No matter how you arrive at the gateway to Grand Teton National Park, at some point the massive snow-covered peaks of what the early French voyageurs called les Trois Tetons will dramatically appear, jutting toward the sky from the valley known as Jackson Hole.
You'll recognize the spires of Grand Teton, Middle Teton and South Teton — or "three breasts," as the cheeky French explorers and fur trappers once called them — by their distinct jagged peaks and steep snow-and-ice-filled gorges known as couloirs.
The mountains of the Teton Range are among the most spectacular in the Northern Rockies. Just a few miles north of the resort town of Jackson, Wyo., Grand Teton National Park is the little sister to America's first national park, Yellowstone. The parks are connected by a 27-mile-long parkway named for John D. Rockefeller Jr. along a 24,000-acre stretch acting as an extension to Grand Teton.
Grand Teton is about a tenth of the size of Yellowstone, which at 2.2 million acres is almost impossible to explore in a single visit. The smaller of the two parks, with its easy access and more intimate size, makes up for its lesser acreage in abundant, accessible recreational opportunities, according to longtime park employee Jackie Skaggs, who arrived in 1976 to work for one of the park's concessionaires and never left.
Now the park's public affairs officer, Skaggs says the combination of scenery, wildlife and recreational opportunities — from hiking to climbing to kayaking to wildlife viewing — make Grand Teton and the parkway an ideal destination for sightseers and adventurers.
"The rugged Teton Range is the Swiss Alps of North America," Skaggs said. "We have charismatic wildlife that range from something like a little pika in the talus slopes in the Teton canyons to the large bison, elk and grizzly bears on the sagebrush flats."
The park's massive peaks, the highest of which rises to 13,770 feet, beckon world-class climbers and adventurers. With more than 20 miles of paved pathways, hundreds of miles of hiking trails, fantastic fishing opportunities and more than 1,000 front-country campsites, Grand Teton appeals to casual vacationers as well as hard-core thrill seekers.
"There is a lot of juxtaposition in the landscape because the mountains are all of the sudden just there, and they are just so big and overwhelming," said Lori Breisinger, of Greensburg, Pa., who visited last June with boyfriend Morgan Smith, of Helena, Mont.
Smith said the towering mountains and gorgeous sunsets reflecting across the mirror-like surface of Jenny Lake created a postcard-like memory of a trip he'll never forget.
"It's a pretty dramatic backdrop for sleeping in a tent next to your car," Smith said.
What makes Grand Teton special, the couple said, is the relative ease in which you can lose crowds and experience the wonderment and solitude of the wilderness on a trail.
"You can pretty quickly get into a place where you feel like you're really deep in the wilderness," Breisinger said.
On a hike in Cascade Canyon, a few miles past popular Inspiration Point on their way to the high alpine Lake Solitude, Breisinger and Smith watched a bull moose graze on aquatic vegetation in a creek-side pond. Farther along, they spotted a cow moose with her calf. "The wilderness is so intimate in Grand Teton," Smith said.