A Canvas-Covered Time Tunnel

An authentic wagon train adventure offers a unique opportunity to experience the lives of the pioneers.

As the sun dips behind the lodgepole pines on a nearby ridge, the air is infused with the smell of wood-smoke and the perfume-like scent of sage wet from an afternoon shower.

Our group’s canvas-covered wooden wagons have been circled for the night, more out of respect for tradition than any real need to fend off attacks by hostile natives.  As I sit beside the campfire, the only sounds I can hear in this secluded corner of Wyoming’s Bridger-Teton National Forest—other than my belly gurgling after a great chuckwagon supper—are the soft strumming of a cowboy’s guitar and the nickering of a dozen horses roaming free through this mountain meadow.

In short, I’m experiencing one of those rare moments that feels a century removed from the stresses of modern life.  And, you know, I’m actually starting to enjoy it.

I’ve brought a group of family and friends here to the Mount Leidy Highlands, just across the valley from the snow-covered Grand Tetons and an hour’s drive south of Yellowstone National Park, to enjoy an authentic wagon train adventure.  We’ve signed on with a family-run outfit called Wagons West for a three-day outing reminiscent of the pioneer sagas us grown-ups used to watch back in the day when there were (gasp!) just three TV channels to choose from.

While Wagons West does introduce a few modern conveniences—smoother-riding rubber tires on the wagons, for example—our days with this highly-personable outfit probably weren’t much different than those of the 19th-century families who crossed the country in covered wagons in search of a fresh start in the wide-open lands west of the Mississippi.  After a hearty breakfast, our chaps-clad wranglers helped the kids swing up into their saddles for the morning trail ride, while the adults climbed aboard a Percheron-powered wagon for a leisurely tour along rarely-traveled dirt roads.  Our two groups met up for lunch and a little siesta, after which we swapped modes of transportation and headed back here to camp for a dip in the wrangler’s secret swimming hole and a little lassoing practice on a sawhorse-mounted plastic steer head before dinner.

While I freely admit it took me a full day to adjust to a world with no phones and no internet access, by time I woke up to the rumble of distant thunder on our last morning in camp I found myself uncharacteristically happy to be doing absolutely nothing.  As I rolled over in my sleeping bag listening to the sound of fat raindrops beginning to fall on our wooden wagon’s sturdy white canvas roof, it occurred to me that, sometimes, the experience of doing nothing can be pretty darn extraordinary too.

Xtrordinary Xtra
In a time where interstate freeways make 1,000-mile days possible, it seems hard to imagine that 15 miles was considered a good day for the pioneer families pushing westward in the original covered wagons.

Xtrordinary Xtra
While the wagons this outfit uses look authentic, they’re actually about twice the size of those used in the 1800s.

The Facts
Name: Wagons West
Location: Afton, WY
Phone: 800-447-4711
Website: www.wagonswestwyo.com

My Advice

  • Wagons West runs two- to six-day trips from early June through late August.  Based on my experience, you may want to consider tacking on an extra day or two to allow yourself time to slow down and unwind enough to really appreciate the experience.  And, since you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to add at least another couple of days to visit Yellowstone National Park.
  • While there’s no need to pack along all your worldly possessions like those original pioneers, it pays to be prepared for the area’s highly changeable climate.  That means packing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as well as a warm jacket and rain gear.  Early or late in the season you may also want to throw in long underwear, gloves, a stocking cap, and an extra-warm sleeping bag.  And because space is at a premium, leave your fancy clothes and huge suitcases in your car.
  • Guests typically alternate between trail rides and riding in the wagons.  If you’re a major horse-lover and want to spend all your time in the saddle, that can be arranged for an additional fee.  And if you want to spend all your time riding in the cushy wagons, well, that’s fine too.
  • With altitudes ranging between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, flat-landers may need to take it easy for a day or two until they get used to the thinner air.
  • Our group of happy campers found accommodations in the wagons plenty comfortable (about like sleeping in a modern tent trailer), but you should understand that this not the Ritz-Carlton.  In other words, if you have a problem with using porta-potties and washing up from an old-fashioned wash basin (hot water is always available) you may find this experience a little too rugged.