It was a chilly June morning when Janell and I arrived at the Jackson Hole Outfitters' corral just before 8:00 a.m. I'd picked this location south of Grand Teton National Park, because it was outside of the high-traffic area of Jackson Hole and would offer a more intimate look at the unspoiled backcountry of western Wyoming.
Situated in the quiet little town of Alpine, our outfitter was strategically based just outside of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. We met our fellow ride companions, Dan and Beth from Long Island, New York, and assisted our guide as he loaded up the horses, and those all-important trail snacks into the cooler.
Cowboy hats and gear in hand, we jumped into the truck, and headed out of town for the forest road to the trailhead. Along the way, our guide, David Jones, advised us of all the wildlife he'd observed in the area, and everyone was hopeful to catch a glimpse of the moose cow and her twin calves along the riverbank.
After a 20-minute ride into the mountains, we finally arrived at the parking area, and unloaded the horses and gear. We packed up our saddlebags, tied on our rain slickers, and climbed into the saddle.
It was a perfect day for a backcountry ride, as the weather had finally cleared after several days of showers and storms. Just a day before, a severe storm had swept over the mountains, dropping golf-ball-sized hail on the Jackson Hole area. As we headed up the mountain, we encountered several newly downed trees across the trail, as a result of the storm.
We followed a stream for several miles before cutting off higher into the mountain range. Our guide spotted a pair of elk cows grazing just above us and suggested we cut off the main trail to see if we could see any other animals in that area.
We took a side path up a shallow ravine. Upon clearing the edge of a small mountain meadow, we found ourselves in the midst of a large herd of elk cows and calves. What a thrill to watch more than 50 of these beautiful animals moving along the mountain and listening to them call to one another amongst the herd.
As the elk herd passed above us, a speck of brown along a dry gully caught my eye. I quickly realized it was a young calf hiding in the grass. We then spotted more calves, so we headed back down the mountain to the main trail so as not to disturb them.
Deep in the Forest
Traveling deeper into the Wyoming Range, we encountered numerous streams surrounded by lodge pole pines and hillsides glistening in green from groves of aspen trees.
At just about noon - obviously choreographed by our guide - we rode to the edge of another grassy meadow, where we found a fire ring and a log to sit on and stretch our weary saddle legs. As we collected firewood, our guide pulled out five foil-wrapped packages and bread slices from our saddlebags. When the fire had burned down to hot coals, he placed the foil in the fire ring, and we were soon enjoying hamburgers high in the mountains of Wyoming.
Our horses, of course, enjoyed their grazing time; we allowed them to freely roam the adjacent meadow, but kept a close watch. After lunch, we cleaned up our temporary camp, caught our horses, and continued on up the mountain.
We arrived at a trail intersect, choosing to turn toward the snowcaps, where our guide anticipated more wildlife. But after a short climb, it became obvious this route would be impassible. The previous day's storm had cut a wide path through the mountain, toppling nearly half of the standing trees and making it impossible to proceed further.
After attempting several detours through the tangled maze of logs and treetops, we were eventually forced to change course and ride back over the opposite mountain. This route would be more challenging, but Dave was confident our experienced group would be up to the test.
We headed through the pines higher and higher, with each open meadow offering a more spectacular panoramic view than the last. The wildflowers became more remarkable, with fields of solid-yellow mule's ear blooms, mixed with reds and blues from wild geraniums and columbine.
As we stopped to snap some pictures and rest the horses at the mountain's summit, a dark cloud passed overhead. It suddenly began to sleet and snow as the temperature dropped dramatically. Happily, the sunshine soon reappeared, and a more comfortable temperature would follow.
We climbed back in the saddle and headed down the reverse side of the mountain, on course for the trailer. As we passed through more aspen, I pointed out to Janelle what appeared to be a bear-clawed tree. We'd sighted a grizzly bear when we traveled through Yellowstone earlier in the week, and I was confident she'd rather repeat that experience from the safety of our rental car, rather than on horseback.
The path soon became very rocky. Deep gutters had formed from recent run-off, forcing us to stay off the trail in many places. As we continued down, I noticed a change in my mare's gait and moved ahead to allow our guide to check for problems. He noticed that Candy was limping slightly on her right hind leg, possibly from a misstep on the rocky trail, so I dismounted and continued on foot to reduce the load and prevent any further injury.
Although it did feel good to stretch the legs a bit, we had several miles to go to reach the trailer, so I didn't argue when our guide offered to share riding time aboard his horse, Shadow. It wasn't long before we noticed dramatic improvement, as Candy would lag behind to grab some grass, but trot up rather nicely before we got too far ahead. Once out of the rocks, our guide remounted on my horse and allowed me to continue ahead on his own favorite steed.
We'd traveled nearly 17-miles through the mountains, finally reaching the dirt road at Grey's River about 5:00 p.m. From there, it was just a short ride along the river back to the trailer. To conclude our adventure, a mule deer and her fawn stood near the riverbank watching us curiously as we clip-clopped on by.
We loaded up the horses, gear, and memories, and headed back for Alpine. Since we were the last party to get back to town, outfitter owner "Jonesy" teasingly remarked, "Hey, that's the second group that David has brought back safely this year!" Of course we all knew better, as this had been a terrific ride suitable for anyone - expert or novice - if planning a trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and the scenic Bridger-Teton National Forest.