From the history of Jackson Hole to the mystery of America’s first mountain man, Grand Teton National Park is as fascinating as parks come.
There’s complicated, and then there’s Grand Teton. The Wyoming gem is something of an anomaly within the National Park Service. Due to it’s wildly interesting history, Grand Teton is the only national park with its own airport, private enterprises, and even seasonal hunting.
None of the above, however, takes away from the absolute splendor Grand Teton offers. Some of the best mountain views in America tower over fascinating history here, leading to quite the peculiar list of facts below.
10. Jackson Hole is Integral to the Grand Teton Story
Way back in the 1920s, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. would visit northwest Wyoming, eventually purchasing land in Jackson Hole. He was so taken with the landscape that he bought 35,000 acres, which he would eventually donate to the federal government.
In 1929, Grand Teton National Park was established. But it wouldn’t be until 1943 that Jackson Hole National Monument was decreed. In the end, both NPS sites would be combined in 1950 to create the Grand Teton National Park we know today.
Before all of this, Jackson Hole would be named after Davey Jackson, a 19th century mountain man and trapper prominent in the area. “Hole” describes the geography of the area: a high mountain valley.
9. Grand Teton is the Only National Park with its Own Airport
Ever wanted to fly directly into a national park? Here’s your chance! Grand Teton is the only national park in America with its own commercial airport. This isn’t anything new, either: the airport was built in the 1930s and became part of the Jackson Hole National Monument in the 1940s.
Once Grand Teton took in Jackson Hole, the airport became part of the national park, as well. The facility retains the name Jackson Hole Airport to this day. And that’s really all there is to it!
If you’re flying into the park, check our Grand Teton National Park Lodging breakdown for where to stay during your trip.
8. Yellowstone and Grand Teton Are Super Close
If you’re ever visiting one national park, be sure to consider heading to the other on the same trip, too. Grand Teton is just several miles south of Yellowstone National Park, and seeing one without the other could prove a big missed opportunity.
In 1972, Congress would establish the John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Memorial Parkway, connecting the two parks. Now, if you’re in Yellowstone, a 45 minute drive south from the park’s West Thumb will land you in Grand Teton National Park. It really is that close! If you enter Grand Teton from Yellowstone, Jackson Lake Overlook will greet you. It’s a stellar view of the Tetons to begin your journey.
Together, these two magnificent national parks make up Wyoming’s only national parks. There are, however, other phenomenal NPS sites, such as the Devils Tower monument, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Oregon Trail, and Fort Laramie.
7. Mountain Goats are Not Native to Grand Teton
When visiting the northwest Rocky Mountains, mountain goats are a common sight. But seeing them in in Grand Teton National Park’s Teton range isn’t natural. In fact, it’s a direct result of a poor decision made by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game decades ago.
The hardy species was introduced to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem when the department released goats south of the park from 1969-1971. Their purpose? Game for hunters. But these resourceful goats, masters of mountain ecosystems, soon spread out.
By the turn of the 21st century, mountain goats roamed throughout the Tetons. Research in the last decade shows a stable breeding population now exists in Grand Teton National Park, which is a concern for the park’s native (and fragile) bighorn sheep.
6. The Park is on the Teton Fault
The incredible geology of the Tetons is no accident. Their jagged, intense silhouettes are the result of immense earthquakes along the Teton Fault. The 40-mile-long Teton Range was born as a result; all of it sitting along the fault line.
It took millions of years to form the Tetons as tectonic plates on each side of the fault rammed into one another. As they did, the western plate rose above, forming the jagged mountains we see today. They are the youngest mountains of the Rockies – and in the world. The more the weather erodes them over time, the more they’ll resemble deeply ancient ranges like the Appalachian Mountains.
The Teton Fault is still active today, too. When visiting the national park, you can view it from the Cathedral Group Turnout on Jenny Lake Scenic Loop. Look for the shadows of the steep slope that runs through where the mountains meet the valley.
