He was right out of Central Casting.
“I’m K-ay-n,” he said in his Western drawl as he walked over from his ranch next door.
Dressed in a dusty white cowboy hat, suede vest, jeans and metal-toed boots, the barrel-chested Wyoming native had come over to welcome us to the log home we had rented for five nights. Behind him in the corral, his horse, Valentine, nosed the dirt.
Ken, a retired large animal vet, and his wife, Bobbi, kept an eye on this VRBO (vacation rentals by owner) for the wealthy couple who lived out of town.
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Meeting Ken put us in the mood for this Western adventure: four days visiting two of the nation’s most beautiful national parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone. The vacation home on a country road just a few miles outside the Moran Junction entrance to Grand Teton National Park provided the perfect launch point for our visit. It was early September, and the families that crowded park roads during summer months were dwindling. In their place were the AARP crowd, the empty nesters, young couples and people like us – old high school friends who reconnect every couple of years.
The National Park Service offers arguably the best deal in the country: a seven-day pass for a combined visit to the Tetons and Yellowstone for just $25. The NPS, however, is exploring raising that fee by $5, possibly by next year.
On our first day we weren’t up for a strenuous hike, so we started out at the Tetons’ Colter Bay Marina to rent kayaks ($20 an hour for a double, $18 for a single, two-hour minimum). The marina opened out into a vast inlet framed by the majestic Teton mountain range. The bay was calm, and aside from a couple of motorboats that skirted the water a distance away, we were the only ones out there. We ate our sandwiches on a small island, sitting among large boulders as we gazed out at the almost indescribably beautiful view.
A friend had recommended closing out the day on the back patio of the historic Jackson Lake Lodge, the park’s main hotel. Built in 1955, it was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, the architect who also designed the Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, and lodges in Bryce Canyon and on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. John D. Rockefeller Jr., who had a critical role in the preservation of the Tetons, funded the building of the lodge, whose 60-foot-tall panoramic windows in the grand lobby overlook Willow Flats, Jackson Lake and the mountain range.
The patio outside the lodge’s Blue Heron lounge is definitely the place to watch the sunset. We ordered huckleberry margaritas and admired the view until it got a little too nippy. (It went down to 34 degrees that night).
Most people will recommend hiking around 1,191-acre Jenny Lake, one of the prettiest trails in the Tetons. A little more than 7 miles around the perimeter, the loop trail is relatively flat but there are some rocky uphills and downhills, and hiking boots are definitely recommended.
The trails, bridges, visitor pavilions and other structures around Jenny Lake are undergoing a $17 million upgrade to make many of the paths easier to navigate as well as easier on the feet. Few improvements have been made since the system was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Construction of the whole area is supposed to be completed in three years.
On the west edge near the boat dock you’ll find a trail that juts off to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. You do not want to miss that. After the Point, continue to Cascade Canyon. This connects with Paintbrush Canyon, much deeper in the mountains, where we passed seasoned backpackers wearing jingle bells to scare off the bears. “Make sure you clap before going around the corners,” cautioned one. We didn’t encounter bears but we did get up close and personal with a mini glacier and more waterfalls.
We spent day three with Kyle, our guide on a whitewater trip down the Snake River.
Jackson Hole is filled with whitewater outfitters, so you can pick the level of thrill and difficulty you’re comfortable with. Our trip was a mix of calm and riveting with Class I to III rapids (The Youghiogheny River boasts Dimple Rock, a Class III or IV rapid depending upon water level). And you can’t beat the view. Kyle said the Snake River draws some of the rich and famous; a fellow guide hosted Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire in his boat, and Vice President Joe Biden has made the journey.
Earlier in the day we went hunting for moose and found a bunch of them at Gros Ventre campground, about a five-minute drive from Downtown Jackson. It was mating season, and they tend to congregate at that time along the river. For the most part they seemed to ignore the dozens of photographers and tourists watching their every move.
We saved Yellowstone for our last day. The park sits atop one of the world’s largest active volcanoes and has 10,000 thermal spots. In early July, one of these spots melted a section of a road near the appropriately named Firehole Lake. Even though Yellowstone, a UNESCO World Heritage site, experiences up to 3,000 earthquakes a year, scientists don’t expect any catastrophic eruption for 10,000 or more years.
We had ample opportunity to see wild bison and elk close up, the park’s “Grand Canyon,” assortment of hot springs and geyser basins, and of course, Old Faithful. It erupts every 65 to 90 minutes, and a hotline gives you estimated times. We made it there five minutes before the blast – with hundreds of other spectators – and caught the whole show, which lasts from 11/2 to 5 minutes.
While Old Faithful may be the park’s most famous feature, we didn’t think it was the most interesting. We were enthralled by the colorful geyser basins, hot pools and mudpots – copper-colored, sky blue, yellow and emerald. Between the Upper and Norris basins is the world’s largest concentration of geysers. The Park Service has built walkways throughout these basin fields to allow a great view from a safe distance. The best scene was of a buffalo lazily lounging in one of the hot fields.
We didn’t get to Lamar Valley in the northeast edge of the park, but that’s where wolf watchers position themselves for days or even months to observe or photograph the packs. Dusk and dawn are the best times to see them.
While we were happy with what we covered in just a day in Yellowstone, we couldn’t imagine being here in the summer. September is the park’s fourth-busiest month of the year, and even with that, many parking lots were filled when we tried to stop to explore.
In fact, Yellowstone recorded its busiest September on record last month with 571,764 visitors – 2.48 percent higher than September 2013. Park officials said they are on track to have their busiest year ever.
Getting there: United flies nonstop to Denver, then you take a 11/2-hour flight to Jackson Hole. You’ll know you’ve arrived because it’s decorated with statues of elk and other wildlife. The airport is 8 miles north of Jackson.
Jackson Hole: Refers to the valley that is 80 miles long and 15 miles wide. The town Jackson (also referred to as Jackson Hole) is not as big as I expected, but it was more touristy than I had hoped. It has a very walkable downtown lined with shops, eateries, art galleries, small museums and hotels. The centerpiece is a town square, with each corner decorated with large arches made of elk antlers.
Across the street from the square, make sure to stop at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (25 N. Cache St.), which offers Western dancing and live music six nights a week. A bar since 1937, it features bar stools topped with saddles and animal mounts featuring a life-size timber wolf in pursuit of a bighorn sheep, a grizzly bear and mountain lions. The Clint Eastwood movie “Any Which Way You Can” was filmed there during the summer of 1980.
For the crunchy crowd – way on the other side of the cowboy spectrum – Jackson Hole offers the fabulous Lotus Cafe (145 N. Glenwood St.; 1-307-734-0882) offering organic and natural meats, vegetarian, vegan and raw choices from around the world.
Most of the rafting companies that offer whitewater tours of the Snake River are based here. We used Sands Whitewater Rafting and Scenic Tours, based on recommendations from people who lived in town. (www.sandswhitewater.com). There are also ample hotels and lodges, but keep in mind that there is some driving to do to get to the national parks.
Driving: Grand Teton National Park begins five miles north of Jackson on Highway 89. Entrance gates are at Moose Junction, 12 miles north of Jackson or at Moran Junction, about 30 miles north of Jackson. For Yellowstone, you’re looking at 60-mile drive north on U.S. 89 to the south entrance, and then another 40 miles to Old Faithful. Speed limits on these highways are low – 55 during the day/ 45 at night and slower in the parks to prevent collisions with wildlife.