Jackson Hole: The New Old West

Downtown Jackson Hole, Wyoming

It has been said that Jackson Holeisn’t really Wyoming, in the same way that Aspen isn’t really Colorado. But I can only say that in our late summer experience of Jackson Hole, glitz is at a minimum and hippies, outdoorsy locals, and affluent transplants easily breathe the same clean, dry air. Jackson’s downtown isn’t, at first glance, stretching too far outside the box you might expect of the Wild West. It’s a cleaned-up version of an old Western town, with wood-plank sidewalks, arches made of bleached and high-stacked antlers, touristy stagecoach rides around the main square, and lots of cowboy imagery.  It’s not surprising that you can find a bolo tie or microfleece, but your head might be turned by an exciting piece of modern art or a damn fine bagel.

Proximity to nature, though, is what makes this town truly unique. One minute outside town in any direction you’re surrounded by the magnificent Tetons, a golden, grassy elk preserve, a pine forest, and an enormous marsh full of ducks and geese. People have spread out into this wilderness in different ways over the years: A late 1890s homestead, Miller’s Cabin, sits alone at the edge of the marsh, while at the opposite end of a long, barely-paved road favored by joggers, a sprinkling of far newer mansions abut each other with just 1000 feet between.

Jackson Hole Elk Refuge

To get a bit of both worlds, I booked us into the famous (and rightfully so) Rusty Parrot.

It's hard to take a great photo of the outside of the Rusty Parrot, but the inside is wonderful

I’d mistakenly thought the hotel would be in a wheaty field with a mountain view; turns out it’s right in town, set on a quiet public square. Out front and across the street is a little park with a playground, while out back our room faced a sheer, rocky hill, rushing stream, and the parking lot. Inside, though, it’s pure, cozy elegance.

We rarely enjoy a bed more than our own when traveling, but here it was like sinking into a big hug every night. Each of the hotel’s beds has its own floppy teddy bear, and each time you leave your room and come back, the bear is posed in a different comical position. (I loved this, and was happy to discover Adam had bought me my own bear for our bed at home.) Fresh-baked cookies waited in the upstairs sitting room every afternoon, the bathroom products were from L’Occitane, and if we’d had the inclination to soak in the second-floor hot tub vs. make a fire in our river-rock fireplace each night, we would have had a view of one million stars.

The Rusty Parrot’s Body Sage Spa consists of just a few warm, comfortable treatment rooms on the ground floor, furnished in deep shades of red and brown, but it’s nonetheless transporting. A full range of treatments in styles ranging from Hammam to Japanese are given by kind, comforting people who will happily get your kinks out and then tell you where to find their favorite waterfall. Adam was turned to jelly by a long stress relief massage, and I walked on air after The Aphrodite, a two-hour steam-wrap-rub odyssey of mint steam, rose oil, and honey.

Breakfast at the lobby’s Wild Sage, included in our stay, was one of the highlights of each day. Have an omelette here even if you’re not planning to stay. The coffee cups aren’t big enough, but you can have as much as you want and there’s always a newspaper lying around. Fruit can be hard to come by in these parts, but it’s plentiful here. Share your table, and you’ll meet someone unexpected.

Dinner at Wild Sage, while offering excellent service and a warm, glowing ambience, is very expensive and the food hit or miss. The cuisine lacks nothing in complexity; my entree, a red curry bouillabaise, had no less than twelve different flavors, including pineapple, and tasted just like a curry you’d find in any good Thai restaurant (for $11 rather than $42).  Many things on the menu are “stung” with fruit sauces, which automatically inspired us not to order them. Their wine list, though, is simply divine; to find a half-bottle of the 2004 Ridge Zinfandel was a real treat.

Coke machine in downtown Jackson Hole

Less fussy meals can be found at both Trio and Rendezvous Bistro.  At Trio, we flipped for the salads and even the vinegary horseradish accompanying the short ribs. My gluten allergy was indulged with an incredibly rich flourless chocolate cake topped with a candied orange. At Rendezvous, exhausted after a full day of driving in Yellowstone, we still managed to thrill to the day’s carrot-cilantro soup, spicy harrissa on tandoori chicken and the Friday night special, gingery seared sea scallops with crispy onions.

By all means, chuckle over the name Mile High Pizza Pie (120 West Broadway) and take a deep, garlicky breath as you walk by to Trio, but resist the urge to eat here. It’s cardboard-y crust is, sadly, just not very good.

Next door is local favorite D.O.G. (which stands for Down On Glen). Young folks seemingly ripped from the pages of an REI catalogue flock here for fresh, cheap fare like momo (dumplings with a side of tomato sauce) and arguably, Jackson Hole’s best burritos.

After lunch, stop into the Diehl Gallery to see impressive paintings, photography, and metalworks. One of many galleries in downtown, this was our favorite for its modern twist on western themes like mountain views, birds of prey, and wildflowers. We were especially fascinated by the sinuously floral steel creations of Tyler Aiello, which manage to be both polished and rustic.

You might want to catch a movie at the local theater, The Teton (120 North Cache), a single-screen throwback to the 1950s.  There are no cupholders on the seats, but there’s enough legroom for tall cowboys in sturdy boots.

If you’re a coffee fan, stop by Pearl Street Bagels (145 West Pearl Street) for rich, deep-roasted brews; while you wait, you can watch them make their signature bagels, even pumpernickel. (In Jackson Hole, no less – who knew?)  The crowd is a mix of white-haired hippies and young, artsy professionals, as though Portland, Oregon had uprooted itself and landed just so, east of Idaho.

Take your coffee, hop on Broadway heading east, and at the far back edge of town it becomes the Elk Refuge Road, a real adventure in Jackson Hole proper. Cutting through rugged Curtis Canyon, this dusty, narrow lane passes the back of the Elk Refuge marsh, Miller’s Cabin, and turquoise ponds full of Canadian geese and wild ducks. You can wind up into the piney and rock-studded forest, with its sweeping views of the almost endless valley below; the occasional emerald green plots of alfalfa are cultivated to provide winter forage for migrating tule elk. From up here, the Teton Range cuts the sky ahead, the hills are soft and golden, and save for the wind and the occasional click-clack of a grasshopper, there is no sound to break the reverie of being in the American West.

Helps you understand how someone might move here just to watch the seasons change…and then never leave.

Curtis Canyon, way above the Elk Refuge Road

For more of our photos from around Jackson Hole, please click here.

See related posts
TWT Travel Binder: Wyoming
The (Steamy) Heart of Yellowstone
Mighty Grand Tetons You’ve Got There


  1. Those Tetons are (grand?) amazing! I think that’s our next destination. It almost was, when we were touring the US Southwest…

    And those Momos…
    Two words: Yum. Mee.

    I’ll keep this one in mind for our trip! Thanks!

  2. I love the writing style here and feel like I can really trust the opinions of restaurants and lodging. Thanks again for sharing with all of us future travellers.

  3. Your writing is so specific and easy and informative. Exactly what I’ll need when planning my next trip. It’s like consulting with a friend who has already gone someplace I want to go! Perfect.

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