by Bridget Cook
“Ah-lelelelele-oh!” yodeled the cowboy, his call echoing into the forested mountain. The silence before sunrise was broken by the sudden thunder of hooves striking the ground. Lured from the night’s frolic by buckets of warm grain, the massive herd of horses stampeded down the mountain, rattling the covered wagons and sleeping occupants.
Most folks come to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, looking for a taste of the Wild West. I wanted to plunge in and immerse myself in the grandeur of the Tetons. There seemed only one way: to experience the region just as explorers and settlers had done 200 years ago ... by horseback and covered wagon.
My dream became reality thanks to Wagons West, which is part of an adventure company known as Yellowstone Outfitters. Lynn Madsen, owner of this family business, has taken city slickers into the wilds of Yellowstone and the Teton area for more than three decades. His company also offers pack trips, trail rides, and hunting expeditions.
In the golden sunrise on the first morning, a handsome cowboy greeted my daughter and me outside the Antler Inn in Jackson Hole. Kay Madsen, Lynn’s brother, drove the Wagons West van out of Jackson, crooning a country song between answering excited questions from the guests. He told us that the youngest person in our particular group was eight years old, and the oldest over 80. The Teton Range loomed beside us on our way. Stretching for 40 miles, the range encompasses eight peaks reaching over 12,000 feet above sea level. The Grand Teton itself stands at 13,770 feet. Across from these watchful towers, we spun through forests of evergreens, aspens, and wildflowers, with the occasional flash of mule deer.
At the trailhead, covered wagons and an amazing array of horses stood ready for us. As we sat waiting on a wooden bench, I noticed that some of the novices in our group had become a little nervous about riding now that they were in the presence of equine reality. Just then a large posse rode into the meadow, invoking thrilling images of days gone by. Mounted on magnificent steeds and comfortably clothed in boots, belts and hats, these were the men and women that would teach us proficiency with horses. I smiled at the excited gleam in my daughter’s wide eyes and the sudden confidence of members of our group.
According to how the trip is generally set up, each of us would rotate between horses and wagons, spending a half-day on each. However some participants preferred to pass the entire day in the authentic pioneer replicas, fitted with rubberized wheels and padded seats for comfort. More adventurous souls could pay extra for a full day on horseback. I admired how expertly the wranglers suited each rider to a horse. I was given a gargantuan Percheron draft horse named “Monster” — named for his size, not his disposition. My daughter was set astride a pack mule. Snowball turned out to be a surefooted wonder on the steep trails and mountain divides.
“Giddy-up!” yelled our team leader, and away we rode into the heart of the Bridger-Teton National Forest and Mount Leidy Highlands. For all its grandeur, the areas we would visit had such unassuming names as Rosie’s Ridge, Leidy Lake and Spread Creek. While the wagons moseyed over old logging roads in the main river valleys, the horses headed upward into wilderness, traced only by faint animal trails. As we traveled, we learned to differentiate elk rubbings from the vivid scars of grizzly bear claws, torn deep into the flesh of pines to mark their territory. Located next door to Yellowstone Park, this area also sees its fair share of black bears, moose and deer in the highlands, while Gros Ventre elk and bison roam the plains.
Summer temperatures are pleasant during the day and cool at night. Winter weather, however, is ruthlessly bitter. Animals grow thick, warm coats to protect against the cold. It was the fur trade that brought the first white man, John Colter, to the area in 1807. Blackfoot, Crow, Gros Ventre, Shoshone and other Native Americans living nearby used the area as far back as 12,000 years ago, but only during the warm months. It wasn’t until 1871 that the first settlers stayed year round.
The fresh, mountain air brought out hearty appetites, and our grub was extraordinary fare to match. Coolers appeared, filled with delectable sandwiches, drinks, homemade cookies and fruit. During lunch, the wranglers talked and played and weren’t in any hurry to go anywhere. One cowboy pulled his hat down over his eyes and drawled lazily, “We’re never early, and we’re never late.” The rest of us learned to unwind, to breathe slowly and get in touch with the beauty of our natural surroundings. Even the wildflowers beckoned us to play in a vibrant spring carpet.
