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Archive for the ‘Wyoming’ Category

I would have been kidding myself to portray my night as even remotely resembling one of a true sheepherder. The lonely worker of the late 19th and early 20th century would not have turned on a laptop to type notes about that day. Inside the 6 by 10 ft. space with rounded canvas ceiling, a heater would not have been turned on by a simple twist of a knob. A light wouldn’t cast an inside glow at the flip of a switch. Hot and cold running water wouldn’t have flowed from a basin near the door.

In those days a western sheepherder, often Basque, would have hovered over a morning campfire, fixing breakfast from whatever provisions happened to be stored in the wagon. A hot breakfast wouldn’t have been waiting inside a nearby house. And, traveling alone for months at a time, accompanied by only a sheepdog and one thousand sheep or more, he wouldn’t sit with others over food and chat about travel and daily life.

Guests of the K3 Ranch Bed and Breakfast, on the other hand, have the option of enjoying a sheepherder wagon with modern luxuries as part of the deal. Though the main house on the ranch property offers three exquisitely decorated rooms, I’m always up for an adventure, so I headed for the lodging option that would give me exactly that.

I’d arrived at the ranch by way of a gravel road. Only six miles from the relatively busy city of Cody, I might as well have been in a different world altogether. Expansive vistas spread out around me in all directions. Rich, red rocks rose up from the ground, speckled with sagebrush.

I was greeted by owner Jerry Kinkade, who zoomed up on a motorized mini-tractor. Buddy, his faithful canine sidekick, welcomed me as well, gladly accepting a pat on the head. “Hop on,” Jerry quipped, “Let me show you around.” I jumped on, he stepped on the gas, I grabbed frantically for a side bar and the adventure was on.

After a bumpy trip around the circular driveway, we pulled up in front of the ranch house, bordered by an island of strikingly beautiful red rock. A narrow pathway led up the side to a skillfully sculpted “meditation chair,” formerly a nondescript diesel fuel tank yet now artistically displaying southwestern-themed cutouts – a kokopelli, a turtle, a mountain goat and others. Sunlight filtered through the designs, giving a mystical feeling to the already breathtaking scenery.

“I used a little Native American magic when I made those,” Jerry shouted up to me. “They change colors; they’re white or blue in the daytime and then, at night, they turn black.” I admit it took me a few seconds to think that one through. It was my first glimpse of my host’s mischievous personality.

I maneuvered my way down the path again and was ushered into the ranch house, which housed three guest rooms: The Teton Room, The Rocky Mountain Room and The Chuck Wagon Room. Each sported clever features such as tin ceilings, scenic murals and beds built into hay or chuck wagons. Artistic details added to the ambiance of each room – teepee sconces with fringe, doors adorned with metal artwork and even a brass headboard turned sideways for use as a towel rack.

“We even have karaoke machines in every bathroom,” Jerry announced proudly. I was beginning to catch on, immediately eyeing the wall-mounted hair dryers as Jerry grinned with a bit of devilment.

Our tour continued through a great room with plenty of sofas and chairs for reading and relaxing and a dining room, complete with stacks of cowboy hats. “We all wear hats at breakfast,” Jerry informed me. “That makes it a cowboy breakfast.”

A kitchen on the lower level of the house was accessed by means of a steep, narrow circular staircase – not for the faint of heart – and, stepping through a side door to the outdoor area, a patio was built under a teepee covering. For cooler nights, it provided a wood burning fireplace inside, with surrounding woven twig and wicker chairs.

I was shown the 1890 sheep wagon, my chosen lodging for the night. Beautifully restored by a woman in Meeteetse, WY, it was simple inside, as close to authentic as possible, given the running water, electricity and wireless access that could be picked up from the main house.

“And here’s your fifteen thousand dollar bath house,” Jerry pointed out waving his arm towards a small wooden structure just a few steps away from the sheep wagon. Indeed, it was just as well designed as the other aspects of the property, with all the usual bath necessities, including shower, color coordinated towel sets in cocoa and sage and a basket of premium bath amenities.

One special feature of the sheep wagon was a private deck that extended from the front door, giving additional square footage to the accommodation and a perfect place to watch deer graze in the bordering pasture. A table and two chairs made it a scenic, sunny place to hang out.

