bring back the beach!

By Jim Stanford on March 22, 2010

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The Wilson Beach near the height of its popularity. A SPET proposal envisions a public park at the site, connected to the pathway bridge.

In the summer of 2001, I was learning to roll a kayak on the Snake River while the Green Knoll Fire raged south of Wilson. A friend and I were at the Wilson Bridge, where gravel excavation had created a new eddy.

As he sat in a chair on the bank reading a book and I paddled around the eddy, helicopters buzzed overhead ferrying buckets of water from the river to fight the fire. The air was thick with smoke, and ash was landing on the water.

It was like a scene out of Apocalypse Now. We laughed at the words of Robert Duvall: “If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, it’s safe to surf this beach!”

Over the next few summers, the “Wilson Beach,” as it became known, grew into one of the most popular recreation spots in Teton County. By 2005, the site reached its zenith as Redneck Riviera, with pickup trucks backed to the water’s edge for tailgating and a group of Georgia girls floating on an air mattress.

Alas, high water eventually filled in the swimming hole, and the river shifted eastward. The Georgia girls moved away. A community treasure was lost.

Now there’s an opportunity to bring back the beach, better than ever, as Teton County is considering a public park at the site.

Tonight the Snake River Fund and Friends of Pathways are hosting an informational meeting about the project from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Old Wilson Schoolhouse. Citizens are invited to learn more and give their input. Corey Milligan, owner of New West Knifeworks and SRF board member, is preparing refreshments, reason alone to attend.

A conceptual plan shows how the Wilson Bridge Recreation Area could be configured. Levees would be terraced for improved pedestrian access.

Town councilors and county commissioners are considering 12 projects for the next round of specific-purpose excise tax, or SPET, funding.

SPET is an optional cent of sales tax used for public facilities. Tourists contribute roughly half the revenue. In the past this funding has paid for projects like pathways, the rec center, town sidewalks and the Historical Society museum under construction on North Cache (which is seeking additional funding).

Elected officials soon will decide which projects to place on the ballot for the Aug. 17 primary election. Voters don’t always approve every project; in 2008, for instance, citizens rejected a proposed $53 million jail.

Teton County Engineering Department has applied for $1.2 million for the Wilson Bridge Recreation Area, a public park that would feature a protected eddy for swimming, improved boat ramp, pathway access, more parking, terraced levees for better pedestrian access, and landscaping that would fit in with and enhance the natural riparian habitat. The project would be coordinated with the pathway bridge over the Snake River, planning of which is already underway. (In 2008, voters approved $6 million for the Highway 22 path and bridge.)

Fishing above the Wilson boat ramp. Photo © Jim Stanford.

The Wilson Beach arose as a sort of historical accident, and although it was just a plot of dirt and river rocks, people loved it. There is no other spot like it along the Snake River to swim or recreate, unless you have a boat.

Little known is the fact that the beach and boat ramp are on private land. The landowners have been gracious in allowing public access. Fortunately, there is a large parcel of public land in the vicinity managed by the Snake River Fund for the Bureau of Land Management.

The BLM is slated to transfer this parcel to Teton County, a process that began in 1999, and adjacent landowners have been supportive. SPET funding is critical to complete the transfer and preserve public ownership and access.

You can help by writing town councilors ( and county commissioners ( and urging them to place the Wilson Bridge Recreation Area on the SPET ballot. Elected officials will decide in the coming weeks which projects make the cut, so time is short.

By August, we’ll all need a dip at the beach.

(Beach photo by Morris Weintraub/The Image Well)


Posted under County Government, Economy, Environment, Politics, Sports, Town Government

26 Comments so far

  1. David March 22, 2010 3:03 pm

    This post needs way more biniki shots.

  2. David March 22, 2010 3:28 pm

    Also, bikini shots.

  3. josh March 22, 2010 4:07 pm

    Great , more well meaning but ignorant beachgoer’s in my way at the boat launch. ive been asked if I need help as my boat approaches the launch. I say “please get out of the way”, and they look at me funny.

  4. josh March 22, 2010 4:16 pm

    I know , the plan should improve conditions @ wilson beach.

  5. js March 22, 2010 4:20 pm

    @David: And tequila shots.

