A Day in Grand Teton National Park
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Dramatic Mountains; Epic Wildlife; Historic Homesteads; Beautiful Rivers; Tranquil Lakes
Road Trip to Grand Teton National Park
Narrowly escaping the clutches of Hurricane Isaias, my Girlfriend, Becca, and I drove my Toyota 4 Runner to Grand Teton National Park. Outside of stopping twice along the way for a total of about 12 hours to sleep, we were able to grind out most of the 2,000-mile journey by switching off sleeping and driving.
Our last major stop before getting to the Park was catching the sunset in Cheyenne, Wyoming. From there, we traveled the 400+ miles across most of the state to get to Grand Teton National Park. Weary eyed, we approached the Park around 2 am MST. It was then that we saw a sight so familiar, yet so foreign that our eyes sharply adjusted, and heart rates intensified in anticipation. At first, they appeared as blurry figures in the night, but as we got closer and slowed down, we saw it: Pronghorn Antelope!
They were everywhere! With no trees obscuring our vision, we could see them scattered along the road like a welcoming party as we paraded our way to the Tetons. We must have seen 150+ antelope in a span of an hour or so of driving - it was extraordinary! Now, we have seen plenty of white-tailed deer in North Carolina, but not nearly in this quantity or concentration so close to the road!
Sunrise at Jackson Lake, Grand Teton National Park
After the thrill of seeing Pronghorn Antelope wore off, exhaustion and fatigue from literal days straight of driving resurfaced. It was about 4:30 am when we arrived at where we were planning on camping for the night. We still had about two hours until the sun rose, and it was roughly a 45-minute drive to Colter Bay, which is where I first wanted to experience the Teton Mountain Range. Although logically, this seems like a no-brainer, I can't even begin to describe how tired I was from all of the driving and lack of sleep. I told myself that I wanted to photograph the sunrise, the sunset, and the Milky Way as much as humanely possible on this trip. Thus, I decided to grab an energy drink and keep driving!
We arrived at Colter Bay on a cool ~50ºF morning with a slight breeze and almost no humidity. For reference, by sunrise in North Carolina on the day we left, it was 70ºF with 89% humidity. It was CHILLY when I stepped out of the 4 Runner! As we parked and I got all of my camera gear ready, anticipation began to set in. I had seen plenty of documentaries, videos, and pictures of the Tetons and had a general level of expectation for what I was about to see - or so I thought.
The Tetons immediately exceeded my expectations - I was in AWE! So, as photographers do, I got my camera out of my bag and started snapping pictures! The scene was incredibly tranquil, with the only sounds coming from the wildlife or the waves gently rolling over the rocks. It was a beautiful morning.
Elk Ranch Flats
After the adrenaline subsided (slightly), we got back in the 4 Runner and went to sleep for a few hours... Once we awoke, I broke out the map and decided we would head south and get a little distance from the Tetons to check out some of the overlooks and turnouts. Our first stop was Elk Ranch Flats Turnout. According to the U.S. National Park Service, this was formerly the ranch of the "Cattle King of Wyoming." The U.S. NPS says that by 1920, Josiah David Ferrin, or "Uncle Si," had 2,000 cattle on 400 acres out here. After learning that, it sort of put all of this land into perspective that although wild now, people lived on and off this land.
Fortunately for us, wildflowers weren't the only thing we'd be seeing at the Elk Ranch Flats Turnout! BISON! Oh, man!!! Our eyes had been PEELED for bison or any wildlife we may see - especially after the excitement from the antelope. Specifically, however, bison were on my list of big mammals to see, and upon spotting this herd, I naively thought to myself: "I can check that one off the list"... I had no idea what was coming next!
We continued our drive south, and no more than 15 seconds down the road, we saw it—alone, a male bison was grazing in a field. I was bewildered as bison, from what I know, are herd animals, and it was curious to see this bison grazing by himself. Nonetheless, I pulled over, hopped out of the car, grabbed my camera and mask, and took off to try and get a better vantage point of him.
