Jackson Hole is the valley encompassed by the Teton Range to the west and the Gros Ventre Range to the west. Fur trappers originally inhabited Jackson, followed by homesteaders. Today this 10,000 person town, is (along with the neighboring Teton Village ski resort) the entertainment, cultural and culinary center of Jackson Hole.
The increasingly affluent area retains some of its historic, Wild West character. Its town square is framed by late 19th– and early 20th-century buildings. Sidewalks are wood, elk antler arches frame the entrance to the square and Western-themed restaurants/bars such as the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar encourage you to literally saddle up to the bar (you sit on saddles instead of stools.
It is a good place to stop before heading into the national parks and gets you in the mood for a western adventure.
Silver Dollar Bar & Grill. Our lunch here was a nice and large (1/2 pound) bison burger with gouda cheese. Our second dish was a disappointing elk gyro which used tiny, overcooked pieces of elk tips rather than a tastier (and more expensive) cut. Lunch also provided Tom an opportunity to sample a nice Grand Teton amber local beer.
Blue Lion provided our only Jackson dinner opportunity. And it proved to be a fortuitous choice. We had two wonderful dishes: grilled elk tenderloin on a wild mushroom port sauce, and the restaurant’s specialty, roasted rack of Dijon mustard-rubbed and bread crumb-crusted lamb with peppercorn-rosemary cream sauce. The wine was also a treat: a 2016 Treana Red, a cabernet sauvignon/syrah blend from Paso Roblas.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. While we didn’t eat here, we couldn’t resist a saddle seat at the bar. Here Tom stuck with another local beer (a Snake River Pako’s IP), while Joyce got a pinot grigio.
We stayed at The Lexington at Jackson Hole Hotel & Suites. We were on the second floor. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any elevator. Once in the room, it was very dark but comfortable. Breakfast was a nice buffet in the main building. The location was just blocks off of the main square and was nice and quiet. Plenty of free parking. We did not use the swimming pool
Although we enjoy Jackson, the Grand Teton mountains were our primary interest in northwestern Wyoming. The iconic peaks, its string of valley lakes and the surrounding valley and backcountry areas are, to our eyes, one of the most majestic spots in the country.
The Tetons are underlain by some of the oldest (2.7 billion years) rocks in North America. Yet they are the youngest major range in the continent. A shallow ocean once covered the Range and the valley. However, tectonic forces, including the collision of plates and millennia of earthquakes, lifted the sedimentary rock of the mountains and simultaneously depressed the valley (Jackson Hole). Corresponding rock layers varied by 30,000 feet from the bottom of the Hole to the 12,000- and 13,000-foot cliffs. As if these forces weren’t enough, some 2 million years ago, 3,500-foot glaciers further depressed the Hole and scraped the mountains into sheer cliffs. The residue was deposited in moraines, which created the string of lakes that frame the mountains.
As we have visited the Tetons multiple times, this trip was a short day and a half where we focused on hiking trails.
- Phelps Lake Overlook. Our warming hike was a short round trip walk of about 2.25 miles with a 400 ft. elevation gain, past the overlook to views of the lake and the Gros Ventre Mountains to east.
- Jenny Lake to Inspiration Point. Another short, 2.25-mile round trip walk with about 500-foot elevation gain. It went past the point to a spot where we had unobstructed views of Jenny Lake and the Gros Ventres could the seen to the east and backsides of the three Teton mountains and Mount Owens to the south and north. Halfway down the trail, we took a short detour to the pretty Hidden Falls and a few smaller white waterfalls further down the trail. Given our limited time, we somewhat cheated by taking the Jenny Lake Ferry to the starting point of the hike in lieu of the 3-mile round trip walk around the south part of the lake.
- Leigh Lake to Trapper Lake Trail. This 9.2-mile, 400-foot elevation gain trail went along the shores of three valley lakes, String, Leigh, and Bearpaw, to the head of the alpine Trapper Lake. It was a lovely, long and relatively easy–at least in terms of its slight elevation gain and the shading of most of the trip—past several lakes over which we had lovely views of the Teton range and Mount Moran.
Grand Teton Park Restaurant and Hotel
We ate and stayed at Jackson Lake Lodge, with its beautiful, panoramic view of the entire range on the western edge of the park. A view that is particularly lovely at sunset.
The rooms were very nice with a surprisingly comfortable bed and linens. The room did not have air conditioning, but the nights cool down nicely. The room’s overhead fan did help stir the air at night. The only negative was that the hot water ran out at the end of the shower. The room had a coffee/tea maker and we had a little patio outside our room. Our room was on the second floor of a building….no elevators.
