Every year around September, my husband, Tom, who was raised in the East, starts yearning for a taste of “real” autumn. For my part, I’d been longing to see the glories of some of the national parks that neither of us had ever visited. So when we made plans for our annual fall trip, we set our sights on Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, with Jackson Hole, Wyoming, serving as a surprisingly economical base.
Of course, Jackson Hole-with its Four Seasons Resort, $42 elk steaks, and three-acre lots selling for $1.5 million-is not typically regarded as a budget destination. But the views of the Tetons and the wildlife (including bison, antelope, and moose) cost nothing, and national park admission is one of the best travel values around. Real estate prices around Jackson Hole may be climbing as dramatically as the Tetons, but the sights, smells, and sounds of the mythic American West-cattle being driven to a new pasture, the cool scent of lodgepole pine, and the bugling of elk-are there for the taking.
Within minutes of unlocking the door to our one-bedroom rental condo in The Aspens on the evening we arrived in Jackson, I caught a glimpse of a fox-white tip blazing at the end of its bushy black tail-running past the sliding glass doors that opened onto the tiny patio of our downstairs unit. Figuring that was a good omen for wildlife sightings to come, we headed into Jackson Hole, eight miles away, to explore and grab some dinner.
“Hole” is mountain-man talk for a high valley completely surrounded by mountains, which is how the town got its nickname (officially, it’s just plain Jackson). The walkable downtown is dominated by art galleries, T-shirt shops, and Western-themed stores, along with the hotels, restaurants, and retail stores that abound in any resort town. The town square is a popular gathering spot, with the arch of elk antlers at each corner providing an irresistible photo op. Although the summer crowds had gone home, there were still enough people around to make the town feel lively, and we had to wait briefly in the bar of the Cadillac Grille before our table was ready.
Snow King Resort, on the southern edge of town, is a favored skiing destination in the wintertime. But in the last week of September, when we were in Jackson, Snow King and the other mountains ringing the main part of town were parched and brown after the dry, hot summer (daytime temps during our visit reached the 70s and 80s, dropping to the 20s and 30s at night). And ironically, considering Jackson is the seat of Teton County, the Grand Tetons aren’t visible from the center of town. I was glad we’d chosen to stay on the western edge of town; the drive along Highway 22 and Moose-Wilson Road took us past grazing cattle and horses, across the Snake River, and right toward the iconic jagged peaks of the Tetons.
On our first full day in Jackson, we drove to the nearest entrance of Grand Teton National Park ($25 per vehicle buys a pass valid for a week at both Grand Teton and Yellowstone) and set out for the Cascade Canyon Trail, which we reached via a short boat ride across Jenny Lake. After a couple of hours of easy hiking with glorious views of bald eagles, a waterfall, ancient moraines, and the still-snowcapped Tetons, we headed back across the lake, where a ranger at the visitors’ center informed Tom that Gros Ventre Junction (locals pronounce it grow VONT ) was a good wildlife viewing spot.
Waiting in our condo for dusk-prime wildlife time-we were paid a return visit by the fox, which we witnessed performing an impressive vertical leap into the tall grass as it hunted for its dinner. Thrilling as that was, we were stalking larger prey, so we set out along Highway 89. In the space of about an hour, we saw a magnificent bull elk emerging from the forest with his harem, a bull moose and his cow in a campground near the Gros Ventre River, and a herd of bison (buffalo is a misnomer) grazing alongside a herd of pronghorn antelope in the shadow of the Tetons. All of a sudden, “Home on the Range” didn’t seem like such a corny old song.
In the days to come, we would go on more hikes (the Taggart-Bradley Lake Trail and Phelps Lake Trail were favorites), watch the aspens turn gold and scarlet, and encounter more of the four-legged locals: a majestic bull moose browsing on brush near Oxbow Bend in the Snake River, plus mule deer, more elk, and so many bison we grew almost blase about them. One memorable morning, as we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast in the condo, a cow moose and her calf strolled past our sliding glass doors.
Aside from “our” fox and two coyotes, though, we saw no predatory mammals. Tom had been eager to see wolves, and I wanted to spot a bear-grizzly or black didn’t matter, as long as it was a safe distance away. We saw one large, furry canid in Yellowstone that sparked a spirited debate among our fellow spectators over whether it was a wolf or a coyote, but the two of us reluctantly concluded it was the latter (later confirmed by a ranger). And although signs along a bike path near our condo warned that black bears might use the path at this time of year, we saw no bears.
But these were only minor disappointments, and increased our appreciation for Old Faithful-a sight one can count on, with a fixed location, even if it sputtered for a while before putting on its full display. Twenty years after the fires that burned more than a third of its acreage, Yellowstone (the world’s first national park) still feels a little desolate, with the skeletons of charred lodgepole pines covering much of the landscape. But the sheer cliffs that tower over the Lewis River, near the park’s southern entrance, are stunning, and I wish now that we’d spent more time exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, formed by volcanoes and glaciers over hundreds of millennia.
Although we splurged on a two-hour guided horseback ride, led by a cowboy who called himself the Colonel (his facial hair reminded us more of General Custer), our most remarkable cowboy sighting occurred Sunday morning as we drove into town. Slowing when we saw the flashing blue lights of a sheriff’s vehicle, we were amazed to witness a column of black Angus and Hereford cows stretching for at least a mile-an honest-to-goodness cattle drive, with cowhands yelling “Hee-yah!” and hundreds of cattle kicking up dust, as the westbound traffic came to a standstill. The 21st century may have brought Wi-Fi coffeehouses, organic grocers, and ecotourism to Jackson, but the classic Western town built by fur-trappers can still show itself in the most unexpected ways.
How We Saved Money
- Flew from Santa Barbara to Salt Lake City (nonstop on Delta, booked online through Travelocity)
- Rented a car online through Hotwire
- Rented a condo (booked online through Travelocity; management company is Rendezvous Mountain Rentals, rmrentals.com, (888) 739-2565).
- Ate out sparingly; shopped for food at Jackson Whole Grocer. There was also an Albertsons nearby.