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If y’all want to tap the real wild west of Wyoming, get the heck out of Jackson Hole, and think beyond the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone.

While these three must-see destinations are popular for good reason, they also invite a parade of tourists and “Wild West” commercialization that can run counter to that uncrowded, rough-around-the-edges mythology you’d expect of the West—the one made famous by the cowboys, frontiersmen, Native tribes and westbound settlers who first explored this landscape.

To uncover places that capture the Wild West spirit of these pioneers with rugged authenticity and fewer crowds, you’ll have to ditch the upscale hotels and mass-marketed tours that originate from Jackson and venture a bit further afield with a little DIY bravado.

RELATED: 7 dude ranch vacations to take this summer

The Wyoming Office of Tourism is a great place to start; it can help you uncover many lesser-known gems, including those along a 370-mile loop anchored by the towns of Moran, Jackson, Pinedale, Lander and Dubois (see above). You’ll make a circle around the majestic Wind River Range, Wyoming’s largest mountain range, spanning 100 miles, for a truly exhilarating and mesmerizing drive. Here’s how to wrangle a few of these authentic Wild West adventures, all within a three-hour drive of Jackson and away from the crowds, on your next Wyoming vacation.

Heart Six Guest Ranch | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Moran
Distance from Jackson: 30 miles
Elevation: 6,749 feet
Population: 395

Heart Six Ranch, one of 20 guest ranches within a three-hour drive from Jackson, is a great place to kick off your adventure. The beauty of staying several nights at a guest ranch, as opposed to a hotel, is the ability to foster intimacy with the landscape and cowboy lifestyle—something that’s harder to accomplish in the cloistered bustle of Jackson.

As a bonus, this recently renovated guest ranch in a secluded part of the Bridger-Teton National Forest boasts a wildly colorful history. Since its founding in 1914, it has functioned as a homestead, dance hall, gambling outfit, brothel and center for illegal fur trade. You can only imagine the unruly activities that once transpired in the ranch’s main lodge, which today is decked out in western motifs that include mounted animal heads (bison, elk, moose) and an antique bar that Buffalo Bill Cody supposedly bellied up to.

Cabin at Heart Six Guest Ranch | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

With legends like that stamped on the place, you’ll easily feel like you’ve landed in a western wonderland. The renovated wooden cabins feature a comfy bed and private bathroom—but no TV or phone. However, there are plenty of diversions. The breathtaking views of the shimmering Tetons, for example, are a “Must-See TV” substitute, especially each morning as the sun kissed the quiet ranch landscape, along with each sunset, when the setting sun casts a golden glow over the place.

Family-friendly “dude ranch” activities abound in summer months. Horseback riding, hiking, gold panning, river float trips, fly-fishing, chuckwagon dinners, overnight pack trips into the wilderness are just the tip of the (cowboy) hat offered to guests and day-trippers.

We found the best activities tethered to ranch life and the horses, as sinking into the day-to-day is a special novelty unto itself. A friendly, patient staff of cowboys and cowgirls show city slickers how to wrangle and ride. (Ask to ride up to the “Top of the World” for epic views.) You may also witness horses getting fitted with new shoes—but we recommend leaving that task to the professionals.

Views from the “Top of the World” trail. | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

 

Pinedale
Distance from Jackson: 77 miles
Elevation: 7,175
Population: 2,030 

The motto of the town of Pinedale, less than two hours from Jackson, appears on the sign as you enter: “All the civilization you need.” It’s a fun foreshadowing of the laid-backness of this one-stoplight community that exudes a folksy warmth thanks to locals who say they’d love to see more travelers to their town, but don’t want it to become the “next” Jackson. Pinedale also remains a main thoroughfare for The Green River Drift, one of the nation’s oldest cattle drives. If you visit in June or October, you’ll likely share the streets with migrating cattle and cowboys.

Rock climbing outside of Pinedale. | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Because Pinedale sits at the base of the Wind River Range, or the “Winds,” it’s a fantastic launching point for everything from hiking to mountain biking to fly fishing to rock climbing. The best part: This area is far less trafficked than the spots in and around Grand Teton and Yellowstone. You and your traveling companions will likely be the only people you see for miles and miles around, perhaps inspiring you to spontaneously launch into the chorus of “Wide Open Spaces.”

Mountain Men re-enactors scan the land. | Photo courtesy of the Museum of Mountain Man

Pinedale is also the epicenter for the Mountain Man culture. The Museum of the Mountain Man is a compact, yet comprehensive, museum that highlights the men who navigated this once uncharted territory during the beaver fur trade of the 1800s. It weaves a little-told history into the artifacts and recreations on display, and offers a new appreciation for these men most of us know so little about—save, perhaps, Leonardo DiCaprio’s role as a grizzly mountaineer in the movie “The Revenant.”

The museum is also a major gathering place for Pinedale’s biggest event of the year: The Green River Rendezvous Days. Each July, the town swells to triple its size as it celebrates the legacy of the Mountain Men with a massive four-day festival that celebrates the annual gatherings these frontiersmen used to hold for beaver fur trading. Mingle with re-enactors, historians and local artisans, as well as attend a rodeo and pageant honoring these wilderness legends.