  6. josh March 22, 2010 4:59 pm

    Want more reality ? Didn’t think so, but here it is anyway…I wonder what kind of swirling hydraulic pool of death the new dyke will produce. maybe during the next big runoff, the new dyke will take out the one on the east fun

  7. jon March 22, 2010 10:56 pm

    Yeah, I hate when people offer to help, what a bunch of jerks. They are as ignorant as a person mistakenly calling a levee on the river a derogatory name for a lesbian. Also, the Hydraulic Pool of Death would be awesome on my River Rat inner tube, but only after tequila shots with Jim, Dave, and some bikini babes.

  8. dswift March 23, 2010 6:37 am

    We need laws against people getting in my way and looking at me funny, because as a rugged mountain dweller I cannot cope with that.

  9. Wavy March 23, 2010 8:36 am

    If the Snake river is a “wild” & scenic river a man made beach and artificially landscaped park along with pathways and bridges would certainly alter the natural progression of the river. Perhaps the Cowboy Bar can open a satelite location along the new beach ?
    If people want to swim goto the rec center, if you want a beach goto Mexico. Keep the Snake wild !!

  10. D March 23, 2010 9:08 am

    I find this entire post funny. If this was for anything but a JS approved project my guess is this would be a post talking about the wild and scenic nature of the river and how we cant developed in this “CORE” wildlife habitat/ scenic area. I personally would love a summer lounge area; I just find it ironic that this post does not contain an EA or EIS talking about how the river must be protected. Like everything else that is debated in the environmental arena, its all good if you agree and not so good if you don’t. Remember that the next time a project you don’t agree with is proposed. You have to see the irony in this post?
    @josh: I know the type of people you speak of however this is Wyoming and it is customary to lend a helping hand. If you don’t need one try not to be an ass when letting them know. I have learned not to talk to your type you can usually spot them with your cool boat and Toyota pickup, visor and polarized shades all the latest SAGE and Cloudveil gear, even a Yettie cooler sometimes. News flash the river is not yours; they have just as much a right to be there as you try not to be such a dick.

  11. js March 23, 2010 9:26 am

    The Wilson to South Park stretch was not included in Wild and Scenic designation because of the levees.

    Basically, that part of the river already has been degraded by levees, and this proposal would beautify a small section and make it friendlier for people to use. Scrambling down big, sharp levee rocks isn’t ideal.

    A few trees and some other landscaping would make the place look a lot better. And being able to walk or cycle to the river is wilder than driving a car. Not that I would mind poolside service by the Cowboy Bar cocktail waitresses …

    Environmental studies are required and would determine what could or could not be built. The boat ramp area, as configured now, doesn’t work very well, and it makes sense to take a comprehensive look and figure out a better way to serve the public, especially with the path bridge landing there.

  12. randosteve March 23, 2010 1:20 pm

    most of the river rats i have talked to about this project state that because of the all the levees, there is no way any artificially created swimming area or eddy would ever survive the big runoffs. if i recall, the river was already dug up in that area to improve the boat ramp and channel the water…but the river took over on it’s natural course in the spring…and all the work was for nothing in the end.

    my opinion is…since it’s not an amusement park or state park…leave it alone.

  13. js March 23, 2010 1:38 pm

    The hole that was dug back around 2001-02 was a commercial operation to extract and sell gravel.

    It could be as simple as just re-digging the hole every few years.

    More than 60 people filled the Old Wilson Schoolhouse last night to show support and give thoughtful feedback.

  14. randosteve March 23, 2010 2:01 pm

    js…so you’re cool with digging up the snake river every two weeks? that would surprise me.

    the thing about this project is that once you upgrade the “beach”…then you have to upgrade parking…then bathrooms…then pathways from the beach to the pathways and potties…then maybe even put in a new traffic light to deal with all the increased traffic.

    there are already many nice sandy beaches on the lakes and rivers all throughout teton county. unfortunately i guess…they are not right next to the road.

