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The West: Living the History of Jackson Hole

Over the past century, residents of Jackson Hole have worn a lot of hats, but it’s the cowboy hat that’s never really come off.
The Howdy Stranger sign at the top of Teton Pass greets visitors to Jackson Hole, "the last of the old west"

Over the past century, residents of Jackson Hole have worn a lot of hats, but it’s the cowboy hat that’s never really come off. When you visit this special valley, you join a long line of “dudes”—folks who’ve come out West to try on a certain style of living beneath the open sky. Traversing the Teton Pass on horseback or bumping along in a buggy over rough roads, dudes came to ride the range, pitch hay and camp out under the stars.

Today, our pioneer spirit is still kicking and many experiences abound for hardy visitors to explore the history of Jackson Hole by putting their best boot forward and living the west.

Historic Fisherman

A Little History of Homesteading

Despite its extreme beauty, Jackson Hole’s harsh winters and relative inaccessibility kept the valley undeveloped until the late 19th century. Those who did homestead faced a hard existence eking out a living through a combination of cattle ranching, farming and big-game hunting.

Both the town of Jackson and the valley surrounding it, Jackson Hole, were named for David E. Jackson, an itinerant trader in the employ of a fur company, but it would be decades after he and his fellow trappers explored the valley that the town of Jackson was established, in 1894. Soon after, homesteaders began to trickle in, lured by the prospect of open land for the taking. Many of the earliest settlers gave their names to towns, roads and landmarks throughout Jackson Hole, and their descendants still ranch or reside within the valley. After all, why would anyone want to leave?

Historic Bulldogger

Dawn of the Tourist Trade

Although the nearby national parks have always drawn sightseers, Jackson Hole’s tourist trade truly took root in the 1920s, when dude ranches like the still-operating Triangle X Ranch began inviting visitors to stay. Beckoned by the mystique of cowboy life and the romance of the open plains, visitors came in droves to escape their more urban existences for the simple and robust pleasures of ranch life. Although the cowboy lifestyle has been endangered somewhat by encroaching development, the spirit of Jackson Hole remains true to its original residents.

Channel Your Inner Cowboy

Explore the Town Square 

The historic nexus of the cowboy lifestyle and the tourism trade is still evident in the town of Jackson today, with well-grooved pedestrian boardwalks and western-style storefronts. We cover some of the town’s quirky history here.

Stagecoach  

Pulled by an enormous pair of Clydesdale horses, the red-and-yellow local stagecoach is modeled after the original 19th century coaches that traversed the territories carrying mail and supplies. Rides depart from the Town Square and run for about 10 minutes each. Stagecoaches seat up to six, so pile in with the whole family and take in the mountain breeze.  

Jackson Hole Shootout  

Gathering every summer day at 6 p.m. at the northeast corner of the Town Square, spectators have the chance to witness the longest-running gunfight in the United States. This free show is full of outlaws, stern sheriffs and a re-creation of the rowdy crews that once rode pell-mell through the valley—and still do. The Shootout is fun for the whole family. Don’t worry: They’re only firing blanks.

Chuckwagon Suppers  

Make like the original homesteaders and ride to dinner in a horse-pulled covered wagon, rumbling up a dirt road into the mountains. Then, disembark and cozy up for an evening of delicious camp-style food, cowboy songs and horseback-riding performers in traditional garb. Your delightful evening only ends as the stars begin to shine in the Western sky.  

Bull Riding Jackson Hole Rodeo

Jackson Hole Rodeo  

Our local rodeo is not just a showcase for Western stunts or cowboy regalia. As anyone who’s cheered in the stands can attest—this rodeo is the real deal. It was founded by the patriarch of the Wilson family in 1890 after he brought a group of settlers over Teton Pass and homesteaded the land on the other side (where the town of Wilson now bears his name). For 120 years, the Wilson's have kept the authentic Western rodeo tradition alive through successive generations of ropers and riders.  

When the rodeo grew too big for its britches in the original Wilson location, it moved to downtown Jackson where its floodlights have been a hallmark of summer evenings ever since. Spectators are glued to the action, with their hearts in their throats, during a variety of daredevil events, such as bareback bronc and bull riding. The ribald running commentary over the loudspeakers, as well as exciting tests of skill, like barrel racing, inject some levity to the show, and even get the audience involved. No doubt about it: These are real, live cowboys.

Come early for tickets and seats to the 8 p.m. shows, or buy them in advance at Jackson Hole Rodeo

Related Article: Jackson Hole Rodeo: The Essentials

Trail Riding  

From the time of the original dude ranches, wranglers and visitors have paired up for guided expeditions into the mountains. Some are simple, daylong excursions to take in the views of the valley and the Tetons cresting the horizon. Other trips involve pack mules, provisions and days of roughing it in the outdoors. Find your own way into the saddle with one of Jackson Hole’s many outfitters. From rides inside Grand Teton National Park to multi-day trips combining meals, excursions on the river, or guided angling, there are options for young and old alike.

Wrangler guides tend to know all kinds of tales about the valley—some tall, some not-so-tall.  Rest assured, you’ll be in good hands for this tranquil, scenic experience of the Old West.

Visit Historical Sites  

Some of the valley’s original homesteaders left plenty of traces behind—like a ghostly brand on the wilderness. For a glimpse of the structures they built to shelter from the elements, drive out to Mormon Row or check out the Menors Ferry Historical Site inside Grand Teton National Park. Both provide an indelible and highly picturesque image of pioneer life. Pretty rough and tumble, too!

Molton Barn Mormon Row

Western Swing

Every frontier town has its spot for wild brawls, stiff whiskey and a bit of square dancing. Jackson Hole has several.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar

You can’t miss this landmark’s neon bucking-bronco sign. Push through the double swinging doors and head back in time at this world-famous saloon. Perched on a saddle barstool with stiff drink in hand, you can soak in the atmosphere of knotty-pine décor and denizens stomping their boots in time to the live band.  

The Silver Dollar Bar & Grill

Attached to the historic Wort Hotel, the Silver Dollar has actual silver dollars decorating its bar and entertains patrons with music and cowboy charm to spare.

Stagecoach Bar

If you're in Wilson, look no further than the Stagecoach Bar, especially for the weekly "Sunday Church," where the famous, 70-year-old Stagecoach Band plays music you can Western swing dance to with honest-to-goodness cowboys and cowgirls.

Go Western

Here are some other ways to connect to the spirit of Jackson Hole and forge your own frontier memories.

Jackson Hole Shootout

Top Photo: Fox Hastings, national champion, rodeo bulldogger and steer roper, c. 1920s-30s.

Second Photo: Robert Sass (left) and Herbert Baker. Both worked for the Bureau of Reclamation on the Jackson Lake Dam. No date.

Both photographs provided by: Collection of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum, [1958.3373.001] • [1958.1796.001] [1958.0265.001]