The question of "what" to at Grand Teton National Park is relatively easily to answer. The more difficult question is "when" to do it. Here are some thoughts on both those questions from the Traveler.
1. If you're not bound by school or work calendars, head to this majestic setting in mid-to-late September. The air is growing crisp, the crowds are on the wane, and the aspen are beginning to turn a rich golden hue, and their rattling on the breezes is a perfect score to accompany your hike. Plus, animals are increasing on the move in September. Black bears desperate to pack on a few more pounds feast on the lush berry crop found on the road between Moose and Wilson. Bison congregate in the fields that wrap Mormon Row as well as in the pastures on the east side of U.S. 191/26/89 just south of Moran Junction. As with the summer months, fall finds waterfowl -- white pelicans, great blue herons, cormorants, and mergansers -- and if you're sharp-eyed and lucky you might spot bald eagles and osprey in the trees rising over the Snake River. Time your visit and you can attend the Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, which this year runs September 10-20. This event draws scores of artists and their works to Jackson's Town Square.
2. It you can visit in winter and enjoy snowsports, you're timing is impeccable. Though one of the colder spots in the Lower 48 come winter, Grand Teton and nearby Jackson are well-versed with winter. The Teton Park Road is closed to wheeled-traffic, but perfect for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, and if you want to mix a little alpine skiing in there's Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Snow King in the neighborhood. During the winter months rangers lead guided snowshoe hikes from the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center. When the snow starts to fly and you find yourself in Jackson, call 307-739-3399 for details and, if necessary, reservations. Yet another great way to enjoy Grand Teton during the winter months is to plan a side trip to the National Elk Refuge, which offers sleigh rides across the refuge grounds as early as December, snowfall permitting.
3. Visit during the summer months and the task at hand is to avoid the crowds. That's fairly easily done by heading down a hiking trail. True, Cascade Canyon is perhaps the most heavily traveled trail come warm weather, but few folks seem to move on beyond Inspiration Point. If you take this trail, enjoy the view from the point and then push on further up the canyon. In places where the creek pools I've seen moose browsing for a soggy meal. If you prefer not to deal with the elevation gain, head north on the trail that wends its way along the shore of Jenny Lake and continue on to String Lake. Pack a lunch and a swim suit and, if the day is warm enough, enjoy an afternoon along either Leigh Lake or String Lake. Neither allow motorized boats, so you won't have that noise to contend with. Plus, the shallow nature of String Lake makes it perhaps the warmest lake in the park, perfect for a swim. Leigh Lake is decidedly colder.
4. Pitch your tent. The Western national parks are perfect settings to pitch a tent, enjoy a campfire program, and gaze at the stars. If you're not interested in campfire programs and would enjoy a little privacy, the Lizard Creek Campground is for you. True, it's on the very northern end of the park, 32 miles from Moose, which means a long ride if you head to Jackson for dinner, but the setting is serene and uncrowded. Don't want that kind of drive? Then consider the Gros Ventre campground. Don't let the 360 sites intimidate you. Since this campground is on the east side of the Jackson Hole valley, it rarely fills. Pluses at this location: You're close to Jackson, the sites are well-spaced, and the views of the Tetons are intoxicating come sundown or sunrise. Arguably the best campground in the park, and the hardest one to land a site in, is Jenny Lake. There are just 51 tent sites here at the base of the Tetons and on the shore of the lake, and the sites are embraced by conifers and grassy hills. Of course, such a setting comes with a price: during the high summer season find yourself at the campground early -- 7 a.m. might not be too early -- fill out a site registration slip, and be ready to pounce when you see someone vacate a site.
5. Climb those mountains. That's right, don't just look at the Tetons and use them as a backdrop for a photograph, get out there and climb to the top. It's not as daunting an adventure as you might think. If you're in good physical shape, aren't overly intimidated by heights (I am, and still made it to the summit!), then this is a great experience. The well-trained guides at Exum Mountain Guides or Jackson Hole Mountain Guides can get you to the top and back down in one piece. They'll require that you take a two-day climbing school so they can show you the ropes, so to speak, and assess your abilities, and then it's another two-day climb up and back down, so this is definitely something you want to plan for.
6. Paddle your boat. Jenny and Jackson lakes are great places to paddle a canoe or kayak. There's something about being out on the water, away from shore and the crowds with those gorgeous mountains shining down on you, that makes paddling a wonderful part of your Grand Teton vacation. True, you have to pay attention. Afternoon winds do appear and can make your leisurely paddle less than leisurely and even raise some waves that can capsize inexperienced paddlers (so always wear your PFD). But being able to leave shore behind and explore the watery side of the park, with stops planned at islands in Jackson Lake or along the shores of Jenny Lake for lunch or just to stretch your legs is a great time. Experienced paddlers might consider a multi-day navigation of Jackson Lake. There are some nice shore-side backcountry sites for pitching camp, but you'll need permits and reservations, which can be made at the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center. You can find boat rentals at a number of outfitters. Among them: Dornans at Moose and Rendezvous River Sports/Jackson Hole Kayak and Canoe School.
7. Take a hike, a very long hike. The Tetons, despite their steep appearances, offer some superb backpacking. Once you make it to the top you can cruise the Teton Crest Trail for a long weekend or a long week. Again, if you don't feel like gaining that much elevation, there are options to be found along Leigh Lake.
8. Check out Menor's Ferry, where you can learn about the creation of Grand Teton National Park. After your kids can buy stick candy from the mercantile, head to Maud Noble's cabin, where, legend has it, there were discussions about creating a national park in the days when the federal government wasn't trusted much. (Come to think of it, it still isn't...)
9. Stop by the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve. The main structure here is an interpretive center that was the very first platinum-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified building in the National Park System. While this visit center provides great opportunities to learn about the natural world, better still to set out along the 8 miles of trails that wind through the 1,106-acre preserve. While the trails are accessible year-round, the 7,500-square-foot Visitor Center is open only seasonally, from May through September.
10. No matter when you visit Grand Teton, plan a stop at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. This rustic-appearing facility set into the hillside just north of Jackson holds a spectacular collection of Western art. Among the works you'll find here are Catlins, Bierstadts, Russels (Charlie Russell, that is), O'Keefes (Yes, Georgia), and the largest public display of wildlife art by Carl Runglus.
GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK FOUNDATION
Grand Teton National Park Foundation is the park's major friends group. In the past six years this nonprofit has given more than $25 million to the park for education-based capital projects, work and learn programs that reconnect youth to nature, and wildlife research and protection. Among its projects are buying bear-proof food storage boxes for front-country campgrounds, trail restoration work, helping underwrite the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, and funding a Youth Conservation Program that provides summer jobs to high school students who learn conservation work with their own sweat.