When I was a kid in the 60’s, my favorite time of year was the two weeks when we took our family vacation. The five of us (or seven if Grandma and Grandpa came) piled into the Dodge station wagon: parents in the front, two of us in the middle seat, and in the “way back” the lucky kid who got to lay in the cozy little nest we created among the tent and sleeping bags and coolers.
And the best of those family vacations were when we got to go to a National Park: Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Acadia, the Badlands, Yellowstone, Grand Teton. The scenery, the animals, the campfire, cooking outdoors, watching the stars at night – I was enchanted by it all. I was such a nerdy kid that I even loved the nightly ranger talks at the campground.
Our tent was a big old canvas army tent that my dad had for years. It seemed like it weighed a hundred pounds, and I remember the struggle it took for all of us to put it up. (Although “all of us” was surely not the case. I can’t imagine that the three kids were any help at all.) Those early camping trips tend to blur together, but I do have a clear memory of our campsite in the Tetons, at Jenny Lake. The lake was freezing, but we ran in and out anyway, and I couldn’t believe that those huge mountains were right there on the other side of the lake. At night we lay in our flannel sleeping bags listening to the bears rummaging around the campground, and had pancakes and sausage when we woke up in the morning. It was grand.
(My parents, by the way, were saints. Driving all that way in a hot car with three little kids, then sleeping in the same tent with them for two weeks? Wow.)
I now am lucky enough to live just a few hours’ drive from some of those same parks. I have the luxury of visiting them pretty much whenever I want, which means that I don’t have to visit during the busy summer months when they are crowded with young families. But each summer I’m hit by nostalgia for those long ago family vacations, and by the time August comes I’ve usually managed to convince my husband that we need to take a national park camping trip of our own. So last week we headed to Grand Teton.
As usually happens on these trips, my husband – who really doesn’t think that staying in a campground with a bunch of other people is his cup of tea – ends up being pleasantly surprised that the campgrounds are actually pretty nice. We stayed the first two nights at Colter Campground. Colter has 350 sites, which is definitely not a selling point for us, but there are generator-free loops, the sites are spacious, and there are plenty of nice hikes that you can take right from the campground. We took a short hike to Heron Pond, and just enjoyed the beautiful day.
You can also take a longer hike and end up at Willow Flats, below Jackson Lake Lodge. A storm was building, but for the most part it stayed over the mountains.
Next we wanted to check out the Gros Ventre Campground, at the southern end of the park. It’s another big campground, but in totally different country than Colter: the camp is in a beautiful healthy cottonwood grove along the Gros Ventre River. Our campsite along the edge of the prairie was great; we watched birds and wandered along the river, and even were lucky enough to watch a huge bull moose and his mate foraging along the bank.
As for Jenny Lake Campground? It’s still there, and beautiful as I remembered, but it’s the one campground that seems to be always full, so that’s one spot where nostalgia has to give way to reality, I guess.