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Fall in Cowboy Country

In the Grand Tetons, it's a season of crisp days, brilliant leaves and dwindling visitors. But watch out for those moose.

September 22, 2002|AMANDA JONES

JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — It was an autumn day in Grand Teton National Park. The sky was an immaculate blue, the mountains towered stark ahead, and the aspens and cottonwoods gleamed with umbers and saffrons, shedding a mosaic of leaves on the trail.

My husband, Greg, and I were hiking above Jenny Lake when we encountered a trail marked Moose Pond. We took it, aware that a moose sighting was improbable, but we were hopeful anyway. Lagging, I rounded a corner and found Greg standing motionless on the trail.

"Look below," he hissed. "There's actually a moose in the pond."

Camera ready, we stalked the moose, commando-style, eventually abandoning all caution and approaching fully upright. The 900-pound cow was placidly pulling leaves from the water. We walked so close we could have tugged her dewlap, the flap of skin under a moose's jaw. She moved out of the pond, threw us a world-weary look and ambled off.

The next day we joined a float trip on the Snake River. Ours was the only boat on the water on this, another perfect day. John, our float guide, was an orthodox outdoorsman, undoubtedly capable of fashioning a Quonset hut from bark or apparel from skins.

Suddenly someone spotted a moose in the distance, and our fellow floaters dived for binoculars, agog at the sighting.

"So," asked a jaunty woman from Kansas, "are moose dangerous?"

"Oh, yessiree, ma'am," John said. "They'll stomp on you till you ain't movin'. I know a couple of people who have been killed by moose. One of my friends got his kidney stomped so bad he was in the hospital for months. No, ma'am, you don't want to be gettin' close to no moose."

I stared at Greg. He stared at John. We said nothing.

In New Zealand, my homeland, we don't have large, man-killing creatures, hence my ignorance of the danger of moose stomping. Greg, however, is an American and an Eagle Scout. He has a box of patches that suggest he should know these things. He ignored me, much as our benevolent moose did. We gazed at the magnificent scenery in silence, thankful merely to have all organs intact.

We were in Jackson last September to attend a wedding, and our trip became a weeklong vacation. The only risk in visiting at this time of year is the weather, which can turn cold. It was 75 degrees most days of our stay, but in September the average daytime high is 69, falling to 54 in October. I never once wore the heavy coat I had packed.

Fall is also elk bugling season in Wyoming, which means one must avoid the gangs of bull elk rampaging through the countryside seeking mates. We added elk to the list of animals to avoid.

Grand Teton is one of America's most beautiful national parks. It borders Yellowstone, which means the wildlife ranges freely between the two.

But Grand Teton encompasses only 300,000 acres compared with Yellowstone's 2.2 million, so it feels intimate and accessible, dominated by those savagely beautiful mountains. In the summer, Grand Teton gets 2 million visitors, but in fall that number tapers off to 400,000. It's not hard to imagine the difference in ambience.

We stayed first in Teton Village, then at a dude ranch. Teton Village, better known as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, has some of the best vertical skiing in America, but in summer and fall it transforms into a destination for outdoorsy die-hards and extreme-sport aficionados.

Arriving at the village, we noticed a crowd outside the Walk Festival Hall. Jackson is home to the Teton Gravity Research Institute, a group of professional adrenaline junkies whose pants hang below their underwear and who are paid to do highly imprudent things on snow, big waves or mountain bikes.

These anti-gravity test dummies make movies of their global exploits, and their ski and snowboard film "Mind the Addiction" was showing that night. We went. It was terrifying and terrific, with scenes of skiers hurtling through narrow chutes and snowboarders free-falling off crevasses.

We stayed in Teton Village because of its location: It's between the park and the town of Jackson. Our condo was in the Moose Creek complex at the blissfully quiet end of the village, about half a mile from the hub of five-star hotels and restaurants.

Decorated in tasteful Western style, it was spacious and had a stone fireplace, hot tub, great views and a large deck. In winter, Moose Creek has ski-in/ski-out access with a chairlift connecting guests to the resort.

Our first morning in Teton Village we ate brunch at the Mangy Moose, a classically eccentric Western bar and restaurant in the village. We sat outside, gazing at the ski hill. In dry months you can hike all over the mountain, some of which stretches into the park.

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