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Because the magnificent mountains of the Teton Range stand so tall, with the park curling snugly at their feet, visitors sometimes fail to appreciate the surrounding environment of rivers and high valley floor. The Tetons are a young range of old pre-Cambrian granite, abrupt and sharp-edged as they knife up from the Snake River valley along a 40-mile-long fault sculpted over the course of the last 13 million years, with help from geological upheaval, retreating glaciers, and erosion. The result is a masterpiece. Many visitors regard Grand Teton National Park -- with its shimmering lakes, thickly carpeted forests, and towering peaks blanketed with snow throughout most of the year -- as more dramatically and immediately scenic than its northern neighbor.

It's also a very accessible park. You can appreciate its breathtaking beauty on a quick drive-by, or take to the trails and waterways in search of backcountry lakes and waterfalls. The Tetons themselves are especially popular with mountain climbers, who scale them year-round.

There's a dynamic relationship between the Tetons and the valley below. The elk and other wildlife migrate from the high country down to the open grasslands to forage during the winter, when the snowmelt curls across the valley floor and west through a gap in the mountains, and the moraines and alluvial soils that slough off the mountains provide rich soil for the pastures below.

Visitors can float and fish the lively Snake River; visit the National Elk Refuge in the winter; hike in nearby ranges, such as the Wind River or the Gros Ventre; or play cowboy at one of the dude and guest ranches that dot the valley of Jackson Hole. Skiers and snowboarders have a blast on the slopes here, as well as at Grand Targhee on the other side of Teton Pass. And the chic town of Jackson, with its antler-arched square and its busy shops, offers everything from fly-fishing shops to classy art galleries to noisy two-step cowboy bars.

It's no one's idea of a fun vacation to end up inhaling exhaust behind a long line of cars waiting for a break in construction at Yellowstone's east entrance, or wearing a T-shirt in a Montana snowstorm. Few things can do more to ruin a much-anticipated vacation than poor planning. So look over some of the crucial information before you hit the road -- it might make the difference between a trip you'll never forget and one you'd rather not remember.

Making the Most of Your Trip

Yellowstone and Grand Teton are more than photo ops and zoos where the animals roam free. They aren't museums, either, where magnificent scenery is merely on display. Both parks, unlike a picture hanging lifelessly on the wall of a museum, are works in progress; they are living, breathing wilderness areas. Plant your feet in a comfortable pair of walking or hiking shoes, find a trail head, and set off into the woods with a sack lunch and a big bottle of water. Better yet, if you can afford the time, plan an excursion around Shoshone Lake or to the south end of Yellowstone Lake by boat to areas few visitors ever see. There are isolated spots in Grand Teton, too -- even on the far shore of popular Jenny Lake -- where, with a little hiking, you'll be rewarded by a pristine, forested glade with nothing to distract you but wild moose and an awe-inspiring mountaintop.

If you're more adventurous, take a white-water trip down Snake River Canyon, or let a guide take you up to Grand Teton's summit. In Yellowstone, sleep under the stars and listen to the wolves howl at Slough Creek Campground; or backpack for a week on the Thorofare Trail.

You'll never plumb the absolute depths of these parks -- no one ever will. You could spend your whole life trying, though, and have a wonderful and illuminating time doing it.

Although Grand Teton National Park is much smaller than Yellowstone, there is more to it than just its peaks, a dozen of which climb to elevations greater than 12,000 feet. The park's manageable length -- 54 miles from north to south -- allows visitors to get a good look at the highlights in a day or two. But you'd also be missing a great deal: the beautiful views from its trails, an exciting float on the Snake River, and the watersports paradise that is Jackson Lake.

Whether your trip is half a day or 2 weeks, the park's proximity to the town of Jackson, Wyoming, allows for an interesting trip that combines the outdoors with the urbane. You can descend Grand Teton and be living it up at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar or dining in a fine restaurant that evening. The next day, you can return to the peace of the park without much effort at all.

Packing 

Nothing will ruin a trip to the parks faster than sore or wet feet. Bring comfortable walking shoes, even if you plan to keep walking to a minimum. Bring shoes that are broken in, and if you plan to do some serious hiking, get sturdy boots that support your ankles and wick away water. Early in the season, trails might be wet or muddy; late in the fall, you can get snowed on. The more popular trails are sometimes also used by horses, which can make stream crossings a mucky mess.

Wear your clothing in layers, and bring a small, empty backpack or fanny pack so that you have somewhere to put the clothes as you take those layers off and on as temperature, altitude, and your level of physical exertion change. Cotton is a no-no in the backcountry; synthetic fabrics are recommended because they dry much faster. Gloves or mittens are useful before the park heats up, or in the evening when it cools down again, even in summer.

The atmosphere is thin at higher altitudes, so protect your skin. Bring a strong sunblock, a hat with a brim, and sunglasses. I also recommend bringing insect repellent, water bottles, and a first-aid kit.

Take into account that elevations at the parks are between 5,000 and 11,000 feet; in campgrounds and on hiking trails, you'll want clothing appropriate to the temperatures -- in summer, 40°F (4°C) in the evening, 75°F (24°C) during the day.

For more helpful information on packing for your trip, download our convenient Travel Tools app for your mobile device. Go to www.frommers.com/go/mobile and click on the Travel Tools icon.


Planning a Backcountry Trip

While I’ve given the particulars for both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in their respective chapters (see chapters 3 and 5), the following tips are useful when planning a backcountry trip.

Regulations

The theme in the backcountry is “leave no trace,” and that means packing out any garbage you take in, not taking pets, and avoiding leaving scars on the landscape by staying on designated trails and reusing existing campsites. Fires are allowed only in established fire rings, and only dead and downed material may be used for firewood; fires are prohibited in some areas, but backpacking stoves are allowed throughout the parks. You must have a park permit for overnight stays in the backcountry. There’s a complete list of do’s and don’ts in the Backcountry Trip Planner, available at most visitor centers. For more information on “leave no trace” ethics, see www.lnt.org.

Backpacking for Beginners

Be sure to wear comfortable, sturdy hiking shoes that will resist water if you’re planning an early-season hike; cotton socks are not a good idea because the material holds moisture, whereas wool and synthetics, such as fleece, wick it away from your body. Your sleeping bag should be rated for the low temperatures found at high elevations; if you bring a down bag, keep it dry or suffer the consequences. A lightweight sleeping pad is a must. An internal frame backpack with good padding, a lumbar support pad, and a wide hip belt helps ensure a comfortable trip. Be sure that you’ve tried out the pack and boots—wear them around the house!—before you take it on a long trip with heavy loads, so that you’ll have time to break them in.

Personal Safety Issues

 

It’s best not to backpack alone, but if you must, be sure that you have told park rangers and friends where you’ll be and how long you’ll be gone. Don’t leave the parking lot without the following gear: a compass, topographical maps, a first-aid kit, bug repellent, toilet paper, a headlamp, matches, a knife, food supplies, a bear-resistant food container (required in Grand Teton) if your campsite doesn’t have a bear pole, bear spray, as well as a tent, a stove, and a sleeping bag. At this altitude, sunscreen and sunglasses with UV protection are also wise. You’ll also need water treatment pills or a good water filter, because that seemingly clear stream could be filled with parasites that are likely to cause intestinal disorders. If you don’t have either, bring water to a boil before you drink it. 

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.