You are here

Seeking Winter Solitude In Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton National Park in winter/Grand Teton Association

Winter is the "quiet" season at Grand Teton National Park/Grand Teton Association

As my wife and I got out of our car in front of the visitor center at Colter Bay, we looked around the expansive parking lot to find--no one there. We were entirely alone at one of Grand Teton National Park's most popular summertime destinations. In just four months, hundreds of cars, trucks, and RVs will fill this and other lots at Signal Mountain, Jenny Lake and Jackson Lake lodges, but this was mid-week in February, and only the heated bathroom at the visitor center was open.

One lone truck was parked nearby at the start of the trail to Swan Lake, our day’s destination. We stepped into our cross-country skis and followed a set of tracks past the deserted marina and into the woods next to Jackson Lake.

Winter is a good time to find solitude in Grand Teton. The park’s campgrounds, lodges and visitor centers are closed, as are three miles of the Moose-Wilson road and a 14-mile section of the Teton Park Road between the Taggart Lake trailhead and Signal Mountain Lodge (see National Park Traveler, Nov. 13, 2017).

For the past five years, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation has sponsored twice-weekly grooming of this latter stretch, including a skate-skiing lane, classic tracks, and a lane for snowshoers and hikers. Pets are even allowed on leash.

Today we were venturing off the groomed track, but we hadn’t reckoned on the icy forest trails, which made the slightest incline seem like a physics experiment in frictionless acceleration. A little of that and we headed down to the frozen shoreline of Jackson Lake, which held a thin skiff of new snow. It also gave us a superlative view of Mt. Moran and the peaks leading south to Grand Teton itself. The morning stratus deck was lifting, revealing the high peaks clothed in their winter mantle. Cold hands fumbled with cameras, but mostly we smiled and took in the view.

Cross-country skiing on the Teton Park Road in Grand Teton National Park/NPS

Thanks to the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, the Teton Park road is groomed for cross-country skiing/NPS, Jackie Skaggs

This past winter in Jackson Hole has been strange--that was the word people in town were using. Snow would accumulate like it always does in this high mountain basin, but then a warm, windy spell would strip most of it off. When we arrived, the hills around the town of Jackson were bare, and as we drove north into the park the slim covering of white didn't begin to conceal the sagebrush along Antelope Flat. The storm track this winter has favored the Northern Rockies in Idaho and Montana, but snowpack in Wyoming remains spotty, thanks to the unaccustomed warm spells.

After skiing half-a-mile along the lakeshore, we put on climbing wax and made our way up the glazed trail to Heron Pond. No herons there--it was solidly frozen over. We continued over a low hill to Swan Lake, where, true to its name, a lone trumpeter swan ran over the crusted snow and took flight. It had been hanging out at an open stretch of the outlet creek but fled at our noisy, ski-scraping arrival. I felt bad for interrupting its rest, but there were miles of creek farther from the trail where it would not be disturbed.

After returning to the car, we tried the groomed trail that extends south from Signal Mountain Lodge. Gliding on our classic (read old) touring skis, we found it a delightful contrast to the icy trails up in the woods. We met only three other skiers on the road, and with no snow machines or snow coaches allowed in the area, the stillness was almost overpowering. Few creatures other than squirrels and ravens were about, although the tracks of coyotes and snowshoe hares showed them engaged in their ancient dance of pursuit and evasion.

Skiing across Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park/NPS

A gentle breeze stirred in the lodgepole pines, and only the occasional jet airplanes flying in and out of the nearby airport reminded us of the busy world we had left behind.  We were thankful that the National Park Service had seen fit to reserve the road and surroundings for foot travelers, sparing us the drone of machinery that fills winter roads and trails outside the park.

Late that afternoon, resting at the edge of a sunny meadow south of Signal Mountain, we watched as lenticular clouds materialized above the peaks, then drifted eastward to be shredded into strange shapes. Soon plumes of blowing snow erupted from Buck Mountain and Mount Wister, indicating the approach of a winter storm. Reluctantly, we returned to the car and headed back to Jackson on the near-deserted parkway. The setting sun lent a rosy tint to Sheep Mountain in the Gros Ventre Range off to the east. We remarked how different the park looks in winter--more like the Jackson Hole we imagined existed in the 1920s, when ranches dotted the valley. Thin as the snow cover was, it had seemingly taken the park out of the modern age and thrust it back to an earlier time.

