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The Youngest Range of the Rockies

The Youngest Range of the Rockies

 The Youngest Range of the Rockies

BONE WEARY, we pulled out the camp stove and set about making breakfast. We had driven nearly 3,000 miles [5,000 km] in five days, traveling from New York to Wyoming. As we ate breakfast, we took in our surroundings.

The bright sunlight was dazzling, the air crisp and fresh. But this was like none of our previous roadside picnics—the view was stunning! We were dining near the shore of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park. Before us lay majestic mountain scenery. Nothing in our 10,000-mile [16,000 km] tour of the West had proved to be quite so spectacular. We knew that if we were ever given the opportunity to return, we would.

Grand Teton is some 13,770 feet [4,200 m] tall, and a dozen other peaks in this range reach over 12,000 feet [3,700 m]. Though certainly nothing to scoff at, they are not the highest of mountains. Depending on your approach by automobile, you might even miss the Teton Range. From the western side, you might merely observe that the land slopes gently upward—hardly something to write home about! Approached from the eastern side, though, these mountains rise abruptly out of the plains to tower more than a mile over the valley below. They really command attention.

Our Return Visit

After years of wishing, we finally did manage to return. This time we flew into Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and drove north to the Tetons. Come along as we start our day at glacial, jewellike Jenny Lake, which lies just under the tallest peaks in this range.

Our skin tingles in the coolness of the early morning air. The sun has not yet risen, but we are not alone. Other hardy  souls are up and about. Some photographers want to capture the glories of the mountains bathed in shades of pink and gold by the first shafts of morning light. Suddenly we freeze—staring straight at us is a large doe! She stiffens, alert and wary, for her fawn is feeding no more than ten yards [9 m] away from us. We reach for our camera ever so slowly. Holding our breath, we aim, focus, and shoot. We breathe; our day at Jenny Lake is just beginning.

Joining a knot of hikers boarding a shuttle boat, we are soon at the base of the mile-long trail that climbs to Inspiration Point. We exit the boat, and the coolness of the forest quickly envelopes us. As the steep trail leads us upward, the lake falls away behind. We begin to hear the thunder of distant waterfalls. Panting, we emerge from the forest and pause on a rocky outcrop. We bask in the bright morning light and gulp in deep breaths of cool alpine air. Stretched out below us lies Jenny Lake, a shimmering patch of sapphire blue. Set within a ribbon of trees that stand on a distinctive mound, the lake appears to be the work of a master jeweler.

Towering above us are the mountain spires known as the Cathedral Group. In the 1930’s, Dr. Fryxell, a naturalist who studied this range, wrote: “Towering above all else, with pointed summits [these peaks] direct one’s vision and thoughts yet higher.” Filled with wonder, we drink in the grandeur of Inspiration Point. Already we feel well rewarded for our efforts. But there is more.

The trail is surprisingly level now as it weaves along the  bottom of Cascade Canyon. Rocky cliffs soon tower above us, and torrents careen down their sides. We wonder, ‘What forces shaped this place?’ Suddenly, we’re confronted by an excited child. She is hardly able to contain herself. Breathless, she whispers: “We spotted a moose! Hurry, you can see it too!”

Thoughts about how these mountains were shaped are pushed aside. Grabbing our camera, we get ready to take a shot of one of the magnificent animals that roam this park. The girl leads us to a vantage point. Their voices hushed, the rest of her family point. There, in a marshy bog along the river, we spot the bull moose. Gazing in amazement, camera raised, we whisper about our blessing in being here at the right moment.

Geology and Plates

With so much to see, it is easy to forget to ask about the history of this remarkable landscape. However, the park makes every effort to inform and educate the public, publishing a number of pamphlets and providing for group hikes led by ranger-naturalists.

It was explained that although the earth under our feet may feel quite firm, in a way it’s like a frozen lake in springtime—not as solid as it appears! Geologists have come to believe the theory that the earth’s crust is made up of a number of tectonic plates and that these plates, resting on seas of molten rock, are in motion. For us, the point of interest in the theory is that when these plates bump against each other, mountain ranges may form as a result.

