Psst: looking for part one of this trip?
We left Jackson with all our camping maps, making our way up to Moran Junction, far northeast of the popular Jenny Lake area of Grand Teton National Park. Per the US National Forest rangers, we drove east away from the park. A curvy road free from cars and filled greeted us with stunning views of the Blackrock Creek valley. Just when we were certain we took a wrong turn, we saw a sign indicating the Turpin Meadow campground was a mile ahead of us.
Instant relief overtook us when we saw a few open spots at this 18-site campground. We claimed a spot with plenty of shade, a fire pit (a huge relief: any fires outside pits were banned due to severe drought in the region), a sturdy picnic table, and a large bear locker for food. All smiles and joy, we unpacked everything and set up our beloved 2-person tent. The campsite was quiet enough to feel secluded from the masses in the National Park but there were enough people near us that we didn’t feel alone in the wilderness. This was a particularly important balance to me, as the presence of grizzlies made me feel queasy every time I thought about those big furry bears stalking around the woods. I tried to shake off my lingering bear anxiety and focus on how happy I was to have a campsite with other campers nearby.
Paul, the full-time campsite host at Turpin Meadow along with his wife Judy, greeted us and gave us the lowdown. He was frank about the presence of a grizzly in the area but said the bear never bothered anyone. Sam and I nodded, and I pretended to be ok with this information. We thanked Paul for the info and took off for our first hike in Grand Teton National Park.
Our friend Ryan worked at the Coulter Bay region for a few years and gave us a lot of recommendations for hikes we should try to do and the things we should avoid (or at least spend a very short amount of time there). Since it was so late in the day already, we didn’t want to tackle a long hike or head towards the busy, overcrowded areas.
Even though it wasn’t on Ryan’s list, we tackled Signal Mountain first. There’s a drive to the lookout, but it was so worth it to hike from the area near Signal Lodge up the mountain to the peak. There are two paths: a hilly trail along the ridge with views of the Teton Range, or a flatter route along the glacier lakes tucked in the woods. We were hungry for a hike and killer views, so we took the hilly ridge route up the mountain and the lake route on the way back.
There were a bunch of signs at the start of the trail reminding us how to handle bear attacks. The key to avoiding bears—both grizzlies and black bears, even though grizzlies were the only ones I was worried about—is to make a lot of noise so the bear isn’t startled or surprised. Keep them away by making a racket and it’s unlikely a bear will ever make itself known. We took this to heart and blasted a 90s pop-punk mix from my phone while talking and clapping our hands every few minutes. Excessive? Probably. But we didn’t see any bears, so we’ll never know if we actually overdid it.
At the top of Signal Mountain, astounding views of the Tetons greeted us off to the west. We were also greeted by clumps of tourists, who lumbered down from the parking lot in their Crocs to snap a few photos. Kids were buried in iPhones or handheld games, parents wiping their brows from the 25-yard trek down the slope to the overlook. Sam and I commiserated over our reluctant acceptance of these types of tourists, vowing to always work for our vistas and exploring the world on foot or bike.
As frustrating as it is to come across these types of park visitors, I also recognize that everyone experiences their surroundings in different ways. For some people, this is all they can manage. They’re handicapped, disabled, elderly, or in some other way hindered from becoming a part of the landscape and experiencing it on a more intimate level. The hard part is that these types of visitors make up a very small portion of the tourists that visit these places. Many are just uninterested or unwilling to take the long way to natural destinations. Many will never see the depth of beauty these places have to offer. Our deficit in choosing to hike Signal Mountain first thing is that the view at the top is also accessible by car, so we saw a lot of the types of tourists we don’t normally interact with.
All I’m trying to say is…it’s just a little bit frustrating to climb uphill for 3 miles, fend off grizzlies that may or may not exist, gasp for air in the high elevation, and then find see people leave their air-conditioned car for four minutes to take a picture. Rant over.
Of course, for every ten tourists out there that can be hard to handle, there’s another park visitor that makes it all worthwhile. On our ascent, we ran into a family from Minnesota that was hiking to the bottom of the mountain from the top, but then the dad was hiking back up to get the car at the summit. As we started coming back down the mountain, we saw him again as he approached the top. He was super sweaty and heaving deep breaths because he tried to run back to the car. We gave him some water and he told us there were some grouse about 20 yards ahead. The three of us chatted for fifteen minutes about our trips—their family excursion was almost over, and ours was just beginning. He gave us some awesome pointers for places on our itinerary. It’s these genuine, impromptu interactions with other travelers that I truly cherish on our adventures.
After the hike, we stretched at the Signal Mountain Lodge before heading back to our campground and cooking up dinner. The bears were once again on our mind, so we took ample measures to remove all scents from our campsite. We washed dishes far away from our tent, changed our of cooking clothes and left them in the car, wiped the sunscreen and food smell off our skin with a bunch of unscented baby wipes, and even kept the chapstick out of our tent (a nightly lip-application ritual for Sam). We made it inside the tent right at dusk. I wasn’t tired, but I was determined to fall asleep before I could psych myself out too much.
Falling asleep was easy. The horses nearby made warm, horse-snorty sounds and there were other campers milling around at their sites. These calming campsite sounds made it easy to drift off to sleep.
My bladder, however, has always been my camping nemesis. No matter how early I stop drinking water (at least 2 hours before bed) and how many times I go pee before getting into the tent (probably four or five, to be safe), I always have to pee in the middle of the night. It’s my biggest dread every time I crawl into my cozy sleeping bag.
Sure enough, I awoke at midnight (barely three hours later) and had to pee. Really badly. I tried to fight the urge but realized it was going to be a long five or six hours if I didn’t go now. I fumbled into some clothes and walked a whole three steps from the tent entrance: no WAY was I going to trek across the campsite by myself at night to use the port-a-potty.
Safe back inside the tent, I tried to fall asleep again. Unfortunately, I was already psyching myself out. I started to hear noises.
“Just the horses in the nearby pens,” I told myself, rolling over on my side to cover one ear. I didn’t know horses made this much noise at night, but that had to be it.
An hour or so after trying to ignore these night noises, a series of loud bangs and clangs on something metal came from a few hundred feet away. Whatever was making that noise was BIG. The only thing I could think of, naturally, was a grizzly bear. Maybe a black bear? When it’s the middle of the night and I’m in grizzly country, everything is a grizzly bear.
While I tried convincing myself this wasn’t what I was hearing, I also couldn’t ignore it: the impact of something-heavy-and-powerful battering away at the metal bear locker was practically echoing throughout the campground. My heart was pounding throughout my entire body for the better part of four hours, as I tried not to think about the same paws swiping through my thin, nylon tent in a matter of seconds.
So that was how I survived the night. I’d lay on one side for an hour, one ear pressed into my stuff-sack pillow, the other ear covered by my hand, trying to focus on the sound of my own breath and forcing myself to think about something else. I switched sides every hour from midnight until 5 am. I finally fell asleep from 5 until 5:45, when Sam woke up and had to pee (I had to pee again, too), and we both went outside in the pre-dawn light. I couldn’t fall asleep again, so I woke up and started cooking breakfast while Sam slept for another hour or so.
All in all, I racked up just under four hours of sleep and a lot of anxiety. What a wonderful welcome to grizzly country.