Our dinner was at the lodge’s Mural Room restaurant. Not surprisingly for many national parks, the food was acceptable but less than inspiring. We shared two of what are normally our favorite regional dishes—Idaho Ruby Red Trout (on a bed of roasted corn, lima beans, red peppers and pancetta with almond romesco sauce and sage) and Grilled Elk Loin (with roasted Brussel sprouts, Burgundy-sauteed mushrooms, and cherry compote). The best part of the meal—other than the view—was a bottle of 2013 E&J Gallo Signature Series Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir.
Right next door to the Teton National Park is Yellowstone National Park. From a park with some of the most majestic mountain scenery in the country (Teton) to one with a variety and a greater number of geothermal features than those in the rest of the planet combined (Yellowstone). And all within a few miles of each other.
Yellowstone was the first U.S. National Park. It has more than 10,000 geothermal features and the overwhelming majority of the world’s geysers. The Yellowstone basin is actually a dormant (but far from extinct) volcanic caldera that has had at least three “Super-eruptions” (with the largest being 250 times more powerful than the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption) in the last two million years. The most recent eruption (640,000 years ago) resulted in an ash cloud 3,000 times that of Pinatubo and formed a 1,350 square mile crater (larger than the size of Rhode Island). While dormant, it is far from extinct. Its ongoing activity is witnessed by the level of its current geothermal activity which is fueled by a magma chamber located a mere three- to eight-miles below the earth’s surface. Scientists believe it is certain to erupt again in the future. It’s a matter of when, not if.
Its ongoing volcanic activity manifests in five primary ways, all of which are evident in different sections of the park. These are:
- Geysers, which erupt steam and boiling waters from underground reservoirs whose route to the surface is constricted by blockages that can only be removed when sufficient pressure builds up;
- Hot springs, the most common of the park’s features, result in or streams or ponds whose near-boiling water may range from crystal clear to a muddy brownish color;
- Mud pots, whose thermophile bacteria consume the water’s high concentrations of carbon dioxide, converting it into sulfuric acid which, in turn, dissolves the surrounding rock into a viscous clay that fills and surrounds the pots;
- Fumaroles, or steam vents that expel super-heated gases, sometimes so forcefully that their roars can be heard from miles away; and
- Travertine terraces, where hot, acidic water, with the help of thermophile bacteria, dissolves limestone to create terraces of chalk-white travertine.
The form that each of these features takes depends on a combination of the amount of water that is available (via combinations of underground springs, rainfall and snowmelt), the heat of the rock (which heats the water), the underground plumbing system (which continually changes with changes in the water’s mineral content, and especially earthquakes—of which Yellowstone has the largest number of any place on earth.
And as if this weren’t enough, acidic hot springs create an environment in which two types of “thermophiles” (heat-loving microbes, bacteria, algae, and archaea) produce energy either by using sunlight to perform photosynthesis (cyanobacteria) or by consuming chemicals (filamentus bacteria). These microscopic organisms connect into strands that combine with other waterborne minerals and organic materials to form mats that can take on vivid colors (white, orange, red, green, brown and so forth) depending on the types of microbes, the temperature, and acidity of the water and their exposure to sunlight.
These thermophiles create their own ecosystems, as with the tiny ephydrid flies that feed on them, the spiders that eat the flies and the birds that eat the spiders. These thermal features also shape the lives of much larger organisms: birds, beavers, elk, bison, and wolves have access to food during the winter since the heated land reduces the depth of the snowpack and provides more access to grass.
Yellowstone is a huge park with dozens of different environments and thousands of features. Since we have been through the park several times in the past, we selected only a handful of stops that provided the greatest opportunity to sample a number of the park’s most interesting features. These included, generally from south to north:
- Yellowstone Lake, into which fumaroles, hot springs, geysers, and mud pots continue to spew volcanic gas, acidic water, and material. Its visitor center provides a fascinating explanation of the forest’s lifecycle, particularly the complex interrelationship between fire and the lodgepole pines that flourish in volcanic, rhyolitic soil that is too acidic and contains too few minerals for most trees.
- Old Faithful, not so much for the geysers (although we did happen to catch its roughly 90-minute eruption cycle) as for its visitor center’s explanation of the park’s geothermal features.