  15. CoreyMilligan March 23, 2010 3:19 pm

    I worked hard on getting over 420 miles of the Snake River watershed designated Wild and Scenic. I’m super proud of our accomplishment. I’m equally as excited about using approximately 3/4 of a mile of the Snake River to allow people to easily “take the waters” of the Snake River in the summertime and to enjoy swimming in the cleanest water in the US. The proposed area is not in the portion of the Snake River that falls under Wild and Scenic designation. As it is the narrowest distance between the dikes, it is also the most impacted by them. There is nothing natural about this area and thus the best area to make some recreational improvements. Any efforts to build a beach, create spurs off of the dike or build a play feature will serve to slow down the water or form what we fisherman like to call “holding water”. As it is now that short stretch is an aquatic wasteland any of the proposed improvements will only improve habitat.

    In terms of maintaining the beach, there is no question that gravel will need to be continually removed. There will need to be some equipment removing material every couple of years in the late fall. It is a great public/ private partnership. The value of the gravel will mean that we can have this awesome public recreation area maintained for free. it will be an ever changing organic fun spot. Dig a hole in fall, let mother nature do her thing in the Spring and see what we get all summer.

    The budget for the project has a lot of money for planning. The Snake River Fund is working with the two premier river engineering firms in the world to create a safe, fun, sustainable world class recreation area.

    I am as much of a conservationist as anyone and making minimal improvements to an area that is already severely impacted by current use, dikes and the busiest road in Wyoming seems like the definition of wise use.

    This project is so GREEN. Instead of driving 40 plus miles to the nearest swimming lake or kayak play feature, it is centrally located for all residents of Teton county. With the completed bike path folks can ride their bikes. There is no need to poison water with chlorine. No need to build some kind of additional public swimming pool. This is part of a green future. We can provide an awesome recreational opportunity, improve the aquatic habitat, harvest gravel Teton Counties abundant necessary resource and have minimal impact and cost.

    This is all good! Catch the wave!!!!

  16. rob March 23, 2010 3:42 pm

    corey has me convinced.

  17. josh March 23, 2010 4:28 pm

    I said please. Visors are for fratboys. i just got done rowing 13 miles of some of the most techical water north of the canyon(Technical because of the “Levees”). ive got a pair of 9 ft oars. Do i look like i need help. Folks can be as dumb as they want , I don’t care.Oh and grammar nazi’s need a life.

  18. D. March 23, 2010 6:13 pm

    Strike two

  19. Aaron Pruzan March 23, 2010 9:07 pm

    I don’t have much experience with blogs and even less with people making foolish comments on the internet. As I am deeply involved with this project and there is a great amount of ignorance being demonstrated I will attempt to help folks understand what the Wilson Beach Park project is all about.
    FIRST AND FOREMOST – THE DRAWING THAT IS BEING CIRCULATED IS A CONCEPT ONLY – A ROUGH DRAFT TO SHOW IDEAS THAT ENCOMPASS IMPROVEMENTS THAT THE COMMUNITY HAS EXPRESSED IT WOULD LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN AT WILSON BEACH. An excellent public meeting was held last night with over 60 people voicing their support and making intelligent and helpful comments on what they thought of the concept plan. Improvements to this area are going to happen and they are going to be awesome. Criticism is good – simply making negative comments is not constructive nor helpful. Here is some background info.

    1. Improve the boat ramps for landing and launching – hardened ramps – better eddy.
    2. Improve parking and traffic flow
    3. Create a back eddy for swimming to ease conflicts in the ramp area.
    4. Landscaping to create a park like atmosphere – if the area is cleaner than it will be treated better by its users.
    5. Investigate adding a wave feature for kayaking or surfing.

    How we got to this objectives.

    1. The Snake River Fund has managed this river access for 6 years and has received numerous comments and complaints about congestion issues both in getting boats in and out of the water and in the parking area.

    2. To keep even a small eddy for launching and landing requires yearly dredging and rarely lasts a full season.

    3. Parking and traffic flow are already an issue. With a bike path going through (that the community has already voted for) this will add to this problem unless it is well planned to flow with river access.

    4. Let’s face it – this area is adjacent to a gravel pit, looks kind of like a gravel pit and users often treat it as such. I am there on a regular basis and often have to pick up garbage and dog crap. If we improve the area it will get treated with more respect.