Breakfast is included at the K3 Ranch and mine was cooked by Jerry himself – eggs over easy with pancakes and fresh brewed coffee. It was a great start to the day, made even nicer by table conversation with Jerry and his wife, Bette.

Post-pancakes, another treat was in store. Included in the menagerie of ranch residents were two horses, Stormy and Zip, who were all too happy to show off their skills. With the almost magical touch of a horse whisperer, Jerry soon had the equine partners obeying a variety of commands. They could sit on voice command, slap high fives with either hoof and smother Jerry with kisses, as well as perform a variety of other feats.

Cody, WY is a fascinating town to visit, with plenty to offer visitors. The Buffalo Bill Historical Center alone is worth a trip, hosting five museums within its walls. Old Trail Town offers a look at restored historic buildings, set on the original spot that W.F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody laid out for the city that bears his name. The historic Irma Hotel is worth a visit to see the immense cherry wood bar.

Some places are harder to leave than others and this was one. I took a few minutes to climb the red rocks and sit in the meditation chair before leaving. The sun painted rich color across the surrounding mountainsides and the breeze flowed softly through the clean, country air.

Though there is no shortage of lodging options in town, I felt lucky to have found the K3 Ranch. The location couldn’t have been better – close to Cody’s attractions, yet just far enough away to get some real non-city cowboy atmosphere. And the hospitality offered by Jerry and Bette Kinkade is clearly top-notch.

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I don’t know exactly what I expected when I drove into Afton, WY, with plans for an overnight stay at a log cabin. Most likely I expected something funky and rustic, something a big step down from the upscale accommodations seventy miles north in affluent Jackson Hole. After all, Afton is a relatively small town of approx. 1800 people, located in scenic, but not tourist-attracting Star Valley. But I was about to learn a lesson about expectations.

Driving north from Utah, I’d taken my time along the Logan Canyon Scenic Byway, stopping to explore canyon features along the way, including a 1.3 mile loop hike on the well-maintained Limber Tree Trail. With a stop in Garden City, UT for a raspberry shake – an area tradition – I continued north through short distances of Utah, Idaho and Wyoming highway, arriving leisurely in Afton at the Old Mill Cabins.

All of the cabins were wonderful. Lodgepole and Aspen were the smallest, both one room with two queen beds and a front porch facing a pine-carpeted hillside. They had indoor and outdoor sitting areas, as well as private bathrooms and the modern conveniences of televisions, compact refrigerators and gas fireplaces.

But a third, larger cabin was situated at the end of the row, giving it a feeling of additional privacy. Though more spacious than I needed, the cabin had a living room area that looked like it would be conducive to writing. I couldn’t resist the luxury of the extra work space and made Cottonwood my home for the night.

Though nestled in a sliver of canyon area, with natural surroundings in every direction, the immediate areas around the cabins were landscaped beautifully, with low rock walls partnering with juniper bushes and lush, green lawn areas stretching between clusters of aspen trees. As if the cabins and surroundings were not already relaxing enough, a wooden walkway between Lodgepole and Cottonwood led to an enclosed hot tub set back from the cabins. French doors formed the entrance to this luxury, beckoning from the top of cascading stone steps.

I reluctantly left the cabin and headed into Afton for something to eat, where I found Hegg’s Grillin’ Barn. The décor was just downright adorable, from the booth backs with barn and silo scenes to the assorted Americana plaques and knick knacks on the walls. To make the place even more unique, the upstairs area served as a shop for Amish furniture, some of which was displayed on the front porch – for very reasonable prices, at that. I ate half of a mushroom, swiss and avocado sandwich and returned to the cabin.

I’m road-traveled enough to keep some sort of supplies on hand. I pulled my travel coffeemaker from the car, ground some French Roast beans and set it up for the morning. I managed to scavenger up an apple scone from a recent grocery run and placed that by the coffee maker, too. Morning was covered.

Rob and Rhonda, owners of Old Mill Cabins, have built a wonderful option for lodging.  Attention to detail is evident in every regard, from the artfully crafted log structures themselves to the leaf-design metalwork that holds the hand carved cabin names on each front porch.

