I’m not sure what part of experiencing Grand Teton National Park was my favorite. Seeing the mountain range with the most gorgeous blue sky backdrop, glimpsing a mama grizzly bear with four cubs running along behind her, spotting a cow moose lumbering into a marshy woods. This park was everything I hoped it would be and more.
We managed to time the weather just right and had a beautiful day driving the Teton Park Road Loop, stopping at the various pulloffs along the way. We were staying at Colter Bay so we started the loop from the north, heading clockwise in an attempt to see as much as we could while the sun was lighting up the mountain range in the west.
Our first stop was Oxbow Bend Overlook, which is supposed to be an ideal location for spotting wildlife. In addition to watching the clouds blow across the summit of Mount Moran, I was shocked to make out an American white pelican in the distance on the Snake River!
“Considerably larger than a bald eagle,” these massive birds live and breed in the North American interior before migrating to the coast and south in winter. Their white feathers create a sharp contrast with all of the green and blue of the landscape. I’ve only ever seen a brown pelican so I was thankful we had our binoculars and long camera lens to get a better view of this guy!
Another favorite wildlife spotting was a little further south near Elk Ranch Flats Turnout where I was sure I had glimpsed something moving in the distance.
We pulled over and scanned the fields in the distance until I spotted them — a female pronghorn and her baby! Even with the telephoto lens zoomed as far as it would go, we could only just make them out, wandering around and eating breakfast.
As I took my first photo, the female antelope looked up and directly at me. Brian estimates we were more than 500 yards away and somehow she heard my shutter click. She stared across this vast field at me and then suddenly she and her baby took off running. Incredible.
We briefly stopped at the J.P. Cunningham Cabin, which is the oldest historic building remaining in the park. According to the park website: “In the 1880s, John and Margaret Cunningham staked a claim for the Bar Flying U Ranch. Cunningham built his cabin in 1888 in the Appalachian style, commonly called ‘double-pen’ or ‘dog-trot.’ John lived in the cabin until 1895 when he finished his main residence, and it later became a smithy and barn.”
We had the place to ourselves and took time to read the informational plaques before making our way down a muddy trail to the cabin. Even I had to duck to get inside — it’s very small, and I can’t imagine having lived there given the severity of the winter months. That said, I would probably give it a go in order to wake up and fall asleep looking out on that view of the Tetons.
We stopped briefly at Snake River overlook to compare our view with the one captured by Ansel Adams in his iconic picture.
The trees have grown such that you can’t recreate the shot exactly, but it’s a beautiful area and no wonder he would have taken time to photograph it.
As the morning wore on we started to encounter more people at the various pulloffs we were visiting. This was especially the case at Schwabacher’s Landing, which surprised me given we had to veer off onto a winding gravel road and down to a somewhat hidden parking lot near the riverbank.
This would be a beautiful spot for a picnic — there was a trail along the river and several benches where people had stopped to admire the view. There were even a few people who had simply brought along their own folding chairs and were sitting outside the back of their vehicles looking out over the water and mountains.
We were able to get away from the crowds long enough for a few unmasked pictures before continuing south.
Another often photographed spot in the park — for good reason — is Mormon Row, and specifically the Moulton Barns off of Antelope Flats Road.
This was also a busy spot so we parked, pulled on our masks, and then traveled by foot to the historic barns and homesteads.
First we walked south along the road to Thomas Alma Moulton’s gable-with-shed style barn that took him 30 years to build. Then we relocated north to see his brother John Moulton’s two-story gambrel barn. While you can’t go inside, there are informational plaques around to learn more about homesteading and how the Mormon Row community functioned.
The southern Moose entrance to Grand Teton National Park is where many people enter, including those who fly into Jackson and head north into Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
While we were only passing by as we continued our loop drive north, it was easy to see how impressive it is to enter from this direction with the mountain range guiding you north into the park. We also spotted a couple deer just inside the official park entrance.
We briefly stopped at Meynors Ferry Historic District and the Chapel of the Transfiguration to learn a bit more about pioneer life. This area of the park was much busier, and a well-maintained bike trail along the road introduced a whole new group of people there to explore the park.
While the church and other buildings were closed due to COVID-19, we were able to walk the short loop trail by the replica of the ferry that crossed the Snake River and view the outsides of the cabin and general store.
We pulled over at Teton Glacier turnout for a picnic lunch and then drove north to Jenny Lake overlook via the one-way scenic loop drive.
We didn’t stay long — it was impossible to find parking and the place was swarming with people. It was a beautiful viewpoint, but we weren’t going to join the crowds. We took a few photos and then continued on our drive, excited to hike around the lake the following day of our trip.
One of my favorite spots along the loop drive was Signal Mountain. We pulled off onto an unassuming road that sharply winds five miles to the 7,000+ foot summit. There were two parking areas on either side of the mountain offering incredible views of the valley to the east and the mountain range to our west.
I highly recommend taking time to stop here, especially on a clear day, to get a full, uninhibited, panoramic view of the park.
The last stop of our loop drive was at Jackson Lake Dam. We got out and walked around, including across the bridge over the dam, but we didn’t stay long because the weather to the south was beginning to look ominous — big black rain clouds were rolling toward us.
As we rounded the bend north of the dam heading back toward Coulter Bay, I spotted some sandhill crane in a nearby field. I had never heard of these birds before this trip and my photos don’t do them justice, but they are HUGE. I had to Google them, and I was pleased to discover I wasn’t the only person trying to figure out what they were — in fact, many people mistook them for something more like an emu given their size! Ha!
We barely made it into our cabin at Colter Bay before the storm arrived. It was a nice excuse to take a break and get cleaned up after our full day driving the loop around the park.
As the rain let up, we decided to venture south toward Jenny Lake and the Cathedral Group Turnout Brian had admired earlier in our adventure. We couldn’t believe our luck when we spotted a full rainbow bending across the sky.
I don’t remember the last time I saw one so complete and so bright — you could distinctly see every single color, especially where the bow was close to the ground. That, and the pepperoni pizza we enjoyed back at our cabin, were the perfect ending to a perfect day!