I was hung over, hugging a pillow riding shotgun as we zig-zagged the border of Wyoming and Idaho along the Snake River. We’d made friends the night before in Park City and were a little worse for ware heading toward Jackson.
It was Independence Day and we got held up in a parade of rifle carrying four-wheelers twenty miles from town. On the Snake, rafting charters were running the rapids. Fishermen cast dry flies from dories. Whitewater smacked against rocky outcroppings hanging from the pine forests above. My Wyoming dream was emerging from my Utah hangover. For years I’d wanted to visit western Wyoming. To me it was the ideal example of the west: huge craggy mountains, gorgeous canyons and prairies covered in green grass and loamy soil. Having lived in Vermont and California, Wyoming seemed like something of both.
Outside of town we stopped for lunch at The Bird, known for its burgers and beer. Posting up at the frontier style bar, we knew the mountains were close. After a great burger and an IPA I was feeling good. We’d arrived in the Tetons.
After lunch, heading toward Jackson Hole Mountain Resort it started to downpour and through the sheets of rain and low clouds, the Tetons came into view. To be cheesy I had “Blame it on the Tetons” playing on the stereo. So many times at several points in my life I’d listen to it and dream of gazing upon them in person. They were a place I’d imagine being when I wanted to escape where I was living or what I was doing or the problems I had. Seeing them in person I wailed. I laughed uncontrollably as salty tears ran over my lips. I was beside myself.
We’d booked a room at Jackson Hole Resort’s Hotel Terra for the Forth and fireworks celebration in anticipation of scoring a site at Grand Teton National Park’s most popular campground, Jenny Lake, the following morning. The grounds are tent only and offer plenty of wilderness and privacy along the shore or an idyllic mountain lake with saber tooth Tetons rising behind it.
Jackson Hole Resort lies just a few miles from the park and there is a long paved route in as well as a shorter dirt road. We took the dirt road and were almost instantly transported into a lush wilderness. In a few miles we crossed babbling creeks, saw deer in a wildflower meadow and meandered through green forests, all under the towering Cathedral Group, gouging the skyline. Pulling into the Jenny Lake Campground, two young ladies were packing up the last of their gear and I asked if I could swoop in. Mission Accomplished.
Of all the places we’d stayed in the past few weeks along the road trip, nothing compared to Wyoming, to Jackson Hole, to Grand Teton National Park, to Jenny Lake. It’s a sensational place, better known than read, and we sighed a breath of relief that we could relax for the next week in such a setting as summer kicked off.
We set up camp casually as morning grew into afternoon. We met our neighbors, the Turners. It was their 40th anniversary and they were up from Texas, reliving the trip they enjoyed together forty years prior on their honeymoon. We read, played dominos, had some beer and snacks. Car camping has a slew of disadvantages but today, here, it was pretty damn sweet.
We grabbed our bikes and started down the paved pathway that edges along the lake and beyond. Teton has a phenomenal bike path that runs through the park all the way to Jackson. We rode north along the lake to where the pavement ends and a small trail continues on. We found a private nook on the water and watched the sun skewer itself on the high peaks across the lake.
In the morning we had plans to hike into Cascade Canyon on the opposite side of the lake. Cascade Canyon is a stunning alpine valley and it’s trail connects to several links including the popular Paintbrush Canyon Loop. We were in for an out and back, allowing us to climb into the canyon as much as we pleased before turning back.
The trailhead for Cascade Canyon can be hiked to from Jenny Lake Campground via a 4 mile lakeside trail, however most, including Alli and I, take the scenic ferry ride across. A round trip ticket costs $15 and the boat leaves every fifteen minutes. It takes about fifteen minutes to cross the lake and it’s a fun way to start a hike. The dock is a mob scene of visitors clamoring to get off the boat and up the trail. There’s also just as many more trying to do the opposite. There’s posts and rope dividing the trail into lanes to direct traffic. There were lots of kids tearing at vegetation, flip flops and single serving water bottles for the first mile up to Inspiration Point. It was a drag and made me think twice about being on such a popular path but it thinned out quickly. The popularity of our National Parks is a double edged sword.
Inspiration Point gazes across Jenny Lake and the “hole” which Jackson Hole refers to, a wide plain spanning east from the mountains. A vast view it is but not exactly inspirational compared to the rest of Grand Teton’s offerings 180 degrees away. Hidden Falls is the real star of this immediate area, a wide, rushing waterfall feeding the lake. This is where most turn back and also where the real beauty of Cascade Canyon begins to reveal itself.
From Inspiration Point the trail climbs up a craggy ledge before bending west into the canyon. The canyon is a wide lush area of shrubs along a slow section of the Cascade Canyon Creek. The trail moves at a level grade and edges around a long field of scree to the right as the canyon narrows and the river picks up pace. Mt. Owens and Teewinot make up the left hand canyon barrier, sharp contours dressed in deposits of snow in the July heat.
