Rochelle and I recently returned from a wonderful road trip to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. It was one of those special trips where, on the long drive home, we already started planning for our return. I can still hear the cry of the bear cub who “misplaced” his mom, and the excited voices coming from folks hunched over their scopes who spied wolf cubs romping in the grass. And the wildlife was only part of the story. The skies decided to grace us with a cloud show like I’ve never seen down here in dry, dry California. And we were able to take part in it all, from the comfort of our little Class B Motorhome Charley.
I’m going to break up this story so I can give a little more detail about the two parks. That’s because most stories about the parks shortchange the Grand Tetons in favor of its big brother Yellowstone to the north. But if you’ve ever visited the Grand Tetons, you already know that this is a park that doesn’t take second billing lightly. In fact, it may be my favorite of the two, even rivaling Yosemite for that special “Photographer’s Dreamland” space in my heart.
The Tetons are a long, long, long two day drive from Central California. The first part of the drive is pretty as can be, as you cross over the Sierra Nevada. Things go downhill, in more ways than one, after that. It’s enough to say that Rochelle and I listened to more podcasts than I care to count over the two long days of Interstate driving.
But we finally made it to Jackson, Wyoming, which sits at the south end of the Grand Tetons. Jackson is an upscale tourist town, filled to the brim with summer tourists visiting the parks, and winter tourists taking advantage of the great skiing at nearby Jackson Hole. We didn’t linger in Jackson, but I do have a bit of advice if you’re driving through. On past trips, we ate at several of the restaurants in the “downtown” section. They were okay, but they are crowded, noisy and expensive. This time we ate on the “Fringe” of the town and found where the locals go. Much better atmosphere, far less expensive and great eats. And if you’re going to be in the park for long, make sure to stock up at the local Albertson’s. The store is packed with reasonably priced meals that are really tasty.
But we didn’t stay in Jackson any longer than we had to. Not with those wonderful mountains so close by. The last time we visited was in late summer and the peaks and meadows were dry and turning brown. This time was as different as can be, with snow on the mountains, rushing torrents in the rivers and streams and green, green grass and wildflowers gracing every meadow and hill. It was simply jaw droppingly beautiful.
There are several campgrounds in Grand Teton National Park, and most of them are first-come, first served, so it helps to get to the park in the morning. But in the last couple of weeks in June, getting a space didn’t seem to be a problem. We choose the Colter Bay campground, which is at the northern end of the park. We were camping with family, and they wanted the easy availability of a store, and more importantly, showers. Coulter Bay is a nice, quiet place to stay. Well, it’s only quiet if you stay in the “Non-Generator” areas. The loops of the campground that allow generators were noisy, and not just with the hum of the generators. There were quite a few parties going on as well. In fact, we labeled the inhabitants of the area the “Degenerates”. We didn’t need to use our generator because the combination of driving around the park every day, and Charley’s solar panels charging whenever we parked kept our coach batteries topped off.
One of the best things about the Coulter Bay area is the picnic area right on Lake Jackson. The views are phenomenal and it wasn’t crowded at all. We drove Charley over there for breakfast a couple of times and had the whole place to ourselves. I was able to capture this long exposure shot of the beach without a single person walking through my view – magic!
The main part of the park is the Jackson Hole, a large mountain valley with Jackson at the south end, the Tetons along the west side and Yellowstone to the north. A large loop road circles around the Hole and the Tetons dominate the view from just about anywhere along it. There are some pretty famous views of the Tetons from turnouts along the road. The names are ingrained in most any photographer’s mind; Oxbow Bend, Snake River Overlook and Schwabacher’s Landing might be the most famous, but there are many more. The loop only takes about an hour to complete, so you can circle the whole park at least a couple of times during the day. The light is changing all of the time, especially if there are clouds in the sky, so getting to your favorite spots more than once is a good idea.
The best time to photograph the Tetons is in the morning. The early morning light colors the sky and warms the mountain peaks. If you ever have the chance to photograph the Moulton Barns, you’ll see how the sky can change by the minute. First, if there are any clouds of the sky, you’ll see a wonderful pink light. Then, as the sun comes over the hills behind you, the barns and the Tetons will light up with a warm golden glow. It’s a special sight, but you won’t be seeing it alone. The Moulton Barn view is a very popular place for photographers. It’s best to get there early so you can choose your spot.
Later in the day, I prefer shooting black and white photographs. There isn’t much color in the mountains and trees in the first place, and the strong contrast from the sun just seems to work better with black and white. This shot from the Snake River Overlook is my homage to Ansel’s famous capture from the same spot. Of course, in the 1950’s the trees didn’t cover up so much of the Snake River.
