Since African safaris rank close to the top of my list of favorite travel experiences, I couldn’t resist trying out a “safari” in Grand Teton National Park. Through the concierge of the Hotel Jackson, I booked us a half-day excursion with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, which also offers full-day and multiday itineraries in both the Tetons and Yellowstone. I was tempted to reserve a private trip, but the concierge pointed out that the shared vehicle’s capacity of eight people was unlikely to be reached. And indeed, we were joined by just one other couple on our five-hour tour.
We found our good-humored guide, Lee, waiting for us at 6:30 a.m. outside the hotel’s entrance. He drove us north past the National Elk Refuge, aglow with wisps of fog shimmering in the morning sun. Before seeking out wildlife, he took us to a placid creek. Swollen by a beaver dam, the stream mirrored the still-snowy Tetons. In spite of the fact that it was summer high season, we shared the setting with just two other people.
As we drove on, Lee explained how important beavers, elk and wolves are to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Beaver dams slow the flow of rivers, and the resulting sediment deposits provide fertile ground for willow trees, a preferred food of elk. We paused to look at a blown-out river, a sprawling collection of shallow rivulets spanning a broad gravel bed, rather than one single, narrower channel. This had been a result of the eradication of wolves in the park. Elk then felt secure to overgraze the young willows along the riverbanks, and beavers departed as building material for their dams grew scarce. In 1995, wolves were reintroduced to the region, and the beneficial effects were almost immediate. Lee pointed out a grove of saplings. “That used to be part of the blown-out riverbed, but now willows are growing. The river is narrowing again.”
Nearby, we detoured down a dirt road bordering a wide swath of pasture. A herd of bison grazed there, backdropped by the Tetons. I’ve seen bison many times before, but it was still awe-inspiring to observe the massive animals in a setting of such grandeur.
Lee got word of a grizzly bear sighting and piled us back into the van. We pulled up on the side of a gravel road overlooking a wildflower-speckled meadow. Numerous other vehicles had beaten us to it, and perhaps a dozen people had their cameras and binoculars at the ready. Initially, I saw nothing. Then, I spied some movement. A grizzly rose out of the waist-high plants, perhaps 150 yards away. It was a mother whose cubs were concealed in the meadow, making it wise for us to keep our distance. Apparently content that we posed no danger, she disappeared back into the wildflowers, poking her head up from time to time to double-check on us.
After a stop at sensationally scenic Jackson Lake, we headed off in search of moose. We didn’t spot any, but even so, the day felt like a great success. It’s easy enough to visit Grand Teton National Park on one’s own, but having a guide like Lee for a time, to show us lesser-known beauty spots and hard-to-find wildlife, greatly deepened our experience of the park.