The fact that these hand-built cabins are available for overnight lodging is a gift to the fortunate travelers who happen to pass through. The peaceful location, the rustling of the aspens, the tumbling waters of the creek: these are all bonuses. And the hot tub’s pretty wonderful, too.

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My arrival at Cottage House of Squaw Creek was amidst a flurry of rustling leaves and the long shadows of a late afternoon sun.  It had been a peaceful drive through the Wind River area, with straight, open stretches of highway and not many vehicles on the road.  But the afternoon was wearing on and I was glad to pull off the road for the night.

Just shy of five miles outside of Lander, WY, Squaw Creek Ranch offers a variety of services.  The first to appear as I pulled up was the House of Tails, which provides boarding, grooming and pet supplies.  Here I was greeted by Carl Bollinger, as well as his wife, Karla.  Together, they filled me in on the activities and history of their ranch.

In 1985, Carl and Karla established Squaw Creek Llamas and raised, bred and sold the stately animals for fifteen years.  Though they no longer breed them, many llamas remain on the property, to the delight of guests.

More recently, miniature horses have been added to the ranch and these are what lured me to Lander for a visit.  I’d had a little experience with horses before, but they were always full-sized, either taking me up a trail or eyeing me from the other side of a fence, hoping I might pull a handful of hay from my pocket.  But I’d never had the opportunity to be around miniatures before, so my curiosity wasn’t about to let me pass up a chance to learn a little bit about them.

Arranging a visit was easy.  Carl and Karla run a bed and breakfast on their property, housed in an individual cottage that sits alongside the horse pastures.  Situated slightly downhill from the main house, Cottage House of Squaw Creek offers overnight guests a unique opportunity to view both the llamas and miniature horses that live on the ranch.

Whether from inside the cottage itself or from the charming patio outside the front door, the scene I fell into was both pastoral and enchanting.   Mixed with the wind was the sound of tiny hooves pattering by.  Backlit by the setting sun were the soft silhouettes of diminutive manes.  I was thrilled with every aspect of my visit with these wonderful creatures.  They were gentle, sweet and affectionate.  If I stopped to give one a pat on the head, another would approach me for a turn.

As I was getting to know my newfound friends – Callie, a sorrel tobiano pinto, Bling, a black leopard appaloosa, and Wind River Ripple, a four month old newcomer, to name a few – Karla emerged from the barn with a tub full of hay, instantly attracting the attention of my new four-legged friends.  I was fortunate to be allowed to help feed the hungry crowd, dropping bunches of hay across the ground, where the horses spread out to munch slowly on their dinner.

Hard as it was to pull myself away, I was feeling a yearning for food, as well.  Hay just wasn’t going to do the trick for me, so I hopped in the car and made the trek into town, cautiously maneuvering the unpaved portion of the road leading from Squaw Creek Ranch to the highway.  As it wasn’t my first visit to Lander, I headed immediately to Gannett Grill for a “Healthy Hippie” sandwich – avocado, swiss cheese, tomato, lettuce and vinaigrette dressing on pita bread.  I suspect the healthy part went out the window when the meal was served with onion rings, but it was all delicious and the rustic, outdoor patio of Gannett Grill added to the enjoyable meal.

Barely sliding in on the tail end of twilight, I arrived back at the cottage with enough of the peaceful evening remaining to get a little work done.  With the tumbling sound of Squaw Creek in the distance and the continuing rustle of leaves from nearby trees, I sat on the patio with my laptop and books, wondering if there could possibly be a more relaxing scenario for writing.

The cottage itself was spacious for this solo traveler.  It could easily accommodate a family, given its 850 square foot size.  The downstairs level housed a living room, full kitchen, bathroom and laundry room, while a narrow stairway led to an upstairs loft with one double and two twin beds.  A comfy sofa and numerous chairs allowed seating both upstairs and down, while a television, stereo and wifi access added modern conveniences.  Though it was summer at the time of my visit, a wood stove stood ready to provide heat once winter descended. 

Decorative touches reflecting mountain life and western heritage made the entire space warm and inviting.  Locally made quilts with wildlife themes decorated the beds in rich green and red tones.  A carved moose “trophy” gazed down from one wall, keeping company to a selection of nature and wildlife books on the local area.  I felt instantly at home.

