Jackson Hole, Wyoming is surrounded by a remarkable crown of mountain ranges. Among these is the picturesque and globally recognized, Grand Teton Range to the west and the Gros Ventre Mountains to the east. The Wyoming Range lies to the southeast, while the Snake River Range is on Jackson Hole’s southwestern flank and the Absaroka Mountains are on the northeastern corner.
The Grand Tetons are not the only distinguished geological feature in the area. Upheavals and erosion in the Gros Ventre range on the east side of the valley have produced an interesting formation. These works of nature have created what has become known as the “Sleeping Indian,” complete with mouth, nose, flowing headdress, and folded arms across the chest. With a sharp eye and a little imagination you can see the image on the horizon. This valley is also home of Grand Teton National Park, and is the southern gateway to Yellowstone National Park. Jackson Hole is known worldwide as one of the great destinations of the Old West.
Many who visit Jackson wonder why the town of Jackson isn’t actually named Jackson Hole. This conundrum deserves an explanation. Mountain men historically referred to valleys as “holes.” Davy Jackson was a mountain man who trapped beaver in the valley on the east side of the Grand Tetons; therefore, it became known as Davy Jackson’s Hole or Davy Jackson’s Valley. In the 190 years since Jackson’s time in the area, the name has been shortened to Jackson Hole.The town of Jackson is in the valley known as Jackson Hole. The community, the valley, and the lake were all named after mountain man, trapper, and trader Davy Jackson.
The hole or valley is 48 miles long and six to eight miles wide, embracing an area of approximately 400 square miles. The Snake River Flows through the valley, and the Grand Tetons tower 7,500 feet above the valley floor. The Grand Tetons rise to a remarkable 13,770 feet above sea level.
Jackson Hole lies a few miles west of the Continental Divide and near the Snake River’s headwaters in Yellowstone. Hundreds of mountain streams converge from the surrounding highlands, adding to the Snake River’s flow.
Because so many mountain ranges are within a stone’s throw, Jackson is a hub for outdoor recreation opportunities. Skiing is the major winter pastime, and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, Snow King and Grand Targhee all offer an excellent skiing experience and accommodations. Many locals prefer the Teton backcountry for ski mountaineering adventures—appreciating the opportunity “skinning” up the mountain can lend to the descent.
There is a saying around Jackson; “I came here for the skiing but stayed because of the summer.” While winter activities may be more limited, summer provides an abundance of options, including horseback riding, fly fishing, whitewater sports, canoeing, hiking, and photography— just to name a few.
Jackson is the prefect North American Wildlife Safari destination; elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pronghorn antelope, moose, grizzly bears, black bears, and many other small mammals can be found throughout the valley. A plethora of bird species also can be found in the valley throughout the year including various ducks, eagles, geese, and trumpeter swans. Jackson Hole is also home to the National Elk Refuge, where thousands of elk winter just outside the town of Jackson. The National Elk Refuge, northeast of Jackson, provides a home for thousands of elk each winter. Visitors can take sleigh rides among the elk from mid-December through April.
Until shortly after 1800, Jackson Hole was a favorite spring, summer, and fall hunting ground of surrounding Native American tribes, which migrated to warmer places for the winter. There is a mountain in the Grand Tetons named Mt. Teewinot, which is derived from the Shoshone Indian Tribe word meaning “many pinnacles.” Teewinot is thought to be the name the Shoshone Indians called the entire Grand Teton Range.
John Colter was the first American to see Jackson Hole in 1807. A fur trader named Manual Lisa, originally a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, had recently set up a trading post on the Yellowstone River and recruited Colter to visit with Indians from the surrounding area to let them know where his trading post was and that he was open for business. He traveled south down the Bighorn River, west up the Wind River, over Togwotee Pass, down through Jackson, over Teton Pass and down through eastern Idaho, visiting with Indians he encountered along the path of the trading post on the Yellowstone River. He then backtracked through Jackson Hole, and veered northwest into Yellowstone.
The decades that followed are frequently called the “Fur Trade Era,” because the Teton region became the scene of intensive exploration and trapping activities. The mountain men of Jackson Hole were hardy characters who over a period of about two decades contributed to the opening of the Western frontier. Among these frontiersmen were Jedidiah Smith, Jim Bridger and Davy Jackson. William Sublette (a partner of Davy Jackson’s) named Jackson Lake and Jackson Hole after Jackson in 1829. Jackson Hole was a crossroad of trapper trails during the fur trade era because six trapper’s trails converged like the spokes of a wheel upon their hub.
By 1845, because of the declining supply of beaver pelts, the corresponding increase in price and new popularity of silk top hats created the demise of the beaver trapping business. During the next four decades, the valleys near the Tetons were largely deserted, with the exception of Indians who still hunted here.
As the American frontier expanded and one government expedition after another ensued to survey the West, the most important of these for Jackson Hole was the Hayden Surveys of 1871, 1872, 1877, and 1878. These survey parties named many of Jackson Hole’s natural features, including Leigh, Jenny, Taggart, Bradley and Phelps Lakes and Mount St. John. William H. Jackson, a member of the 1872 Hayden Expedition, took the first known photographs of the Tetons. In 1879, expedition artist Thomas Moran put them on canvas.
In the mid-1880s, the first settlers came. They entered the Gros Ventre River Valley from the east and Teton Pass from the west, most early settlers were Mormon. The villages of Kelly, Jackson, Wilson and Moran were established by these pioneer homesteaders. Among these early settlers was Nick Wilson who became a failure with Jackson Hole’s populous when he ran away from home to live with the Chief Washakie’s Shoshone tribe in the 1950s.