Identified on the official Grand Teton Park map as River Road, this rough, unimproved gravel road runs roughly 16-18 miles along the west side of the Snake River. The road is typically closed from mid-October through mid to late May.
Over the years I’ve lived in Jackson Hole, I’ve been told the road gets its unofficial name via RKO Pictures (sometimes called RKO Productions).
Sure enough, I found this information in “Wyoming – A History of Film and Video in the 20th Century”, a CD by Walt Farmer.
The Big Sky: 1952 starring Kirk Douglas: Locations: “Sites were all over the north end of Jackson Hole. A special camp or tent city (30 plus substantial structures of canvas over wood), was built for the cast and crew. This small city was at the end of what is fondly remembered to this day in the area as the “RKO road.” It’s a very primitive road along the west side of the Snake River and essentially ends at a fishing area on the Snake north of the Dead Man’s Bar area but on the west bank. It is best accessed where it turns east from the northern end off the main park road just south of Signal Mountain. It is rough, rocky, and not recommended for regular automobiles, but rather high-clearance vehicles, and also not recommended just after a rainstorm. While the road had been in place for a long time prior to the film’s production, its use by the RKO crew made the reference to the “RKO road” an appellation still heard to this day, although the road is not officially designated as such. From the start of the road just south of Signal Mtn. to the end, is 3.8 miles. The road from approximately the middle of the RKO road that goes south, is known as the Bar B C road, is lengthy and in much worse in condition than the RKO road, and eventually connects with the Cottonwood Creek road that returns to the park’s main inner highway. It also has several spurs and was used to access locations used in other films.”
Walt’s information above indicates that only the east-west portion (just south of Signal Mountain) was originally identified at the RKO Road, while the north-south portion of the road was called the Bar B C Road. Nowadays, the entire road is commonly called the RKO Road by the locals.
The current Grand Teton National Park map says 4-wheel drive is required on the River Road. I’d suggest a vehicle with a fair amount of clearance, as Walt also suggested. I’ve driven in in my Nissan pickup and my Toyota Sienna van – both all wheel drive. At either end, the first two miles should deter most uncertain visitors — both legs are rough and pocked with 20 or more puddles. Needless to say, you shouldn’t be “in a hurry” if you travel on this road! You should be able to get cell phone coverage in almost all areas, but there are no rest rooms or amenities. On my drive, the only other vehicle I saw on the road was parked at the Bar B C Ranch overlook, and was occupied by a fisherman gearing up to access the river.
Why go there? Because of the rough road, the area offers some of the least visited zones of the park — in other words, it is a wilder portion of the park. If you are prepared for that wildness, the drive along the RKO Road can be rewarding. Wildlife may be more abundant, though not necessarily “tame” or accustomed to visitors as some areas of the park. With a little hike off the bluff, you can access the Snake River, including several scenic opportunities, plus access great fishing spots. By early October, the hydrologists cut the flows at the Jackson Lake Dam to “minimum stream flows” for the remainder of the fall and winter. A fisherman in waders can wade many areas of the river bottom, and cross in places.
The photos on this page were all taken on a single mid-morning trip on the RKO Road. I’d love to go back to this very spot and photograph it with morning pinks and purples at Alpenglow, or as the amber light strikes the grand and reflects into the calm pools. This photo could be even more dramatic, but it is hard to knock it even in mid-morning light.
In one morning, I saw numerous Elk, a few hundred Bison, a pair of Gray Wolves, and numerous Pronghorns.
Besides the animals I actually saw, there were indications of additional wildlife such as moose, deer and raccoons. I didn’t see them, but I am sure bears use the natural corridor as they move up and down the valley. Ducks, geese, swans, and pelicans can be seen along the river at times.
A few years ago, the Park Service suspended the “hunt” in the Snake River bottom but Elk are still leery of humans. They graze on the grasses in the sage flats overnight, but head to cover early in the morning.
This bull Elk dropped over a ridge, saw my vehicle and then made a quick move north to forested cover.
I spotted this lone bull Bison near the north end of the road, but found several hundred more a few miles south. They were grazing alongside the river and on the sagebrush flats.
Pronghorns were scattered in the sagebrush flats along the length of the road.
Wildlife seem to be saying, “What the heck are you doing here?” I saw several single bulls moving towards the shelter and safety of the wooded zones, along with a fairly large herd initially grazing near the road. (see photo near the top of the page).
The Snake River is often braided in this section of the valley, especially in the late fall. The gravel road hugs the edge of the river in many areas and rambles across the sagebrush in other areas.
Historic Bar B C Ranch is nestled just under the bench and next to the Snake River at the south end of the RKO Road. Check out this earlier post: Bar B C Dude Ranch
The Park Service is systematically repairing some of the dude ranch’s historic cabins as seen above. Others are deteriorating quickly.
This image shows the fireplace from the original main lodge at the Bar B C Ranch.
It would be easy to spend an entire morning at this site, especially if you like historic structures, textures, and log cabin details.
If you can get out to the RKO road right away, it might still be open, but expect it to close as soon as the Elk Reduction Program (Elk Hunt) begins. If you missed the window of opportunity, and if you have a four wheel drive vehicle with high clearance, plan on putting the road in next year’s visit!
Photos on This Page: The wildlife images on this page were captured with a Nikon D5 and Tamron 150-600 G2 lens. The landscape shots were taken with the same camera, but with a Nikon 70-200mm lens.