Though overnight lodging is available as a bed and breakfast arrangement, it is also offered without a morning meal, at a lower rate, which was my choice.  Coffee and a granola bar would be enough to start my day, which is exactly what I did, sitting on the front patio, admiring the miniature horses just a short distance away.  Two canine residents – Faldo, a Dalmatian mix and Sedona, an energetic long-haired Dachshund – stopped by to visit.  Not to leave any animals out, I strolled down to the lower pasture and said good morning to the llamas, as well.

Morning allowed me a chance to visit a little more with Carl and Karla, who were working in the barn.  It was clear in our conversation that they feel dedicated to their land and animals and that they’re delighted to share both with visiting guests.  The sense of hospitality is abundant, making a stay at Cottage House of Squaw Creek feel more like coming to see friends than just enjoying a unique lodging experience.

Before leaving, I leaned on a wooden fence and took one last look out over the pastures.  The wind had died down, but the creek continued to serenade the land with tumbling water.  The young filly approached cautiously, turning quickly to hurry away at the sound of my camera’s shutter.  Callie and Bling nodded very briefly in my direction before returning quickly to the more enticing bits of remaining hay.  Sedona hopped up and down nearby, hoping for another pat on the head before my departure.  I would have loved to stay for days, even weeks, but my schedule didn’t allow it.  With a sentiment of wistful longing to remain, I pulled myself away and headed down the road.

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Meandering again the last couple days, I’ve been centered in the Wind River area of Wyoming, a striking area of forests and lakes, red rock landscape and history.  I spent the night last night at a remote lodge that is going through some transition of management – an understatement, but stated with sincere appreciation for the efforts to weather mid-season changes.  It was peaceful and interesting in spite of the situation and led to some lengthy, intriguing discussions about hospitality, guest expectations and behind-the-scenes operations.  I’ll leave it at that.  Names and location are left alone, at their request, and because the season is ending.  But I have hopes this place will start next summer’s season with renewed energy and fresh life.

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Weather is not always cooperative on trips, but I was in luck this past Tuesday when I headed through Yellowstone National Park and, turning right just past Lake Yellowstone Hotel, aimed for the park’s east entrance. The skies were clear and crystal blue and sunlight shimmered across the surface of Yellowstone Lake. Crowds of onlookers lined Fishing Bridge, watching a gathering of bison along the side of the road. Others pulled over to observe lakeside geothermal activity or to savor the views from the winding road through Sylvan Pass.

I had kept an eye on area vacancies for days and managed to land the last available cabin that particular night at Shoshone Lodge and Guest Ranch, just three miles east of the park entrance. I found the lodge easily and followed the driveway to the main office, where I was given a key to the Cougar’s Rest cabin, located a short distance up a hill beyond the lodge. A sizeable one-room cabin, it offered two queen beds, a spacious private bath, and a host of modern amenities, including TV, refrigerator, microwave and wireless Internet access. Hardly roughing it, there was still a rustic feeling to the cabin, thanks to the wood-paneled walls, lodgepole rocking chairs with cabin-themed tapestry and beige, brown and hunter green quilts.

A private front porch looked out across the property, where I curled up in a twig-design chair and soaked in the sound of a nearby creek. Though there were families with children staying in other cabins, a hush seemed to have settled across the land.

I was determined to get a feel for western living during my short stay, so I wasted no time in getting signed up for a trail ride. Given a horse named Thunder – an amazing coincidence, the same name as my wonderful corgi-shepherd mix back home., I was one of seven ranch guests to follow Jeff, our guide for the evening, up a trail that bordered the creek and then wound its way up into the hills. Over a narrow and occasionally muddy trail, my horse remained sure-footed and very obedient to my commands.

A hearty dinner followed, offered up in the dining room of the main lodge.  The menu was filled with a wide variety of temptations and I chose the fresh vegetables with pasta and pesto sauce, which was excellent.  Though I had no intention of ordering dessert, a nearby table of locals had a birthday celebration in progress and passed around plates of cake to everyone in the dining room.  It was a festive atmosphere and added to the overall experience of feeling like one happy ranch family.

Hospitality, warmth and welcoming friendship are all outstanding at this lodge.  Four generations of family have owned and operated the business and the consistent, solid management shows in the many return customers the lodge sees.

