Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Grand Teton National Park

Yes, yes, I'm alive.

'Tis PCS season once again.  We have yet to make a same-coast PCS trip.  All of our PCS moves have been at least 3,000 miles across country or across the ocean.  The Navy has sent us back to the Pentagon again, and we're excited to enjoy all there is to see and do around the National Capital Region.  The timing worked out well for us this time to let the boys finish school and then drive across country.

I enjoy making the drive across country and seeing America along the way.  I was disappointed to miss the drive across country from DC out to Bremerton in 2011.  My Lovely Wife had to do that road trip with the boys and a good friend from church who rode with her.  I would have liked to have more time to drive across country this time and see and do more like our previous trips (see my blog posts from our road trip in September to October 2008), but I had to get to my new job by a certain date.

Since we had been to Yellowstone National Park a couple of times on previous drives across country, we decided to veer a little south this time and see something new and different -  

A few things I learned in the process of planning our visit and going to the Tetons:

- "Jackson Hole" is a term used for the valley to the east of the Tetons, to include the town of Jackson, Wyoming.

- Most of the rest of Wyoming does not consider Jackson Hole to be part of Wyoming.  There's a vast tourist business flowing through Jackson Hole year-round.  In the winter, people go for the skiing and winter sports.  In the summer, people go for the hiking, biking, kayaking, canoing, rafting, and just about any other outdoor activity you can imagine. 

- EVERYTHING is expen$ive in Jackson Hole.  The statistics of the number of tourists who go there are mind-boggling, and all the hotels and restaurants enjoy charging high prices just because they can.  I suffered some sticker-shock and pain in my wallet as soon as I started investigating hotels in Jackson Hole.

So, to help conserve our finances but still have two days of activities in GTNP, we drove to Rexburg, Idaho and spent the night there.  Rexburg is just 2 hours west of Jackson, and you can actually see the back side of the Tetons from there.  By doing that, we got up, drove into the park, had most of a day there, $pent just ONE night in a Jack$on Hole hotel, got up had most of a second day there, then continued driving east and stayed the night in a cheaper hotel in Casper, WY. 

Day 1:

View of the Tetons from near Rexburg, Idaho

I figured with it being a big tourist trap that gas would be pretty expensive in Jackson Hole, so we stopped and topped off the gas tank in Idaho on our way inbound.  Much to my surprise, it turns out that was actually a mistake.  Gas was significantly cheaper in Jackson Hole than it was back in Idaho.  Go figure.

I found this website useful - it provided four recommended day hikes in GTNP with kids.  Because I liked what he had to say on his website, I ordered his book, too, and I was glad I did.  I wish I had more time to do all of the hikes he recommended, but decided in the short time available to do the hike he wrote was his kids' favorite - Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point. 

There are a TON of places to eat in Jackson Hole.  I should have done more research before we got there on where we wanted to eat.  They're all local unique places, no national chains.  I made the mistake of just walking in someplace for lunch that I thought looked good.  The food was okay, but the service was downright terrible.  If I would have looked at the Yelp reviews on my phone before we walked in there, I would have stopped and walked out.  I was kind of pissed off we wasted a meal there when there were so many other places with great reviews.

After lunch, we headed to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center.  We parked there and caught the Water Taxi across Jenny Lake.

Waiting to Board the Jenny Lake Water Taxi

The water taxi is open to the fresh air, but there's a canopy for shade over the forward half of the seats.  It carries about 30 people or so.  It's first come first serve and runs about every 15 minutes.  Their cashiers are pretty quick and efficient, and they DO take credit cards.

On the Jenny Lake Water Taxi 

From the landing on the other side of Jenny Lake, we went on a short day hike to Hidden Falls (0.5 miles) and Inspiration Point (another 0.5 miles past Hidden Falls).

The trail is very well-defined and mostly fenced-in with wood post fences like in the picture above, so it'd be kind of hard to get lost here.  

There was an incredible volume of water gushing down this valley into Jenny Lake.  When you look at this picture, you need to imagine the deafening ROAR of rushing water.  Here, let's see if this video will help...

Hidden Falls

The Hidden Falls were gorgeous and totally worth the trip.  Of note, we almost missed them.  You see, they're sort of... well... Hidden.  If you follow the sound of the water and go the direction you think you need to go across the bridges, then you'll only get a partial view of the falls through a bunch of trees off on the right.  Thankfully, I overheard someone telling someone else on the trail to go back across the bridges (away from the river and the sound of the water) and turn right up what looks like the smaller / less traveled trail.  That path takes you to the much better viewing point that you see in the picture above.   