5. Human History
Once the glaciers of the last major Ice Age retreated, humanity began cultivating Grand Teton’s lush valleys. As far as park archaeologists know, human history dates back 11,000 years to that same time period.
According to the park, “Nomadic paleo-Indians first entered the Jackson Hole valley shortly after Pleistocene Ice Age glaciers retreated. They left behind tipi rings, fire pits and stone tools. Summers were a time of abundance, and Indian tribes came to harvest bulbs and berries, fish the lakes and streams, and hunt wildlife.”
As harsh winters hit, however, Indigenous Americans generally followed their prey out of the valley to find milder winters.
4. America’s First Mountain Man is a Grand Teton Mystery
Ever heard of John Colter? If you’re a Wyoming native or familiar with Lewis and Clark’s “Corps of Discovery” epic, then surely you have. Colter was part of that continent-spanning adventure, which defined America in so many ways. Historians believe he may have been the first European immigrant to explore the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem when he left the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806.
Colter stayed in the Jackson Hole area through the winter of 1807-1808, but left no written records. He did survive to tell his tale, however, leading many to credit him with the Euro-American “Discovery of Jackson Hole and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His exact explorations during this time are only known through his maps of the area and second-hand sources before the time of his death. Even that date remains a topic of debate (and could be either 1812 or 1813). Regardless, his legacy is one of tremendous exploration, map-making, history writing, and becoming the first “known mountain man” of the American tradition as he survived the Grand Teton/Yellowstone area entirely on his own with no societal comforts.
Today, a debated relic found in Idaho west of the Tetons, The Colter Stone, resides in the Teton Valley Historical Museum in Driggs. There’s an annual John Colter Day in the national park, too, held on June 24 at the Colter Bay Visitor Center. Both the Grand Teton bay and nearby visitor center are named for the famous explorer.
3. The Land’s Vast Indigenous American History
Indigenous American history stretches back to the end of the last Ice Age 11,000-years-ago. When Euro-American explorers first showed up, Grand Teton’s valley was being harvested by the Shoshone, Bannock, Blackfoot, Crow, Flathead, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce, and other Tribes.
The peoples native to these lands would hunt animals, gather plants, and harvest further resources from what is today Grand Teton National Park. But this was just one way in which Indigenous Americans were connected to its splendor. A deep spiritual connection persists to this day for many tribes.
“American Indians mainly camped in the northern part of what is now Grand Teton National Park. A great place to view camas is an open meadow located at an undesignated turnout on the North Park Road (highway 89/197/287),” the park cites. This turnout is located north of Leeks Marina on the right-hand side, and an interpretive wayside exhibit marks its location for visitors wishing to learn more.
2. The ‘Teton’ Name Holds Hilarious French Origin
Grand Teton is a unique name, to be sure. The park pulled this name from the highest peak in the Teton range, Grand Teton (elevation 13,775 feet / 4,198 m).
This incredible, dramatic mountain range includes eight peaks over 12,000 ft (3,658 m) in elevation. The Tetons are a 40-mile-long stretch of the Rocky Mountains, a range that inspired one of the most ridiculous namings of any American landmark.
The origin of the name “Teton” goes back to 19th-century French-speaking trappers, so far as historians can decipher. The meaning? Les trois tétons – or, the three teats – which would become “Tetons.”
By this strategy, the French trappers literally named Grand Teton “The Big Tit.” What a name.
1. The Complicated Establishment of Grand Teton National Park
Most national parks came to be with a powerful vision in mind for a certain landscape. But Grand Teton National Park took decades to form as it is today.
The park first came to be in 1929 in order to protect the Teton Range alongside lakes in the foothills. Then, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would declare Jackson Hole National Monument nearby in 1943. By 1949, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. would donate his own 35,000 acres to further the national park.
Congress would finally combine all of the above to form the Grand Teton National Park we know today in 1950, 21 years after first establishment.
For more on what to see and where to go in this magnificent park, head to our Grand Teton National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks next.