En español | The lakes. That’s why Grand Teton is my favorite national park. At lower elevations, Grand Teton has six easy-to-access lakes — whether in a car driving along deep-blue Jenny Lake or aboard a boat on 40-square-mile Jackson Lake. But the park’s 100-plus alpine and backcountry lakes are what I love most. On a hike from the Lupine Meadows Trailhead, some friends and I marched through forest pines, lumbering up leg-straining switchbacks to reach Surprise and Amphitheater lakes. It’s a popular hike, yet we found ourselves alone at each lake. Only the wind broke the silence as we gazed at clear water and jagged, snowy cliffs. It feels like nature as it’s meant to be experienced.
If you haven’t visited Grand Teton — and it should be on every American’s must-visit list — the park has everything you'd want in a wilderness area. Love wildlife? Grand Teton’s winged and furry residents include moose, elk, bears and bald eagles. (I once encountered a bison that was roughly the size of a UPS truck.) Like mountains? Eight of the Teton Range’s rugged peaks are higher than 12,000 feet.
Best of all: You can visit the park without spending a mountain-size wad of cash. The Grand Teton entrance fee for cars is $35 for one week, but visitors 62 and older can buy a $20 annual pass that lets you and up to three adults in your vehicle enter any national park. (You can also buy a lifetime senior pass for $80.) Yellowstone is only about an hour’s drive from the park, so you can get immediate bang for your senior-pass buck.
The closest airport is Jackson Hole Airport. Consider a window seat for one of you: This is the only airport located in a national park. There are more nonstop flights during winter ski season than in summer; you might find better prices by flying to Idaho Falls (about a two-hour drive to the park) or Salt Lake City (five hours).
To avoid crowds and save money, visit during shoulder season: April and May or September and October. Prices will drop, but accommodations are still expensive, whether you’re staying in the park or in Jackson, Wyoming; Jackson Town Square is about 13 miles from the Grand Teton National Park’s Moose Entrance. Your cheapest option is camping. Prices for tent and RV spots in the park range from $29 to $54, depending on whether your site has electricity. Most campgrounds, from Colter Bay to Jenny Lake, are first-come, first-served, so grab a spot early in the morning.
If you prefer a bed, the Hostel in Teton Village, just outside of town, is the area’s best-kept low-cost secret. (National Geographic dubs it the best budget digs in Jackson.) You can get a private room with a king-size bed for between $49 and $69 a night in low season. The shared recreation room includes a fridge, freezer, microwave and toaster — plus there’s free coffee and tea in the lobby — which can help cut your food costs.
If you want a less-rustic night out, head to Jackson. The town’s fine-dining scene can be pricey, so look for happy hour deals: Asian-influenced the Kitchen has a $10 special food menu with half-off select drinks between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. For simpler fare, go to Pinky G’s Pizzeria and ask for the local lunch special: a slice of pizza, small salad and refillable fountain drink for $8. You’ll also find top-notch pub grub and specials at local faves such as the Snake River Brew Pub and Cutty’s Bar and Grill. The Trapper Grill, located at Signal Mountain Lodge in the park, looks out on Jackson Lake — and it’s the perfect spot for a post-hike beer. (A burger and fries will cost you $12.)
After your meal, enjoy a stroll through town. Jackson may have more millionaires than cowboys — local homeowners include Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt and Tiger Woods — though it’s still a mountain town. Sure, you’ll find art galleries and sushi spots, but the rustic town square is fit for a John Wayne flick, from wood-plank walkways to Old West storefronts — plus the trademark neon bucking bronco atop the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and the town’s four arches made of, yes, elk antlers.
Despite Jackson’s enticements, nature is still the star here. Enjoy long drives through the park and stop at scenic overlooks, yet take time to wander some of the 242 miles of trails, too. Grand Teton is America’s ninth-most-visited national park, but walk 10 minutes down a path and the tourists quickly disappear. You can revel in the silence and solitude, marvel at the peaks and pines, and immerse yourself in what Theodore Roosevelt once called the alluring “lonely freedom” of the wilderness.