Just south of Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming is one of the most exquisitely beautiful locations in the entire United States. Here serene waters, thick forests, and lush meadows provide a haven for a vast amount of wildlife, all set against the dramatic and jagged peaks of the Teton Range. Although the peaks themselves were first protected in 1929 as Grand Teton National Park, a long series of political battles went on for another thirty years before the pristine surroundings were added to the park.
The Tetons are the centerpiece here, dominated by Grand Teton at 13,700 feet (4197 m). The surrounding peaks of South Teton, Middle Teton, and Mount Owen all approach 13,000 feet (3962 m) as well. They rise dramatically from the low, wide plain of Jackson Hole, a valley 7,000 feet (2134 m) below.
About 100 million years ago this region appeared very different. At that time a vast inland sea inundated a relatively flat area, and over millions of years thousands of feet of marine sediments accumulated over thick igneous and metamorphic basement rocks. Beginning around 70 million years ago tectonic collision slowly uplifted this region. Then around 10 million years ago a different type of tectonic force began to pull the crust apart. As the crust stretched, thinned, and cracked, massive faults began to form in the rock. The Teton Fault is the most significant here, and as the crust pulled apart the floor of Jackson Hole gradually fell in relation to the higher Teton Range. As the rocks separated along the fault, the sides of the mountains exposed the parallel sedimentary beds that had accumulated tens of millions of years earlier.
Over the last two million years alpine glaciers have slowly carved the Tetons into their present shape. Although climate change has reduced their area, they still continue to chip away at the rocks of the Tetons.
To the east of these impressive mountains are an equally impressive variety of lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams. Formed predominantly from the snow melt from the surrounding peaks, these waters nurture dense forests, lush meadows, abundant wildlife, recreation opportunities, and gorgeous scenery.
At nearly 40 square miles (104 square km) in surface area, the largest body of water is Jackson Lake. Boating and fishing are popular activities both here and on Jenny Lake to the south.
The main waterway through the park is the Snake River. In many places it’s lined with sand and gravel bars as well as thick conifers. Beneath the surface the river is teeming with a variety of fish.
These waters are world-renowned for trout fishing. Cutthroat trout (Salmoniformes: Salmonidae: Oncorhynchus clarkii), brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), and lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) draw a number of anglers to the park every year.
The waters of Grand Teton provide habitats for larger animals as well. A number of waterfowl can often be found around Oxbow Bend on the Snake River. Most notable are perhaps Trumpeter Swans (Anseriformes: Anatidae: Cygnus buccinator), the largest waterfowl in North America.
Near the north end of Moose-Wilson Road is a modest pond that moose (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Alces alces) seem to like. The small crowds of onlookers suggest moose gather here on a regular basis.
Farther away from the water, the open meadows provide a home for herds of American bison (Artiodactyla: Bovidae: Bison bison).
Among these grasslands there are also a fair number of pronghorn (Artiodactyla: Antilocapridae: Antilocapra americana). As the fastest land mammals in North America, these animals need the space to run from predators.
More forested areas harbor a large number of elk (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Cervus canadensis). In late summer and autumn mature males can be heard bugling. These mating calls serve to warn competing males and attract females.
Both grizzly bears and American black bears (Carnivora: Ursidae: Ursus americanus) can be found hidden among the thick foliage:
Smaller mammals like chipmunks (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Tamias spp.) also seem to be everywhere.
After each day exploring the geology, scenery, and wildlife of this diverse national park, the Tetons and accompanying lakes stand ready to frame some fabulous sunsets.
It seems odd that Yellowstone National Park just to the north receives about 3.6 million visitors per year, while Grand Teton sees only about 2.6 million. That seems to suggest about one million people per year miss out on the grandeur of Grand Teton in spite of being right next door. It’s sort of a shame since Grand Teton National Park is one of America’s best.