Mr. Rockefeller's ranch is now yours
Still, this is not just a story of moose and men but of mountains too. And I haven't even reached my destination, Jackson Point Overlook, perhaps the park's best. Which is saying a lot.
Heading north, Teton Park Road opens up to unbelievable drive-by vistas of the mountains, which rise to nearly 14,000 feet. Washed by the morning's pink light, the blue granite glows red like dying embers.
Jackson Point sits atop the modest mound of Signal Mountain, just 7,593 feet but with an opera-box perspective opposite the Tetons. In 1872 photographer William Henry Jackson captured the view, giving the world its first look at the range. Now about 4 million people a year visit Grand Teton National Park, doing everything from rafting trips along the Snake to multiday climbs to the summit of the park's highest peak, the 13,770-foot spire that is simply known as Grand Teton.
So when 1,106 acres of pristine forested land open to the public, that's big news. The LSR Preserve is named for Laurance S. Rockefeller, whose celebrated family played an integral role in the park's founding. The preserve consists of the family ranch along Phelps Lake, a parcel the Rockefellers held on to for decades after donating more than 33,000 acres of their land to the park.
Hike the preserve's new trails to the edge of the lake and you'll see no trace of the ranch. That was according to the wishes of "Mr. Laurance," as he was known to longtime Grand Teton figure Clay James, local project manager of the preserve and its visitor center.
James has played a variety of roles around the park since he first worked here in 1962 as a college student. But returning the ranch to its natural state posed a new range of challenges. Seven miles of asphalt were removed and ground up for reuse. A 150-ton crane hoisted buildings ― some of them dating back to the early 1900s ― onto trucks that moved them to other locations in Jackson Hole. Workers even used a pneumatic trailer that could be tilted and raised as necessary to avoid disturbing boulders as the buildings were hauled out.
"We had one mirror break. That was about it," James says. And apparently no boulders. Now this beloved retreat that presidents once visited is again the exclusive home of elk herds and the bears that come to gorge on hawthorn berries in early fall. As for the rest of us, we're just plenty lucky to finally visit.
"It's a great gift to the American people," James says, looking out across the lake from the onetime ranch site. "A tremendous gift."