Unearthing Idaho — Grand Teton National Park

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho — My legs wobbled as the grueling gusts of wind forced me to take a knee. I looked ahead as tears welled in my eyes from the harsh wind. I was almost there, but my poor planning was starting to affect things.

The sun was setting, which meant I was losing light fast. With each step, the shadows became longer. I knew I had to make a decision, turn back now and reach my campsite safely or push forward and conquer the mountain.

My stubborn pride fought my rational thinking. I spent the last few hours climbing one of the most scenic peaks in the nation and I was almost finished. Only several hundred feet was between me and my goal of ascending the mountain and I was going to turn back now?

No.

I could make it.

I must.

A sudden burst of energy propelled me forward. With each confident step, I was closer to the peak. I jumped across the gaps in the rocks and scurried along the narrow ridges of the mountain path. I was going to reach the top!

That’s when I saw it. The last remaining light glistened across a massive slab of ice between me and the rest of the trail.

I was defeated.

I had ascended more than 6,000 feet from the start of my journey and was thwarted with only a few hundred left. Without ice axes or the time I needed to overcome the obstacle, I had to turn back.

I was upset, but I decided sometimes, as a human being, I have to respect nature and accept defeat.

After all, I had just experienced the most memorable and scenic trip of my life. I couldn’t let this setback ruin it.

I decided to spend one of the many long weekends I get in the Air Force at Grand Teton National Park. Until I visited Yellowstone National Park, which is just 10 miles north of this park, I hadn’t yet heard of the Tetons.

My interest piqued, I drove five hours to the small city of Jackson, Wyoming, just outside the park.

This upbeat ski resort town is a great place to shop, spend the night or simply experience the local culture. At its center sits a small park with impressive archways constructed of hundreds of elk antlers. A horse and buggy tour circles the park and quaint western-themed shops line the roads. I found it to be one of the most enjoyable cities in the West, especially since the entrance to the Tetons is only about 10 minutes down the road.

When I entered the park for the first time, I realized it would be a different experience from Yellowstone. The shear amount of visitors to the Tetons was substantially lower than what I experienced at its northern sibling around the same time of year.

Yellowstone was regularly packed with visitors and I rarely found a spot where I was alone. The Tetons, however, are different. It’s easier to get lost, and I mean that in a good way.

One of my favorite parts about the outdoors is being alone in nature. I enjoy the peace and serenity. Instead of having a few really impressive attractions, the Tetons are more spread out. The entire park is admired for its beauty. It’s hard to find an angle that isn’t awe-inspiring.

Rivers, crystal clear lakes and hundreds of species of animals seem to be almost always in view, not to mention the massive mountain range.

These gorgeous sights have more than 200 miles of hiking trails weaving throughout the landscape. But the number of trails can be somewhat daunting, so I recommend visiting one of the visitor centers located throughout the park in order to narrow them down.

While I couldn’t do them all, the few trails I was able to hike left me with some fantastic memories. I stumbled across yellow-bellied marmots, elk and even moose on my first two hikes, and the third gave me an experience I would never forget.

A huge black bear charged out of the brush about 200 feet from me and took down an elk. Caught in the moment, I missed the chance to get a picture, so it will remain one of those stories no one ever believes. Those are the moments I cherish — and the Tetons are chock full of them.

The park has all of the amenities you expect from a national wildlife area. There are plenty of road accessible camping areas, backcountry camping sites and fishing. Public restrooms are also available at most parking lots for trailheads.

In a lot of ways, Grand Teton National Park is similar to other parks: it has massive lakes, mountains and an abundance of wildlife. What really sets it apart, is its ability to instill the sense of adventure and seclusion without sacrificing general convenience. The views are some of the best I have ever seen, and the park remains my favorite travel destination in the West.

Anyone looking for a vacation without all the hustle and bustle of a world-renowned park should definitely consider Grand Teton National Park.

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