Grizzlock in Grand Teton

James Draven takes a freewheeling road trip through Wyoming’s National Parks and discovers perhaps the world’s first enjoyable traffic jam

“Back up, back up! Get back in your vehicles now,” barks a woman in federal uniform. She’s just arrived at a scene of pandemonium. Her marked car sits on the grass verge — along which she was forced to arrive, due to the highway being entirely blocked. The lights on its roof flash impotently, scrubbed and bleached by scouring sunlight.

It’s been just five minutes since I pulled up in my RV (camper van to we Brits) and was met by this obstruction. Static traffic clogs this mainline artery — a country road winding southbound through otherwise pristine Wyoming wilderness. It’s extremely unusual to see a tailback around these parts, and that’s one of the joys of driving through Wyoming, the least populous state in the USA where just 570,000 people live, spread out across nearly 98,000 square miles. 

Unsurprisingly, you tend to have the roads to yourself as you cruise along with the window rolled down with iconic Americana zipping by outside. It’s a million miles away from pile-ups, honking horns, road rage, and motorways that resemble eight-lane car parks. You could say these noodling highways are more spaghetti western than spaghetti junction — but that would be inaccurate because this is the bona fide home of the cowboy, out here in the part of the West that never stopped being wild.

Although remote and sparsely populated, Wyoming is an instantly recognisable slice of American pie. It’s home to the world’s biggest outdoor rodeo: Frontier Days. Devil’s Tower looms large in the pop-culture consciousness as a key landmark in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The first ever National Park, Yellowstone, is populated in the TV-watching public’s imagination by John Dutton III, portrayed by Kevin Costner, while its cartoon counterpart, Jellystone, is famously home to Yogi Bear.

Just this morning I left Yellowstone behind me in the rear-view mirror. After two days staying in its camper-van parks — marvelling at the clockwork punctuality of Old Faithful, a geyser that reliably erupts every 90 minutes, and goggling at the psychedelic hues of Grand Prismatic Spring — I’m back on the road. 

The John D Rockefeller Jr. Memorial Parkway runs for just eight miles, linking Yellowstone with Grand Teton National Park, and from there I drive a 42-mile loop that takes me along the base of the Teton range. 19th century Mormon homesteads, and forests of pine, spruce, and fir glide past as sagebrush and rubbernecking prairie dogs blur into the foreground. 

Along the one-way Jenny Lake Scenic Drive, jagged mountains chew the horizon, mirrored by crystalline waters, while Signal Mountain’s summit offers panoramic views across the park. When I drive up to the Snake River Overlook, I greet the scene with eidetic familiarity – I realise it’s the spot from which Ansel Adams shot one of his most celebrated photographs in 1942: The Tetons and the Snake River.

Now, heading south through the park, I’m nearing the end of my road trip. I’ve seen American bald eagles above, mule deer and elk between trees, and even a pack of wolves through a spotting scope, but I’ve not yet spied any of Yogi’s real-world cousins.

I’d expected to see bears but instead — incredibly, out here amid the wildest of vistas — I’ve found a traffic jam. I’m no better than anybody else: I kill the engine and get out to investigate the source of the gridlock.

And there it is. Immediately by the roadside is a female grizzly bear. Dangerous enough at the best of times, mothers are fiercely protective — and this 450-pound beast is watching over her two cubs, playing in the long grass. They tumble and roll onto their backs, wriggling, squabbling and frollicking as if nobody were watching, while mother bear stands sentry. She rarely takes her eyes off her cubs. All over the highway, vehicles are abandoned: doors left gaping, engines idling, their occupants viewing them through telephoto lenses. 

“She may look cute but she’s a wild animal guarding her cubs,” announces the National Park Service ranger, impressing the urgency of the situation upon slack-jawed travellers, “… and she could clear the distance between you guys and her in less than a second. So back up and return to your vehicles now.”

Everyone shuffles backward slowly, camera shutters still clacking with the volume and tempo of Action Man machine guns. Every one of us continues to take pictures through our car windows. I’m grateful for my elevated seating position in my RV: snapping pictures over the roofs of sedans and hatchbacks in my makeshift, mobile wildlife hide. 

It’s only when the great bear eventually ambles toward the tree-line and disappears into dense forest with her cubs trailing behind her, that the highway finally starts rolling again. Even traffic jams are something to savour in Wyoming, and I’ve never been more disappointed to put pedal to metal.