A Change of Mind and HeartI was tired of the Tetons before I'd even visited them. How many times would I have to see the same old picture from the Snake River Overlook or from Oxbow Bend? How many calendars, car ads, and other media products would just keep beating those images to death? By the time I got to the Tetons for the first time, in July 1997, I wanted to do little more than drive through and get somewhere else. The crowded overlooks and pullouts, the slow and inattentive drivers, the commercialism, the pretentiousness of Jackson--- they all made me want to get far away as quickly as I could. When I visited again the following summer, I felt mostly the same way.
In late March of 1999, though, things began to change. I found a Grand Teton National Park that was quiet and buried in snow; coyote tracks in the drifts were the only signs that someone else was out there, too. Although the bitterly cold winds kept me in my car most of the time, the majesty of the mountains, clad in white from crown to toe, made an indelible impression.
July 2001 came along, and I figured I had to suck it up and endure the crowds so that I could experience the backcountry of these mountains and get a taste of what they were really about. On July 18, I took the eye-opening and exhilarating loop through Cascade and Paintbrush Canyons, and I had most of the good stuff, even Lake Solitude, to myself thanks to a dawn start. That hike alone convinced me that the Tetons were easily among America's most spectacular mountains.
I had planned only to hike up to where Cascade Canyon splits into its north and south forks; first, I was early in my trip and didn’t feel ready for an epic high-altitude day hike yet, and, second, I expected amply rewarding scenery along my intended route. At the fork, however, I felt incredibly strong (I think I’d “hiked myself into shape” two days earlier in the Bridger Wilderness) and unsatisfied; the canyon was not high and open enough, and I felt hemmed in. I chose to go the extra 2.7 miles to Lake Solitude, knowing spectacular scenery lay that way. At the lake, where I did, surprisingly, find solitude for about fifteen minutes, I still felt great, and the touted Paintbrush Divide was just two miles and 1600’ (up) away. There was no debate.
This 23-mile trek through unbelievably gorgeous high country was one of the best hikes and decisions I have ever made. The views west on the way up to the divide were, in my opinion, even better than those from the wind-blasted apex above. There was measurable satisfaction in seeing Mount Moran from a vantage point so different from that in all the calendars and guides one finds. It was almost like discovering a secret. Upper Paintbrush Canyon is also one of the most spectacular alpine environments one can find.
The hike was worth the exhaustion, and my dinner and cold beer later were the perfect reward for it.
But I got my first summit, albeit an easy one, the next day. Starting at dawn once again, I hiked through a quiet Death Canyon--- only a solitary moose was out there with me--- and up to Static Peak Divide, a trip of eight miles and 4000' gained that took about three hours. The views of the mountains and off-trail places like Saddlerock Lake as the trail climbed to the divide were spectacular. The views from the divide itself were better.
Studying my map, I decided I had to see Timberline Lake, and the only way to do so was to hike up to the summit of Static Peak, a steep but short effort. Up there, where the wind is more than a gentle, refreshing breeze, I saw the partially icebound lake and sweeping 360-degree views that included, from a perspective I'd never seen before, the Grand itself.
I also met my first human company of the day up there. A German hiker had taken a detour from his group in Alaska Basin to head up Static Peak, and we talked a bit and took each other's picture. And I made an incredible blunder--- unfamiliar with that view of the Grand, I read my map incorrectly and told him the Grand was the South Teton. Closer studying later on revealed my error, but I still think of that guy and hope he ultimately got some better information than what I gave him.
Back down and out I went, and this time it took less than three hours, but what a changed setting! Down in Death Canyon near the ranger cabin, literally dozens of people splashed and swam in the creek, and the place seemed more like a water park or community pool in a suburban area than a lovely canyon in a great national park. I had to hold my nose as I edged by and through all those people, but they could not take away what I'd found above, what few of them would ever bother to try and what even fewer could actually do.
So call me a convert. I have been back several times, and I hope to return. I will inveigh against the crowds in this park, but I also know how to avoid them for the most part. Don't make the mistake I did--- letting your disdain for crowds, commercialization, and popular taste keep you away from these incredible mountains. Just go early, hike far, and climb high. I can almost guarantee you won't be disappointed.