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Taking the Kids

Finding What's Grand at Teton Park

May 19, 1996|EILEEN OGINTZ

GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — The rain poured down all night as if it would never stop. The lightning flashed and the thunder crashed. We didn't mind, not even when the power went out.

We were snug in our log cabin in the middle of Grand Teton National Park, wondering how all the animals, not to mention campers, were faring in the storm. Even the kids were glad we'd chosen a cabin that night rather than a tent.

The next morning, with the rain gone, they couldn't get outside fast enough. The hardest decision was what to do: hike, canoe, fish, laze by a lake, horseback ride or take the camera and look for wildlife.

Grand Teton National Park offers all this against a backdrop of some of the most spectacular country anywhere--from the jagged snowcapped Teton Range more than 12,000 feet above sea level to the fields of blue and yellow wildflowers. Did you know moose shed their antlers annually and grow a new set every spring in time for mating season? Nearly 3,000 elk summer in the park, and there are plenty of opportunities to spot moose, bison and pronghorn antelope.

This is the place to see a bald eagle, a trumpeter swan, an osprey. There are nearly 300 species of birds in the park. If solitude is what your family craves, lace up the boots and hike to a mountain lake. There are 100 in the park. The vibrant hues of the wildflowers--the blue alpine forget-me-nots, the red Indian paintbrush, yellow violets and purple larkspur--will make you want to grab crayon and paper, and start sketching. The park boasts more than 900 kinds of flowering plants.

Yet park officials say most families visit Grand Teton National Park only briefly, as they make their way north along the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway, 54 scenic miles from the cowboy tourist town of Jackson to Yellowstone National Park's south gate.

"They think if they've seen the mountains they've seen the park," laments park spokesman Linda Olson, co-author of "A Guide to Exploring Grand Teton National Park" ($10.95, RNM Press).

Certainly Yellowstone is far larger--Grand Teton, with 310,000 acres, is less than a fifth of Yellowstone's size. And Jackson is a great place to shop for souvenirs, as well as hobnob with cowboys and cowgirls at the Jackson Hole Rodeo on Wednesday and Saturday nights, June through August at the rodeo grounds downtown. (Call Yellowstone National Park at [303] 297-2757; call the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce at [307] 733-3316.)

But families are missing a lot if they don't linger awhile in Grand Teton National Park.

If the weather's good, pitch a tent or choose one of the tent cabins maintained by the Grand Teton Lodging Co. Arrive early: National Park Service campgrounds here are operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Insiders say during summer it's best to arrive before noon in order to secure a spot. In addition to the cabins where we stayed and tent cabins, there are a range of lodges in the park including the four-star Jackson Lake Lodge. (Grand Teton Lodging Co. [307] 543-2811.)

If you can stay awhile, it's not necessary to race around seeing important sites. Rather, this is an ideal place to try some things you wouldn't get to do at home: Cast a line for cutthroat trout, watch a moose eat his lunch, raft a river--the Snake is famous for its float trips--or hike to a waterfall.

For those staying longer, Grand Teton Science School, headquartered in the park, offers a range of outdoor science programs for children and adults. (Call the Science School at [307] 733-4765. For information about the park call [307] 739-3600. Ask about the park's free junior naturalist programs.)

Book can be valuable introductions to the park, including the "Grand Teton Official Handbook" ($5.95) and the 15-page "Short Hikes and Easy Walks in Grand Teton" ($1) and "Discover Grand Teton" activity book for kids ($3.95). All can be ordered from the Grand Teton National History Assn. Call [307] 739-3403.)

One day we set out on the park's most popular hike, from the Jenny Lake visitors center to Hidden Falls, an easy four-mile, round-trip walk along the lake shore. But we never made it. After a picnic on the shores of String Lake, the kids wanted to spend the afternoon swimming and casting their fishing lines, although unsuccessfully. (To fish in the park, an adult must have a valid Wyoming fishing license, available inside the park for as little as $5 a day.)

One of the attractions of this place, we realized that day, is that even with nearly 4 million visitors a year we didn't feel the press of the crowd. Later that evening we tried another short family hike from the Colter Bay Visitor Center to Swan Lake in search of swans. We didn't find the swans, but we had the trail entirely to ourselves.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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