Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Stone's Throw From Jackson Hole

While Jackson is the best known gateway for millions of travelers visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, there is something to be said for staying a stone's throw away. There are several less-traveled choices a few miles north, shaving an hour off the drive into either park.

Most of them are much closer to the principal entrance of Grand Teton National Park at Moran Junction. Once inside, the southern entrance to Yellowstone is a short scenic drive away.

Although unincorporated, the community that makes up Moran has its own history. The first homestead was established in the 1890s by Ed "Cap" and Clara Smith, who eventually found themselves catering to so many Yellowstone Park travelers that they built a two-story log hotel. Their neighbors followed suit, building the nearby Elkhorn Hotel, before the Smith hotel was tragically burned to the ground.

Although there is a rural post office, there isn't much else to do in Moran itself. It's the surrounding lodges, cabins and ranches that make for a great distraction from the more bustling pace of Jackson.

The Togwotee Mountain Lodge is a wilder specialty destination. 

Located about 30 minutes from the Moran Junction entrance, the Togwotee Mountain Lodge became the highlight of a road trip through five states. Nestled in the Bridger-Teton National Forest at a higher elevation than Jackson Hole, guests can book lodge rooms or one of 54 modern log cabins tucked away in the pines.

While the lodge is nice, it's the cabins that add to the seclusion (especially those along the perimeter). They add an element of a rustic vacation, but with all the amenities of a hotel. The cabins consist of two  open rooms divided by a clean and cozy bath.

The living room includes a sofa, small dining table, and kitchenette with a mini-refrigerator, stovetop, microwave, and enough pots, pans, silverware, and table settings to cook your own meals. Along with two queen beds, the bedroom has a dresser with its own flatscreen television.

Even in the summer, nighttime temperatures are cool in Wyoming. Guests have their choice of using electric heat or lighting a cozy fire. The wood-burning fireplace provides plenty of instructions, and each cabin has its own supply of wood outside the front door.

When guests don't want to eat in their cabins, the lodge has two menus served out of the same kitchen. The Grizzly Grill is a wide open dining hall with a breakfast buffet in the morning, lunch and dinner. The lodge's Red Fox Saloon serves a much more casual menu, with burgers and sandwiches. The real draw, of course, is a dozen draft beers including local favorites from the Snake River and Grand Teton Brewing companies.

The Togwotee Mountain Lodge as a hub of activity. 

What makes the Togwotee Mountain Lodge great is its central location. In the summer, there are dozens of activities around the Bridger-Teton National Forest. They include horseback riding, wagon cookouts, mountain biking, river floats, whitewater rafting, and fishing. Some are operated by the lodge, but most are catered by outside outfitters. The lodge is always helpful weighing the options.

Almost everyone who stays there sets time aside for horseback riding. The stables are located right behind the Togwotee Mountain Lodge, with an extensive network of riding trails around scenic vistas in the area. Some trips travel up to the top of Angle Mountain. Others drop down toward Buffalo Fork River. In the winter, the lodge is a favorite destination for snowmobilers.

Conversely, there is plenty to do on your own. Jackson, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone are all short drives away. Just make sure to start every day early. Some relatively short drives take longer than you think, especially inside the parks. Maps make everything look deceptively close.

All of them feature enough attractions to include more detailed reviews. We'll circle back to some of them in the months ahead. But you really can't ask for more than the Togwotee Mountain Lodge, a story that started in 1921 when Al and Bertha Angle opened a camp that specialized in home cooking and mountain outfitting.

The Togwotee Mountain Lodge Saddles Up 8.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

The property has since changed hands several times over the years. In 2008, it was purchased by Aramark Parks and Destination, which now employs young workers as part of its seasonal crews. Many of them stay right onsite in employee cabins, which makes for long hours but an excellent experience.

There is a surprising amount to discover around Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. For details and booking information, start by comparing specials against top travel deals at The Togwotee Mountain Lodge, by the way, includes cabin-side parking as well as free Wi-Fi, which is surprisingly fast for an area where cell service is spotty. The best iPhone app we've found to date is National Parks by National Geographic.
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