Unexpected Gifts on the Road Less Traveled

photo by Kit Dunsmore
photo by Kit Dunsmore

We spent Labor Day at Grand Teton National Park with my parents. Despite the holiday, the park wasn’t all that crowded. We were able to park at the Jenny Lake Overlook and get pictures of the mountains towering over the lake without getting jostled. We even found an empty table at the picnic area at noon. While we appreciated that the number of visitors was lower than usual, my whole family prefers to get away from crowds, so when my husband Kurt suggested we drive the River Road on our way back out of the park, it seemed like a good idea.

The River Road is unpaved and runs across the valley. It gets closer to the Snake River than Teton Park Road does, so we figured this was our chance to see the river. The road is 4-wheel drive only. Kurt figured this would mean even fewer crowds. He checked at the visitor’s center to make sure it was in decent shape and they said our car had high enough clearance and would be fine.

We weren’t on the road long before we all began to wonder if we had made a mistake. Initially, the road was covered in small rocks, bigger than gravel, with random water-filled holes in it. Later, it changed to a rutted dirt track.

Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.
Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Even in our backroad-loving car, the ride was rough, with lots of bumping and jerking. Kurt kept apologizing to my parents for the bouncy ride, but they graciously said it was worth it.

The views we got looking back towards the mountains were spectacular, but we’d also spent the whole morning admiring and photographing the same mountain range. The afternoon light wasn’t as favorable for mountains to our west, and even jaw-dropping beauty gets old after a few hours.

Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore

We were definitely away from the crowds. During our four hour drive, we saw ten other cars at most, a big change from the steady stream of traffic along the main road.

We also got much closer to the river. At times, the road ran right along the cliff edge. We stopped multiple times to get out and enjoy the view of the Snake River, which twisted like satin ribbon along the valley floor below us.

Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore

After a few hours of having our fillings shaken out of our head, we all started to wonder if we would ever reach the end of the road. We got out the map and realized it was nearly fifteen miles long, not five like we’d thought. We were lucky to go 25 mph along some stretches, so it was no wonder the drive seemed eternal.

We all got in the car again and gritted our teeth. We saw rafts on the river and hawks in trees, but no sign of the T in the road that would take us back to pavement and a smooth ride.

A pick-up truck came over a hill and stopped to tell us that there were bison ahead, some off to the left and some off to the right. We thanked the driver and got excited. We were going to see some wildlife!

We came over a rise, and there they were, between us and the mountains. Two bison wading through the grass. Close enough to recognize but too far for my camera’s short lens. Brown dots on green, but definitely bison.

Can you find the bison? (They're on the bottom right.)
Can you find the bison? (They’re on the bottom right.)

We were ecstatic and took lots of photos. Kurt kept inching us down the road, which improved the view and also got us closer to the end of our arduous ride. We agreed we’d taken all the photos we wanted and went on our way.

That’s when we saw more bison, off to the right, and closer. More clicking cameras. As we came around bend, we realized the bison were very close to the road. We were going to get a much better view. Then it became clear that they weren’t near it — they were on it. We would be driving right through the herd.

Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!
Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!

The herd was at least one hundred animals strong and moving west to east, straight across our path. They didn’t seem to care about us much one way or the other, but the males had a way of turning to stare at us that froze my blood. We watched them sniffing the females, heard them grunting at one another, and saw one big male chase several others away from a female. There were calves in the herd, too, but clearly the males were in rut, or getting ready for it, and the females would be in heat soon.

Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore

One ton of bison is intimidating to get close to. One ton of bison pumped full of hormones is downright scary. Fortunately, Kurt had previous experience driving through a giraffe herd and knew when to inch forward and when to wait. It took us twenty minutes to go maybe fifty feet as the bison sauntered past us. The animals got so close we could have reached out and touched them, but we weren’t about to try it.

Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.
Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.

When we finally got back to the road, we stopped at the park lodge for dinner. All we could talk about was the bison we’d seen on River Road, bison we would never have seen at all if we’d stayed on the main road with the rest of the crowd. The teeth shaking and bumps were forgotten, as was the length of the drive. Our adventure had reminded us that the gifts of road less traveled outweigh the challenges.

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