Up the trail the canyon widens again, as well as the river, feeding several boggy ponds. We named this section Moose Alley, appearing to be the perfect habitat for them. The trail enters one of the many pine forests that drape the canyon. In the shady trees we saw our first Wyoming moose. There was a female and two juveniles grazing in the woods and a slew of hikers whispered and snapped photographs around us. We got a few of our own shots and continued on.
The trail of crushed white rock continues at level incline along the wide river. The walls of mountains in every direction appear even more severe from up close. Wild springs of runoff shoot through the rock with spitting waterfalls, too frequently to count. The canyons namesake reputation was alive and performing.
The trail climbs and the river speeds up. We walked through more sweeping forests and glacier sprays, scree fields and long meadows. We passed one meadow, bright green polka dotted with yellow dandelion. We remarked how perfect a setting it would be to see a bear and carried on.
After seven miles we stopped for lunch at a hidden cliff along the river. In the bushes like bears we ate. Not far from our lunch spot, there is a bridge crossing the creek which signifies the turnaround for most day hikers in the canyon. Again, one can make this hike as long or as short as they desire. We turned back down the canyon.
Shortly down the trail we reached a small pile up of hikers. They stood frozen except for stopping us as we moved to pass. There was a black bear plodding up the trail and they were stopped thirty yards from it. We watched as he lumbered up the trail toward us before turning into the very dandelion dotted field we had imagined seeing one in on the way up. He acted as if no one were around, pausing just once to acknowledge the attention before heading down toward the river out of sight.
We continued down the canyon and were soon back at Moose Alley. Again we came upon hikers, a few setup on top of a fifteen foot boulder, cameras in hand. There were two moose wading in the pond fifty yards away. The habitat is almost cliché and the moose obviously agree.
Rounding down the canyon we recounted all we’d seen: a garter snake, five moose, a bear, a marmot, several bird species and insects galore. Such wildlife set among a most dramatic landscape of mountain, river, forest and open canyon. After fourteen miles we were practically skipping down to the boat dock.
On board, headed for home, there was a meltdown. A lady was crying and yelling at her husband. Gleaned from the back and forth, she was abandoned on the trail side of the lake. She had been separated from her husband and two children around Hidden Falls and due to miscommunication about some going to Inspiration Point and where to meet, her family all went back across the lake to the parking lot without her, her husband finally buying another ticket to go find her long afterwards. She was making a hell of a scene but her husband wasn’t doing himself any favors, mostly explaining why it was her fault during his moments to speak between screams. The entire boat was having a time taking it all in. We all snickered and looked awkwardly at one another. I felt bad for her. What did her family think, she took the boat back alone? Regardless it was a funny cap to a great hike. I saw the whole family reunited in the parking lot an hour later and they all seemed to be trying to make it up to her the best a couple teenagers and a dumbass husband can.
We were beat and drove up to Jackson Lake to buy some beers at the Signal Mountain Lodge. Back at camp we rode our bikes down past the docks where we met the boat and found to a private inlet on the lake. With tired, red faces we waded in the cold water drinking icy beer. It was a perfect end to the day, watching a kayak glide across the water in the silent distance as the sun went down. Soon they were out of sight and all was calm and sooty blue.
During our beer run up to Jackson Lake we strolled down to the water to check out a patch of lupine that were the most outrageously bold indigo. On the shores we stumbled upon a boat rental shack. During our evening drinks we decided to rent a small dingy and run around the lake for the day. There are several rental options from canoes to large deck cruisers. We opted for a fifteen foot dingy with an engine of about a dozen horses. A full day rental cost us $185 or you can opt for a $42/hour rate.
After a quick once over of the boat with the harbor master we were off, full bore around Donoho Point and out onto the open lake. The mountains spread out before us in a wide panorama, anchored by the ringleader, Mt. Moran at 12,605’. They are huge and surge directly from the shoreline. The lack of crumbling foothills to shroud thousands of feet of mountain is what makes the Tetons so impressive to the eye. Among the most youthful mountains in the world, they are still growing and are as sharp as a stalk of fresh grown grass.
The smaller fishing boats are only allowed to travel south of Elk Island but there is plenty of lake within those boundaries We drove full speed for twenty minutes and weren’t halfway across. We stopped in the middle of the lake to have a snack and cast a line. I threw on a bunch of sinkers and let my trout lure sink for a couple minutes but came up skunked. We continued on, touring around the shores of Elk Lake, looking for a shady area for lunch. The banks on the backside of the island were steep and sandy so we ate in the boat and motored on.
I’d heard the fishing was good at the mouth of the Moran Creek at the far end of the lake to the west. After twenty minutes of cruising we were in Moran Bay where the rocky river flows into the lake. There was one boat fishing right against the mouth and I backed off a bit. I fished for thirty minutes or so and only came away with a couple nibbles.
We toured on to the far south point of Moran Bay, running the boat ashore on a small tip behind Grassy Island. We explored the shore a bit, a marshy woodland, admired some birds and drank a beer. In search of an idyllic beach, we didn’t linger long and were back in the boat, planing across the lake.
