Jackson is a popular destination for a lot of reasons. For starters, it's close to National Parks and renowned ski resorts. But it's also a place that refers to itself as "the last real mountain town." That’s a bold claim, but one that it undeniably owns. Pioneer spirit, the romance of the Wild West... whatever you call it, Jackson has it. Despite decades of change and the rise of the tourism industry in town, Jackson has managed to keep a firm grasp on a certain authenticity. Sure, there are luxury hotels and outfitters offering tours, but they're run by longtime residents who have a special appreciation and respect for the mountain town character of Jackson, and make visitors feel right at home. There are plenty of places where you can experience the town's unique ambiance; here's a guide to some of our favorites.
Jackson Square, also known as the Town Square or George Washington Memorial Park, has existed as long as the town of Jackson. It started as a public common area and sometimes migration route for elk. It was given the name "George Washington Memorial Park" in 1932, in honor of Washington's 200th birthday. The most notable features of the park are the elk-antler arches in each corner. The original arch was built by the local Rotary Club in 1953, with the others added in 1966, 1967 and 1969. Today, a local Boy Scout troop maintains them, collecting antlers from the Elk Refuge to rebuild the arches as needed. In the center of the Square, there's a memorial to John Colter, one of the original mountain men, and a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that explored the Yellowstone area. It's the focus of many town events, including Elkfest, when the Boy Scouts auction off antlers collected from the refuge.
On the Square is the world-famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. The owners have been perfecting its atmosphere and aesthetic since 1937. The picture-perfect decor (think knotty pine, taxidermy, pool tables, and saddles for barstools) is enhanced by live music and dancing. The bar serves beer, wine, and whiskey, as well as bar fare. For fancier grub, the Million Dollar Steakhouse is just downstairs. The bar is kitschy, but it's beloved by celebrities and cowhands alike.
For a boutique hotel that exemplifies Jackson Hole's unique and authentic rustic-lodge-meets-grand-hotel elegance, the Wort Hotel can't be beaten. It opened in 1941, inspired by Charles J. Wort, the homesteader who once owned the land where the hotel is located, and the father of the two original owners. In 1950, the famed Silver Dollar Bar was opened. The bar itself was designed and built by a German cabinet maker using 2,032 uncirculated Morgan Silver Dollars from the Denver mint. The bar serves up pub fare and killer craft cocktails. Pro tip: For the ultimate experience, splurge on one of the hotel’s Western-themed suites.
Another great example of longtime Jackson families carrying on the legacy of their elders is Jackson Drug. The first Jackson Drug was opened in 1919 by Bruce Porter. His family ran the beloved soda fountain and drugstore until 1978. In 2001, it was sold again and closed. In 2016, two of Bruce Porter's descendants, Nikki and Jessica Gill, heard that the Jackson Drug building was again for sale. They jumped at the opportunity to buy it back and reopen the family business. The hard work restoring the interior to its former glory is apparent, and the new menu blends old classics with a modern twist. Bruce Porter definitely wouldn't have had poutine, falafel, or birthday cake milkshakes on his menu, but the offerings fit right in with the burgers, fries, and ice creams. The new Jackson Drug is a perfect example of what truly makes this the last real mountain town.
The phrase "mountain town" kind of evokes an image of a cowboy throwing back a shot of something stiff in an old-timey bar. Since Jackson is a real mountain town, you can indeed live out that fantasy at the Jackson Hole Still Works, the town's first and only legal distillery. The proprietors use Wyoming-grown grains and crisp mountain spring water to craft vodka and gin that's unique to Jackson Hole. Stop by for a tour of their super-sustainable facility and a tasting that lets you discover just how delicious their liquors are. Pick up a few bottles to bring home, or look for their gin and vodka on menus in bars across town.
To fully appreciate Jackson Hole's authenticity, glimpse into its past at the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum. The museum was founded in 1958 by an avocational archaeologist and western history enthusiast named Slim Lawrence. Since it has an emphasis on archaeology, there are tons of important Native American artifacts. The museum also looks at fur trading, early homestead life, the rise of dude ranches and tourism, rodeos, sled dog racing, wildlife preservation and protection, and much more. Located on Cache St., the museum also features a re-created section of a homestead cabin and barn, loaded with artifacts, an example of a Native American hunting camp, and some awesome dude ranch costumes, among other displays.
Wildlife, and elk in particular, have played a huge role in Jackson Hole's history and culture, so a trip to the National Elk Refuge for some wildlife-spotting is essential to any real mountain town trip. The refuge was founded in 1912, and now encompasses 24,700 acres, housing nearly 7,000 elk each winter, comprising one of the largest herds on earth. Despite this, the herd is a fraction of what it once was; the original herd was estimated at 25,000 strong. For centuries, elk have been migrating from across Wyoming to this patch of grassy plain each fall, as it is more protected from deep snow and brutal winter conditions. In the spring, elk return to the high country. Fall, winter, and spring are the best times to spot elk at the refuge, but other animals still enjoy the open wilderness year-round. Pro tip: Start at the Jackson Hole & Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center to figure out where the best odds of spying elk are that day.
Pay homage to Jackson's rich dude ranch history with a guided horseback ride at Spring Creek Riding Stables. Spring Creek Ranch is a year-round luxury resort (the modern-day descendant of a dude ranch) that has on-site stables, and offers the guided trail rides closest to downtown Jackson to guests and non-guests alike. Whether you're a beginner or you have horseback experience, the staff will help you get in the saddle and off to see some truly spectacular Teton scenery.
Grand Teton National Park has just as much history as the town of Jackson. The park's Mormon Row Historic District preserves a stand of turn-of-the-century barns and homestead buildings built by (you guessed it!) Mormon settlers. This is where you'll find two of the most photographed barns in all of America, the T.A. Moulton and John Moulton barns. Also make sure to explore the extensive Andy Chambers Ranch Historic District. It has a house, barn, garage and other various outbuildings, all dating to the 1920s. There are about six total homesteads to explore here, and the fact that they're set against the peaks of the Teton Range, and often populated with bison, make this a favorite destination for photographers in particular.
Another true blue cowboy bar that visitors shouldn't miss is the Stagecoach Bar. It's a bit further out, but is a local favorite and a guaranteed good time. It's been around since the 1940s, and it hasn't changed too much since then. Cowboys and hippies alike mingled here in the 1960s, and today, locals and tourists do the same. Enjoy cold beer, listen to live music or a DJ spinning disco tunes, and play darts, pool, or sand volleyball. Pro tip: There's a sign hanging over the bar that reads "IWTUIUWBMAD". It stands for "I will tell you if you will buy me a drink." Use this knowledge wisely.
Being a real mountain town is about more than just having dude ranches and cowboy bars. Real mountain towns are made by passionate locals who want to share their community with everyone, and have a respect for the past and the wilderness. Jackson has all of these in spades, and it's safe to say that this last real mountain town will remain authentic for generations to come.
Banner Photo Credit: Shutterstock
Hidden in a valley under the shadow of the Tetons is Jackson Hole - a mountain town unlike anything else. Known as the birthplace of the world's first national park and the "crucible of conservation," Jackson Hole is a mecca for those hungry to escape and get back to something real and wild.