When the time came to rotate wagons and horses, I noticed the teamsters had pulled the flaps up on the wagons to provide just enough shade, with a marvelous view of the unfolding landscape. They let youngsters drive and kept guests engaged in lighthearted conversation and hearty laughter. Our teamster was a stocky cowboy, with powerful arms for handling horses and a keen sense of humor. He gave us insight into the training of wagon teams and their personalities. Our wagon was pulled by a famous set of white Percherons that had been showcased in the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
All too soon, we pulled into camp, nestled in a tiny but lovely fertile valley in the highlands. Teamsters pulled the wagons in and circled them up, creating a warm atmosphere for evening activities. Our hardworking horses were delighted to have their saddles removed. The wranglers placed cowbells about the necks of a select few and released the animals to wander freely without fences or stalls. Suddenly camp was more than picturesque; it was living and breathing and absolutely stunning. Eventually, the herd meandered to sweeter grasses high on the mountain until morning.
Despite the presence of large predators and the reintroduction of the wolf, none of their animals has ever been attacked. I spied an extra cowbell, thinking I might put it around my adventurous daughter’s neck. A perceptive cowgirl smiled and winked. “None of our guests have ever been attacked, either,” she said.
As sleeping options, we were given the choice of tents or covered wagons under the brilliantly starry skies. We tried one and then the other, enjoying both options for different reasons. The tents are warmer, but the wagons are much roomier, though you have to stow your belongings in the morning.
At dinnertime each night, everyone gathered eagerly for the chuck-wagon feasts: Dutch-oven ham, bacon, potatoes, roasts, chicken, fresh homemade rolls, stews, salads, sumptuous desserts and a variety of beverages. I was impressed with the chef’s ability to cook delicious banquets for half a hundred people in the wilderness.
Every night in the circle of the wagons, we enjoyed traditional Western entertainment that filled the air with folk songs, fiddles and guitar. An old timer came to spin yarns as vast as the Teton Valley. Guests were invited to participate and were applauded for their individual talents. Wranglers gave roping lessons to youngsters and anyone else willing to learn. A game of horseshoes or cards was constantly going, and guests took leisurely hikes around the beautiful camp, getting to know one another and the area. It provided a delightful transition before sleep.
I asked the wranglers to wake me early one morning to witness the calling of the horses. I will never forget the thundering of the hooves and clanking of the bells as my heart beat with the rhythm of the wilderness.
The last afternoon remains burned in our memories. Lynn Madsen led an expedition of adventurous riders through difficult terrain to the top of one of the highest peaks in the area. Earlier that week, our group probably couldn’t have managed it — I was amazed how much we had learned about horses and terrain in just a few days.
Along the way, however, one of the horses stopped for a drink, and then a playful dip in the cool waters of Leidy Lake — with her rider still aboard! Her victim was a guest we had come to know and love, and we all laughed merrily. After a leisurely walk around the lake, the staff included us in a snowball fight in the last vestiges of snow, melting like the dwindling hours left with this charming company in such a splendid place.
On the very last morning, my daughter and I were awakened by Monster, who was scratching himself contentedly on the back of our covered wagon. Once we figured out it was him (and not a grizzly), we giggled deliriously as he continued for another ten minutes. I rather think he liked being our alarm clock. I’ve not yet had the pleasure of such a wake-up call since then. As we got ready to leave the grand vistas, mysterious trails and the horses running wild and free, I knew we would be visiting again.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: For more details about Wagons West and other specialty trips offered through Yellowstone Outfitters in the Teton wilderness next to Yellowstone Park, contact: Tel: 800-447-4711; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.yellowstoneoutfitters.com. For specific information on a covered-wagon trek, visit www.wagonswestwyo.com; E-mail: email@example.com. Trips are offered from two days (one night) to six days (five nights).
WAGONS HO! A Wyoming Adventure — Travel Tips
• Travelers should consider staying in and around Jackson before or after the wagon train trek to experience nearby attractions. Both Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks are a short drive away, as is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Day raft trips are offered on the Snake River south of Jackson.
• Hot-air balloon rides provide an exhilarating way to see Jackson Hole and the Teton range from the sky. Contact Andy Breffeilh with the Wyoming Balloon Company for more information: Tel: 307-739-0900; Website: www.wyomingballoon.com.
• Participants should bring clothing to cover swings in temperature from warm afternoons to downright chilly evenings, even in the middle of summer.