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Mormon Row barn and Grand Teton National Park mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Why Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Is the Most Underrated National Parks Destination

SmarterTravel

You probably know Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as one of two stereotypes: a cowboy town in a valley in America’s least populous state (read: tumbleweeds), or the hip celebrity wellness getaway that it’s recently become. The latter is thanks to big-name stars ranging from rapper Kanye West to supermodel Karlie Kloss and filmmaker Tyler Perry frequenting the area to enjoy its natural splendor, and to purchase astronomically expensive property.

And in a way, both of those stereotypes are true. Celebrity and money—namely, John D. Rockefeller’s—created Jackson Hole’s Grand Teton National Park. Much of Jackson Hole was bought up by the Rockefeller family in the 1920s, only to be gifted to the federal government under the agreement that it would become protected lands. This helped establish the area’s well-known shortage of private land, but also created one of America’s most-visited national parks (Grand Teton ranks at number eight). And it sits just 30 miles from America’s first national park: Yellowstone.

But anyone who’s visited Jackson Hole will tell you that this stunning valley where cowboys and buffalo roam is so much more than its old-money reputation. It’s one of the most pristine remaining pieces of wilderness you’ll see in your lifetime. The vast expanse of Antelope Flats is nestled below spectacularly steep mountains rife with moose, elk, bears, and wolves, at least a few of which you’re likely to encounter in and around Grand Teton National Park. It’s all punctuated by the dramatic backdrop of three towering peaks: Grand Teton, flanked by Mount Owen and Middle Teton. The Tetons are truly a traveler’s North Star, visible from almost anywhere in the park when you turn in their direction.

Jackson is city of 10,000 residents, but it sees many more visitors thanks to its sprawling mountain resorts, a walkable town center surrounded by log-cabin-style shops and eateries, and extreme ski slopes and hiking trails that make it a year-round destination. I visited in the shoulder season of early fall to enjoy the outdoors after the crowds had left but before the winter weather settled in—though it had already snowed once by the mid-September week I was there, and some businesses and summertime cable car services were already closing up shop for the season.

The Best Things to Do in Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park

Grand teton national park sign.
Wyoming Office of Tourism

Here are some of the best things to do and must-see places in Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole. Whether or not you’re venturing to Yellowstone afterward (as many visitors do), Jackson and the Grand Tetons are worth a handful of action-packed days themselves.

Unplug Like Hemingway and Disney Did

Dude ranch in jackson hole, wyoming's grand teton national park.
Shannon McMahon

There’s a vast array of things to do in Jackson Hole, but the golden thread running through all of them is the opportunity to completely unplug: Much of the park simply doesn’t get any mobile signal. But even in areas with service, you can seek out ways to get off-grid.

Pay a visit to the historic Bar BC Dude Ranch, which is currently being restored by the National Parks Foundation to return it to the state it was in when “dudes,” or city tourists, would come to stay in a rustic cabin near a communal main lodge for some time to think creatively and hone their art. “Dudes” like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and even Walt Disney stayed at the Bar BC during its years of operation from 1912 to 1985. Rumor has it Disney requested a phone line to be installed in his cabin each time he visited—but Hemingway and Faulkner reveled in the wilderness. Ask a park ranger to show you which of the Bar BC cabins was Hemingway’s—it’s the one with the best view of the Tetons across the plains.

Spot Bison and Elk in Antelope Flats

Bison grazing in antelope flats, jackson hole, near grand teton national park.
Shannon McMahon

One of the most iconic views of Jackson Hole is of the Tetons from Antelope Flats Mormon Row Historic District, once a community of Mormon settlers. Now abandoned, this area of the valley is frequented by bison, elk, and other wildlife. Parked cars at the historic John Moulton Barn and its neighboring pink stucco house are typically a sign that there’s some wildlife in the area—elk, mule deer, bison, or moose. That is, if you didn’t already spot the massive herd of local bison stopping traffic to cross any of the nearby roads, as they often do.

Note: You’ll need a car to get around Grand Teton National Park: one with four-wheel drive that can handle dirt roads and off-roading in spots like Antelope Flats. As part of a National Parks Service initiative to reduce waste in some parks by 2030, Grand Teton National Park has partnered with Subaru—which recently became America’s first zero-waste automaker and is actively helping Grand Teton develop new sustainability practices on the ground in the park. Visitors can get in on the project by by using the organized multi-stream recycling and composting bins you’ll see at facilities in the park.

Raft the Snake River

Rafting guide on the snake river, grand teton national park.
Shannon McMahon

One of the best ways to see the Tetons and orient yourself with the valley is to take a raft tour on the winding Snake River. But we’re not talking whitewater rafting; many companies provide knowledgable local guides for leisurely raft excursions that meander downriver from Jackson Lake Lodge.

Raft tours are typically half-day trips that include lunch on the banks of the Snake River before departure. If you’re lucky you might be able to spot wildlife on the shoreline or bald eagles flying overhead during your trip. Rafting with a local guide provides a unique opportunity to hear directly from an expert about not only the wildlife but also the history and culture of Jackson Hole, including the Shoshone and other Native American tribes nearby. On my rafting trip with Grand Teton Lodge Company I had the pleasure of hearing it all from an expert local who wrote a book on the area: Wayne Johnson, author of Shine Not in Reflected Glory: The Untold Story of Grand Teton National Park. Johnson even stayed at Bar BC Dude Ranch when the cabins were still functioning.

Stay at a Lodge-Style Hotel with an Incredible View

Jackson hole hotels near grand teton national park
From left to right: Spring Creek Ranch and Amangani Resort.Shannon McMahon

There are plenty of swoon-worthy resorts in Jackson Hole, but location is everything when it comes to knowing you’ll have an equally incredible view.

