High in the Sky

Hiking to some of our wildest areas out of the question? Fly Jackson Hole still wants you to see them.

BY Dina mishev
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Bradly j. boner

The scenic tours by Fly Jackson Hole take clients along the western flank of the Tetons for spectacular views of the range’s core peaks.

The scenic tours by Fly Jackson Hole take clients along the western flank of the Tetons for spectacular views of the range’s core peaks.

FLOATING SEVERAL THOUSAND feet above the Sleeping Indian, Blue Miner Lake, to the peak’s east, looks as blue as I’ve ever seen it. The high, rolling open meadows so characteristic of the Gros Ventre Range spread out below. Yet I am disappointed.

As someone who has always prized the achievement of getting to wild places by my own power and who also appreciates silence once I’ve reached these wild places, I was leery of the scenic flights that began operating out of the Jackson Hole Airport last July. But, of course, when the opportunity comes to experience one, I jump at it, mostly hoping to find it sucks so I don’t need to contemplate the hypocrisy of revering wild places while enjoying a scenic flight over them.

Flying over the Snake River and Jackson Hole

Flying over the Snake River and Jackson Hole

That’s not the case. I love it. The hour I spend flying first above the Gros Ventres and then coming over the town of Jackson, before squeaking through Teton Pass and then heading north up the Teton Range on the Teton Valley side, is enthralling. I might be getting a little gushy here, but the scenery is the very definition of awesome. I mean, we’re talking about the Tetons. And the Gros Ventres. And, way in the distance—beyond the twenty-five-mile radius these flights have from the Jackson Hole Airport—the Wind River Mountains.

Having spent nearly two decades exploring the Tetons and the Gros Ventres on foot and on and off trail, this flight doesn’t show me too many places I haven’t already seen, yet it does. In Grand Teton National Park, I’ve hiked to Mica Lake and hope to make it to Alpha and Omega lakes in the near future, and I’ve looked at the three on Google Earth. But flying west of them, I visualize a wonderfully difficult backcountry scramble between the trio that I lacked the imagination to see on Google Earth.

The week prior to the flight, my boyfriend and I bushwhacked up to Coyote Lake, one of the highest-altitude lakes in Grand Teton National Park and way at the back of Open Canyon. We had also hoped to hit nearby(ish) Indian Lake, but time was running short, and our topo maps indicated Indian Lake was surrounded by steep cliffs.

FLY JACKSON HOLE doesn’t take us right over Indian Lake—the only time  on my tour founder and pilot Pete Lindell flies within GTNP is for takeoff and landing (the Jackson Hole Airport has the distinction of being the only commercial airport in the country that is inside a national park) and when he has to cross back from the west to the east side to land; the rest of the time he’s flying above the national forests and wilderness areas around the park. But we get close enough for me to take some scouting shots of routes that Derek and I might take to clamber up to the lake next summer. And Coyote Lake looks even more beautiful from three-thousand-some feet above than it does from its scree shoreline.

Pete Lindell, owner of Fly Jackson Hole, steers over the western slope of the Teton Range during a scenic flight.

Pete Lindell, owner of Fly Jackson Hole, steers over the western slope of the Teton Range during a scenic flight.

ONCE LINDELL GETS a narrative up and running—“I don’t want people just to see these places, but understand the geology and history and wildness that makes them so special, and I want them to know what they’re seeing below,” he says—for clients to listen to through their headphones, the flights will be greatly improved. I know it’s Mount Meek and Marion Lake below because I had the good sense to move here directly after college, began to explore GTNP, and never moved away. But most people won’t know about the mountain named for Virginian Joseph Shelton Meek, who, in 1829 at the age of nineteen, joined a fur-trading expedition of William Sublette’s and, for the next decade, traveled throughout the West, hunting, trapping, and living off the land.

While Mt. Meek might remain unrecognized by most passengers, the Grand Teton will not. But the Middle or South Tetons, or any of the canyons that reach out from between the peaks like gnarled fingers, could be tricky. Not that we need names to be ascribed to things to appreciate their awesomeness, but they do help with a frame of reference and sense of place. Lindell, who’s been flying for eighteen years, gets points for wanting to add that to these flights.

WHETHER THIS IS because flying over wilderness areas adjacent to Grand Teton National Park is controversial or not, Lindell says, “I’m not doing this just to entertain people. This isn’t something for people to tick off life lists. You will see amazing scenery you can’t imagine even from the top of the tram, but my hope is that people take an appreciation of what’s out there home with them. If people can’t get exposed to wild areas, how can they be expected to care about them?”

Fly over the Crystal Peak Landslide in the Gros Ventres with Lindell and when you read about it in this issue (page 84), you’ll have more of a relationship with it than you’d get from our photos and descriptions, as great as we think our photos and descriptions are.

Over the Tetons, it’s not the peaks or canyons that wow me most, but how many lakes are in the range. Some probably are technically only tarns—maybe even not that, ambitious puddles? Still,  in addition to the well-known Marion Lake, Lake Solitude, Jenny Lake, and Snowdrift Lake, there are upwards of a dozen pockets of water, totally hidden from below, that even in mid-August are fighting to melt out. My face is glued to the window—everyone gets a window seat—soaking in every nanosecond because this is a complete treat; my muscles and legs can get me many places, but  high into the sky is not among them.

A flyover of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park at sunrise is a perfect start to a summer day in Jackson Hole.

A flyover of the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park at sunrise is a perfect start to a summer day in Jackson Hole.

Nuts & Bolts

Fly Jackson Hole offers tours daily, with advance reservations, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The planes can accommodate up to seven people and flights are between 60 and 90 minutes. The 60-minute Summit Tour ($295/person) is Fly Jackson Hole’s standard tour and flies east from the Jackson Hole Airport before circling over the town of Jackson and over Teton Pass and then heading north on the west side of the Tetons before landing at the Jackson Hole Airport. All Fly Jackson Hole trips depart from and arrive at the Jackson Hole Airport. The Snake to Summit Tour ($500) is 90 minutes and allows for more views of the Gros Ventre and Wind River ranges than the Summit Tour. flyjacksonhole.com; 844/359-5499

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