|Sculptor Bud Boller's bronze ''Cowboy'' in the town square in Jackson, Wyo. Farther north, at Yellowstone National Park, bison are thriving after herds had almost disappeared. (PHOTOS BY JOHN NICHOLAS RICCARDI/FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)|
Wildlife, lush life cohabit in Wyoming's Tetons
JACKSON, Wyo. - Standing by the Snake River in the hushed dark of morning, I screwed my camera onto my tripod at Schwabacher Landing and tried to focus on the blue-gray snow-capped mountains in the distance. My husband, John, an avid photographer, and I had been up since 4:30 to catch the sunrise over the Teton Range, the youngest of the mountains in the Rocky Mountain system.
This picturesque part of Wyoming is prized for its skiing. The area receives an annual average of 460 inches of snow and Rendezvous Mountain at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has the country's largest vertical rise (4,139 feet) served by one lift system. Yet, we were not here to ski. We had come to savor the area's wildlife, nature, cuisine, and balmy weather. Around 6:30, my magic moment came when the warm light of dawn spread across the sky, bathing the snowy peaks in pink, orange, yellow, and then gold. Click.
Of all the times to visit the Tetons, the most idyllic season is fall. Spring is muddy and raw, summer teems with tourists - over 3 million of them - and winter freezes over with 30-below-zero temperatures, ice, and snow. Autumn is cool without being cold and has a soft, soulful calmness, as wildlife and nature prepare for winter. The colors become richer and more vibrant as the aspens and mountain maples turn orange-red, providing a warm contrast to the brilliant blue lakes and sky. What's more, hiking, biking, shopping, and dining are at their peak.
"Fall is delicious," says David Brookover, a fine art photographer and owner of the Brookover Gallery in Jackson. "It's the harvest season, and you can feel crispness in the air. The light is heading into the southern quadrant, so it's softer and less harsh than summer. The colors are not so monochromatic either. Instead of green, blues, and grays, you have blue, gray, gold, and red. Nature really puts on a show."
One of the best ways to enjoy the area's physical beauty is to immerse yourself in it. You can fly fish, raft, or even swim in the Snake. At Jackson Hole Mountain Resort you can ride a gondola to the top of the mountain, where you can hike or even paraglide to the bottom. Area outfitters offer bicycles to rent, horseback riding, golf, and hot air ballooning. Then, of course, there is hiking. We spent numerous hours trekking around several scenic spots, including String Lake, Oxbow Bend, and Jenny Lake.
One of the biggest attractions of the Tetons is the wildlife. The area boasts more than 60 species of mammals, including black and grizzly bears, moose, elk, and antelope, and over 100 species of birds, such as the bald eagle, osprey, and trumpeter swan. The best time to spot animals is in September and October when they are out looking for mates.
For a terrific (and safe) way to see the animals, drive through Yellowstone National Park, which in 1872 became the world's first national park. Encompassing 2.2 million acres, it showcases approximately 10,000 active thermal features, ranging from small, rust-colored geysers to the world-renowned Old Faithful, which erupts every 60 to 90 minutes. One of the highlights of the park is the boiling mud pots. Snow-white in color, they look like massive open kettles of bubbling béchamel.
Motoring through Grand Teton National Park, founded in 1929, offers another way to see the wildlife. For breathtaking views of the entire Teton Range, Jackson Hole valley, and Jackson Lake, you can drive five miles up Signal Mountain Summit Road to the top of Signal Mountain. For a more grounded experience, you can stroll along eight miles of woodland trails at the newly open 1,106-acre Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve, a longtime summer retreat for the Rockefeller family.
It was the area's abundant wildlife that first drew early explorers to the valley. Before 1800, the only people who traveled to what is now Jackson Hole - the mountain area along the Snake that includes Teton Village and the town of Jackson - were Native American tribes, who came to hunt buffalo and other large game.
In the early 1800s, trappers poured into the area to trade beaver pelts, which were made into hats. By 1845, however, the fur trade had dried up because silk hats had become the preferred style. As a result, in the 1890s cattle ranching became the area's main focus. The town of Jackson was established in 1894 and still retains much of its original character, as seen in the wooden sidewalks that surround the town square, now marked with an arch of elk antlers.
Nowadays, besides the wildlife, the Teton territory has become a mecca for the arts. Numerous feature films have been made on location in Jackson Hole, including "Shane" in 1953, "Spencer's Mountain" in 1963, "Any Which Way You Can" in 1980, and "Rocky IV" in 1985. The Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival, which began in 1991, is a biennial event scheduled next for October 2009.
Through Oct. 13, the town will host Destination Wellness, a program aimed to promote the health of the mind, body, spirit, and earth. "Wellness is one of the largest growing travel trends," says Kate Foster, communications manager at Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce. There are over 800 medical professionals in the Jackson Hole area, as well as myriad spas and resorts, offering all kinds of Eastern and Western treatments."
One of the nicest resorts in the area is the newly open Hotel Terra, a hip, eco-friendly spot in Teton Village, where we spent several nights. One of the property's highlights was Chill Spa, where luxurious body treatments feature sea salts, berries, algae, and other natural ingredients. Another highlight was the downstairs restaurant-wine bar, Il Villagio Osteria, where we had our first taste of Teton cuisine: duck ravioli and wild boar and caramelized onion pizza.
Great dining is at a premium in this part of the world, where outdoor activity tends to dominate the day's agenda. Many restaurants feature mountain cooking, which includes hearty dishes such as the juicy ribeye of bison and rare venison with huckleberries, which we enjoyed, respectively, at The Peak and elegant Westbank Grill in the Four Seasons Resort Jackson Hole. One can enjoy exceptional local river trout, and locally-grown vegetables, like the Wyomato, a Wyoming tomato.
Given the Tetons' many charms, it's hard not to develop a soft spot for this special part of Wyoming. Over and over - from waitresses, bartenders, shopkeepers, and artists - we kept hearing about people who came for a vacation and decided to stay.
"There's just something about this place that's very laid back and accepting," says Foster, who came for the summer in 1997 and has lived in the area ever since. "There is such an eclectic hodgepodge of talented people living here and there is just so much to do. This place has a way of getting to everyone who comes here."
Victoria Abbott Riccardi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.