Susan Marsh for Headwaters

Susan Marsh, author of "Cache Creek: A Trailside Guide to Jackson Hole's Backyard Wilderness" poses for a portrait Aug. 17 along the trail near Cache Creek.

Every western town has a river running through its heart, even towns that lie far from the streambank. It’s this river of the heart I speak of, and for most people in Jackson Hole that means the Snake. But if we zoom in on the town of Jackson itself, we might consider the little stream whose waters feed the Snake and whose trails are familiar to us all: Cache Creek.

This 17-square mile watershed is a microcosm of the Greater Yellowstone region, nearly pristine in its wilderness headwaters and greatly altered after it hits town. The 700 block of Cache Creek Drive is about the last place its waters see daylight, other than the sweet remnant at Mike Yokel Park. Its former confluence with Flat Creek is essentially gone.

But within the national forest Cache Creek is wilder in some ways than it was in the early 20th century, when timber was cut for some of the first buildings in Jackson and an impoundment captured the creek for the town water supply and coal mines operated a few miles upstream. In those days only a handful of people from the local area spent any time in Cache Creek. How things have changed.

Cache Creek no longer supplies an isolated mountain town with timber, coal and drinking water. These days it supplies something as important: a place for rest, renewal, and recreation.

We think of recreation as benign—what could be better than getting out and enjoying our public land? But we know that with increasing use comes change. Backcountry becomes front-country and impacts that were once unnoticeable become obvious. More effort is needed on the part of the Forest Service and its volunteer partners (thank you all) to maintain conditions that people seek.

People often refer to incremental change to our wild lands as “death by a thousand cuts,” each one minor and dismissible as no big deal. But taken together, they might just add up to something we never intended.

Anyone who has encountered wildlife along the trail can see that our very presence, along with that of our canine companions, can create stress for them. What if our numbers and activities become seriously harmful? What are we prepared to do about it? I hope our collective answer doesn’t echo that of a young man who was caught last winter with his untethered dog in a leash-only zone. When the Forest Service patroller explained to him that the reason was to protect wintering wildlife he whined, “Can’t the deer go somewhere else?”

So far, the human footprint in Cache Creek has been light. As part of a larger complex of backcountry and wilderness, it has resilience not found in isolated, fragmented pockets of nature. Native plants can recolonize after a fire. Wildlife species that frequent Cache Creek also migrate deep into the Gros Ventre Wilderness, Grand Teton National Park, the National Elk Refuge, and beyond.

Many of us migrate to Cache Creek as well, some on a daily basis. We exercise, botanize, watch birds and butterflies, teach our kids how to ski or ride a mountain bike or let them splash around in the water. It’s our window to the wild and we are lucky to have such a place as part of our backyard. For people and wildlife, Cache Creek is an important gem in the emerald necklace surrounding Jackson Hole.

It’s easy to take our local gem for granted, but like all wild areas proximate to human occupation Cache Creek is not without threats. Weeds degrade wildlife forage and alter the plant communities they invade, and we’re seeing a significant increase in cheatgrass and yellow toadflax from Nelson trailhead to Woods Canyon. Water quality remains high but disturbance to the streamside from bare, trampled earth and informal trails adds sediment. If you think a few weeds and bare patches are insignificant, recall the places you may have traveled elsewhere in the West where acres of solid knapweed were once native grassland. Where warm, wide streams with broken-down, weedy banks were once blue-ribbon trout streams.

We ought to remember that we live in a land of superlatives and a little creek among many wild and scenic rivers in the Snake Headwaters can seem ordinary. To someone seeing Cache Creek for the first time it’s paradise.

Years ago, an out-of-town visitor stopped me as we walked back toward the trailhead after a hike. We had crested the hill just short of mile 1, with that great view across to Rendezvous Mountain. Fireweed and groundsel put on a show of magenta and bright gold. She had me take a photo of her in the wildflowers with forests and mountains and building cumulus beyond, before saying something that had not occurred to me before, but has stayed with me ever since.

“If this was anywhere besides Jackson Hole,” she said, “it would be a national park.”


Mike has reported on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem's wildlife, wildlands and the agencies that manage them for 7 years. A native Minnesotan, he arrived in the West to study environmental journalism at the University of Colorado.

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