The Trail to Inspiration Point

The trail to Hidden Falls was pretty flat.  From there, there's a slight climb half a mile up to get to Inspiration Point.  Now, you might think that a 1 mile hike (2 miles round trip) is really short and pretty darn easy, but if you're not used to the altitude (~6,700 feet) then you're going to be winded. 

There was a pretty nice view from Inspiration Point.  I was glad we did it.

 YB on the trail back to the water taxi

Me and YB on the water taxi back to the Jenny Lake Visitor Center

To get a feel for the volume and variety of visitors they get here:  The water taxi operators clear this board every day.  They ask their visitors to put the magnet for their state up on the board or write the name of their country on the right, and they fill the board almost every day.

The Tram

Next, we drove down to the Teton Village and took the aerial tram ride up to the top of the mountain.  There are no reservations for the tram ride - it's first come, first serve.  They sell tickets for the tram online, and when you buy the tickets they're good for a one week period.  I DO recommend buying them online because they are cheaper online (save $6 per ticket) and easier to pickup at the will-call window. 

While waiting for the tram, the boys pretended to be terrified of the ride to come.

We were there for the second to last tram up for the day and it was pretty empty.  We almost got the entire tram to ourselves.

It was a really cool 12 minute ride up to the top.  We saw three moose below us on our way up.  Once we got up to the top, though, oh my!  It was COLD and HOWLING wind.  The view was spectacular, but we turned around and got on the next tram back down because we were freezing.

We spotted 2 more moose on our way to dinner.

For dinner, I had learned my lesson and checked Yelp before picking a place to eat.  We had dinner at the Sweetwater restaurant (Yelp listing), and it was EXTRAORDINARILY FABULOUS.  I can't tell you enough how awesome both the food and the service were at Sweetwater.  It was so good, I might just be willing to pay for the plane ticket to go back to Jackson Hole and eat there again.

We stayed at the Lexington Hotel, which was a VERY nice hotel with an excellent continental breakfast, but it cost twice as much as any other hotel on our trip across country.

Day 2:

The next day, we checked out of the hotel and headed back to the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center again - this time to rendezvous in the parking lot with Solitude Float Trips for a 10-mile scenic float trip down the Snake River.

Our guide, Bernie, and his team from Solitude Float Trips did a great job.  It was a very well-organized and efficient operation.  They met us in the Jenny Lake Visitor's Center Parking lot where we all piled into their vans towing the boats on these flatbed trailers.  They drove us up to Deadman's Bar and put us in the water there.

After putting the boat in the water, the used the flatbed trailer as a sort of dock / loading platform, so we were all completely dry when we sat down in the boat.  In fact, the rest of the ride was very smooth and we wouldn't have gotten wet at all if it hadn't been for certain members of my family sticking their hands in the water and flicking it at each other.

Bernie was great with our boys, talking to them, asking them questions, and he let each of them take a turn at guiding the boat.

The scenery was spectacular, and we saw three bald eagles, an osprey, and a prong-horn along the way.  I was also thankful to Bernie for giving us his local perspective on the area since he lives there year-round.  He told us the best place to eat in the national park was at the Signal Peak Lodge.  Someone else we had met along the way had recommended going to see Signal Peak because you can drive right to the top and enjoy the view.  So Bernie's claim of the food being good at the lodge sealed the deal.  After we got off the river, we headed up to the Signal Mountain Lodge.

Lunchtime View

The Signal Mountain Lodge is on the eastern shore of Lake Jackson, looking westward across the lake toward the Tetons.  Bernie was right - the food was fantastic.  The service was okay - not bad / but not extraordinary.  After lunch, we drove up to the top of Signal Peak.

Now, before you go driving up there, you should know that the viewpoint at the top has a pretty amazing panoramic view of the valley from north to east to south, but the view to the west (toward the Tetons) is blocked by trees.  I went up there expecting to see another great view of the Tetons and was a little surprised and slightly disappointed, so I just wanted to help you manage expectations if you go driving up there, too.

By that time it was early afternoon and we needed to hit the road.  We drove about 5 hours east / southeast from there to where we spent the night in Casper, Wyoming.  Overall, I'm pretty pleased with how our plan ended up enabling us to get two days' worth of activities in GTNP without paying for two night's hotel stay there.  There was SO much to do there!  I would LOVE to go back someday and spend a week hiking, biking, kayaking, and just soaking in the splendor of the natural beauty of the park.

...I just might have to take out a home equity loan to afford it.