After some peaceful porch sitting, a good night’s sleep left me ready for more exploring.  I took a walk down to the stables to thank Thunder for the previous day’s trail ride – a fist of hay did the trick – and then headed west again for a full day of Yellowstone adventure.

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I blasted across central Wyoming in one day, determined to make it to Buffalo, a Wyoming town nestled against the east side of the Big Horn Mountains.

The Occidental Hotel has a long legacy of western hospitality. Built in 1880, it started with humble beginnings – a main log building with six rooms upstairs and a saloon and restaurant below.

It became a hub of activity over the years, eventually expanding into one of the finest hotels in the west. However, like many historic hotels, business started to lag after the Great Depression and, after many decades of continuous decline, it fell into disrepair and finally closed its doors in 1986.

Rescued in 1987 by Dawn and John Wexo, a ten year restoration put the historic structure back on the map. In peeling back the worn interior of the hotel, many authentic, original aspects remained, from the tin ceiling to the wooden floors. Now completely and meticulously renovated, The Occidental Hotel not only offers outstanding lodging, but houses museum quality exhibits, making it a worthwhile educational destination, as well as an excellent lodging choice.

The hotel has a former guest list that reads like a “who’s who” of the old west. Central to the transportation paths of cowboys, outlaws and various visitors of influential position, Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, Buffalo Bill and Teddy Roosevelt are just a few of the guests who stayed there. And now so would I.

Several rooms were available for the night, each unique and decorated in different, authentic western themes. My choice was the Hoover Suite, conveniently located on the first floor, down a long hall and away from the street. In 1932, President Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, stayed in one of the two rooms that now compose the suite.

Decorated in rich green and burgundy tones, the suite offered a sitting area with sofa, writing table and television and a separate bedroom with an old-fashioned brass bed, dresser and table. Both rooms held fascinating antiques, with attention paid to tiny details. It was like sleeping in a museum for the night – a pleasant change from ordinary lodging.

A private bath with claw foot tub was positioned between the two rooms. Though unusual in logistical arrangement, it only added to the feeling of residing in an old, historical building. Care had been taken to make sure the bath had detailed amenities, too. An interesting side note is the fact that the tub is the same tub that was there in 1932, during President Hoover’s visit.

Other hotel rooms are linked to the building’s historical past. The Owen Wister Suite, for example, which commemorates the famous author’s regular visits to the hotel and saloon, where it is said impressions for characters of his well-known novel “The Virginian” were formed. The General Sheridan and Teddy Roosevelt Suites also give a nod to past visitors, as well as The Bordello Suite, composed of three rooms that represent quite a different aspect of the hotel’s early history.

Especially impressive is the care Dawn has taken to detail historical aspects. Small signs with specific information and displayed items are abundant. To use the term “attention to detail” would be a massive understatement.

The Virginian Restaurant, housed inside the hotel, was not open during my visit, but has the reputation of being one of the finest restaurants in Wyoming. I was able to grab a sandwich in the 1908 saloon, while enjoying the modern benefits of wireless Internet access. Though updated in amenities, the saloon still speaks to the hotel’s past, from the 25-ft. bar to the original gunshot holes in the ceiling.

By the time I checked out, I had decided to continue east. On Dawn’s recommendation, I took a side trip to Devil’s Tower National Monument – a magnificent natural structure that seems to rise out of nowhere – and then continued on into South Dakota.

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When President Abraham Lincoln signed The Homestead Act into law in 1862, it opened up opportunities for pioneers to move west. Mormon settlers arrived from the Great Plains and homesteaded land in northwest Wyoming, following three requirements: filing an application for ownership of 160 – 640 acres, tending and improving the land for 5 years and filing for title at the end of that period of time.

The land they claimed was spread along the valley floor of what is now known as Jackson Hole, with the magnificent mountain peaks of the Grand Tetons as the backdrop. Over time, the homesteaders developed a full community, including a school, church and other assorted town buildings. Eventually, the Rockefeller family’s Snake River Land Company bought out all but one acre of the area, offering tempting cash in exchange for the homesteads. This settlement came to be known as Mormon Row, a must-see area for visitors with a penchant for history and a well-known spot for avid photographers. It is now a National Historic District and part of Grand Teton National Park.

