I flew into Jackson Hole, which is within the bounds of the park. Most of the accommodation is a little further south in the town of Jackson. I stayed at Togwotee Lodge, which is northeast of the park on SR 287. This placed me a few miles closer to Yellowstone - I had planned on a one day excursion to that that park during my stay at Grand Teton. Togwotee Lodge provided convenient access to the park, but fairly isolated. The lodge had a restaurant, but there were no other dining choices nearby.
My visit to Grand Tetons National Park was in the second week in September. The foliage was starting to turn color, but I think the week following would have given better color. One potential problem in the fall is smoke. There can sometimes be wild or controlled fires and depending on wind direct, there can be a significant amount of smoke in the valley, obscuring the classic views of the park. My guess is that spring, before the park had dried out too much would have a lower likelihood of smoke. If you are planning winter visit to either Grand Teton or nearby Yellowstone, be sure to check the national park web site to see which roads are open and closed. Both parks receive significant snow fall.
Mt Moran from Ox-bow Bend
The park is busiest June through September, peaking in July and August. I didn’t have any issues for the week I was there in September in finding good, people free views. The Grand Teton mountain range is align on a north/south axis, with the main park road on the east. This makes the park a prime sunrise location and there are usually fewer people about at sunrise.
There is a significant amount of wildlife in the park and its not unusual to find bison or elk standing in the road around a blind bend or over the brow of a hill. Pay attention to the speed limits and take care, especially if you are on the road at night or at dusk.
The main road through the park is SR 191, running north/south, parallel to the Snake River. There are a number of turnouts and overlooks. The best known are the Schwabacher Landing, which I will cover in the next section and the Snake River Overlook, the latter made famous by Ansel Adams classic shot from the overlook. You can’t get the exact same shot as Ansel Adams - the pine trees on the near hillside down to the river having grown. There are plenty of other excellent views down to the meandering Snake river below. This is an excellent sunrise and early morning spot. I tried the spot in the late afternoon, but most of the mountainside and river valley are in shadow by then.
Schwabacher Landing is accessible via a one mile unpaved road road that lead down from SR 191 to the Snake river. The road was fairly rutted and potholed when I visited. This is a very popular spot for photographers and parking is somewhat limited. There is plenty of photographic potential here. The Grand Tetons provide a magnificent backdrop and there are plenty of ponds and streams for foreground reflections. The light is excellent from sunrise through mid-morning. Even if you can’t get here for the best light, this location is definitely worth a visit.
The other overlooks provide fine views of the Tetons. The Blacktail Ponds overlook provides a view over some small creeks meandering through meadows. Dead Man’s landing is primarily a boat launch with limited photographic potential. Depending where the bison are you might be able to get a good roadside shot with a herd of bison and the Teton’s as a backdrop.
Just north of Moose junction you will find Antelope Flats road. About a mile down this road will bring you to Mormon Row with its abandoned barns and other buildings. There isn’t a formal parking lot, but there is plenty of roadside parking. You can walk to all the buildings from one spot. The classic view here is with the barn in the foreground and the Tetons on the background, the peaks of the mountains echoing the roofline of the barn. The day I was there smoke mostly obscured the Tetons. I was fortunate to get some storm clouds come down from the North providing for some more dramatic lighting.
Barn on Mormon Row
The park road splits of from 191 at Moose Junction and rejoins 191 at Jackson Lake junction. Moose junction has a gas station and restaurant. There is also a chuck wagon that will serve breakfast, you can eat sitting at a picnic table looking out at the Tetons.
Heading north from Moose junction you will come to the park Moose entrance. There are some good views of the Tetons here with a variety of trees to provide some foreground interest. As you proceed north, there are a number of turnouts that provide excellent views of the Tetons. Aside from the sagebrush, there isn’t lot of foreground subject matter here, so you might want to consider zooming in on the peaks as the sun hits them at dawn.
It’s best to approach Jenny Lake from the north, this way you can branch off at north Jenny Lake junction onto the one-way scenic drive from the the main park road. This will take you past the Jenny Lake overlook. It’s worth making a stop here. There are number of good vantage points with views across the lake. You can follow the path down down to the lake edge. There are a number of the trees with the foreground potential.
Continue on the scenic drive back onto the park road. Shortly after rejoining the park road, you will find the South Jenny Lake junction, take a right and park at the Jenny lake visitor center. There is a path that leads down to the waters edge and some more very nice lake views. There is a shuttle boat that can ferry you to the other side of lake and a short hike to the Hidden falls. Unfortunately, the shuttle was not running during my visit - it had been a very dry summer and the water level was too low.
The turn Signal Mountain is about 6 or 7 miles north of Jenny Lake. There is a narrow, winding road up the side of the mountain for about two miles, with two parking lots near the top. It has two lanes marked, back care as you go around the corners in case of of oncoming traffic. The upper parking lot gives excellent views to the east. I was not lucky enough to get a sunrise, but this should be a good sunrise spot. There is a short trail from the lower parking lot that provide excellent views for Jenny Lake to the west to Bridger-Teton national forest to the east. If you do visit this spot for a sunrise, you can get a good breakfast at Signal Mountain lodge near the base of the mountain.
