When March hits and early shoulder season begins, Front Rangers begin scampering off to warmer climes to get their first taste of summer. You’re more likely to run into your neighbor pitching a tent next to yours in Moab than to see her picking up her mail. The mass exodus is a well-worn ritual as we all run west or south to escape days too blustery for bike rides, avalanche conditions too dangerous to risk a backcountry tour and canyons too cold to enjoy for more than a pitch or two.
But I have a proposition for you. Rather than heading off to mud season standbys like Moab, Fruita and Canyonlands this March, why not try heading (gasp) north to the Tetons and Yellowstone? I just got back from a mid-March trip up to these two breathtakingly beautiful national parks and offer this rave review.
The drive to Jackson
Granted we’ve had unseasonably dry weather this year, but the drive from the Front Range up to Jackson was a breeze. We left after work on a Thursday night and zipped the 3.5 hours up to Rawlins, Wyo. with no trouble at all. We hit one of the many just-off-the-highway hotels to catch some zzz’s (or if you’re more industrious–and cheaper–shack up in the back of your Subaru) and then hopped back on the road in the morning.
Although there are two ways to get to Jackson from Rawlins (west via I-80 and then north via US 191 or northwest via US 287 and US 26) I would encourage you to take the more scenic route via 287/26. This option zips you through Dubois (a native told us it’s the most remote town in the U.S. since it’s 80 miles to the nearest hospital in either direction), dumps you out at Moran Junction and allows you to head south to Jackson along US 26, which runs parallel to the Tetons.
In theory it’s only 20 minutes longer than the other route, but give yourself a time buffer in order to allow for plenty of photo opps. Swing into Moose Junction for lunch (and stunning views of the Tetons) at Dornan’s Pizza Pasta Company before heading the last 20 minutes south into Jackson.
What to do
OK, OK, so both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park are largely closed in the winter. So what’s a traveler to do?
Well, if you’re looking for a more laid-back outing (think more along the lines of great scenery and casual strolls than hard-charging powder pursuits), consider signing up for a snowcoach tour with Teton Science Schools’ Wildlife Expeditions.
These biologist-led tours give visitors access to Yellowstone National Park in the winter, a scene few get to experience since many of the park’s main arteries are closed to the general public from October through May. You ride along in a custom-designed Mercedes-Benz Sprinter boasting rubberized tread instead of wheels. I got a chance to experience the tour, following up on an Elevation Outdoors post I wrote last October.
Assuming you’re ready for a slower-paced adventure, the trip is a treat. One highlight of our day: Seeing a grizzly chewing on a bison carcass. Another: Viewing the mighty Upper and Lower Falls tumbling as an icy cloud into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We also saw bison rumbling over the frozen landscape, fox pouncing onto the snow looking for supper and trumpeter swans skimming the surface of the Yellowstone River.
If you’re looking for something a bit more hardcore, look into the Old Faithful Snowmobile Tours. And there’s always the gnarly terrain of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. You could also rent a pair of cross country skis and glide your way over the snowy scape (we hear the locals love traversing the pristinely smooth surface of Jackson Lake).
Foodies rejoice. Jackson offers a host of delectable dining options. For breakfast, the baked goods at Persephone can’t be beat. Lunch favorites included Snake River Brewery and the afore-mentioned Dornan’s pizza/pasta joint. You have to at least pop your head in at The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (take a picture of yourself on one of their saddle/bar stools), but save happy hour for the bar scene at Local–it’s obviously the locals’ go-to (go figure). For dinner, we can personally recommend the beet risotto at Trio, but the locals have a love affair with a nearby tapas joint, Bin22.
While you’ll have to be wary of visiting Jackson in the middle of their mud season, a March visit could be a welcome reprieve from the uncooperative temperatures and winds found here on the Front Range.
All photos courtesy Roger Hayden.