The Northwest corner of Wyoming is pretty special-- I mean, it's got two National Parks! And, what's more, those two National Parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton) are both totally unique and special in their own rights. The stretch of land in between the two is a transitional landscape, where the otherworldly geothermal landscape of Yellowstone ends and the dramatic, snow-capped granite peaks of the Tetons begins. And, as an added bonus, the winding Snake River cuts through the area, lending its beauty to the scene. The 24,000-acre swath of land was named for American financier and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. who donated the land to the National Park Service (one of many donations he made to National Parks across the globe). As you set out from the town of Jackson, with the mountains and the river stretched out before you, you'll be treated to the sights and sounds of the wilderness as it was meant to be experienced.
Since you'll likely be seeing loads of wildlife along the route, make a stop at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. It offers insight into the habitat and the creatures in it through the fascinating lens of how humans interpret their relationship with wildlife through art. The building itself, inspired by a Scottish castle, ties seamlessly into the hillside, and boasts 14 galleries of art, primarily in the styles of traditional and contemporary realism. Look for pieces by famous figures like John James Audubon, N.C. Wyeth, Auguste Rodin, Picasso, Rembrandt, Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and countless others, all tying into the wildlife theme. The coolest thing about the Museum, though? Their outdoor sculpture trail. The trail is free and open to the public, offering stunning views of the nearby National Elk Refuge and, of course, sculptures depicting some of the animals you're likely to see along your journey from Jackson.
As you plunge further into the Tetons, take a moment to stop at the Chapel of the Transfiguration. Even if you aren't feeling particularly spiritual when you visit, at the very least, peek in to check out the view of the Cathedral Peaks, which are perfectly framed through a window behind the altar. The whole chapel itself oozes Western rustic charm. From the exposed log walls and the chain-pull bell to the beveled plank door and the ironwork, it's totally picture-perfect. The chapel came to be in the 1920s, originally serving as a place where ranchers and visitors to dude ranches could come to worship, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
One of the most photographed barns in all of America, the T.A. Moulton Barn is an icon of Grand Teton National Park. Thomas Alma Moulton and his sons built it between 1912 and 1945, taking 30 years to perfect it. Right next to it is the barn built by his brother, John Moulton. Also be on the lookout for John Moulton's famous pink stucco farmhouse. If you're lucky, you might have some bison wander into frame as you snap photos of the old wooden buildings with the Teton Range behind them!
The Moulton barns are on the outskirts of what is known as the Mormon Row Historic District in Grand Teton National Park. Located along the Antelope Flats, Mormon Row consists of six groups of homesteads built by Mormon settlers between 1908 and 1950. The most complete ranch on Mormon Row is the Andy Chambers Ranch Historic District, with a house, barn, garage and other various outbuildings all dating to the 1920s still standing. Again, as with the Moulton Barns, be on the lookout for herds of bison roaming through!
The Cunningham Cabin predates Mormon Row, and is the best place to experience Grand Tetons' change from ranching area to National Park. The cabin was built in 1880 in a unique "Appalachian" style by John and Margaret Cunningham, who had staked their claim on the land for their Bar Flying U Ranch. The cabin even saw a gunfight between a U.S. Marshal, posse and all, and some suspected horse thieves who were staying with the Cunninghams. Eventually, the couple built a house and the cabin became their smithy and barn. The Cunninghams found success at ranching until the end of WWI, when an agricultural depression set in. But, in the 1920s, they started to see the value of the Tetons as more than just ranchland... they saw the valley as a potential playground for tourists. He and his neighbor teamed up to get a petition signed by 97 other ranchers; the petition called for a buyout of ranchers' land to be donated for a National Park. In 1928, Cunningham sold the Bar Flying U Ranch to the Snake River Land Company, which eventually donated 35,000 acres of land for the National Park. Watch out for bison at this site as well!
Sure, there's a lot of history as you make your way through Grand Teton National Park to the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway, but there's also a lot of simple natural beauty as well. Oxbow Bend is one of the must-visit spots for anyone cruising through. As you admire the landscape, which features a widening Snake River with Mount Moran in the background, notice the wildlife in the area as well. You might spy a grizzly bear, a majestic moose, adorably playful river otters, and black bears, along with waterfowl and various birds of prey.
The John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway officially starts at the northern edge of Jackson Lake. It's one of the largest high-altitude lakes in the US, at 15 miles long, 7 miles wide and a surface elevation of 6,772 feet. The water temperature stays at a refreshing 60 degrees, even in the dead of summer. It's prime for fishing, with native species like Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat trout, mountain whitefish, gills and slimy hammer handles, along with brown and lake trout. A few lodges and some marinas line the shores of the lake, including the stunning Jackson Lake Lodge, or you can explore Colter Bay Village. This developed area of the park boasts a visitor center, campground, and several log cabins for rent, many of which came from a dude ranch that closed in 1955. If you happen to be visiting the lake during the summer, take a boat tour of the lake and admire its 15 islands from a different angle!
Most think of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway as a way to get between two parks, but in reality, it can hold its own as the main attraction on a trip. It's a fascinating transitional landscape, with the Tetons rolling down into gentle slopes and the strange, volcanic landscape of Yellowstone starting to appear. Notice the "Wildlife on the Road" signs-- it's not every day that you have to worry about bison, elk, and moose wandering onto the road, so remember to obey the speed limit and be aware of your surroundings! You'll probably be inspired to take it slow on the road anyways, since there's so much gorgeous scenery to soak up.
The Parkway formally ends at Yellowstone's West Thumb Geyser Basin. This area, at the edge of the lake, was one of the first parts of Yellowstone to be discovered by mountain men and explored. Steamy, boiling hot springs, multi-colored mud pots, and erupting geysers drew in early tourists, despite the strong stench of sulfur. Wander the boardwalks past the brightly colored pools with names like "Seismograph", "Bluebell", or "The Abyss". While this is a great place to get a taste for the geothermal awesomeness that makes Yellowstone so special, you can continue on further into the park, or head back down the Rockefeller Parkway back to Jackson Hole!
There really is no experience quite like driving from Jackson Hole through Grand Teton to the edge of Yellowstone. You'll get to see the remains of old homesteads and dude ranches, while still getting a taste for how wild and untouched much of the park remains. Where else can you meet herds of bison, stare into the abyss of a bubbling geothermal pool, spend the night in a 1950s dude ranch cabin, or view famous works of art, all in one trip?
Hidden in a valley under the shadow of the Tetons is Jackson Hole - a mountain town unlike anything else. Known as the birthplace of the world's first national park and the "crucible of conservation," Jackson Hole is a mecca for those hungry to escape and get back to something real and wild.