Continuing north from Moran junction on 191 will get you to Ox-bow bend and Willow Flats. Ox-bow bend is a big sweeping bend of the Snake river. There is a large parking area and it is easy to explore up and down the river bank for some distance in both directions. The classic shot is of Mount Moran reflected in the Snake River, but there are plenty of other photo opportunities. In addition to the Tetons as a backdrop, the bend of the river and shrubs on the near river bank and trees on the far bank provide good options for alternate shots. Ox-box bend is a good spot for sunset and sunrise. If you are there in the fall, mid-morning or mid-afternoon light will help light up the Aspens. Ox-bow bend is good location for both sunrise and sunset.
About a mile north of Ox-Box bend, you will find Willow Flats. The parking area here is smaller and may sometimes be full. A short distance from the back of the parking lot the trail drops down onto the flats, but there are excellent views from the higher ground and stands of Aspens that you can incorporate into shots. Wildlife can sometimes be seen grazing on the flats.
Yellowstone is a large national park and really needs several days to do it justice, but it is within driving distance of Grand Teton and in this section I describe a lightening visit that will allow you to see many of the major sights and back home to your hotel by the end of the day. Your timing may vary somewhat depending on your views of getting up at 5:30am and how much wildlife you encounter on the park roads - bison are quite happy to stand in the middle of the road for several minutes.
I will cover the overall route and timing first and in the following paragraph go into some more detail of the photo opportunities. Here is the schedule I used:
|5:30||Get up (30 mins)|
|6:00||Drive to Grant Village, Yellowstone (90 mins)|
|7:30||Breakfast at Grant Village (45 mins)|
|8:15||Drive to Hayden Valley (45 mins)|
|9:00||Photograph bison in the Hayden valley (30 mins)|
|9:30||Drive to Yellowstone Canyon, Upper falls viewpoint (15 mins)|
|9:45||Photograph Yellowstone canyon and falls (45 mins)|
|10:30||Drive to Mammoth Hot Springs (1 hour)|
|11:30||Mammoth Hot Springs (60 mins)|
|12:30||Lunch at Mammoth Hot Springs, sandwich from general store (30 mins)|
|1:00||Drive to Norris Geyser basin, with roadside stop at Rustic falls (45 mins)|
|1:45||Norris Geyser basin (45 mins)|
|2:30||Drive to Upper Geyser basin, with roadside stop at Gibbon falls (45 mins)|
|3:15||Upper Geyser basin (1 hour)|
|4:15||Return to Togwotee Lodge (1¾ hours)|
The Hayden Valley valley is a prime location for wildlife and you have a good change to see some bison and possibly elk. When you come across a herd, you can stop by the roadside and grab a few shots. Do not approach the bison, they are wild animals and can be dangerous given their large size horns.
The Yellowstone falls are set in a spectacular gorge of yellow rock. There is a large parking area and plenty of vantage points, although you might have to wait a minute of two to get a prime viewing spot if it crowded. There are two waterfalls, the upper and lower falls. The lower falls are the taller and more spectacular of the two. On a one day visit, only stop by the upper falls if you are running ahead of schedule.
Lower Falls, Yellowstone
Mammoth Hot Springs is a large geothermal feature, with multiple terraces that have been built over over the years as the minerals from the various hot springs has calcified. There is an extensive system of boardwalks through the various terraces and hot springs. The terraces are a mixture of white, yellow and gray rock with an occasional dead tree that can provide some foreground material. South of Mammoth springs are multiple geothermal areas and feature. To keep my visit within a day, I visited just the Norris Geyser Basin and the Upper Geyser Basin.
On your way to the Norris Geyser Basin, you can make a roadside stop by the Rustic falls. This is on of the most picturesque falls in the park, but tends to have very low water flows late in the year. I didn’t have time for all the paths, so I chose the Porcelain basin, it has a few minor geysers, but some very pretty springs with bright yellow, turquoise and green. After you leave the Norris Geyser basin, the Gibbon falls is worth a brief roadside stop on your way to the Upper Geyser Basin.
The Upper Geyser Basin is the largest collection of geysers in the park, with an extensive system of boardwalks to take you around them. The best know geyser is Old Faithful. I didn’t have time to wait for the next eruption, but check the times you may be luckier with your timing than I was. At furthest extent of the trail system you will find the Morning Glory hot spring. It still a beautiful spring, but the colors are now somewhat muted due to tourists tossing coins in the spring. I then walked back via various board walks based numerous geysers, fumaroles and hot springs. The park service marks the next eruption time for many of the geysers. From the Upper Geyser Basin, it’s a little under two hours to get back to Grand Teton.