At the Spotted Horse Ranch, just sixteen miles south of Jackson, greenhorns of all stripes mounted on their new best friends climbed steadily up a shady draw lined with pink wild rose and blue harebell. The intense thrum of the cicadas filled the air and sagehen wings whirred as they lifted from our path. We crested the mountain and did a little trail blazing in a meadow carpeted with yellow arrowroot flushing a mule deer and her fawn. The ride home took us across a ridge with heavenly vistas of the Bridger – Teton National Forest. We covered a lot of ground with some steep climbs and tricky footing. Our fit, well-mannered mounts remained calm through it all, allowing urban cowboys and girls to know the grandeur of Wyoming’s wild west.
Unlike most dude ranches, the Spotted Horse offers non-riders lots of fun choices for all ages and degrees of fitness. Activities nearby include white water, or scenic rafting on the Snake River, swimming in Granite Hot Springs, tubing down the Hoback River, and some great fishing. Kids have their own teepee for supervised campouts so parents can get a time-out. A lady art director from Boston on holiday with her family of eight to celebrate her parent’s 50th wedding anniversary told me she never got near a horse on her stay at the ranch. Still, it was one of the family’s best group outings with riding and rafting for her teen-age son and plenty of relaxation and off-ranch excursions for parents.
Jackson’s historic district is fun to walk around. Even if you don’t care to buy Native American jewelry at good prices, you can cruise over thirty western art galleries or visit the homespun historical museum. The Grand Teton Classical Music Festival that takes place in August is an exciting event for guests to the region, and locals alike. Just north of Jackson, on a knoll that overlooks the 24,700-acre Elk (Wapiti) Refuge is a gallery that houses an outstanding Animal Art collection. The refuge was established in 1910 due to the efforts of biologist Olaus Murdie and his wife Mardi. If you want to know what Jackson Hole was like before it became a celebrity playground, read Wapiti Wilderness-the couple’s charming, joint-account of the early days in the valley. The elk herd summers in higher meadows, but many birds can be spotted in the marshy flats the “Wapiti” call home in the winter.
The fifty one-acre Spotted Horse Ranch was officially homesteaded in the 1930s. The close proximity of the lodge and cabins to the Hoback River has been grandfathered in. Ninety- seven percent of Jackson County is preserved land, so private shoreline is a coveted commodity. The ranch is just far enough away from the hubbub of Jackson, Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park that guests can enjoy genuine quietude, yet remain close enough to visit these attractions on a day trip.
Folks have been coming to Jackson to go fishing ever since Teddy Roosevelt’s time. Four professional gents from the east coast, who played their cards close to their chest, represented the anglers in our group of thirty-one guests. After recovering from the initial shock of not having cell phone service, computers or TV, the men relaxed into their stay. They told me the all day float down the Snake in a pursuit of feisty trout fulfilled their fishing fantasies. A river does run through the ranch, and there is a stocked trout pond, but your hosts will also arrange for outings on the Snake, Salt, South Fork and Green Rivers.
To cool off from unseasonably warm temperatures, I rafted the forty miles of class II-III rapids on a stretch of the Snake just west of Jackson. The river funnels through a narrow canyon, forming some fun wave trains. A dozen bald eagles watched us from the shore while a couple of Osprey wheeled overhead. The kids took turns sitting on the bow to meet rapids head on. A big wave knocked a couple of people in our party out of the raft. While a dunk in the Snake will take your breath away, it is not life-threatening. If you want a more relaxed day, take the pleasant glide on the Snake through the center of Jackson Hole at the base of the snaggle-toothed Tetons. The snow-streaked range is forty-miles long with eight granite spires higher than 12,000 feet.
The half-day raft is capped off with an afternoon at Granite Hot Springs. After lunch, we piled into the ranch van to drive up a pristine river valley where deer and antelope roam. A manmade pool capturing water from a natural thermal spring is a welcome respite after a couple days of riding and a morning of digging deep in the brisk waters of the Snake.
