Off the Beaten Track
For 80 years, Trail Creek Ranch in Wilson has been owned and operated by women.
// By Jim Stanford
Elizabeth “Betty” Woolsey was a trailblazer, in the mountains and in business. By the early 1940s, she had climbed and skied in the Alps, summited the highest unclimbed peak in Canada, and captained the first U.S. Olympic women’s ski team, winning the national championship in downhill. She had climbed many peaks in the Tetons and Wind River Range, sometimes helping to put up new routes. Her favorite ascent was Mount Moran, on the summit of which she’d had a picnic and napped among a swarm of butterflies.
It was on one of her many spring visits to the Tetons, when she and friends would ski corn snow in the morning and catch trout in the Snake River in the afternoon, that Woolsey saw her destiny as a Wyoming rancher.
“I had always dreamed that I would find a place which would be so pleasing to me that I would want to live there forever,” she wrote in her autobiography. Her native New Mexico was too dry, the Appalachians back East too low for climbing and skiing. “I discovered my piece of land the first time I skied down Teton Pass,” wrote Woolsey, who lived for adventures in Greater Yellowstone and took great pleasure in sharing these pursuits.
Thus began a half-century of building a ranch and hosting guests. Wooley established Trail Creek Ranch near the base of Teton Pass above Wilson, where trappers and pioneers once traveled on an old wagon trail. More than 80 years later, her legacy lives on, as the ranch is still a haven for skiers in winter—and is still owned and run by women.
The endless expanses of light powder snow were irresistible for Woolsey and her friends, who would drive to the top of the Pass and choose a run from the many bowls and ridges on the south side. “We had our pick,” says Margaret “Muggs” Schultz, who started work at the ranch in 1948 and served as a ski guide with Woolsey. “We’d usually start at Telemark [Bowl] and work our way around. By the time we worked our way around, we had fresh snow to start over again.”
The site of Trail Creek Ranch had been the Lockwood-Lee-Crandall Road House, a waypoint for travelers and mail carriers coming over Teton Pass from Idaho. Louis E. Lockwood, originally from Ohio, settled on the land in 1896 and built a log house, barns, and corrals. Lockwood died 10 years later, reportedly due to overexertion from shoveling snow; and his widow, Dora, finally received the patent for the land in 1909. It changed hands several times before Nate Davis bought the place in 1921.
On the day of Woolsey’s fateful ski descent, she and friends skied a steep ridge, followed a logging road, and came to a stop at the back door of the Davis cabin. Davis and his wife invited the skiers in for a cup of coffee. In 1943, when Woolsey heard the place was for sale, she sent her friend Rynie Van Evera, a visiting skier from Salt Lake City, to go fishing with Davis on Fall Creek with a case of beer. Van Evera came back in the afternoon with the deed to the property, bought for $40 an acre. There was no electricity, telephone, or running water, but Woolsey immediately set about making improvements and acquiring stock. To celebrate, she dug up two Engelmann spruce saplings from the forest and planted them on either side of the door to her new cabin—and today they stand more than 75 feet tall outside the guest ranch’s main lodge.
Initially, the ranch was 40 acres, but Woolsey, who died in 1997, acquired the adjoining Mueller family parcel and other land in the 1950s to accumulate the 268 acres the ranch covers today. She had some of Willy Mueller’s buildings moved onto the property, including the distinctive barn built by Wilson craftsman Wes Bircher. With help from friends, Woolsey salvaged the southernmost portion of the original road house, which today is known as the “Upper Upper” cabin.
Schultz, who turns 95 this January, was born in Idaho and moved with her family to Jackson when she was two. She briefly attended the University of Wyoming but couldn’t stand the unrelenting wind. “It didn’t take me long to finish college—one year,” she says. “All I wanted to do was ski and bum around, and work.” Noted for her riding skills, she sought a job from Woolsey and spent several summers working at the ranch, even going out from town to feed the horses in winter, before moving there year-round. She still lives there in a small cabin.
Woolsey, who had been staying with neighbors Willy and Retty Mueller on their dairy farm, lingered in Jackson that spring and became even more smitten with the Davis ranch
when she walked the woods. “I had a curious feeling of being at home here and felt that
perhaps someday I would own it,” she wrote.
In the early days, most of the ranch guests were Woolsey’s friends, some of whom would stay for a month. “Betty had a lot of connections, and it was a good start for the dude business,” Schultz says. Trail Creek officially became a dude ranch in 1946, after Woolsey quit her job managing the magazine Ski Illustrated in New York. “We had guests come for 30 to 40 years, until they died,” Schultz says. “Betty had a good knack for making people feel at home.” Many of the ski runs on the south side of Teton Pass—Chivers Ridge, Edelweiss Bowl, and Olympic Bowl among them—were named for or by Woolsey’s companions.
One of Woolsey’s friends from ski racing, fellow Olympian Marian “Sis” McKean Wigglesworth, started visiting the ranch from Massachusetts in 1952 and moved there to join the staff in 1960. Her garden provided much of the produce. Together, the trio of Betty, Muggs, and Sis ran the ranch for 30 years. Woolsey placed a conservation easement to protect the ranch from development, and her estate still owns the land. Alexandra Grant Menolascino started working at Trail Creek in the spring of 1989 and eventually took over managing the business.
Woolsey often bushwhacked her way to summits and titled her book Off the Beaten Track. That spirit lives on at Trail Creek, particularly when deep snow blankets the hills and rustic log cabins. On moonlit nights, the song of the coyote—what she called “the most Western sound”—can be heard. “I never tired of life in the valley, with the ranch to work on, mountains to climb, streams to fish, game to hunt, and powder snow on the ski slopes,” Woolsey wrote. “I lived as simply as possible, saving every penny to put back in the ranch.”
Experience Trail Creek Today
The ranch’s pastures and surrounding hills are home to the Trail Creek Nordic Center, where the Jackson Hole Ski and Snowboard Club grooms a 13-kilometer cross-country skiing track. Guests also can skin up the adjoining Old Pass Road for downhill runs on Teton Pass. With a mixture of rooms and standalone cabins, the ranch can accommodate up to 20 guests in summer and six to eight in winter. Although originally a full-service dude ranch with cooks and wranglers, Trail Creek today provides lodging only. JH