While there are higher mountains in North America, perhaps none are more dramatic than those in the Teton Range. Grand Teton Mountain rises almost 7,000 feet straight up from the Jackson Hole Valley, with no foothills to impede the views of its rocky slopes and spectacular, often snowcapped peak.
There’s a reason why Ansel Adams’ photograph of the Snake River and the Tetons has become one of his most recognizable works. The contrast between the flat river valley and the Grand Teton’s steep rise creates one of the most photogenic mountain vistas in the United States.
Go to Grand Teton National Park in the fall, as I recently did on a Natural Habitat Adventures tour, and you’ll be mesmerized by the profiles of six principal summits—South Teton, Nez Perce, Middle Teton, Grand Teton, Mount Owen and Teewinot—reflected in six, fjord-like lakes and the sinuous, slowly flowing Snake River.
In addition to the stunning landscapes, however, are the multitude of opportunities to view wildlife, from our largest mammals to some of our smallest—moose to marmots and pronghorn to pikas.
Moose and marmots
The largest member of the deer family, moose love cold weather and frequent marshy meadows and the edges of lakes and streams. About 800 moose inhabit the southern part of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks and the surrounding national forests, but they are most heavily concentrated in Grand Teton National Park at Willow Flats and around Oxbow Bend.
Bull moose begin to grow their antlers in the spring, which are nourished by the covering of furry skin known as “velvet.” Antlers take three to five months to develop fully, after which the velvet is rubbed off against branches and bushes. Visiting Grand Teton National Park in the fall means that you’ll see the bull moose’s antlers at their zenith, ready for battle.
Between December and March, the moose’s antlers are lost, with the majority of the animals dropping them in January. Immature bulls may not shed their antlers for the winter but retain them until the following spring. Generally, each set of antlers will be larger than the one before. Birds, carnivores and rodents eat dropped antlers for the protein, and moose themselves will eat antler velvet for the nutrients.
Rocky, alpine slopes and rock piles make good homes for tiny marmots. They graze on grass and other vegetation during the day. If it’s extremely warm, however, a marmot will take shelter in its burrow. Marmots hibernate roughly eight months of the year, which is why visiting the Grand Teton National Park area in the fall is a prime time to spot one.
Marmots are highly sociable animals, living in small colonies of 30 individuals or more. By late in the year, the charming marmots will often take on the shape of a pear as they prepare for entry into their burrow for the winter.
Pronghorn and pikas
Pronghorn are native to interior western and central North America, and some wildlife enthusiasts call them the “real” Great Plains mammal. Although we often associate bison with rolling prairies, they are more adapted for living in woodland habitats than the American pronghorn. In fact, the pronghorn has never found subsistence outside the High Plains and sagebrush flats of the American West.
As adults, pronghorn coats turn brown with distinctive white patches on their stomachs and rumps. But the most unique pronghorn attribute is speed. Although running is their last defense, pronghorn are in a tight race with cheetahs for the world’s fastest land animal; they are, in fact, the fastest hoofed animal in North America. They can sprint up to 60 miles per hour and sustain 30 miles per hour for miles. In fact, although a cheetah could outrun them in a 100-yard dash, the pronghorn would prevail in anything longer.
Since an adult pronghorn can outrun its predators, predation on the young is the most common natural threat. Newborns, for the first few days of their lives, are vulnerable to bobcats, cougars, coyotes, wolves and even golden eagles. Pronghorn does guard fawns closely; and the fawns often remain perfectly still, their dappled, gray coats blending in with the grasses and shrubs. At four days old, a fawn can already outrun a human; at one week, it can surpass a dog.
Each spring and fall, hundreds of pronghorn travel 170 miles to and from their summer range in Grand Teton National Park. This great pronghorn migration, named by U.S. biologists as the Path of the Pronghorn, is remarkable and one of the last, long-distance land animal migrations in the world.
For more than 6,800 years on their biannual journey, members of the Teton pronghorn herd have crossed four major rivers—the Green, the Gros Ventre, the New Fork and the Snake—through a 9,000-foot pass in the Gros Ventre Mountains. Recently, that route has included two wildlife overpasses on U.S. Highway 191.
Despite their cuddly appearance, American pikas are among North America’s toughest animals. Only about seven to eight inches in length with short, stout bodies and big, round ears, pikas are one of the few mammals in the Lower 48 that can survive spending their entire lives in the windswept terrain above the tree line.
Herbivores, pikas love grasses, tall wildflowers and weeds that grow in their rocky, high-mountain habitat. To prepare for winter’s lean times, pikas like to save up food during the summer. A pika will collect a pile of extra wildflowers and grasses and lay them out in the sun to dry so they don’t get moldy. The plants are then stored in the pika’s den until winter.
Pikas help protect themselves by living in colonies. They alert the group to predators by sending out warning calls. Although communal, they are very territorial about their own dens. They will send out calls and “songs” to define the boundaries between each pika neighbor.
Since pikas have adapted to life in areas that rarely get above freezing and can overheat and die when exposed to temperatures as mild as 78 degrees Fahrenheit, they are particularly vulnerable to the warming climate. Unlike other species that can move to higher altitudes, pikas live so high up on the mountain that there is nowhere else for them to go. Trapped at the top, pikas are likely to suffer from several of climate change’s damaging effects, including increases in extreme weather events, the invasion of new pests and predators, reduced winter snowpack and vegetation changes.
From the Tetons’ peaks to the pronghorn’s mighty migration to the tiny pikas’ clash with climate change, a Grand Teton National Park adventure is always an exploration deep into the drama of nature.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,