Lodging in Jackson Hole is notoriously expensive, especially during the jam-packed summer season. There are few options for tourists once the park and town lodging facilities get booked up. The few lodges in the park are sold out far in advance and cancellations are few and far between. The town of Jackson and nearby Teton Village are packed with hotels and inns, offering everything from basic motel rooms to suites at the Four Seasons. Those, too, are booked solid most nights. Having worked at a lodge all summer, there were numerous times I had to inform impulse visitors that the closest accommodations available were over Teton Pass, in Idaho. If anything in town was available, it was most likely a basic room in Teton Village for a hefty price tag of around $400-600. per night. Yes, you read that correctly. That would be for a basic room.

So imagine my shock when an online search turned up a small cabin on Mormon Row that could be booked for a mere $80. It was unheard of. I had to see for myself if such a place really existed, so I drove 13 miles north of town, turned east on Antelope Flats Road and parked along the dusty Mormon Row dirt road.

Wandering along, I passed the remaining structures of the former Mormon settlement, small cabins and sheds, tattered fences and two rustic barns known as the Moulton barns, frequently featured in photographers’ collections on the area. Eventually I came upon the one acre of land that was still privately owned and, sure enough, a small sign advertised cabins for rent. Accompanying it was a “No Vacancy” sign, which was no surprise.

Fast forward through two months of checking the cabins’ website daily, always pulling up an availability chart that was completely blocked full. Until one day when I looked at the chart and my eyes grew wide. A cancellation had opened up one night. I called the owners immediately and booked myself in.

When the long-awaited day finally arrived, I packed lightly – one change of clothes, my journal, camera equipment and laptop – and drove the short distance up to Moulton Ranch Cabins. Owned and operated by Hal and Iola Blake, descendants of the homesteading Moulton family, the small cluster of cabins sits in direct, unspoiled view of the Tetons, within a whitewashed fence, amidst a garden enthusiast’s dream of sunflower fields, tin tub planters filled with petunias and artistically arranged flowerbeds of every shape and size imaginable.

Iola introduced herself and showed me to The Cottage, the smallest of all the cabins. It was adorable, as I had expected, with a fishing theme, old-fashioned furnishings, a sweet, blue quilt, a tiny kitchenette and a half bath. A private full bath and shower was located just steps away in a separate building – a worthwhile compromise for such a bargain rate.

In contrast to my usual travel adventures, I was in familiar territory, since I was working for several months just a short distance away. I wasn’t about to head back into town for dinner, so I drove north, instead, to Colter Bay Village’s restaurant, an indoor eatery with a Chuckwagon theme. Ordering a favorite menu item, lasagna, I ate half and saved half to stash away in the cabin’s small refrigerator.

That evening I settled into my cabin for a quiet night of reading and seclusion. It was blissfully quiet and I felt far away from town. It was wonderful.

A chilly evening, I cranked up the thermostat a little too high and woke up in the middle of the night, kicking off my quilt and yearning for cool air. I cracked open the cabin door and stepped out for just a moment, only to find myself instantly mesmerized by the brightest stars I had ever seen. Had I ever known there were that many stars in the sky? It was a magical moment, accentuated by a perfect, still silence, and it took my breath away.

Lodging in cabins is a typical choice for me and I had come prepared. In the morning, I pulled open the drapes to let in the sun, clicked on my travel coffeemaker and unwrapped a muffin I’d brought along. With that for breakfast and the leftover lasagna for lunch, I was set for the morning and afternoon.

Hal came around before I checked out and gave me a little tour, showing me another old barn that he’s converted into a dance hall/meeting room space. Renovation is an ongoing challenge with older buildings and the Blakes work hard to keep improving their more than a century old property.

Because the roads to Mormon Row are not plowed during Jackson Hole’s long winters, the accommodations at Moulton Ranch Cabins are only open from Memorial Day through mid-September. During the rest of the year, the Blakes reside in Idaho Falls and work on other projects. Still, the cabins book up a year in advance and only book for one summer at a time. It takes pre-planning – or a stroke of luck – to nab a reservation there. But with the prime location, breathtaking views of the Tetons and stars that make the heart skip a beat, it’s well worth it.

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