We arrived in Bearpaw Bay to the south and found what we were looking for, a long, quiet beach at the fringe of a dense forest. As we sailed ashore, a bald eagle cut into view, soaring from above the trees and out over the water, before peeling off with the contour of the coast. We named the shore Bald Eagle Beach. Twenty minutes later he made another pass, moving back into the woods.
We lounged, read, took pictures, strolled and explored for a couple hours. We took shade after being on the baking boat for hours already. We took deep, deep breaths. Resting on a private shore on Jackson Lake, Grand Teton was revealing itself once again as a sacred habitat. I made condolences for the gas I used to tool around the lake in order to arrive here but was honored nonetheless. The energy of the wilderness was abundant.
Afternoon was waning and we made moves back to Signal Mountain. As we rounded the point of Bearpaw Bay, perched upon the naked top of a dying pine tree, the highest on the shore, was the bald eagle. I pulled up the engine and we drifted as close to shore as we could to have a look. He stood with all the qualities we make up about eagles: pride, majesty, regality. It was all embodied and we ooh'ed and ahh'ed with the usual clichés.
It was a thirty minute ride back to shore. The waves had picked up considerably and what was a smooth cruise in the morning was a bit of a white knuckle affair the way home. I had hoped to hug the shore but in order to stay perpendicular with the waves I was boring straight through the middle, skipping across the water between waves. Out in front of Spalding Bay, far from every shore, the waves reached their worst, but Donoho Point, which guards the harbor, was appearing closer and closer. Ten minutes later we were pulling into the docks safely.
After a long day on the water we were beat and famished. We were already at the lodge and took full advantage. We pulled up to the bar and ordered tall glasses of beer followed by chicken wings, cheeseburgers and ice cream sundaes. After eating camp food everyday it was a satisfying end to a fantastic day. Smiling with gluttony we wandered to the car and back to Jenny Lake.
Being early July, the wildflowers were bursting. After two long days back to back we wanted a gentle hike through some prime wildflower country. At the Jenny Lake Ranger Station, a ranger suggested the three mile round trip up to Taggart Lake. The trailhead was only a few miles from Jenny Lake and we had trail underfoot in no time. Walking across the dusty flatland toward the climb, we watched a train of pack horses cross the landscape with the Grand towering overhead. Of course everything in Wyoming had been quintessential to this point but that scene certainly encapsulated, at least what an outsider thinks of as, nutshell Wyoming.
The trail starts climbing, quickly reaching a wide bridge with Taggart Creek raging beneath it. The riverbed falls at the steepest angle a river can be without being called a waterfall.
The hike is quite gentle leaving plenty of concentration to peer around for bright colors jumping from the scene. We counted nineteen species of wildflowers along the trail toward the lake. The path offers insane views of South, Middle and Grand Teton, Mt. Owen and Teewinot, the Cathedral Group, weaving through a wide unobstructing meadow before eventually reaching the lake. Taggart Lake is a fine alpine lake and even after five days growing jaded by the beauty of the Tetons, it is a site to remark on. Big mountain views, intimate nooks with grassy shores, boulders hovering in the water, it’s all there. We followed the trail around the lake and found the strangest site, dozens of trout convening in a dense frenzy in only a few inches of water. It was unsettling, the fish looking almost sickly, black and fat and writhing in the shallows. It later occurred to me that these trout were likely spawning, a unique site in a mountain lake under Grand Teton.
After the hike we grabbed our bikes and rambled back to our secret spot along the shore past the docks. We cracked ritual beers and waded into the water for the better part of the afternoon. Riding back to camp, the setting sun dressed the lake in the most stunning light and we were in love, stopped in our tracks. We dropped our jaws and bikes and stood in awe on the log bridge along the lake. It was one of the most beautiful views of my life and the setting was utterly silent. There was no one about but Alli and I and it felt as if the whole scene was a shared hallucination. Even today, when I’m restless or depressed or wanting to run away, I dream of Jenny Lake on that night, when all was perfect.
The next day we got to check out Jackson a bit. I said to Alli, "Could you you imagine running into Jimmy Chin," legendary photographer and Jackon local. Hours later, moseying through an outdoor shop, there he was, trying on sneakers. I was like a shy child and needed thirty seconds of coaxing by Alli before approaching him. I'd seen a ton of celebrities living in Los Angeles but I had never fan-boyed out like this.
"Hey Jimmy, s-sorry to bother you but I just wanted to say I'm a huge fan of all your work," I said nervously.
"Thanks," he said, "What's your name?”
"Oh, Ted." I blurted, "Well, anyway, enjoy your shoes," I said and scrambled away. I had literally fantasized about meeting the guy hours earlier and basically blew it. At least I said hello and have Alli to thank for that.
We hung around Jenny Lake a couple more days before finally packing up and saying goodbye. We were headed for Yellowstone up the road. The Turners had already left for there and we hoped to run into them before our next backcountry adventure. It was difficult to leave and in hindsight should have stayed another week at least, my favorite place in the west, Grand Teton National Park.