Wandering the West
Upwards of five million people pass through Jackson, Wyoming, in the course of a year, most of them in the summer. They come to see a Western town at the base of perhaps the most scenic row of granite peaks in the United States. But the Grand Teton Range has a back side too, and few of those funneling through Jackson ever see the opposite angle.
For a different Teton experience, try turning left at Alpine, where you’d normally turn right into Snake Creek Canyon and the road into Jackson. At Alpine the Snake dumps into Palisades Reservoir and Highway 26 takes you along the reservoir to Swan Valley where you head right on Highway 31. Now you’re on the Teton Scenic way, on the west side of the Tetons, which look entirely different from here. (And who, by the way, is to say the west side is the "back" side? If I were living in Driggs, or Victor, I’d be calling the Jackson side the "back" side!)
The byway takes you through high rolling farm country, always with the Tetons looming out your right window. Pine Creek Pass leads to Victor, and Victor leads to Driggs. Both could be called the heart of Idaho’s Teton experience, and a seven-mile paved bike trail on the old Union Pacific line connects them. Look for junky secondhand stores for snooping around. I found a combination hardware and junk store filled with factory-second Patagonia merchandise, all unsorted in big crates. I still have some of what I quite unexpectedly found there.
Count on Victor and Driggs to have some trendy and healthy dining options, and funky shops that generally last only a season or two. This is where many of the seasonal workers in Jackson live, making the sometimes iffy trek over Teton Pass twice a day. Affordable housing comes at the cost of a killer commute here. But the resort town workers give the "back" side a progressive, lively, and laid-back atmosphere you might not expect in rural Idaho.
If you want the full-on resort experience on the west side, find Alta, Wyoming, and head uphill to Grand Targhee Resort. This powder-filled ski and snowboard resort has everything from a spa experience to horseback rides and chairlift rides to the top of the 2,600-acre resort (which in the winter has an Alta, Utah, feel to it), with its intimate base lodges and restaurants and Utah-like powder dumps. In the summer, you can use the lifts for mountain biking and hiking. The resort borders the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area, which provides the buffer outside of Grand Teton National Park. Outside of the wilderness boundaries, you’ll find 200 miles of multi-use trails.
Anglers will find fly fishing superb on the Henry’s Fork and South Fork of the Snake, and on the Teton River. And to catch the excitement of Jackson in the summer, with its Wild West shootout every afternoon, it’s just a 45-minute drive over the pass.
Head farther north and the byway will come to an end in the farming town of Ashton, where the Mesa Falls Scenic Byway provides another 27 miles of surprises. After nine miles of meandering among the fertile volcanic soils that grow wheat, potatoes and barley, you’ll start ascending into ponderosa- and Douglas-fir-covered mountainsides. Don’t miss Upper Mesa Falls, a 110-foot river plunge that is the last undisturbed waterfall of any size on the Columbia River system. I’ll bet I drove past it 10 times in my rush to get to Yellowstone before realizing what I was missing. Hiking trails provide different vantage points for the thundering falls, and the Lower Falls at 85 feet are equally worth a side trip.
The Mesa Falls Scenic Byway ends at Harriman State Park on the Henry’s Fork. This 11,000-acre park is mostly a wildlife refuge, with camping along the edges, and hiking trails. Harriman, named for the Union Pacific railroad magnate who built America’s first ski resort at Hailey, Idaho, (and called it Sun Valley), is chock full of the wildlife people love to see, like moose and elk. It’s also a birder’s paradise, with sandhill crane and trumpeter swan sightings common.
When planning a Tetons trip, consider the road less traveled the "other side."
Writer, filmmaker and author Larry Warren has made the West his beat for the past three decades. He is the general manager of KPCW.
THE VITALS: Park City to Driggs — 277 miles
Insider tip: Take the trip in late September for fall color and more frequent wildlife sightings.
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