Spring Creek Ranch is acclaimed for its hilltop location outside of downtown Jackson Hole that affords sweeping vistas, from breakfast at its restaurant The Granary and through on-site activities like add-on horseback riding and hot air ballooning. Plus, there’s a 24-hour hot tub. Ask for an upper-level room for better views of the Tetons in the distance, and know that the mid-range rooms are somewhat rustic, with some being more outdated than others—but all with wood-burning fireplaces that add a nice touch.

Right next door is the splurge-worthy Amangani resort, with equally impressive views and elevated amenities including a year-round heated infinity pool. Add-ons include spa treatments, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and horseback riding.

Hike Jenny Lake to Cascade Canyon

Jenny lake in grand teton national park, jackson hole.
Shannon McMahon

It can feel like there are innumerable hiking options in Jackson Hole, from lake hopping the largely flat trails at Colter Bay to conquering steep Shadow Mountain for a bird’s-eye view of the entire valley. But one of the most popular hiking spots in Jackson Hole, for good reason, is pristinely blue Jenny Lake.

Bring plenty of water and take the $10 boat ride across the lake from the visitor center to start your hike just a half-mile climb from Hidden Falls, a stunning waterfall, on your way to Inspiration Point. This resting point overlooks Jenny Lake and the surrounding ridges, and lives up to its name. After that, head into Cascade Canyon for hilly hiking trails that pass plenty more waterfalls and stream bridges, where hikers often spot moose, elk, and bears from afar (this is a well-trafficked trail, and the animals largely avoid humans). Advanced hikers can continue into the canyon, but most turn back for the three-mile hike back around the lake to return to the visitor center. Not into lengthy hikes? Simply take the same boat shuttle back to the visitor center before the final one departs at 4:00 p.m.

Drink Coffee in a Teepee at Dornan’s

Dornan's chuckwagon in jackson, wyoming.
Shannon McMahon

Hiking, mountain biking, and water adventures in Grand Teton National Park are bound to make you need a coffee break—which is the perfect time to settle into a historic enclave in the town of Moose for an espresso and a history lesson. A plot of land on the Snake River that’s home to a trading post, deli, souvenir shop, outdoor restaurant (Dornan’s Chuckwagon, operating June through September), and small resort is simply referred to as “Dornan’s” by the locals.

The Dornan family has owned the land since the early 1900s, when Rockefeller and the federal government were buying up land from the locals to expand the park—which no doubt meant plenty of offers they never accepted. You can spot the Dornan outpost by its massive teepee, which serves as part of the outdoor restaurant that visitors frequent for pizza, wine, sandwiches, and coffee. Dornan’s is a functioning piece of Jackson Hole history, with a great view of the Tetons and famed Snake River. And if you want to know more about the wildlife or history of the valley, the Dornans will tell you all about it—either in person or on their website.

Shop and Dine in Jackson Town Square

Figs restaurant fireplace at hotel jackson.
Figs at Hotel Jackson.TripAdvisor

A trip to Jackson Hole isn’t complete without multiple visits to Jackson Town Square. The quaint town center of Jackson is surprisingly big, yet still walkable, with plenty of free parking making it easy to mill about the many specialty stores, souvenir shops, restaurants, and historic arcades—all built in log-cabin style.

Must-see staples of Jackson Town Square include the park’s iconic antler arches and the nearby Million Dollar Cowboy Bar—go for the saddle barstools and stay for the affordable local beer and live music. Rightfully hyped restaurants include elevated game dishes at Gather (try the elk Bolognese), high-end Lebanese mezze at Figs inside the ultra-modern Hotel Jackson, spicy Thai food and house-made double IPAS at Thai Me Up microbrewery, and locally beloved Tex-Mex fare at Merry Piglets Mexican Grill.

Spare time here is best spent shopping for cowboy-inspired items like authentic cowboy hats, handmade furniture, or other home décor, as well as leather goods like boots, jackets, belts, and turquoise-laden accessories. It can get pretty pricey, but you’re unlikely to come across a treasure trove of authentic and handmade goods like all the options you’ll find in downtown Jackson.

Visit Teton Village and Ride the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram

Jackson hole mountain resort tram.
Jackson Hole Resort

A short drive from downtown Jackson, Teton Village is a popular skiing and snowboarding area that’s home to even more great restaurants at the foot of the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, which operates in summer. Explore the cozy ski village before taking to the skies on the aerial tram (tickets cost slightly less when you book ahead online), which offers sweeping views of the valley.

If you’re visiting in winter when the tram is closed, or simply prefer to stay at Jackson Hole’s already high elevation, a cozy evening or apres ski in Teton Village is a must-do for even more great food. Head to Old Yellowstone Garage at Caldera House for homemade pasta and wood-oven pizza with a wine-bar vibe, and to sit at the convergence of several ski slopes with a great view of the mountain from below.

Visit a Unique Jackson Hole Museum

National museum of wildlife art, jackson, wyoming.

If you thought esteemed American art museums were only in cities, enter Jackson Hole. Find some of Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol’s works in the National Museum of Wildlife Art, a semi-outdoor, 51,000-square-foot facility built into a hillside. Other options include the Jackson Hole Children’s Museum and Jackson Hole Historical Society. And don’t miss Grand Teton National Park’s ultra-modern Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center, an interactive and educational nature museum fit for both kids and adults that will tell you everything you need to know about the park before you set off on a hike.

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SmarterTravel’s Shannon McMahon visited Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park as a guest of the National Parks Foundation‘s Find Your Park campaign. Follow her adventures on Instagram @shanmcmahon.

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