    5. The swimming hole that was dredged in 2002 & 2003 was a BY-PRODUCT OF A GRAVEL MINING OPERATION AND TO TAKE BACK PRESSURE OFF OF THE BRIDGE. Mineral rights still exist for this location and gravel will continue to be mined on the Snake River with minimal impact. The back eddy that was created was a huge hit. People loved it and have asked for it to come back.

    6. The bike bridge is going in. The community voted for it and as a regular bike commuter from Wilson to Town, clearly the bridge is the most dangerous part of the ride and this community needs the bike bridge NOW. Construction is going to take place in the river and it makes infinite sense to improve the levees, create a better boat ramp eddy at the same time. If we can also add a wave feature that does not impede traffic flow on the river than there is strong support for that as well.

    Wild & Scenic

    I was at the first meeting in 2003 when the idea of Wild & Scenic for the Upper Snake River Watershed was proposed. Scott Bosse and I solicited the first donation to kick off the campaign. Frank Ewing, Derek Craighead and I introduced the idea to the public in 2005 and then it took four more years of meeting with landowners, writing letters, lobbying our congressional delegation, familiarizing them with the river and getting the entire community to support this idea to bring to reality – 390 miles of the highest federal protection and the first watershed approach to Wild & Scenic ever done. THE SNAKE RIVER FROM THE SOUTHERN BOUNDARY OF GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK TO SOUTH PARK BRIDGE WAS NOT ELIGIBLE FOR WILD & SCENIC PROTECTION because of the extensive levees that exist there. As we all know this is still an outstanding section of river that we all enjoy. The Wilson Beach Project will improve several hundred yards of river that has been severally changed already.

    Elements of the Plan

    1. Boat Launch Area – a deflector will be added on the upstream edge of the eddy to further define the eddy and make it larger. It will be dredged deeper and while it may still require maintenance, it will improve the situation. Two concrete ramps will be installed that will allow space for four trailers at once. Concrete ramps clearly define the launch area and help keep people from getting stuck.

    2. Swimming hole – if a great ramp eddy is built and there is no other place for people to get in the water guess where they will go. Problems at Wilson Beach have increased since the swimming hole filled in. Contrary to a comment above there aren’t very many great places to get in the water that are near the population center of our community. As a parent with small kids our community severally lacks public swimming facilities compared to other towns of similar size. The rec-center is an outstanding facility and it has to serve Jackson Hole, Star Valley and Teton Valley – it could use some help in the summer. Outdoor swimming – String Lake – 45 miles round trip from town. Slide Lake 40 miles, Palisades 72 miles, Jackson Lake 60 miles. The Snake is a fast moving river, back eddies come and go and are a natural part of the river. Having one that is semi-permanent is not a detriment to the river flow at all. The drawing of the extension of the levee to protect the swimming hole was done as a concept by a landscape architect and we know that it might not happen that way. We also have had conversations with two of the leading hydrologists and river engineers in the world – we will let them figure out how best to accomplish the stated goals.

    3. Parking and traffic flow – Comments were made about intruding on the great bottom lands that are there and the parking may not happen the way it is drawn. Keep in mind that an EIS is required before this land can be transferred to Teton County and this project can be started, so a different parking situation may happen. Regardless a staging area, a pull through for buses and an area for commercial customers to stand out of the way are all huge improvements to the current situation. A dirt road does already exist in the bottom land area and there is no plans to pave anything except the ramps. Furthermore with the bike path people can park at Stilson, walk under the highway and get to the river in about 7 minutes.

    4. Landscaping & Improvements – who wouldn’t want benches to sit on, picnic tables and a little landscaping to tie things together?

    5. Terracing the levees – again, who wouldn’t want this? The levees are necessary but they are totally user unfriendly. By terracing them without changing their profile it will allow many places for people and animals to get to the river and allow people to easily walk, sit or recline on a structure that is currently a jumble of sharp, ankle breaking rocks.

    6. The wave – this is not included in the SPET proposal and would require additional fundraising but there were more positive comments about this possibility than any other comment that was repeated.

    I’m looking forward to more thoughtful input on the possibilities of the Wilson Beach Park Project and welcome constructive comments –
    Cell 413-3574.

