The Essential Grand Teton
* This sky-scraping park holds up western Wyoming's border, soaring to nearly 14,000 feet at the tip of the Grand Teton. While the young crags with their snowfields hold your eye, there's much more to do in this park than grab a rope and ice axe and climb to the roof. There's the Snake River for angling and paddling, a string of shimmering lakes nestled at the base of the Tetons, hiking trails that allow you to escape the crush of humanity, and rich wildlife resources to spot. And where would you find a more beautiful spot to study geology?
* As with its northern neighbor, Yellowstone, the prime tourist season in Grand Teton is July and August, thanks mainly to school schedules. But if you're flexible, September and even early October are spectacular times to be in the park. Aspen glades begin to turn to gold in mid-September, while bull elk are anxious to form their harems and can be heard bugling in the evening and again around dusk if you go out into the park. By now early frosts will have taken care of most of the pesky insects, and the cooler day-time temperatures make for ideal hiking weather. Winter can be bone-achingly cold and snowy, but if you prepare properly the snowshoeing and cross-country skiing possibilities are spectacular.
* If you can only squeeze in one hike, Cascade Canyon on the far side of Jenny Lake can't be beat. Yes, it can be crowded in the summer...if you linger around Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, both which fall within the first mile of the trail. But if you press on beyond these areas you'll climb higher into the backcountry, leave the crowds behind, find some small pools of the creek that occasionally lure moose, and enjoy breathtaking views. To reach the trailhead, you can either hike around Jenny Lake or take a boat shuttle across. If you're a strong hiker with all day to burn, a good goal to reach is Lake Solitude, which lies along the North Fork Cascade/Lake Solitude Trail that intersects the Cascade Canyon Trail at a backcountry patrol cabin. Mileage for this option is nearly 19 miles, roundtrip.
* Picking the best adventure in Grand Teton is easy. That'd be to summit the Grand Teton, which peaks out at 13,770 feet. You'll need a backcountry permit for this, and if you're inexperienced you'll want to hook up with either Exum Mountain Guides or Jackson Hole Mountain Guides. They'll test your skills with two days of climbing school, and if they deem you competent enough they'll guide you to the summit, conditions allowing.
* Where are the best places in the park to view wildlife? In August and early September, the Moose-Wilson Road is pretty reliable for black bears, as they come to feast on the tasty hawthorn berries. The bruins are so fixated on gorging themselves that they pretty much ignore the cars on the road. Just remember that they're wild bears and keep your distance. Moose are often seen early in the morning and in the evening in Willow Flats right behind Jackson Lake Lodge. The Oxbow Bend stretch of the Snake River also is famous for its bird-life -- white pelicans, trumpeter swans on occasion, osprey and even eagles. I've also seen otters frolicking on the river banks here, as well as moose.
* How do you keep your kids happy in Grand Teton? If it's the middle of summer and hot, head to String Lake for a dip in the refreshing water. Because of its shallow nature, this lake is probably the warmest in the park for swimming. If your kids are confident teens, consider enrolling them in a climbing course. It'll expose them to a great outdoor activity and possibly heighten their self-esteem. Signing on for a raft trip down the Snake is another option, as is renting a boat, canoe or kayak and taking to one of the lakes.
* As with most Western parks, an easy way to flee the crowds is to take a hike. Fewer and fewer folks these days seem interested in walking out into the landscapes of these magnificent parks, and so often you can feel as if you own the entire place! To avoid campground hordes, consider pitching your tent or camper at the Lizard Creek Campground on Jackson Lake near the northern end of Grand Teton. Yes, this is a good distance from Jackson, but it's a beautiful lake-front location that lures few.
* The best dinner without leaving the park would be at the Mural Room at Jackson Lake Lodge. The view of the Tetons and Jackson Lake is one of the best in the national park system, and the food isn't bad, either, whether you choose venison or bison, trout or pasta. If you head into Jackson, try the Old Yellowstone Garage, which exhibits Italian influences in its cooking style.
* Hands down, the best breakfast in the park is to be found in the Pioneer Grill in the Jackson Lake Lodge. This grill was caught in a time warp in the 1950s: you sit at the chrome counter atop swivel seats
and your eyes feast on the historic photos of the park on the walls while you eat. Servings are huge and prices reasonable.
* While you can find more expensive rooms in the park, I like the Patio Cottages that spread out from Jackson Lake Lodge. They're comfortable and the small patios perfect for an evening picnic. Just be sure to request one with a view of the Tetons. Of course, it'll set you back about $270 a night.
* The best bargain lodging can be found at Colter Bay Village in the log cabins there. These are tidy lodgings with a decidedly rustic feel, courtesy of the log walls. Reasonable priced ($129 for a one-room cabin with two double beds and one twin, $165 a night for a two-room cabin that sleeps up to nine) and comfortable, the only real drawback is that they can get pretty hot during the summer, as there's no air-conditioning.