Off to the Races

February 23, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Last weekend Ashton, Idaho went to the dogs as the town hosted the annual American Dog Derby - the oldest sled dog race in the Lower 48.

How did a little dot on the map like Ashton (population 952) end up as home to this historic, enduring event? 

For that matter, how did Ashton come to be?

Answer to both: the railroad.

Before I get to that, Ashton may be compact in size but it's special. The views of the Teton Range from Ashton and the surrounding area are spectacular; Grand Teton is only about 60 miles away as the crow flies (it's a 90-minute drive to the park). As if that's not enough natural beauty, there's plenty more nearby including the Caribou-Targhee National Forest, Mesa Falls, Harriman State Park, and Henry's Fork of the Snake River, home to world-class dry fly fishing. Oh, and there's that other National Park, too. You know, Yellowstone. Hop on Route 20 and you'll be there in no time. 

I've got a soft spot for a little eatery on the main drag with an old-fashioned soda foundation (called 511 Main). Root beer float? Huckleberry shake? Yes, please. The interior has some unique architectural features, too, including a walk-in safe (the building was originally the town's bank).

If you're visiting the area, stop by Ashton. It's a nice little town.

Now back to the railroad. 

In the early 1900s, the Union Pacific wanted to extend its existing Idaho Falls-to-St. Anthony route up to Yellowstone (the Old Faithful Inn had opened in 1904). The proposed line would run through Marysville, Idaho, on into Island Park, and over the Continental Divide - but the residents of Marysville were having none of it.

Undaunted, the railroad simply created a new town about one mile due west of the uncooperative village and named it after Chief Engineer William Ashton. 

1906 ushered in the first scheduled service to Ashton; the branch to West Yellowstone, Montana was completed two years later. In 1912, the Union Pacific finished construction of a branch into the Teton Valley. 

Snowfall in the higher elevations here can be aggressive, as the railroad discovered - so the branches into both Yellowstone and the Teton Valley were shut down during the winter, making Ashton the terminus. The only way to move mail and supplies (people, too) from Ashton to other high-country destinations in deep snow was via dog sled.

And so mushing in Ashton was born. 

There are conflicting stories about how the race came to be, but the fact that the railroad was behind it is undisputed. Two of its founders were Union Pacific employees and the railroad heavily promoted the event for many years.

The first race took place in March 1917; the course ran from Ashton to West Yellowstone following the unplowed Branch Railroad line. The event quickly grew in size and popularity. In the 1920s, as many as 15,000 attendees showed up to cheer on the mushers and their teams. The American Dog Derby inspired the creation of dozens of other races in the U.S., Canada and Europe.     

So that's how mushing - and this race - came to Ashton. Kudos to the town for maintaining the tradition for all these many years. 

The 2023 edition of the American Dog Derby featured 28 teams, with mushers coming from as far away as Pennsylvania. There were 6-dog, 8-dog, and 10-dog teams. Each team ran two races over the two-day event. The larger teams ran a combined 44 miles (22 per day) while the 6-dog teams ran a combined 24 miles. 

After last season's light snowfall forced the start/finish line to be relocated to a remote area with more snowpack, it was back in its normal spot right in the center of town this year. The in-town start is relatively unique and just another thing that makes this race special.  

I've never seen so many adorable dogs in one spot. As race time approached, it was a cacophony of excited barking; they obviously love to run and were itching to get at it. 

Scroll down for a few scenes from this year's event.

In Local News

It ain't over! Winter is still going strong in Teton Country. The latest storm (earlier this week) deposited as much as a foot of snow in Idaho's eastern highlands, the Teton Valley and Swan Valley. The Teton Range got 25 inches between Sunday and Monday followed by another two feet on Tuesday. With wind gusting up to 50mph, blowing and drifting snow created hazardous travel conditions; highways 33, 32 and 22 were closed with plow operations halted due to backfilling.

Avalanche danger is rated as high in upper elevations. (Actually, that's not just an issue for the steeper slopes up in the thinnest air; an avalanche closed one lane of traffic on Highway 89 near Alpine Junction Monday.)

Snow showers are in the forecast for Jackson nearly every day from now through the end of next week.

It's great for the ski resorts and a huge plus in terms of the water supply situation - so while it's been a long season, most people aren't complaining. 

If you're thinking ahead to spring, though, Yellowstone's west entrance (at West Yellowstone, Montana) usually re-opens to vehicle traffic around the third Friday in April. If I were a betting person, I'd guess it might be later this time around. At any rate, the west gates will be the first to open, followed by the east and south in that order. 

Campsites are already booking up so if you're thinking about a visit during the high season, get online and try to snag a spot while there are still a few available! (The same is true for sites in Grand Teton NP.)

Speaking of the Tetons, the Teton Park Road (inner loop) will continue to be groomed until mid-March, after which time it'll open to bikes and foot traffic only through the end of April. Vehicles will follow in May.



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