In the case of the Teton Range, it seems that one plate acted somewhat like a crowbar, prying up the other. The result is what geologists call a fault-block mountain front. The Teton Range, they say, was formed relatively recently, in geologic terms. Thus our park pamphlet calls it “the youngest and most dramatic range in the Rocky Mountain chain.”

 Water and Ice as Sculptors

We found these answers fascinating, but they raised even more questions. We thought about our hike at Jenny Lake. What could account for the jaggedness of those peaks? Then, too, what about that distinctive mound around the lake, so overgrown with trees? The geologists’ answer? Water is behind it all. The theory is that sometime in the distant past, glaciers carved out the canyons of the Teton Range. That mound around the lake, known as a moraine, was formed by moving ice. This moraine held back some of the now-melted glacier and also retained the better soil.

That theory would account for the richness of the plant life around the lake, especially compared to the barren-looking gravel beds and sagebrush of the nearby plains. Intrigued, we encouraged the ranger-naturalist to tell us more. A different phenomenon, she said, was behind the jagged shape of those mountain pinnacles. She called it frost-wedging. Water works its way into crevices in the rock, expanding when it freezes. This force eventually pries sections of rock free, leaving a chiseled look. We warmly thanked her for her lecture and her enthusiasm for these mountains.

The Animals

Besides remarkable geology, the area is rich in animal life. This made our trip down the famous Snake River more memorable. As we took in the scenery, we watched bald eagles and ospreys soar and then dive toward the river to catch fish. Our boat guide, a trained biologist, pointed out something that surprised us. Despite the bald eagle being greater in size and having a more dramatic appearance, the osprey is really the superior fisherman. He told us that he had seen eagles steal fish from ospreys. Sure enough, we watched as a bald eagle moved in on a young osprey. The osprey abandoned its catch and took to flight.

Viewing wildlife in its natural setting was a real thrill for us. The National Elk Refuge is nearby, and many of the elk spend the summer in Grand Teton National Park. We often pulled over to gaze at herds of elk lazily feeding. At other times, we perched on the veranda of our lodge to see moose peacefully feeding among the willows. At night these creatures appeared to play to the crowds that gathered to watch them graze. Though tired, we would linger just to gaze at what we city dwellers so seldom see—a near-black canopy of sky sparkling with stars.

Our last day brought us a farewell treat. Fear mingled with awe as we drove right through the midst of a herd of bison. The herd of these massive, shaggy beasts stretched out on both sides of the road. How we hated to leave! But it was time to go.

As we sat in the plane awaiting takeoff, we reflected on our visit. We savored what was briefly ours—the mountains, the alpine air, and the animals. How thrilling to be able to fulfill the yearning we had long felt to revisit the Teton Range! Truly, the youngest offspring of the Rocky Mountains is a beautiful child.

[Box/Picture on page 19]

Some Suggestions for Visitors

Give yourself time to get adjusted to the thinner air. The valley floor itself is well over 6,000 feet [1,800 m] above sea level. Some tourists from lower altitudes may feel the effects of altitude sickness, such as headaches or irritability. Older folks, especially those with heart trouble or respiratory ailments, may find it advisable to talk to their doctor before making such a trip.

Prepare properly before you hike. Keep in mind that the high altitude and semiarid conditions tend to dehydrate the body rapidly. Bring plenty of water.

This is a wilderness park, with many large and beautiful, but wild, animals. Some visitors are eager to get up close, but the animals may react unpredictably. Listen to and follow the rangers’ advice on how to interact with wild creatures in their environment. Besides being interesting, the rangers’ words may prove lifesaving.

[Maps on page 17]

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Mount Moran, Teton Range

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Upper Cascade Canyon

[Picture on page 18]


[Picture on page 18]

Bald eagle

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Sunset in the Tetons

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Bull moose