Yee-haw! Hats galore at The Cowboy Shop. | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

To get ready for the revelry, you’re going to need to look the part of a cowboy or cowgirl. That’s where The Cowboy Shop comes in. This family-run western wear shop has been a town fixture since 1947, with walls and shelves filled with Stetson hats, cowboy boots, ropes and more. The place looks straight out of Central Casting, but this is not a tourist souvenir shop like the ones you might find in Jackson. This is the real deal, with locals and ranchers also moseying in to shop for the basics. (When we visited, we were the only “tourists.”) Ask the friendly shopkeepers to hand-shape a cowboy hat for you, which they do in-store, and you’ll walk away with something truly one-of-a-kind. 

Although Pinedale is home to a number accommodation options that can cost one-fourth the cost of those in Jackson (especially in peak summer season), we recommend The Chambers House Bed & Breakfast . It’s a cozy, seven-room B&B run by the town’s resident historian, Ann Chambers Noble, a friendly local who takes great pride in the history of her hometown as much as she does her home-cooked, plated breakfasts. Those who want to truly sink into the western folksiness that is Pinedale should hang their hats here.

 

Red Canyon inspires plenty of “Wows.” | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Lander
Distance from Jackson: 160 miles
Elevation: 5,358 feet
Population: 7,487

The drive from Pinedale to Lander is epic, taking visitors along some of the same routes used by Oregon Trail pioneers, as well as over the South Pass, a critical mountain crossing credited with allowing for the settlement of the west.

But the real geographical stunner is the Red Canyon (see above). In any other destination, this vantage point would be crowded with cars and ogling tourists taking turns with selfies, but you’ll likely have the view all to yourself.

As with Pinedale, Lander makes an excellent base for exploring the Winds. In fact, the National Outdoor Wilderness Leadership School (NOWLS) is based here, so it’s not uncommon to be mingling with hard-core climbers and hikers at the town’s watering holes.

A yurt in Sinks Canyon | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Sinks Canyon State Park is a must for outdoor enthusiasts exploring Lander. This rugged canyon at the foothills of the Winds is home to world-class hiking and rock climbing, as well as crazy-cool geological formation that is its namesake: The Sinks. This is where the Popo Agie River vanishes into a cave only to re-appear a quarter of a mile later at a spot called The Rise. For a truly magical memory, consider spending the night in one of the park’s four private yurts (see above). You’ll have the natural setting to yourself—not to mention, a starry, starry sky on a clear night—once visitors depart for the evening. Falling asleep and waking up to the rhythmic flow of the Pop Agie River ain’t bad, either.

The Wind River Indian Reservation, where the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes reside, is also easily accessible from Lander. While you can drive into this 2.2 million-acre reservation without a guide, it is valuable to have one along to share his or her tribe’s history and culture while touring the quiet countryside.

One such guide is Jason Baldes, an up-and-coming elder who makes his services available through the Wind River Native Advocacy. With his powerful narrative filling the air, we stopped to visit landmarks such as the pow-wow fields and the gravesite of Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who helped Lewis and Clark navigate the West.

Sacagawea memorial | Photo courtesy of Erica Bray

Public pow-wows, several of which are held in the summer months in the Wind River Reservation, are a sight to behold—and feel. Along with the intense pageantry, where tribes really showcase the colorful regalia, dancing and stories unique to their cultures, the beating of the drums is something one never forgets. It vibrates throughout your core. The experience even inspires spiritual awakenings in some guests.

If you cannot time a trip around a pow-wow, however, the Museum of the American West in Lander hosts free weekly dance exhibitions on Wednesday nights (June-August). The museum is also a wonderfully fun place to learn about the Native cultures, Oregon Trail pioneers and outlaws (like Butch Cassidy) that helped to shape Wyoming. There’s even a replica pioneer village behind the museum, perfect for kids and Instagram divas.

 

The best way to get around Dubois. | Photo courtesy of Kristin Foster/Dubois Chamber of Commerce

Dubois
Distance from Jackson: 86 miles
Elevation: 7,000 feet
Population: 910

If there’s a frontier town to visit in Wyoming, this one is it. Simply strolling the main street through Dubois is like stepping back in time. If it weren’t for the cars on the road, you could easily imagine the click-clack of horses while wagons rumbled through the town center.

Dubois is home to some of the best camping, hunting and fly-fishing in the nation and also hosts one of the best rodeos in Wyoming. While the tourists and well-heeled locals flock to the Jackson Hole Rodeo, the Dubois Friday Night Rodeo (June-August) is a bit more authentic. Even the folks at Heart Six Ranch recommended this rodeo, where bull riding, barrel racing and roping skills are on display, as a local favorite and one less visited by tourists—because it takes a bit more effort to get to it.

* * *

And that is a consistent theme for seeking out Wyoming’s most authentic wild west: Put in a little extra effort because it will yield big rewards. The further you travel from the crowds—and really, you don’t need to travel that far—the feeling of freedom on the frontier is amplified, giving you a true taste of what it must have been like for the western settlers of bygone eras.

 

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Tagged: Feature, Wyoming

Erica Bray

Erica Bray

Erica is a practical free spirit who loves travel, yoga and ice cream. A Northwestern University-trained journalist with more than 15 years of experience straddling digital and broadcast media, Erica can be found doing handstands everywhere she travels -- even risking arrest in some cases. Learn about her at www.erica.media.

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