The naked eye wouldn't have been able to see the detail in this bison, but thanks to my Sony zoom lens, I could take crystal clear photos from a safe distance. After taking some pictures, I stood there in amazement at just how giant bison is. This was undoubtedly the largest animal I had ever seen in the wild, over double the weight of an adult female black bear I saw in North Carolina.
Snake River Overlook
Next, we worked our way to Snake River Overlook. There is a famous shot taken here from Ansel Adams, a personal hero of mine. Ansel Adams was a renowned landscape photographer who spent the majority of his career photographing the American West. It's easy to see why with awe-inspiring views like these. To be able to capture a scene where Ansel Adams was with his camera was an honor.
According to Wikipedia, the Snake River is the most massive North Amerian River that empties into the Pacific Ocean. It rises in western Wyoming then flows through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. I captured these shots at about 4 pm before we made our way to Morman Row.
Homestead at Morman Row
I knew Morman Row was where I wanted to catch the sunset, so as we continued south towards Jackson, we stopped there to get a quick taste of Morman Row. It was reasonably busy with parkgoers, and knowing that I wanted to take a long exposure picture (lens stays open longer to capture more detail), that sunset here wasn't going to be ideal. When I take landscape pictures, I am always trying to capture as much detail as possible, which means long exposures with my camera on the tripod. Any movement in the frame from wildlife or humans could completely ruin a shot - keep in mind that I try and take as many pictures as possible as the environment is ever-changing during sunrise and sunset. I was able to capture two maybe three images of John Moulton's barn and decided it was time to move on and come back for the evening.
Mormon Row to Jackson, Wyoming
After leaving Mormon Row, we made our way to Jackson. Now, Jackson Hole Resort has been a winter bucket list of mine for a few years now - ever since I learned how to snowboard. Seeing legends like Travis Rice, Jimmy Chin, Ian Walsh, and plenty of others send it at Corbet's Couloir or in the Wyoming backcountry has made me want to rip this place up in the wintertime! So, my first taste of Jackson Hole was to be a drive to the city of Jackson.
Jackson was a beautiful mountain town on the front range with a rich history and culture. I would have loved nothing more than to spend a few hours walking around the historic downtown area, but the large crowds and the number of people without masks kept Becca and me in the car. Nonetheless, it worked out just fine because we got some Dairy Queen and found a nice little spot to picnic far away from everyone.
Sunset on Morman Row
We got back to Morman Row, but due to how crowded it was a John Moulton's barn, I decided it best to head further down Morman Row—introducing T.A. Molton's homestead. I took these during the same sunset and from the same location but told wildly different stories. Top left: The beautiful wildflowers and flora take center stage (well almost center) and help to provide even more color and scale to an incredible sunset. Top right: The rays of sunlight beaming over mountains and through the clouds, showcasing the barn and all of its former glory. Bottom left: Again, this location was settled primarily due to its proximity to Blacktail Butte. A butte, according to dictionary.com, is an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top. This picture shows a rain system being broken up by Blacktail Butte - also providing dramatic color! Bottom right: Once the sunk even further behind the Tetons, I decided to capture a somewhat straight-on shot of the barn. The long exposure helped to showcase some of the rays of light beaming from behind the Tetons.
Milky Way in Grand Tetons National Park
The sun had set on our first and, sadly, the only day at Grand Tetons National Park. But, the Park had one last gift under the tree - or rather in the sky! As Becca was trying to book a last-minute (super last-minute) spot for us to camp, I stepped outside and saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. The Milky Way. Wow. The light pollution was so low that I could see the entire core of the Milky Way stretch from horizon to horizon. It completely blew me away. Not only was the core was easy to see, but the stars also blanketed the night sky. I bet you won't guess what the first thing I did was! I grabbed my camera and tripod and set up for the shot below.