Separated by a mere 10 kilometres of highway, Grand Teton and Yellowstone allow you to tick two natural beauties off your bucket list while also providing two entirely different experiences in the process. In Grand Teton, it’s all about the animals. Home to the National Elk Refuge, a dawn tour across the plains offers endless photo opportunities of these oddly entertaining beasts as they buck and snort while the looming snow-capped peaks turn pink in the morning sun. Of course, wherever there are cud-chewing ungulates, there are also bound to be razor-toothed predators. And so it is that, within the hour, our guide, Jessie – an infectiously jubilant bloke who talks lovingly about the park as if it were his first-born child – has us gazing upon a grizzly bear gorging itself on the tattered carcass of an unfortunate elk. Circling the scene are shadowy packs of coyotes and foxes, waiting for their share of the feast. Occasionally the grizzly raises its head and casts a meaningful glance at the interlopers. Wisely, they keep their distance. Our bloodlust sated, we roll on, ticking off the other creatures that call these sweeping plains home: buffalo, moose, bald-headed eagles, wolves, deer and otters.
If the fauna takes central stage in Grand Teton, then it’s geology that’s the star of the show in Yellowstone – the first patch of land in the US to be granted national park status. Situated directly above a hotspot in the Earth’s crust (think oceans of magma swirling uncomfortably close to the soles of your hiking boots), the geothermal activity in Yellowstone is truly something to behold. I found my jaw involuntarily sagging open as I took in the Old Faithful Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. My tip? Bring an extra memory card for your camera.
If the sight of a grizzly casually dismantling the body of an elk doesn’t scare you back to the safety of your hotel, the Grand Tetons offer sparkling opportunities for outdoor fun. While the mountains may look wildly foreboding, they are actually scored by well-worn hiking routes of all difficulties, from peaceful lakeside trails to airy climbs that take you high into the clouds. If your legs could do with a break, grab a kayak and paddle the lakes, or try rafting down the Snake River.
A stellar winter playground, Jackson Hole is situated within striking distance of both national parks. Wedged between the Teton Range and Snake River, this valley-floor town was once considered the wildest west, and while it may now play host to a more salubrious clientele, the charm of its raucous past has not been lost. As I stroll the plank-lined footpaths, I feel a powerful urge to channel my inner John Wayne via a ten-gallon hat and a spot of crab walking. Shortly thereafter, the urge becomes all but insatiable as we wander into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – a former drinking hole of The Duke. If whiskey and spittoons aren’t your thing, the Jackson Hole aerial tram could be. The giant gondola takes you over 1200 vertical metres above the valley to a stunning 360° vista of the Grand Teton range.
Filled with heritage buildings, both national parks offer a slice of history at each stop. Opened in 1955, Jackson Lake Lodge offers million-dollar views of the Teton Range. Sit in the lavish lobby where US and Soviet officials met in 1989 – a meeting that helped further the increasing Cold War détente. Or opt for the more ursine pleasure of downing bison burger. Prefer something a little less gamey? Retreat to Spur Dining, where head chef Kevin Humphries selects his produce from local organic sources. After tucking into the organic grass-fed Wyoming beef rib eye with white cheddar potato purée, paired with a cold lager from the local Snake River brewing company, I feel like I’ve discovered another of the Grand Teton’s native wonders.
In the heart of Teton Village, the Teton Mountain Lodge offers all the on-mountain luxury you’d see in a James Bond flick. Featuring a gym, full-service restaurant and bar, massage and spa facility, and indoor and outdoor pools with hot tubs, you may find it a struggle to drag your pampered carcass into the wild.
Qantas (qantas.com) flies direct to San Francisco. From there, it’s a short connecting flight to Jackson Hole.