Andrew Langford, until recently the Jenny Lake interpretive ranger, has often referred to his title’s namesake as “the heart” of Grand Teton National Park.
A gorgeous apron of water skirting the base of the range’s highest peaks, Jenny Lake marks the park’s approximate geographical center. It’s also arguably its historical hub, at least over the past century, when it was the first sector of the park developed for recreation. And in statistical terms it’s the tourism center as well.
“It is the go-to place,” Langford said. “For many visitors that’s what they remember about Grand Teton National Park. They were here 50 years ago, and they remember Jenny Lake.”
Before retiring in May, Langford devoted a quarter century to enriching those visitors’ experience of the park, and in particular of this glittering pool that sees about 70% of all park-goers. In the last years of his tenure he played a key role in the Jenny Lake Renewal Project, helping to inject new life into an already supremely popular attraction.
It was the fulfillment of a childhood dream that began in the early 1960s when, as a preteen, Langford wrote the U.S. Forest Service by “snail mail” to request materials for its junior ranger program.
He and a couple of neighborhood friends in Salt Lake City, all age 10 or so, had founded a club around their shared desire to someday stand among the environmental stewards they revered. When their booklets arrived the rangers-in-training dutifully completed the coloring pages, educational activities and the like.
“There might have been a Smokey Bear badge,” Langford said.
Around that time his family took a road trip to Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks. Experiencing the stunning and storied landscapes for the first time, he grew more resolved in his ambitions.
“I remember bison, and of course I remember the mountains and buck rail fences,” he reminisced. “I very quickly decided that I wanted to become a park ranger.”
Throughout his youth Langford was happiest outside, camping often with his family and exploring the Wasatch Mountains near his home. An early appreciation for animals, especially large mammals, led him to study ecology and biology in college and then to teach the latter in schools around the West. But his longing for life in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem never waned.
Beginning in his college days he made an annual ritual of applying to the National Park Service. That continued into his early 30s, always without success. Though he still aspired to join the ranks of the rangers he took the shotgun approach and offered himself up in whatever form he imagined the agency might take him.
“Every single year,” he said, “I tried for maintenance, I tried for anything. For whatever reason I just could not get hired.”
Whereas today’s would-be rangers can apply simultaneously to as many parks as they wish, in the 1970s Langford was limited to two. Each time he would try for either Grand Teton or Yellowstone and a second, less coveted location, though even that strategic maneuvering didn’t help. Again and again the applications came back rejected. But the next year he always submitted a new one.
Finally, after more than a decade of doggedness, Yellowstone brought him on as a seasonal employee in 1987. At last he would live and work in the wilderness that had captivated him for 25 years.
Langford later switched to Grand Teton, eventually ascending to the district supervisor position he held from 2007 until this past summer. It was the culmination of a long-held goal, no doubt, but he’s quick to correct those who presume he has spent his entire career in the open air, among the trees, enjoying a state of nature-induced bliss.
“They think that as a park ranger you have a great job, you get to spend your time outside,” he said. “Not as a supervisor. Most of my time was spent in front of a computer.”
But just as his job once consisted of guiding and educating visitors, the promotion allowed Langford to do so on an even larger scale, if more indirectly. He speaks with pride of the excellent rangers he has hired over the years, many now dispersed across the national park system.
Perhaps his most enduring legacy will be his part in the Jenny Lake Renewal Project, a thorough overhaul of the front- and backcountry on both sides of the lake. As interpretive ranger, Langford supervised the installation of new signs, maps and panels and secured funding for the renovated Jenny Lake Visitor Center and its new exhibits.
Collectively, the interpretive elements of the project constitute much of the interface through which millions of people engage with Jenny Lake. Langford is particularly proud of those aspects of the project that have opened the park to people with disabilities. Bronze raised-relief maps around the lake allow blind people to feel the landscape, and raised letters tell the names of the peaks in tactile format.
He was also involved in developing an app that will read the new interpretive panels aloud, and was a member of the design team that, among other things, built a wheelchair ramp that leads right down to the water’s edge. When the lake is high enough, people can even wheel themselves into it.
It has all been in service of creating the best experience possible for each of the park’s more than 3 million annual visitors. Langford has always recognized that Jenny Lake “has something for everybody.” They can simply walk along the water or take a shuttle boat across for the hike to Inspiration Point or venture deeper into Cascade Canyon.
“They hold that dear in their heart,” Langford said. “It’s been a great place to work, because I and my staff have been able to touch people’s lives.”
Now that his summer schedule doesn’t preclude travel, he and his wife of four decades, Patti Roser, have many grand plans for post-pandemic national park trips: Denali, Channel Islands, Acadia. International travel is on the agenda, too, with Australia, New Zealand and the Galapagos — which Langford studied in college — high on the list.
But despite retirement, Langford still spends much of his time in and around Grand Teton. In a way he has returned to his years of on-the-ground interpretive rangering: He now volunteers with the Wildlife Brigade, teaching visitors how to keep themselves and the region’s animals safe.
When he thinks of the memories that embody what he loves about this work, he remembers all the times a wide-eyed visitor told him, “This is the best hike I’ve ever done.” It’s the wonder in their gaze and the gratitude in their voice. Just as he did while on the Grand Teton payroll, he can look forward to many such moments to come.
“They’re so thankful to have the experiences they have in the parks,” Langford said. “It’s just so special to hear that from the American public.”