The ranch supplied a box lunch for me the day I decided to hike some of the well-groomed trails in the 484-square mile Grand Teton National Park. About forty miles north of the ranch, turn left at Moose to find the Teton Park Road that connects the string of lakes at the foot of the famed peaks. You can catch the water-taxi across Jenny Lake to “not so” Hidden Falls. The two-mile trek back to the dock on the shady trail that wraps the shore is delightful, but its easy access makes it the most popular trail in the park. The trail to jade-green Taggart Lake tracing chatty Taggart Creek is moderate and is also well-groomed, but is less-traveled. Two-hundred miles of trails interlacing the lakes, connecting to backcountry canyons with turquoise cirques, a dozen small glaciers and solitude make this region hiker heaven. Rock climbers also flock here in droves to learn how to master the chiseled granite spires.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, two cordon-bleu chefs worked feverishly to deliver three gourmet squares on time each day. Guests shared their separate adventures over meals served country style in the cozy dining room overlooking the Hoback. Lots of healthy choices with fresh salads and veggies are at every setting. The cook-out is the gastronomical climax of a week at the ranch. Juicy steak, mushrooms, and onions grilled to perfection topped off with blueberry cobbler put a purple grin on everyone’s face. A local lady with a voice like liquid sunshine serenaded us by the campfire with western standards like, “I’m Goin’ to Jackson.” Everyone joined in for a rip snortin’ rendition of “Rawhide” and a heartfelt “Happy Trails to You” until we meet again.
The all-day ride included in the week’s stay at the Spotted Horse whetted my appetite for more. You can ride for days without running into another soul in the 150,000-acre, roadless wilderness surrounding the ranch that begs to be explored. The Spotted Horse is the only outfitter in the area licensed for permanent overnight camping. The ranch has two camps supplied with tents and staff available for extended riding in the spring and summer and hunting in the fall. I snagged Marc, another experienced rider, and pressed Kevin, the ranch outfitter, for a private all-day ride.
“How about you go with the boys up to the overnight camp at Martin Basin? They are taking up supplies today,” he offered.
We jumped at the chance to tag along behind three wranglers, each with a string of pack horses loaded down with supplies. As they climbed up the narrow trail on the edge of Grays Ridge, I wondered what kept the horses from tipping backwards with their cumbersome packs. The ranch, fast falling away, looked like a tinker-toy town sitting beside a silver vein threading through the center of a broad, green valley. The view was a reminder that a good horse can get me where I can’t get to on my own. We made our way to an alpine meadow resting at about 8,200 feet with vistas of the Grand Teton range sparkling beneath crystal-blue skies. Thirty miles to the south a forest fire started by a lightening strike sullied the air. Though fires are a natural event here, much of the west is dryer than normal and fires are happening with greater frequency.
Cooler temps at the top of the world with sage meadows framed in velvet green forests soothe the mind, as well as the eye. The wranglers swung their reins from side to side-not saying much of anything-as we ambled through stands of lodgepole pine and blue sage meadows blanketed with purple swathes of lupine. The first week of July is the tail end of the wildflower show, but we were just in time to see hundreds of butterflies floating on a sweet breeze. We enjoyed a sack lunch, dropped off the supplies, and sashayed back down the steep mountain.
After the sixteen-mile run, I wish-boned walked back to the rocking chair waiting for me on the porch of my log cabin. There, I was lulled by the hushed conversation of the river, the twitter of swallows flitting over the clear water, and the occasional knickers of a horse in the barn nearby. A stint in the hot tub beneath a full moon casting a platinum path on the Hoback River, and I was good to go again.
Eco-alert: Kevin Watkins, manager of the Spotted Horse Ranch, who has been a guide and outfitter in the backcountry of Greater Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Park for twenty years, expressed fears that gas and oil permits issued in the winter grazing areas south of the ranch will diminish herds of antelope and mule deer. Roads to access the drilling will allow future development that will eat up our open land. “It’s all we have left. It sure would be a shame to see it go,” he said. I can’t agree more.