Tall, graceful arches topped with hundreds of elk and deer antlers were tangled together at the four corners of the town park in Jackson, Wyoming. It seemed appropriate décor for this community of 27,000. Situated in a remote northwestern section of Wyoming in the heart of the American West, the region draws visitors from all over the world.
My 19-month-old daughter, Laurel, and I had traveled almost eight hours by car to get here. At times, the empty prairies had seemed endless, especially for a little one stuck in her car seat. I was glad that my friend, Jill, agreed to drive so that I could sit in the back seat and keep Laurel entertained as the hours passed by. Now, finally standing under the blue skies and majestic Rockies, the long drive seemed worthwhile.
In the town park, couples with arms entwined, grandparents on walks with their dogs and parents with small children strolled around us. How could I not feel at home in this town renowned for its wealth and elegant western charm?
As Jill and I wandered into the town square, pushing Laurel in her stroller, we couldn’t help noticing all the men in jeans and cowboy hats. Were they real cowboys, or simply trying to look the part? From their well-worn, yet tasteful western clothing, we decided they were indeed modern day cowboys, an icon of the Old West.
The town shops displayed items unique to Jackson Hole culture, like a cowskin rug, every size and possible color of cowboy boots and a huge stuffed buffalo that looked too real to touch. Each time we drove around the area, the shining beauty of the Snake River twisting throughout the valley mesmerized us.
As newcomers to the area, we discovered that the word “Hole” in Jackson Hole, refers to its high mountain valley structure — 50 miles long and 15 miles wide, and only a few miles west of the Continental Divide at the base of the Teton Mountain Range. As the gateway community to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, Jackson Hole lies at an altitude of approximately 6,200 feet and is comprised of the of the town of Jackson, as well as Kelly, Moose, Moran, Wilson and Teton Village.
Because we knew Jackson was known as the “Art Center of the Rockies,” the fifth nationally recognized arts center in the United States next to Scottsdale, Santa Fe, San Francisco and New York, we entered the first gallery we saw in town – the Wild Exposures Gallery.
A photograph of the white crystalline rocks of the Grand Teton Mountain range on an azure and midnight sky immediately drew our attention. We agreed with popular opinion that few places on earth could be described as “awe-inspiring” like the Teton Range. In early morning, late evening, summer, winter or fall, the Teton Range and Grand Teton National Park are any photographer’s dream.
The other photographs spanned all kinds of wildlife and peaceful outdoor scenes of snowy or green dude ranches. The pictures aptly described this corner of Wyoming without words since more than 60 species of mammals, 100 species of bird and a half dozen game fish call the Jackson Hole area home.
But beautiful art can only hold the attention of a little one so long, and Laurel began protesting and struggling to get out of the stroller. Wanting to browse some more, I briefly contemplated the risks of allowing her to walk around the gallery and decided to let her out.
Freed from her stroller, Laurel began pacing around the gallery, patting the lowest pictures on the walls. Her gallery spin circled towards Jill, who was admiring a cluster of wild bird photographs, since she collected and studied birds. She was talking with Jeff Hogan, one of the photographers whose work was featured in the gallery.
Hogan passionately discussed his pictures of three pelicans and four stilt birds with Jill. His excited dialogue about his still life photography and wildlife films – mostly centered within the Jackson Hole area with access to the Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks – proved that it was a dream location for artists keen on capturing the outdoor habitat.
When Laurel patted a frame so hard that it looked like it would fall, Jill latched Laurel back into her stroller amidst her protests. “Wow!” Hogan said, “She loves life. She wants to see and touch everything!”
Hogan appeared to understand and admire that passion, and as we walked out of the gallery, we realized his enthusiasm for the region and its wildlife was contagious. He had enticed us to experience the wilderness of Jackson Hole through a secondary lens, since we could not touch and feel the remote outdoors with small children in our hands.
It had been an unusual privilege to converse with a local artist. Even though the local galleries, scattered throughout Jackson Hole but primarily concentrated in the town of Jackson, presented a broad range of work from masters such as Charles Russell and Frederick Remington to internationally and nationally known contemporary artists, it was not likely to meet them personally in Jackson Hole. Some days, you just get lucky.
Though I had wondered about traveling with Laurel, who was still young and in need of protection, I was glad we had come. Traveling with a little one helped me view this unique destination through different eyes. Instead of hiking remote trails with water and pepper spray to frighten bears, or biking, rafting, fly fishing, mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting or attending staged cowboy shootings in town, we had opted for tamer activities that were suitable for children under two.
We found great satisfaction simply relaxing at our places of lodging while Laurel napped in the afternoons. We enjoyed spa treatments and swimming in the pool’s waterfalls and rock caves at the Snake River Resort and Spa. Other times, we simply ate an unhurried meal, marveling at the beautiful views at Spring Creek Ranch. But we were itching to explore what we could of the adventures awaiting us in Jackson Hole.
Although American elk (wapiti), moose, grizzly and black bears, among other wildlife, freely roam the nearby national parks, the closest we came to seeing live habitat was sighting a bald eagle on a Jackson Lake during a boat tour to Elk Island. It’s not everyday you see such wildlife, and we were awed into silence while watching the majestic bird. Once on the island, we enjoyed a hearty gourmet breakfast, which was a popular hit for everyone in the group.
On a more well-known tourist activity – riding the Arial Tram up the largest vertical rise in America, 4,130 feet from the ski base of Teton Village – we found that the extent of the vertical drop had a greater impact than the spectacular scenery. Even though the sights were breathtaking when we climbed around up top, it was challenging to traverse since the touring paths dipped high and low. Laurel needed to be held onto constantly for safety as we hiked around and marveled at local hang gliders preparing and flying off the mountain right in front of us. Still, it was an unforgettable view. The best part about experiencing the highest vertical rise in America was the unforgettable photos we brought home for the family album.
On our last evening in Jackson, Jill and I went back to Wild Exposures Gallery. Jill was on a mission, and she soon emerged from the shop with Hogan, who proudly carried the framed pictures Jill had bought – his own artistry – and put them in the car.
We planned a leisurely morning the next day before leaving, for neither Jill nor I wanted to depart. I had glimpsed the sights and sounds of Wyoming through a young child’s eyes, taking pleasure in her enjoyment of all things new. But I knew I would be back again. Next time, I would come with my husband and children, Laurel and the one soon to be born, when they were at an older age. We would hike into the national parks and play at the lakes, ready to experience the changing beauty of this unique corner of the American West.