They call the range of mountain peaks at Jackson Hole the Grand Tetons, although there is actually one peak in the range that is identified as “Grand Teton.” Whether you choose to believe the name is derived from the French term for large breasts or the Native-American Teton Sioux tribe, the adjective is about the best we can come up with to describe this majestic geological feature — GRAND. But when you are standing on the deck of Jackson Lake Lodge, or sitting inside the lobby with its 60-foot tall windows, peering across the great expanse of land and water at those rocky crags rising thousands of feet into the sky, you soon realize that a word like “grand” doesn’t touch it. Somehow, this is one of those sights, for me at least, that language fails to describe, that photographs cannot completely reproduce, that videos do not totally capture. Of course, recognizing all of this did not stop me from making video clips and taking photographs, like the one here. Grand Teton National Park is another one of those places I have had the joy of visiting where I am reminded how small I am and just how magnificent the natural world is. Put it on your bucket list.
Before my wife, younger son, and I made our trip to Yellowstone this summer, we did like so many other families do before major trips and spent some time reading about the park, its unique features and characteristics, places of particular interest, and potential hazards to avoid. I even watched a few videos about Yellowstone, both professionally-produced and amateur. Of course, one of the major elements that brings millions to this park every year is the wildlife, and for most visitors, the principle of “the bigger the better” holds true. Most of us want to see a bear, at least from a safe distance, but they tend to stay away from the roadways — we were lucky enough to see a mother and her cub the last day we were there. The elk and moose are quite impressive in the size category too. We saw several elk but not a moose.
The largest creature in the park, at least by weight, is one that is not very shy at all. According to the National Park Service website about Yellowstone, this park “is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times. Yellowstone bison are exceptional because they comprise the nation’s largest bison population on public land and are among the few bison herds that have not been hybridized through interbreeding with cattle. Unlike most other herds, this population has thousands of individuals that are allowed to roam relatively freely over the expansive landscape of Yellowstone National Park and some nearby areas of Montana. They also exhibit wild behavior like their ancient ancestors, congregating during the breeding season to compete for mates, as well as migration and exploration that result in the use of new habitat areas. These behaviors have enabled the successful restoration of a population that was on the brink of extinction just over a century ago.”
We knew that bison often made their way to the major roadways in the park and that traffic could be stopped for significant periods of time for herds of the animals to pass. What we didn’t expect was that sometimes the bison actually use the roads as a path, slowly ambling their way along the pavement, almost as if they are curious about the visitors and have arrived for an inspection. There are close to 5,000 bison in the park, so sightings of large herds are frequent. Professional and amateur photographers come out before daybreak to claim their favorite spots on small hills in the bison hotspots, such as Hayden Valley, to get the best shots of the beasts in their natural environment. However, as we discovered on our first day at Yellowstone, you can get a pretty good close-up photograph of a bison from the window of your car, as so many visitors have been doing for years. I took this one from my window as we waited for a group of the animals to clear the road.
Notice that these hooved creatures are following the center yellow line, almost as if it were a trail marker. They were walking along slowly, seemingly with no fear or even regard for the nearby vehicles and their occupants. The dangerous assumption by some park visitors is that these are harmless animals, but as calm as they seem to be, they can become extremely aggressive and dangerous if approached or if they feel threatened. Park literature and signs are abundant warning people to stay a very safe distance from all wild animals in the park , especially bears and bison. Several visitors are seriously injured each year from foolish encounters with bison.
As these massive animals passed our car, I was taken with how they brought everything to a standstill, commanding the right of way. They marched through like royalty participating in a parade — the trooping of the colors as it were. In many ways, the park is theirs, along with the other multitude of species that call Yellowstone home, as it should be. I wish people would always keep in mind that we are only visitors, and as such, we should be on our best behavior to ensure that places like Yellowstone are preserved and treasured.
There are still plenty of outdoor places in America you can visit that are protected enough to offer a glimpse at how the landscape on this continent may have appeared to early native inhabitants and explorers. A prime example are some of the national parks. I think the National Park Service is one of the best government programs of all, and I wish our federal leaders would find some other areas to cut funding and leave this division alone. We have some incredible treasures around the country, several of which I have visited. I have never been disappointed.
One of the best parks to visit to experience what I am describing is Yosemite National Park in the High Sierra region of California. First protected in 1864, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, but within its nearly 1,200 square miles, you can find deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, a vast wilderness area, and much more. There are so many places in this park where you can stand, and for as far as the eye can see, there is no sign of civilization. The vistas are absolutely breathtaking, including perhaps the most photographed view of all from just beyond the tunnel on Wawona Road, where the valley opens up and welcomes you to what many people refer to as God’s Cathedral. Indeed, the scene is like a place of worship on a monumental scale, and for those who have any appreciation at all for the beauty of the natural world, it invokes a sense of reverence and awe.
My wife and I joined up with a good friend of ours there in July, 2013, staying several nights in a cabin and spending our days hiking along the valley floor and up to one of the high spots overlooking the valley. Yosemite is another one of those places that reminds me just how small I am and how magnificent this planet is. John Muir, the famous naturalist who helped draw up the proposed boundaries of the park in 1889, described Yosemite as being “full of God’s thoughts, a place of peace and safety amid the most exalted grandeur and enthusiastic action, a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons of life, mountain building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stone, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful with humanity.”