The path west from Grassy Lake, Wyo, anold Indian trail, was improved in 1937 toallow teams of 40 horses (4 across, 10 inline) to haul cement wagons from Ashton,Utah, to the Lake for the Bureau of Reclamation'sdam. The trail, which is seldom used today, still twistsand turns, skirting the Jedediah Smith Wilderness tothe south and Winegar Hole Wilderness andYellowstone National Park to the north.
In an SUV, you could drive the 17 miles of roughroad between Grassy Reservoir and Indian Lake in 30minutesâ€”give or take a few adventures. Or you can trekthe 17 miles in a covered wagon, with a company calledTeton Wagon Train and Horse Adventure in 4 days(888-734-6101; www.tetonwagontrain.com).
"The idea is not to beat you to death by seeinghow far or fast we can go in a wagon," says JeffWarburton, who comanages the 30-year-old familybusiness with his brother Chris. "The plan is to letyou enjoy an experience that is an important part ofour country's history."
Every summer the Warburtons saddle up their wranglers,cooks, and horses and hit the trail with guests for3-night, 4-day excursions into the Targhee NationalForest. Everyone sleeps in tall, 3-man tents designed byChris and eats hearty food cooked in Dutch ovens. TheWarburtons supply all camp gear.
"You've had your last contact with things thatflush," Chris says. "On the trail, anything can happen. Ifwe break a wheel, we fix it. If a horse throws a shoe, wefix it. If a grizzly comes into camp, we drive him off."
No grizzly has ever bothered the wagon trains,despite rolling through terrain set aside 25 years ago toprotect the bears. The project has been so successful thatthe bears will likely be removed soon from the endangeredlist. Claw marks often appear on the lodgepolepines where grizzlies have established their territories.The wranglers all wear loaded side arms, just in casethey have to drive off curious bears.
The wagon party travels from camp to camp eachday. Guests ride the horses, walk alongside the wagons,or ride in them. Although the wagons have rubber tiresand padded seats, the ride is still pretty bumpy. Duringthe historic westward expansion, pioneers walkedbeside the wagons instead of riding in them. There wasinsufficient room inside the wagon for passengers andriding in them was a backbreaking experience. "Thelow man on the totem pole drove," Jeff explains.
Wagon Train Lessons
The Warburtons' wagon trains combine educationwith adventure. Jeff's campfire stories teach guestsabout the courageous pioneers who crossed a continenton foot in the face of so much danger. Eachmorning, these pioneers left within a half-hour of sunriseand, on average, made only 12 miles by nightfall.The season for the trek was so short, they couldn'tstop to help broken-down wagons. TheMormon treks had half the death rate of the OregonTrail because the Mormons helped each other.
Guests learn about the people who drove the wagonsas well as the horses that powered them. Their teachers,Jeff and Chris, both have masters degrees in agriculturalsystems technology. "Horses don't have on and off buttons.They are always on," Chris explains. "They love towork. They want to please you. But you have to takecommand." The wagon train teaches you how.
Of course, guests learn to have fun on their 17-milejourney across America's wilderness, riding horses,learning cowboy skills, hiking, canoeing, and stargazing.The remarks in the guests' logbooks poignantly describethe Wagon Train adventure. "This was a vacation Ithought existed only in my imagination," one guestwrote. "I've figured it out," another guest explained inher logbook, "This is what life's all about."