mesh top of my tent. I got up and threw on the rain fly, not even bothering with a flashlight or glasses (which probably wasted more time than it saved). By sunrise, it was clear again.

The next night was perfect for viewing Grand Teton peak and its companion to the east, whose name I didn't catch.

After sunset, even after the pink "alpenglow" left the mountains, they glowed strangely, appearing lighter than the sky behind them long after dark. This picture didn't quite capture it, but it gives you a sense of how unreal it was.

The second day, I day-hiked up Hurricane Pass, a notch in the mountains that takes you to the boundary of the park. Unlike Paintbrush Divide, there was almost no one there, despite it being a popular hike. This is where I saw the moose, plus her unpictured bull companion, chilling in a swampy meadow.

The peak of Grand Teton and a pretty autumn meadow below Hurricane Pass
A series of peaks appropriately known as "The Jaw."
At the top of Hurricane Pass was a flock of ravens. I couldn't tell what they were up to, but they might have been playing with the constant wind that gives Hurricane Pass its name. They would land on a sloping snowbank and kind of hang-glide whenever a gust came up.

On the way back down, I spent like an hour picking huckleberries. I still have some of the sauce in a juice bottle in a cooler.

The way out was a simple, mostly downhill hike back to the valley. While I was in the mountains, all the aspen trees in the valley took the opportunity to turn blazing yellow, which made for a really beautiful next few days.

The very best view of the Tetons is from a little ways away from the Tetons, so I planned one night at a campsite on a point on Jackson Lake, a really easy and flat 5-mile stroll. The night before, I stopped for a beer at the lodge bar by my campground. Because I was alone, I ended up making friends with the bartender and some of the waitstaff. They were very generous with my glass, and my next morning's short and easy hike suddenly became very long and very strenuous. But it was a good, hot day, so I shook it off with a brief swim in Jackson Lake and what I consider a Tyler-worthy fire.

The best time to see the Tetons is sunrise. My campsite was around the bend from the best view, so I woke up before dawn and carried my breakfast-makings out to the lake beach to watch.

I spent the rest of the day making another giant fire and meandering back. That evening, I stopped by the bar again, this time for their decent small plates. While I was there, I struck up a conversation with a couple sitting next to me, the Fendlers, who were about my parents' age. Turned out that the wife, Catlyn, is a poet who got her MFA at Iowa. We talked about writing, traveling, what have you, and the next thing I knew, they'd invited me to join them at the lodge restaurant for dinner. We had a great time, and by the end they were encouraging me to visit them in San Francisco.

That and the good time I had with the bar staff reminded me of another thing I missed in Yellowstone--because I was so annoyed with people, I didn't end up making connections with anyone the way I had in Glacier and now in Teton.

That short hike was the last back country trip I took in the Mountain West, and the last one I'll take on my own for a long time. I'm currently on a civilization break in Salt Lake City, and from here I'll head to the Grand Canyon. More updates soon!

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