GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyoming (AP) — The last time I visited Grand Teton National Park was in 2002.
I had recently graduated from high school in Colorado and was headed to Missoula with my dad and sister to start the school year at the University of Montana.
Growing up, the Grand Tetons, along with Yellowstone, were a common stopping point on family road trips, traveling from my home in Colorado to Montana where both sets of grandparents lived.
I remember wandering through the grand Jackson Lake Lodge, stopping to take photos of moose, going on a boat tour of Colter Bay and gawking in awe at the mountain for which the park is named.
Yellowstone has continued to be a favorite destination, but I’m not sure how I went almost 13 years without visiting Grand Teton National Park.
For the first time in more than a decade, I visited the Grand Tetons on a work trip last month.
Traveling with our capitol bureau chief Kristen Inbody, we spent two days in Yellowstone, where I interviewed a fisheries biologists and construction crews. Then we headed south, where Kristen had work to do in the Tetons. By that point in our trip, my self-imposed assignment was simply to explore a park that I was long overdue to visit.
Our trip was the first week of June. For being relatively early in the summer, I was surprised to find Yellowstone already feeling as busy as it does at the peak of tourist season. As soon as we exited Yellowstone, and entered the John D. Rockfeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, which sits between Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the crowds seemed to evaporate into thin air. There were no more bear jams. Roadside pullouts weren’t filled with cars. When we checked into our cabin at Colter Bay Village, the area seemed mostly deserted.
I had done little research ahead of time about possible hikes to do in the Tetons, so after checking in to our cabin, I made my way to the ranger station, where I picked up a map and some advice on a quick evening hike.
The ranger recommended a 3-mile loop that would take me to Swan Lake and Heron Pond.
The Falcon Guide hiking book for Grand Teton National Park, which I neglected to bring on the trip, describes the loop as easy and the traffic as heavy. It was an easy hike, with only about 300 feet of climbing, but traffic wasn’t heavy at all. I only saw a couple other hikers on the trail.
I didn’t see any swans or herons as the name implies, but I did see a pelican and lots of Canada geese hanging out on the lily pad-covered Swan Lake. Even more exciting, was spotting a grizzly bear across Heron Pond.
As the trail looped back toward the trailhead, it offered glimpses of Jackson Lake and the mountains lined up behind it.
The next morning, Kristen wanted a pre-dawn start to catch the Tetons in the best morning light. I took in the alpenglow on Mount Owen and Grand Teton reflecting in Jenny Lake. Once the sun was in the sky, I headed out on another hike, this time along String Lake to Paintbrush Canyon.
The trail was beautiful but isolated. I didn’t see any other hikers or any sign of them. After an hour of hiking, yelling “hey bear,” singing out loud and jumping at every noise I heard, I decided to turn around and find a slightly more trafficked trail.
I went back to the trail junction where I previously headed north the Paintbrush Canyon. This time I took the trail south toward Cascade Canyon and along the west shore of Jenny Lake.
The views were spectacular as I kept getting closer and closer to the park’s iconic, towering mountains.
The trail took me to a boat dock on the west side of the lake, where hikers can catch a shuttle to the south shore. Instead, I carried on up the trail, hoping to reach Hidden Falls.
Just before the falls, I ran into a trail crew working to remove a huge downed tree. A fierce wind storm a couple days before was likely to blame, another hiker explained.
I waited a few minutes while the crew cut through the trunk with a chain saw. From my spot on the trail, I could just make out Hidden Falls. I watched the falls and watched the crew work, then turned around and headed back down the trail.
An hour or so later, I was back at Jenny Lake Lodge, and Kristen and I were headed home. It was hard to leave the park, feeling like I had just scratched the surface after rediscovering it.
Even now, as I write this and look at the map of Grand Teton National Park, I’m itching to go back and explore deeper into the park.
My stay in Grand Teton National Park lasted less than 24 hours, but it reminded me what an amazing national park lies just beyond Yellowstone. The short visit whet my appetite for more time exploring the Tetons.