Long before there were trains or tourists, the area around present-day West Yellowstone served as a gateway for wildlife and humans traveling to and from the Yellowstone Plateau. The Madison River Valley provided a natural route for these travelers, including Native Americans, trappers, prospectors, and adventurers. Their paths and the tracks they wore into the landscape became the basis of many subsequent roads and trails. In the 1860s, the earliest "pioneer tourists" ventured through this area, eventually known as the Hebgen Lake Basin, on their way to Yellowstone. They came in wagons or on horseback, camping in the rough all the way. Many skirted Henry's Lake and, starting in the 1870s, spent a night at Gilman Sawtell's ranch before entering the valley via Targhee Pass.
A Tourist Industry Develops
All this tourist traffic spurred the need for support services. Dwelle's Grayling Inn, the first commercial establishment in the basin, was built just a few miles west of the park on the South Fork of the Madison. Many travelers spent a night on the road here, eating and resting up before continuing on their park tours. Dwelle's offerings grew to several hotels and a saloon to serve the booming Yellowstone Park tourist trade arriving in stagecoaches. From Dwelle's, a road was cut through the forest directly to the Madison. This road nearly aligned with today's Yellowstone Avenue, just north of the Union Pacific Depot. The stagecoaches rattled along this road into the park and up the plateau to the Geyser Basins. Initially, the stages took two days to cover the eighty-plus miles between the rail lines and the park. That was soon cut to one day, making for a strenuous, dusty, gritty ride.
By 1900, homesteads and ranches dotted the banks of the Madison River near the park's edge. Many of these hardy ranchers saw the opportunity to earn money by providing hay for the horses and cattle required by park businesses. Ranches along the Madison River produced hay needed to feed the livestock that supported Yellowstone visitors. Still, the need for a town at the park's western entrance was an idea whose time had not yet arrived.