Rides & Destinations: Grand Teton National Park
By Joe Berk
What: Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
How to Get There: Wyoming Scenic Byway US 189/191 is the hot ticket riding in from the south. From the east, Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway US 26/287 is similarly stunning. Any road through and to this region is breathtaking!
Best Kept Secret: Named by French trappers in the 1800s as les trois tétons (the three teats), the tallest 13,775-foot peak became le grand téton (the large teat).
Avoid: The winter months and departing for Grand Teton National Park without checking the weather.
Nestled between Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, northwestern Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park is a marvelous destination made even more wonderful by the incredible riding that is the magic and beauty of northwestern Wyoming. Grand Teton National Park is a great destination, but it should not be an exclusive objective in this part of the world.
Yellowstone National Park lies just to the north (see Motorcycle Classics, January/February 2016), touristy Jackson lies just to the south, and all the surrounding areas are amazing. Grand Teton National Park is bisected by the Snake River flowing south from Yellowstone and framed by the dramatic Teton Range. The area is a delightful succession of breathtaking photo opportunities that include stunning vistas, sharp mountain peaks, pristine lakes, wild animals and beautiful roads. It is a region perfect for motorcycle exploration.
Formed an estimated 6 to 9 million years ago, the Teton Range is the youngest part of the Rocky Mountains. Game abounds, and it is not at all unusual to see elk, deer, bison and antelope. Bighorn sheep, wolves, mountain lions, and grizzly and black bears are more elusive, but they are here, too.
It was this abundance of wildlife that first brought people to the area. Nomadic tribes entered 11,000 years ago. Shoshone Native Americans followed. Fur trappers arrived in the early 1800s, and the U.S. Army explored the area in the mid-1800s. These early fur trappers and explorers included men like Jedediah Smith, U.S. Army scout Jim Bridger, and David Jackson (for whom Jackson Hole, the valley beneath the Teton Range, would later be named). Prospectors tried their luck and left when it became apparent there were no precious metals, but the region continued to draw visitors attracted to its great beauty.
Efforts to designate the Teton Range as a national park started in the late 1800s and President Calvin Coolidge did so in 1929, but the transition from pristine wilderness to federal land was not without controversy. John D. Rockefeller started quietly buying land in Jackson Hole and donating it to the federal government through his Snake River Land Company. The Rockefeller land was designated Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, and then in 1950 it all became part of the Grand Teton National Park. Local ranchers opposed national park designation and subsequent expansion based on fears of increased federal control and loss of water and grazing rights. The fight continued into the 1950s, with armed confrontations framing a debate over big government versus local rights. It ended with a compromise that allowed continued hunting and grazing rights, and a prohibition on any future presidential national park designation or expansion in Wyoming.
Wyoming’s scenic byways (US 189/191 and US 26/287) are a great ride into Grand Teton National Park. It’s hard to go wrong selecting any part of northwestern Wyoming for a motorcycle ride, with the possible exception of downtown Jackson. Jackson is a well-known vacation spot for the well-heeled and it has an interesting elk-antler-framed town square (a great photo op), but Jackson traffic is mind-numbing (as are the prices on, well, everything). I found Jackson too touristy for my tastes; your mileage may vary.
Winters are brutal: The lowest winter temperature ever recorded in Grand Teton National Park was a bone-chilling -63 degrees Fahrenheit and the Teton Range sees nearly 40 feet of snow annually. The summers are marvelous, though, and a motorcycle ride to and through Grand Teton National Park should be on every rider’s bucket list.
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