Grand and great: these superlatives describe our wildest, most spectacular landscapes, as well as the forward-thinking Americans who thought to protect them. Wednesday night (September 30), Episode 4 of Ken Burns’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea told the founding stories of Grand Teton and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. Grand Teton was the brainchild of then-Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright, and Great Smoky sprang from the preservation efforts of travel writer Horace Kephart and Japanese-born photographer George Masa.
But both, it turns out, owe a great deal to Big Oil. At a time when the United States was too broke to consider buying private land for parks, philanthropist and oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, Jr. stepped forward and used his personal fortune to preserve these outsized landscapes and put them into the public trust. He bought 35,000+ acres of Jackson Hole and gave it to the U.S. government to establish Grand Teton NP, and donated $5 million to buy up roughly half of the land that now comprises Great Smoky Mountains NP. The result is two iconic, and wonderfully different, parks that are all of ours to enjoy. Here’s how:
The image of the jagged Tetons shooting up into the air over a mile above Jackson Hole is probably the most famous mountain vista in America (thanks, Ansel Adams). The sight still has the capacity to startle, though, especially when you approach from the east. Drive in on U.S. Route 28/287, which crosses the Gros Ventre Range. At the summit of Togwotee Pass, the whole park unfolds before you in a single grand, unspoiled sweep—the silver tongue of the Snake River slithering below the impossibly sharp relief of the Tetons.
DO IT: The open meadows of Jackson Hole are perfect habitat for moose, elk, bison, pronghorn and mule deer, making the valley a virtual game park. Even so, the Tetons are the birthplace of American mountaineering, and best appreciated from their summits. Most nascent climbers want to top out on the titular peak, Grand Teton, because it’s the highest in the park. But set your sights on its equally impressive, and far less crowded, neighbor, 12,605-foot Mount Moran, and you won’t be disappointed. Hire Exum Mountain Guides to get you safely up and down the mountain in an exhilarating two-day push ($770 per person for groups of two, exumguides.com). Or, if you don’t want to get technical, try tackling the Teton Crest Trail, which traverses 38 miles of alpine glory on the Tetons’ rarely visited western slope. Think pristine, wildflower-filled meadows crisscrossed by burbling streams overlooked by serrated granite ridges (a shuttle service can be hired, nps.gov/grte; backcountry permits required).
BASECAMP: Spend some time at the Jenny Lake Campground ($19, gtlc.com), with its stunning mountain views and excellent trail access. Take a quiet hike to the lake’s west side, where a sketchy trail leads into Hanging Canyon and reaches three rarely visited alpine pools set at the feet of massive stone spires.
REFUEL: Snake River Brewpub in Jackson Hole serves delicious organic ale, and features mouth-watering daily food specials such as chorizo peach pizza (fire-roasted peaches, chorizo sausage, chipotle BBQ sauce, and goat cheese) and a blueberry bread pudding (snakeriverbrewing.com).
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
"I took a topographic map and picked out on it, by means of the contour lines and the blank space showing no settlement, what seemed to me the wildest part of this region; and there I went." Believe it or not, that’s how Horace Kephart chose the area that is now Great Smoky. And we’re lucky he did. Those diminutive, forested mountains comprise one of the temperate world’s most biologically diverse stretches. It has at least 140 tree species, more than all of Europe combined. In the last decade alone, scientists have discovered 890 new species of plants and animals there. And the best thing about Great Smoky Mountains is that you can discover them all for yourself with its phenomenal accessibility. Millions of people visit the park yearly, but only a fraction of them ever hike its 800+ miles of trails.
DO IT: Get a biodiversity breakdown on an all-day, naturalist-led hike with the Smoky Mountain Field School ($49; www.outreach.utk.edu/smoky). Hiking is king here, and these trails will leave you with great memories, not to mention sore muscles. Some 3,700 feet of climbing will take you to the top of Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point. You won’t need the lookout tower, though; the views before you get there, on the short detour to Andrews Bald, are even better. Stroll down the Welch Ridge Trail to High Rocks, where you can see spruce-cloaked ridgelines contrasting with the jungle-like lushness of Forney Creek in the valley below. Descend through a thick mantle of rhododendron and hemlock to Forney Creek, then backtrack to your vehicle. You should finish early enough to visit the meadows at the end of Cataloochee Road, where elk were reintroduced in 2001, after a 150-year absence from the park. There is beauty in balance, and of the peaks in the East (or West for that matter) none attain the ideal equilibrium of Mount LeConte. Views come at just the right moments. Knee-straining steeps and breath-catching breaks alternate as if they were planned. Along the way are forest, history, and geologic oddities. And though LeConte is not the highest summit in the park (it's the third), it has the greatest vertical relief of any mountain in the East (5,301 feet).
BASECAMP: Camp first at Balsam Mountain, the highest (5,300 feet) and least crowded of the park’s “frontcountry”—e.g. car camping—campgrounds ($14, nps.gov/grsm). Heft your gear into the backcountry and pitch a tent at the designated site on the Bear Creek trail beneath High Rocks. It’s absolutely free, and the clear, cold water of Bear Creek will help cool you down after a long, strenuous hike.
REFUEL: The Smoky Mountain Brewery in Gatlinburg feels something like a Bavarian beer hall, a feeling that’s bolstered by their soft pretzels and German-style Helles beer. The menu is better than schnitzel and kraut, though. Juicy burgers are served with a generous side of baked man ‘n’ cheese, and the Buffalo Chicken specialty pizza will leave your mouth on fire and your stomach happy (coppercellar.com/smbGatSite.shtml).