Who doesn't love the tart taste of forbidden fruit? Hiking through a pine forest high in Wyoming's Teton Mountains, I felt as if I'd been issued a pass to a secret world. This particular slice of the West, a scenic parcel of lakeside wilderness known as the JY Ranch, has been off-limits since 1932, when philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. claimed it as a summer retreat. Few people have ever seen beyond its entrance, a discreet gate on the gravel Moose-Wilson Road, or the wooden buck-and-pole fences that mark its boundaries. But this September the property will be open to the public—as a new Rockefeller donation to the Grand Teton National Park. Clay James, the longtime Rockefeller family associate overseeing the transfer, was giving me a tour.
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Even by the breathtaking standards of Jackson Hole—a 55-mile-long, high-mountain valley dominated by the 13,770-foot Grand Teton—the JY is extraordinary. "There are seven different natural environments on the ranch, from open meadows to lakefront to woodland," James was saying as we walked. "It's rich with huckleberries and hawthorns. You can see moose, eagles, coyotes, black bears. There are wolves in the area...."
It was a classic summer morning, the Wyoming air crisp and clear, the sky an almost electric blue. We arrived at an overlook just above the water, and the trees suddenly parted to reveal jewel-like Phelps Lake framed by Mount Albright Peak. "This is where the main lodge once stood," James said, indicating a spot at our feet where purple wildflowers now burst between bare rocks. "The Rockefeller guests would gather here before dinner to enjoy the view." I followed James down to the lake: along its shallow shore, crystal water rippled over pebbles as smooth and pale as eggs; an osprey cruised high overhead.
The donation of the JY Ranch marks a kind of coda to the family's involvement in Jackson Hole, which began when John D. Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil, first visited here in 1926. The next year, he started secretly acquiring land in the area with the eventual aim of giving the entire valley to the government, which would protect its dramatic scenery and wildlife within the national park system. He purchased the JY, a working dude ranch, in 1932 for $90,000. Over the years, various members of the Rockefeller family fell in love with the rustic retreat; John D.'s son Laurance S. Rockefeller honeymooned here in 1934, as did another son, David, in 1941. As a result, the JY Ranch was the only parcel John D. held onto when, in 1949, he gave more than 33,000 acres to the government, which established the park as we know it today. Just over 50 years later, in 2001, Laurance, then 91, announced he would give the JY to the park. This final gift will include a state-of-the-art, 6,500-square-foot visitors center crafted from recycled Douglas fir and pine, as well as a spectacular four-mile loop trail to Phelps Lake.
What visitors won't see are the JY's 30 log buildings, many of which dated to its pre-Rockefeller days as a dude ranch—the first in Jackson Hole—from 1908 to 1932. The buildings, along with seven miles of asphalt roads, were removed in 2005 and 2006; twelve were given to the park service and the remaining 18 set aside for a new Rockefeller family ranch outside the park. "The log cabins were not ostentatious," says Jackson Hole historian Robert Righter, and "they just fit into the landscape so awfully well." It was to this idyllic retreat that the Rockefeller family repaired every summer to canoe, hunt, hike, swim and fish—activities not so very different from those pursued by the Shoshone, Crow, Blackfoot and other Native American tribes that were among the first to camp in Jackson Hole during the warmer months.
But today, a visit offers more than a glimpse into a patrician family's private playground. It was here that some of the key discussions were held in the protracted battle over Jackson Hole in the 1930s and '40s—"one of the great conservation success stories of American history," says Joan Anzelmo, the park's former chief of public affairs. Few of the nearly four million people who visit the park each year, or the many more who know the Teton Mountains from Hollywood movies such as Shane and The Big Sky, or from Ansel Adams photographs, are aware of the epic valley struggles involving a larger-than-life cast of characters, cowboy standoffs, heated passions and wild accusations.
You could call it a classic western.
Jackson Hole has been shaped by isolation. Despite its relative proximity to Yellowstone, which Congress proclaimed a national park with little controversy in 1872, Jackson Hole remained a remote and little-known destination to most Americans until the boom in auto tourism in the 1920s.
For most of the early 19th century, most white visitors to this lush valley thick with wildlife were fur trappers, who used the Tetons as a landmark. These anonymous wanderers coined the term "hole" to describe the unusual high plateau surrounded by mountains. Famously, a group of lovelorn French-speaking trappers dubbed the dominant peaks les trois tétons (the three breasts), now called the South, Middle and Grand Teton. When one of the first official surveying groups, under the authority of scientist-explorer Ferdinand V. Hayden, arrived in 1872, they found the Gallic comparison baffling. Up close, the peaks' shapes "become harsh and rugged and angular," wrote member Nathaniel Langford in Scribner's Magazine, and looked more like "shark's teeth" than features of the female anatomy.
Only after William Henry Jackson released photographs he'd taken on the expedition did the area begin attracting attention, if largely among the intrepid. One mountaineer, the outdoor-loving aristocrat William Baillie-Grohman, arrived on horseback in September 1880 on his third tour of the West and found himself the only tourist in the valley. He camped for ten days, dining on trout and beaver tails and drinking in the "sublime scenery" that he believed outstripped even that of the Swiss Alps. "The whole picture," he wrote in his travelogue Camps in the Rockies, had "the air of a splendid, trimly-kept old park." The first settlers—a trickle of cattle ranchers and farmers—arrived to scratch a living from the land soon after, barely surviving the brutal winters. In the early 1900s, some of the ranchers began inviting wealthy Easterners to the valley. Travelers had to take a long train journey to St. Anthony, Idaho, then transfer to a horse-drawn wagon for a bone-jarring, 104-mile journey that took them over 8,500-foot Teton Pass. Once arrived, they found few creature comforts. In 1911, Owen Wister, author of the classic western novel The Virginian, stayed at the JY Ranch for the summer with his family. His daughter later recalled that they dined on elk, salted bear meat ("like dark brown leather"), canned tomatoes and breakfast flapjacks with dead flies between the layers.
It was into this rugged Shangri-La that the reserved, square-jawed, 52-year-old heir arrived in the summer of 1926 with his wife, Abby, and their three youngest sons. They had just toured Yellowstone with Horace Albright, that park's visionary 36-year-old superintendent. Sitting down for a boxed lunch some 25 miles north of Phelps Lake, Rockefeller was thunderstruck by the jagged, snowcapped Tetons looming above the emerald-green marshes around Jackson Lake. The peaks, he later wrote, were "quite the grandest and most spectacular mountains I have ever seen...they present a picture of ever-changing beauty which is to me beyond compare."