- Prismatic Spring, whose hot water geysers typically flow (rather than erupt) at rates of 400 to 500 gallons per minute. Their waters support huge volumes of microbes, bacteria, algae, and archaea that congeal into large mats atop the silica which the waters dissolve from the rock. The result is a veritable riot of color with vivid blue waters (from sunlight refracting off dissolved minerals), yellow, brown and orange from organisms that derive energy directly from the water’s minerals and different shades of green from those that perform photosynthesis.
- Lower Geyser Basin’s Bacterium Mountain, which is home to several fumaroles, geysers and mud pots whose superhot waters reach surface temperatures of up to 170 degrees. The level and consistency of the pots vary greatly throughout the year. While mud levels are low and very viscous in late summer and fall (when we were there), the levels are very high and mud is more liquid in the spring.
- Artist Paintpots, home to a number of mud pots whose waters contain high volumes of sulfur dioxide from which thermophiles create sulfuric acid which, in turn, dissolves surround rock into the white clay that fills and lines the pots.
- Norris Geyser Basin, the hottest and most quake-prone area of the park and home to a wide range of features, such as hot springs, fumaroles, mud pots, and geysers. Its chemical-eating bacteria are different shades of red and orange, while its phototropic thermophile bacteria are green.
- Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, a massive canyon formed by eons of hydrothermal activity that heated, weakened and softened the upper layers of each of the falls rock (making them more vulnerable to the forces of erosion) than the still hard volcanic bedrock at the falls’ bases. The result is an 800-to-1,200-foot deep, 1,500-4,000-foot wide gorge is divided into a 109-foot Upper Falls and a 308-foot Lower Falls. Even more spectacularly, different layers of the falls’ rocks take on dramatically different colors (such as orange, brown, green and black) and shapes depending on their mineral composition and still very active level of hydrothermal activity.
- Roaring Mountain, a white mountain of hardened, thermophile-produced clay with fumaroles that can expel gas with such forces that the roar can sometimes be heard from distances of four miles or more.
- Obsidian Mountain, a mountain of black, volcanic glass produced when lava cools rapidly, with little growth of crystals. The material was in addition to being beautiful (as used in carvings), has very sharp edges (for use in arrowheads and even scalpels) and is thought to have psychic properties.
- Lamar Valley, a beautiful, wide-open, mountain-framed meadow in the northwest corner of the park;
- Tower Falls, a pretty, 32-foot waterfall that is dramatically framed by two rock pillars.
- Celeste Springs, whose geothermal heat releases oil and sulfur from the rock and leaches them to the surface, where air exposure turns both black.
- Petrified Tree, the petrified remains of a redwood that existed millions of years ago, when the area had a totally different climate. A volcano-induced landslide covered the standing tree in ash, water and sand that plugged the tree’s cells with silica, preserving its outline as a mineral.
- Mammoth Hot Springs, a mountain of sedimentary rock (formed as the bed of an ancient ocean) that has been transformed into an incredible network of terraces by the flow of acidic volcanic water that dissolves the rock’s limestone, creates travertine and kills trees by clogging their transpiration systems with calcium carbonate. The sizes and shapes of the ever-changing terraces are determined by the flow and temperature of the water, the slope of the ground and objects that block or alter the course of the flowing water. While the travertine is normally white, thermophiles create a rainbow of vivid colors until the waters change course, depriving the travertine of moisture and causing it to crumble, thereby creating material in which lodgepole pines can take root.
Yellowstone Restaurants and Hotel
We didn’t expect, nor did we get any gourmet meals at the park’s restaurants. Our very limited sample of restaurants included that included:
- Old Faithful Snow Lodge Geyser Grill, where we made do with beef chili, bison brat, and a hot dog;
- Canyon Village Grill and Soda Fountain where we had probably the worst of our many National Park meals, beef chili, and a “well-burnt” bison/elk burger.
- M66, the “top of the line” Canyon Village restaurant where we ended up with green garbanzo hummus with pita and a pretty good (and actually medium-rare, as we ordered it) bison burger with cheddar, mushrooms, and fries. While Joyce partook in the restaurant’s wine on tap (pinot grigio), Tom enjoyed the Bend Nail IPA.
We stayed at the Canyon Lodge in Canyon Village. As with most national park hotels, the pricing is high for what you get. But this price/value was extraordinary out of synch when compared to other hotels in national parks. Yes the buildings are leeds certified. And yes, we wanted the location. But the linens were very scratchy. We were surprised that a new place did not have an overhead fan. The small tabletop fan placed in the room had little effect on moving the air at night. The only good point was that they did have an elevator which helped as we were on the third floor. Due to the location, we would stay again. But if we had other choices, we would try something else.