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 geologically 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 Great Smoky Mountains, by comparison, uplifted some 270 million years ago). 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 most of the year—as more dramatically 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; in spring, 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; 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 outfitters to classy art galleries to rowdy two-stepping crowds at cowboy bars.