Connect With Nature at Jackson Fork Ranch
Hundreds of snorting bison chew on tender grass. Elegant white trumpeter swans swaddle nests, awaiting chicks. Taupe pronghorn run wild and free in vast valleys. Deer, elk, and bald eagles emerge from the forests, and the rivers are thick with trophy cutthroat trout. Only the human population is sparse; 100 people call Bondurant, Wyoming, home.
Kenny and I left behind our South Carolina beach to visit Jackson Fork Ranch, 51 miles south of Jackson Hole Airport. Nestled on 1,600 acres of stunning beauty, the ranch is surrounded by the Gros Ventre, Wind River, and Wyoming mountain ranges. The Upper Hoback River snakes through winter snows and summer wildflowers. Out here, you’ll find no shopping malls or movie theaters, only peace and quiet—and maybe the best fly fishing and horseback riding of your life.
We stayed at The Lodge at Jackson Fork Ranch, a Western-style four-bedroom home with 280-degree panoramic views. Guests gather in front of the cozy river rock fireplace, enjoying the magnificent wildlife paintings. No one misses television; there’s enough adventure stories to share with each other. Before bed, we floated in our outdoor hot tub under a blanket of shimmering stars.
Chef Brad Hoch entertained with hilarious Wyoming stories and kept us well nourished with delicious culinary creations. Who wouldn’t love this breakfast: homemade chicken sausage, scrambled eggs, buttermilk coffee cake, and fresh fruit? Or this gourmet dinner: chicken breast in phyllo, salad with huckleberries, and apple rhubarb crisp with vanilla bean ice cream?
The lodge is perfect for small group getaways, such as for fishing excursions, girlfriend getaways, rustic weddings, family reunions, and creative retreats. And it was perfect for Ken and me, beach lovers who enjoy hanging out with beautiful horses and 1,000-pound bison.
On our first morning, our fly fishing instructor, Mike Kaul, a partner in Two Rivers Emporium, greeted us. We were inspired right away by Mike’s joie de vivre for nature, for fly fishing, and for life.
“Granddad started me fly fishing at age 7,” he said. “He tainted me so much, I’ve been fly fishing for 64 years. I’m still aspiring to be really good,” he joked.
Our clinic began on the lawn, where Mike taught us the elements of casting: the correct stance, the best fly rod grip, and the graceful arm and hand movement that powers the line onto the water and into the mouth of a fish.
“Takes years of practice,” he counseled. “But I can tell you and Kenny are naturals.” Yes, for Ken, who is an expert golfer; maybe for me, who has wimpy wrists but lots of enthusiasm.
After an hour of practice casting our lines into a hoop, Mike awarded us a B+ for form and effort. We pulled on Gore-Tex waders over four layers of shirts and fleece and rode in Mike’s truck to the Hoback River to test our skills.
Buck and pole fences lined dirt roads, meandering toward a perfect powder blue sky, painterly clouds, and grand mountains. The beauty stunned us all into companionable silence.
“Nature and quiet … this is the place,” Mike sighed.
Knee deep in the Hoback River, still running fast and brown with June’s snowmelt, we cast for an hour. Over and over, we made lovely long casts, helped by Mike’s coaching.
“Great form, Ken!” he called. “Nice wrist action, Sharon.”
Our heartbeats increased with nibbles from what we imagined were big trophy cutthroat trout. The line slackened. Nothing. Sigh. Although we did our best, no fish were fooled by us.
Yet we felt euphoric. We’d figured it out: Fly fishing is not always about catching a fish, it’s about listening to a wild rushing river, watching clouds dance over mountains, and napping in a field of bold yellow wildflowers. It’s about being happy together, at Jackson Fork Ranch, on this wild Wyoming day.
After another great chef Brad breakfast, we drove down the road outside the ranch to Sleeping Indian Outfitters. Alix Crittenden was there, saddling up our horses for a two-hour ride in Wyoming’s backcountry.
“Alix, please give me the horse for kids,” I begged. “I’m scared, and I haven’t ridden in years.”
Alix, a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde, newly married to her sweetheart, Sam, grinned. The young lady from North Carolina seemed as though she was born on a horse. “Let’s go, Sharon,” she said firmly. “I got some pretty country to show you and Ken.”
My horse was named Chocolate, and all she wanted to do was eat. Kenny’s was named Smiley-perfect, since he is always smiling.
For the next two hours, we waded through thigh-high rivers, holding tightly onto the reins, hoping not to be washed away in the muddy waters. I had no choice but to trust Chocolate to swim over to the other side, and she did. Kenny and Alix were far ahead, climbing the steep trails.
Chocolate and I followed straight up the mountains into fields blazing with purple larkspur, yellow balsam root, and pink geraniums. Our horses trotted through thick forests of quaking aspens and stately lodge pole pines, never losing their balance over slippery boulders or stepping into thick sticky mud.
On the stunning plateau, Kenny and I posed for a horse and rider photo, just as the sky turned steely gray. A click of the camera, and we’re drenched not just by rain but also by pelting hail. The cold ice was annoying, but Alix acted like the sun was still shining.
“Don’t like Wyoming weather? Wait five minutes,” she called out. This woman is too darn positive, I think.
Ken was telling jokes, the horses were eating grass, and I realized how dumb I was to be scared. I patted Chocolate’s ice-covered ears. I followed my cowboy Ken and Alix straight down the mountain and again across the deep muddy river. Then I smiled, as big as Sky Country. New courage emerged. All the way back, I muttered my new mantra: “I ain’t afraid of no mountain, no steep trail up or down, no rivers, no hail. Cold, wet, I ain’t afraid of nothin’ nobody no more.”
Guess Wyoming brought out my inner wildness, and I liked how it felt.