Further up the road you’ll come to the famous Oxbow Bend turnout, where you’ll get a wonderful reflection of Mt. Moran. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get some clouds and still water to go along with it. It’s a great spot, and one worth stopping at time and time again.
There are plenty of places to pull over and take photographers. The Teton Loop is full of turnouts and it’s worth it to stop at them all to see what they have to offer. And remember to look for the interesting angle. Sometimes adding a nice foreground element is just what the doctor ordered.
We had some interesting weather while we were in the Tetons, including some impressive thunderstorms. The best place to view storms, as they cross over the Hole is from the top of Signal Mountain. Signal Mountain is rather deceiving. You don’t really notice it’s there at all, sitting right in the middle of the park. But as you drive up, and up and up, you’ll soon have nearly a 360 degree view of the park. We didn’t linger long at the top of the mountain. For some reason, I think every mosquito in the park decided to come up and enjoy the view with us. Bring your insect repellent.
Before we went, I read that Schwabacher’s Landing was going to be closed for roadwork. I was so depressed, because it is my favorite area in the park. But we lucked out. They had finished the roadwork early and we could drive down the asphalt and gravel road to the banks of the Snake. Why do I like the area so much? Well, not only does it offer another outstanding view of the Tetons, it’s the very first place I saw a beaver working on a beaver dam. And old Mr. Beaver was still there this time, working on a second dam. Busy little guy.
Schwabacher’s Landing is also the only place I had ever seen a moose. The last trip we came upon a female moose resting in the reeds by the river. I was hoping we would see her again this year, but that was wishing thinking. We searched for three days and didn’t find a moose. But our search wasn’t in vain. We got lucky on the morning we were leaving the park.
Here is the most important advice if you want to see wildlife in the parks; if you see a crowd at the side of the road, find a place to pull over and go check it out. Please don’t stop in the middle of the road and hop out of your car, like a lot of people we saw did on several occasions. Nobody appreciates a traffic jam. But if you take the time to park and walk back, you might see something wonderful. As we were leaving the Grand Teton’s, we decided to take one more loop around the park. And as we were passing the Visitor’s Center area, we noticed a crowd staring off into the woods. A quick glance and I could see those massive antlers, antlers that could only belong to a male moose. Yippee!
Unfortunately, the moose was laying down in a dark hallow among the willow trees. Without walking through the woods to get a closer view (a big no no with any wild animal, but especially with moose, which can be very short tempered) we weren’t going to get a shot worth bringing home. So, here’s my second wildlife photography tip – be patient. It took more than an hour of waiting, but that big ol’ moose finally decided to stand up and mosey on down to the river. Worth the wait? You betcha!
At the beginning of this story, I said the best light in the Teton’s was in the morning. But what about sunset? Well, in the Teton’s, the sun goes down behind the mountains. Unless there are some interesting clouds in the sky, all you’ll see are the silhouette of the mountains. But we found that our secret picnic spot in Coulter Bay actually had more of a side view of the Tetons; a view that allowed us to see the peaks lit by the setting sun.
While I was shooting the sunset, Rochelle was practicing a technique called “Focus-Stacking”. It can be really difficult getting both a close, foreground object and a distant background object in sharp focus in a single shot. You can try getting a deep depth-of-field by using a small f/stop, like f/22 and focusing in the middle of the two subjects, but that seldom works if the foreground subject is really, really close. And, in the case of these beautiful Arrowleaf Balsamroot flowers, the wind was moving them far too much to do anything other than shoot fast and ask questions later. So, Rochelle used manual focus, and a large aperture to get a fast shot of the flowers, and then, without changing her exposure settings, she focused on the distant mountains and took a second shot. Finally, she “stacked” the two shots together using Photoshop. If you want to try Focus Stacking yourself, make sure you use a tripod.
Just a few more notes for anyone visiting, and camping, in the park. The Gros Ventre campground is pretty remote, and doesn’t offer the restaurants and showers like Coulter Bay, but I’ve heard reports that moose come through the campground in the morning. And it is the closest campground to the fabulous early-morning view at the Moulton Barns. There is a full-hookup RV campground at Coulter Bay, but they really stack you in. I like people, but I don’t go to the National Parks to be that close to my neighbors. There is a really nice, old-fashioned diner at the Lake Jackson Lodge, but even if you don’t go in to eat, check out the view from the great room. It’s amazing. Plus, it’s the only place around that has wi-fi and it’s even free. If you’re looking for bears, they are most often seen around the Lake Jackson Dam. That’s also appears to be the most popular fishing spot in the park.
If any of you are planning to visit the park soon, I’ll tell you right now that I’m jealous as heck. Even though we just got back, I’m ready to hop in Charley and do it all over again.