Jackson Hole traditions as old as time

05 Jul 2023

Carrying on the essence of the West

Summer 2023

Written By: Melissa Thomasma | Images: Public Domain via Wikimedia Common

"Welcome to Jackson Hole," reads the sign atop Teton Pass. “The last of the Old West."

Jackson Hole’s rich Western heritage can be traced back many generations — Indigenous tribes, settlers, trappers, explorers, cowboys, artists, eccentrics. The wild magic of this place has called to hearts for longer than we can imagine. And even now, though the ways in which we can experience Jackson Hole may have changed, countless threads still weave and wind throughout the culture of the area that began hundreds — even thousands — of years ago.

Archaeologists believe that the earliest evidence of people in Jackson Hole reveals their presence during the Paleoindian Period approximately 11,000 years ago. In the several thousand years that followed, a diversity of Indigenous groups utilized the area for camping, hunting and traveling to other locations. The evidence they’ve left behind offers connections to the Sheep Eaters, Eastern Shoshone, Crow, Bannock, Blackfoot, Northern Arapaho, Gros Ventre, Nez Perce and other tribes.

These rich and complex cultures traversed the landscape long before settlers arrived, and their seasonal reliance on the area’s bountiful resources forged a deep connection to the place. Today, these resources are still treasured by locals and visitors alike. Don’t bother asking a longtime resident where their favorite huckleberry patch is: you’ll be met with stone-cold silence. Same story if you’re looking for information about the best fishing or hunting spots. Part of what connects people to place are the unique flavors associated with places and seasons, just as they did thousands of years ago.

Perhaps when we think of the “Old West,” our imaginations are most often drawn to the communities and cultures that emerged when white settlers moved West, edging out the Indigenous peoples who called these lands home. As the first bands of white explorers gave way to the more permanent lifestyles of trappers, homesteaders and ranchers, the community of Jackson Hole began to cultivate its own unique identity — one that it’s held onto for generations.

It didn’t take long for folks to realize that agriculture and farming weren’t going to be the ticket to success in Jackson Hole: hard-scrabble, rocky soil didn’t do much for crops, and growing seasons between brutal winters weren’t long enough. Some families took up raising cattle, which did prove successful despite the rough terrain. Others, however, found something else to ranch: dudes.

 The tradition of dude ranches, now more often known as guest ranches, began very early in Jackson Hole. The first operation, the JY Ranch, opened in 1908. Driven by a desire to escape cities or the intense summertime heat elsewhere, people wanted to visit the Tetons and get a taste of the Old West for themselves. Today, you’re likely to encounter much more luxurious accommodations and food at the local guest ranches, but they’re as bustling as ever. Guests enjoy horseback riding, fishing, hiking, campfire cookouts and more — not too terribly different from what some of the earliest “dudes” enjoyed on their stay.

Likewise, visitors and locals alike have always enjoyed a top-notch cookout and some irresistibly toe-tapping music to pass a convivial evening. It’s clear that the love of a good meal and great music hasn’t fallen by the wayside since Jackson’s earliest days. Whether you’re looking for an unforgettable world-class dinner, or craving something a little more rustic cooked over an open flame, you’ll find it being served up here in Jackson.

And when it comes to music? Taking a spin across the dance floor to a local band is still a core Jackson experience. Head on over to the low-slung Stagecoach Bar (opened in 1942) at the base of Teton Pass on Sunday evenings for the Stagecoach Band; known colloquially as “Church,” locals have flocked to this laid-back performance to enjoy some quintessential swing dancing and quality time with friends and neighbors. Similarly, the Hootenanny lights up the stage at Dornan’s in Moose every Monday night, showcasing a lineup of community musicians sharing their favorite tunes.

Perhaps one of the proudest legacies that Jackson Hole has carried into the modern day is our unmatched passion for conservation and stewardship. It was the inimitable beauty of the Teton Range that captured the heart of John D. Rockefeller, among others, and ultimately led to the formation of Grand Teton National Park in 1929. Had these lands not been so boldly protected at such an early date, it’s difficult to imagine how they may have been trampled, built upon, or otherwise destroyed.

Following in the footsteps of the Rockefeller family, the Jackson community is dedicated to protecting the landscape that we all treasure as well as the creatures that call it home. We pursue adventures on mountain peaks, rivers and wildflower-filled meadows, and we strive to leave them just as we found them — in their full natural glory and awaiting the next admirer. As we grow, we work to protect critical habitat from development. We improve fencing to accommodate migratory animals. We seek infrastructure plans to minimize collisions with wildlife on roads. We ensure our trash is safe from prying bears. We’re far from perfect, but we do our best.

Perhaps the most enduring facet of the Old West that flickers on in the heart of Jackson Hole is the irresistible call of the wild, beckoning self-discovery. It’s impossible to count the number of people who have found boundless inspiration in these peaks and valleys. This place, since time immemorial, has captured the hearts and imaginations of those who have ventured within. We’re willing to bet that while you’re here, you’ll be captivated by its magic, too. 

JUST LIKE THE GOOD OL’ DAYS

More than a few of the earliest establishments in Jackson Hole are still in full operation today.

If you’re looking for the classic dude ranch experience, look no further than Triangle X Ranch — one of the area’s first guest ranches that’s still going strong near Moran. Saddle up for trail rides with Teton views, float the Snake River, and enjoy a luxurious spin on the quintessential Western experience.

Right on the Town Square, the Jackson Drug & Original Soda Fountain was originally opened by Bruce Porter in 1919. The family operated the soda fountain and pharmacy until the late 1970s, when it changed hands. In 2018, Bruce’s great-grandchildren re-opened Jackson Drug as a reinvention of the classic soda fountain, now boasting gourmet burgers and more.

The iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar has been one of Jackson’s most popular watering holes since it opened in 1937. Boasting authentic interiors (including saddles for bar stools), the Cowboy has a truly Old West vibe and boisterous atmosphere.

Should you require any kind of medical care during your visit, head to St. John’s Health. Founded in 1916 as St. John’s Hospital by the Episcopal Church, locals and visitors alike have enjoyed exceptional care from the team year-round. The award-winning facility has grown substantially in the last 100+ years, but the care is still remarkable.

In 1890, a settler named Sylvester Wilson came to Jackson Hole to raise cattle. Six generations later, and that wild spirit is thriving: the Wilson family is still operating the Jackson Hole Rodeo. Head over to the Rodeo Arena (at the Fairgrounds) to enjoy some good old-fashioned barrel racing, bronc busting and bull riding for yourself! 

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