Ringed by five mountain ranges, Jackson Hole is itself freakishly flat. Named by 19th century fur trappers for whom hole meant valley, you won’t find foothills here to ease the eye into mountains’ verticality. I’ve always thought the abrupt appearance of our peaks is what makes them all that much more magnetic.
The initial view, upon arrival, is always the most impressive. Because of the mountains, that arrival can only be accomplished in one of four ways:
1. From the tarmac of Jackson Hole Airport, the Tetons look close enough to touch.
2-3. A pair of mountain passes.
4. A road tracing a deep river canyon carved through the mountains. (Each route yields its own unique view.)
From the east, U.S. Highway 26/287 climbs up and over Togwotee Pass (a Native American word pronounced TOE-ga-tee). Togwotee gently snakes through a weakness in the red-tinted Absaroka Mountain Range. As stunning as these peaks are, you’re blinded to their beauty as soon as the Tetons erupt into view. One second, you’re in thick forest; the next, the Tetons’ glaciated and brutally vertical peaks fill your windshield. This is my favorite way to return home if I’ve been away from mountains for any amount of time because no other route showcases the Tetons to such effect.
The route into the valley from the west, Wyoming Highway 22, goes up and over Teton Pass, which is not as long or high as Togwotee, but is more daunting. It has steep switchbacks that wind beneath avalanche paths and is sometimes closed in winter by the Wyoming Department of Transportation.
It is at the top of Teton Pass that you’ll find the famous Howdy Stranger Yonder Lies Jackson Hole, the last of the Old West signs. Ahead spread views of the Gros Ventre, the Snake River Range, the Wyoming Range—stretching as far as the eye can see. This is the vista that allows me to understand how some peaks were given only the simplest of names, like Peak 10,696. So. Many. Mountains.
When I moved to Jackson after college, I didn’t come over Teton Pass or Togwotee Pass. My mom and I came via U.S. 189/191 through the Hoback River Canyon, where I saw a black bear on the riverbank and my head nearly exploded. Since we had less than 30 miles to go, I prematurely declared it to be the highlight of the drive. Twenty minutes later, the snow-covered summits of the Grand Teton, Mt. Owen, and Teewinot appeared between the ridges of two buttes. The view was fleeting and, to someone who had never seen the Rocky Mountains before, fantastical. One glimpse was enough for me to know that the single year I had planned to live in Jackson wouldn’t be enough. Twenty-three years later, I’m still in Jackson Hole and still in awe of its mountains.
This article is from our 2020 edition of the Jackson Hole Explorer. The Official Guide for Grand Teton and Yellowstone. To read more stories like this tune into our #JHexplorer tab in the blog or visit here to get an Explorer of your own.
The photos in this blog are courtesy of Visit Jackson Hole