ONE GRAND LOOP
Envision a dream tour; a drive that countless people from every corner of the world would spend hundreds of dollars and travel thousands of miles to make … a trip taking in some of the most magnificent mountains on Earth, and some of the planet’s most dynamic and observable geologic forces.
Now imagine that it starts out your front door.
For a lot of us, it does. Mile 0.0 of the Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop is auspiciously positioned at the junction of Idaho State Highways 31 and 33, smack dab in the center of Victor. From there the route heads north, passing through the county’s dry farms and continuing into Fremont County, on to Ashton, and up the big hill to Island Park, home of the “Longest Main Street in America.” After climbing over the barely noticeable Targhee Pass and entering Montana, the route visits West Yellowstone before heading upstream along the Madison River and into the heart of the world’s first national park. Onward to Old Faithful, West Thumb, and the South Entrance; down the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway; and into and through Grand Teton National Park. Finally, from Jackson Hole the loop climbs the very noticeable Teton Pass, before descending back into the Valley of the Tetons and returning to Mile 0.0—also known as Mile 262.6.
Locally, the Yellowstone Grand Teton Loop Road is an initiative of numerous local and regional groups and businesses (including Powder Mountain Press), along with the chambers of commerce of Teton Valley, Ashton, Island Park, West Yellowstone, and Jackson Hole. On a larger stage, it’s one of the official “Top 10 Scenic Drives in the Northern Rockies,” a public-nonprofit collaboration involving state, federal, tribal, and local partners in five U.S. states and two Canadian provinces (www.drivethetop10.com).
Assuming you drive up from Salt Lake City or rent a car in Idaho Falls, and then motor over Pine Creek Pass on State Highway 31 from Swan Valley, your intro to the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is the wide-open spaces of Teton Valley, along with its rural subdivisions and trio of small, friendly towns.
It’s a matter of perspective: North of Tetonia, and just beyond the high Bitch Creek bridge, the tall grain elevator at Lamont seems to dwarf the lofty Tetons in the eastern distance.
Leave the designated loop east of Ashton by driving onto the Cave Falls Road, and you can wind your way to Yellowstone National Park’s back door—the little-visited Bechler Entrance. Trails for hiking and horseback riding beckon in the park’s “Cascade Corner,” so nicknamed due to the frothy preponderance of crazy waterfalls rumbling and tumbling off the rims of the Pitchstone and Madison plateaus.
Warm River Campground, one of the most pleasant Forest Service sites you’ll find anywhere, welcomes overnight tenters and RVers, and daytime anglers casting flies.
Upper Mesa Falls, where the Henry’s Fork plummets 110 feet down off the lip of the Henry’s Fork Caldera, is a symphony of sound and mist; light and dark. A visit to the adjacent Big Falls Inn, which resides on the National Register of Historic Places, is a must. Now housing a visitor center, the inn has served many roles through time, including those of a stage stop, saloon, and Boy Scout dining hall.
At West Yellowstone’s Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, you can see grizzly bears the way most people would prefer: with a tall, strong fence between you and them. And these bears don’t hibernate, so you can watch them even if your visit falls during the snowy West Yellowstone winter.
There is no fence between you and the bison of Yellowstone, however; these individuals along the Madison River, like elsewhere in the park, are wild and free to roam. More visitors are injured in the park every year by bison than by bears. So please, keep your distance and let your zoom lens do the walking.
Firehole Spring, a “perpetual spouter” on the Firehole Lake Drive in the Lower Geyser Basin, is one of countless pieces of evidence you’ll see proving that Yellowstone is anything but asleep, geologically speaking. It’s a favorite among seasoned geyser gazers, with its mini-eruptions separated by only a few seconds’ time.
The 262.2-mile Yellowstone-Grand Teton Loop includes only a short section of the 150-mile, figure-eight drive in Yellowstone known as the Grand Loop. However, the loop as outlined on the Top 10 Scenic Drives website includes the entire Grand Loop—which you’ll want to take in. Magical places yield mystical gifts, like this view along the rugged Blacktail Plateau Drive ...
… and the famous Roosevelt Arch at the North Entrance near Gardiner, Montana, for which President Theodore Roosevelt set the cornerstone in 1903. Nearby is the headquarters of the Yellowstone Association, founded in 1933 as the primary partner of the National Park Service, where you can stop and shop for maps and books galore …
… and this petrified tree stump on Specimen Ridge. Some of the mineralized trees in the area are immense, thought to have been 500 years old when they were buried alive 50 million years ago during volcanic eruptions …
… and the people-watching—the subjects who, here in the Lamar Valley, are in turn wolf-watching. Visitors are regularly rewarded for their patience and expensive spotting scopes not only with wolf sightings, but with glimpses of elk, grizzly bears, and other wildlife.
Back on the main route, watch for those same charismatic megafauna, including moose, at every turn. Though more moose live in Yellowstone today than when the park was established in 1872, their numbers have declined markedly since the 1988 wildfires. It’s believed that fewer than 1,000 Alces alces shirasi now reside in the park.
If you time it right, you can catch the sun setting over Yellowstone Lake from Grant Village. And you might shepherd in that time of magic light, or check out the photos you just took of it, with a meal at the nearby Lake House Restaurant, serving pub grub in a kick-back atmosphere.
Almost home to “A Town to Come Home To” (that’s Victor’s motto), you’re now in Jackson Hole, where a clear day is a landscape photographer’s dream come true.
And at mile 262.6 you’re back where you started, in Teton Valley. If the time of year is right, following a big snow season, it can be mid-summer in the valley and still feel like the deep of winter in the high reaches of the Teton Range.