A cozy room awaited us in town, but my thoughts were on the families who “wintered over” in Jackson Hole in earlier days. They faced months of bitter cold, blowing and drifting snow, and thaws that created dangerous ice crusts for their livestock. This was the American West before it became an adventure destination. A few of the homesteader-era sites are preserved in the park, such as the cabin which John and Margaret Cunningham built near Spread Creek in 1888. In the 1920s, after falling cattle prices rendered stock raising unprofitable, they circulated a petition proposing a federal buyout of ranches to form a new recreation area. Meetings with area ranchers and dude ranch operators gave impetus to the creation of the original Grand Teton National Park in 1929. It included the range’s main peaks and the lakes lying at their base, but not the valley’s ranch lands.

Cross-country ski map of Grand Teton National Park/NPS

There are plenty of options for cross-country skiing in Grand Teton/NPS

The larger park we know today would await John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s secret land acquisition efforts, which he began in 1927 after visiting Jackson Hole with his wife Abigail and their three children, accompanied by Horace Albright, who was superintendent of Yellowstone National Park at the time. The Rockefellers fell in love with the valley and its dramatic mountain backdrop, but were concerned about the haphazard tourist developments that were springing up on private lands. Encouraged by Albright, who hoped to greatly expand the park, Rockefeller organized the Snake River Land Company to quietly purchase many of the old ranch spreads. Aided by President Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial national monument proclamation in 1943, final park designation by Congress was achieved in 1950, following a campaign that the Park Service describes as “20 years of bitter debate, nearly tearing apart the Jackson Hole community.”

On the drive back to Jackson after our second day in the park, I reflected on how we were among the beneficiaries of this difficult campaign. Tourism has long since replaced cattle ranching as the economic mainstay of Teton County, Wyoming, with visitors to the park contributing nearly $600 million annually to gateway communities on both sides of the Teton Range, according to the National Park Service. The town of Jackson has joined Aspen, Telluride, Park City, and similar mountain resorts as a high-end vacation destination, driving real estate prices through the roof. On our drive up from Salt Lake City we stayed in Star Valley, Wyoming, at the home of a young man who commutes an hour and a half each day to his job in Jackson. Our hosts in town, too, lamented the lack of affordable housing and the high prices that are a part of life there.

Something else was also on my mind as we sped through the fading late-afternoon light. I thought about that lone swan by its little pocket of open water and how it, too, faced winter’s challenges. Much as I appreciated the quiet solitude in the Teton front country, these and other creatures are the real beneficiaries of the national park—the swans, herons, moose and coyotes down on the flats, plus the ravens, Clark’s nutcrackers and bighorn sheep higher up on the snowy slopes. I wondered how their behavior might be affected as winter tourism increases in the park.

The Park Service’s decision not to allow snow machines in the park helps preserve the stillness these creatures need, but even foot-powered humans can interfere with animals that are under winter stress. Backcountry skiing is becoming increasingly popular in the park, and at the Taggart Lake trailhead dozens of enthusiasts were heading for the high slopes, spreading the human presence far from the road. Several mountain peaks that provide winter range for bighorn sheep are closed to human entry, as well as the Snake River bottom from Moran Junction down to Moose and a stretch of the Buffalo Fork upstream from Moran. Still, as year-round visitation increases, park managers and biologists will need to pay close attention to how the park’s wildlife are faring.

On our last day in Grand Teton, we took advantage of a four-inch snowfall to ski north from the Taggart Lake trailhead toward Jenny Lake. An early-to-rise skier had left a set of tracks for us, but we ran out of time before reaching the lake. All around us was a fresh white blanket, while the high peaks, so resplendent from this road on a clear day, remained shrouded in the cold mists. Again we saw no one until we turned around and began encountering others who were out to enjoy another glorious day in the park. There was a mix of local and out-of-state license plates in the parking lot, and we chatted with two older gentlemen from Virginia who were on a week’s ski adventure in Jackson, mixing downhill runs at the resorts with days on the groomed cross-country trail.

Like all of our visits to the West’s national parks and monuments, the trip bought us soul-filling refreshment that we would savor as we returned to our lives in the city. What really filled me with peace, however, was knowing that the creatures who spend all year in this park will live out their lives as their ancestors did. The cattle ranches are all but gone from Jackson Hole, but the difficult years of the 1920s and 1930s have left us with something a great many of us, whether human or nonhuman, can rightfully treasure.

Environmental historian Frederick H. Swanson writes from his home in Salt Lake City, Utah. His book Where Roads Will Never Reach: Wilderness and Its Visionaries in the Northern Rockies was reviewed in the Winter 2017 edition of  Traveler's Essential Park Guide.

Please Support Independent National Park Journalism

Use the links below to make your donation to National Parks Traveler via PayPal, or send your check to National Parks Traveler, P.O. Box 980452, Park City, Utah, 84098. The Traveler is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit media organization. For U.S. residents, 100 percent of your contributions may be eligible for a tax deduction in accordance with applicable law. 

Featured Article

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

National Parks Traveler's Essential Park Guide