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RKO Snake River

RKO Road & Bar B C Road

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.

Elk Herd

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).

RKO Road

Click this Map to See it Much Larger

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.

Snake River Side Channels

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.

River Bottom Pano

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.

Gray Wolf in Sagebrush

In one morning, I saw numerous Elk, a few hundred Bison, a pair of Gray Wolves, and numerous Pronghorns.

Elk Tracks

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.

Lone Elk

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.

Bull Elk

This bull Elk dropped over a ridge, saw my vehicle and then made a quick move north to forested cover.

Bison Head

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

Pronghorns were scattered in the sagebrush flats along the length of the road.

Bull Elk

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).

River Bottom

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.

Bar B C Ranch

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

Bar B C Ranch

The Park Service is systematically repairing some of the dude ranch’s historic cabins as seen above. Others are deteriorating quickly.

Fireplace

This image shows the fireplace from the original main lodge at the Bar B C Ranch.

Palace and Privy

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. We have been down this road a little way, and a park ranger gave us more info. Looks like a must do for sure. And, you got the new Tamron. Awesome! Have you noticed any difference?

  2. Jackie

    How wonderful that you saw and photographed the wolves!

  3. Jean B.

    We drove that road 2 years ago in September. Was our favorite day. We didn’t see any wildlife close up but saw hundreds of bison and a few pronghorns. The views and dude ranch were wonderful. I think we saw 4 other vehicles in the 4 or 5 hours we took to drive it. We stopped and ate lunch where we had a great view too. I’d go back! but I’m glad my farm kid husband was driving. 🙂

  4. Hi Jean, In reality, there are very few access points to the Snake River from the East side of the river. This road gives people a lot of access points, even though the road never runs right beside the river. It takes just a little hike to get to the bank of the river, but offers views most people never see. And yes, it gets very little traffic or pressure from tourists. Worth the effort!

  5. Jerry Fuller

    Thanks Mike. Stunning photographs, as usual. I visited the park this past week, and drove the RKO Road end to end on the afternoon of Oct 11 and saw absolutely no wildlife. I also was unable to find a good path down to the river from the bluff, until I got to the Forest Service picnic area on the north end. At what time of day did you visit, and where on earth did you locate a path down that didn’t require the skills of a Bighorn to negotiate? Thank you so much. Your work inspired me, at least in part, to go see for myself.

  6. Hi Jerry,
    The road goes to within a few hundred feet of the river at the north end. The place I like is the zone north of Snake River Overlook (near Deadman’s Bar). There’s a gentle trail down to the water. A lot of fishermen access the river via well used trails at numerous points at about the half way zone. There are some ponds and springs in that area which attracts fishermen. Like I say over and over here, to find wildlife, it helps to go out EARLY! I was the first person to drive through on my morning trip, made evident by my breaking through the frozen puddles in the road.

  7. Hi Mike,

    Great article on the RKO road. Its been years since I’ve driven it. Appreciate the research and images that you put into it.
    Regards
    Don

  8. Dennis Horn

    Very informative article. This is a must do on our spring trip. It was a pleasure seeing you and chatting this past Sept.
    Dennis and Vicky

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