    Aaron Pruzan

  20. coreymilligan March 23, 2010 9:21 pm

    Yo josh,

    Fyi the folks are standing on the boat ramp, in the way, because since the beach is filled in the only slow water in the area where you can wade in the river is the eddy at the ramp.

    An important priority of the wbra plan is to use pathways, parking and,roadways to separate boat ramp users from pedestrian, beach, and other site based users.

    There’s something for everyone.

  21. D. March 23, 2010 10:17 pm

    I am not for or against this. I just have two questions.

    1. Isn’t the river already a natural recreation area that can be used by all the way it is?

    2.) Can we all agree that increased use of a resource equals increased impact no matter what the resource is.

    I personally don’t think that taking a river and trying to tame it so more people can come and use it is SO Green. No matter how you slice it. With that said I am down to party there if they do it. It will be the equivalent to the Headwall restaurant directly in Mother Nature’s path of destruction, but fun as hell until the day comes. See you there I have my water wings aired up and ready to go. Not to mention it will also increase the revenue of the county by all the open container MIP’s and possession tickets they will be able to hand out.

  22. randosteve March 23, 2010 10:38 pm

    i wonder how many people would show up to a meeting for a proposal to allow all users to use snowmobiles on jackson lake and the gtnp inner road? more than 60?

    i don’t know about this one and i can see both sides, but just because something would make our life more convenient…doesn’t always mean it should be done. right?

  23. js March 23, 2010 11:20 pm

    Steve, it’s about respect for the river. That area is trashed, and we’re trying to clean it up so people can enjoy the Snake who don’t have the money or skills to buy a boat or learn to kayak. Taking a family rafting is expensive.

    I’m fortunate to float up in the park on one of the most beautiful stretches of river in the world, but for many people in the community, the Wilson Bridge is their only contact with the Snake.

    I think I might have given the wrong impression with jokes about bikinis and tequila. This isn’t frivolous, and I’ll elaborate on the idea of respect in a subsequent post.

    That said, you and others have raised a good question with the old quandary of “if you build it, they will come.” This has been an issue with pathways in the park and pretty much every recreational amenity in Jackson Hole. The fact is, they already come to Wilson. The current parking is inadequate, the turnoff at the end of the bridge is dangerous, the boat ramp is a clusterfuck. I’d rather they come by foot and bike and bus than by car.

    People naturally gravitated to this spot after the last gravel excavation. Why wouldn’t we want to make it a little nicer? I don’t know what engineers will say about features in the river, but do you think adding some green space, terracing the levees and connecting paths will somehow degrade the area?

  24. Jim March 24, 2010 6:54 am

    It’s under a highway bridge, for pete’s sake. Wild and Scenic?

  25. boat1retired March 24, 2010 11:22 am

    As a twenty year plus veteran of commercial river running in the park plus the past several as a non-commercial user of the Snake – I fully support the effort to create a recreation area easily accessable for all. Full disclosure – I have not used the “beach” and really don’t think I would even if built – I would much rather swim in Slide/Jackson/String Lake!
    Is this a perfect location/idea/plan? No – but then again finding perfection in nearly impossible. Let’s support this concept – give it a try, built it in stages and improve it as we go.
    There are many issues to be solved, for one – parking at this area is a mess. The bike path should help. Encourage parking at Stillson – but provide safe crossing of 390 or 22.

    To the question – Will the river reclaim the swimming hole? Yes – probably yearly but the numbers of residents/visitors who have used the “beach” show that it is a needed and desired benefit for the entire community.

    The big question for me is – is this proposal appropriate for SPET funding AT THIS TIME? Issues such as permits and a final plan of action need to be resolved. Pictures and dreamscapes are nice – but do not result in concrete action.

    I give props to the Snake River Fund for a great idea – lets work on it, get all the paperwork and permits in place then put it in front of the voters. I feel we are putting the cart before the horse as proposed today

  26. js March 24, 2010 12:27 pm

    boat1, the timing of this is being driven by the pathway bridge. that project is rolling, and it needs most of the same permits and environmental/engineering studies as the beach park.

    it makes more sense to do these simultaneously, to save time and money.

    also, the BLM transfer process has been going on for 10 years, and necessitates a study of its own, which costs money. not funding the transfer will only further delay the process. — boat7

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