As if Jackson Hole didn't have enough to recommend it - nearby Yellowstone, sparkling ski slopes and a generally laid-back lifestyle - it now has an extraordinary museum devoted to wildlife.

Don't snicker.Tucked into a hillside, the $10 million National Wildlife Art Museum houses a collection of paintings, sculpture and sketches, ranging from a permanent John James Audubon exhibit to the largest collection of Carl Rungius' work in the United States.

"We're very excited about it," said museum spokesman Brady Wilson. "Some people tend to think of wildlife art as cute little Walt Disney characters. They don't realize there is a substantial body of work that ranges from impressionism to realism and is studied by scholars."

The museum is perfectly positioned to offer a stunning view of Sleeping Indian Mountain and the National Elk Refuge. In winter, the majestic elk descend from the mountains to populate a vast expanse of land managed by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.

You approach the museum from the rear - by driving a curving road that leads to the front. A hundred feet up and off the highway, the museum - which covers 51,000 square feet - looks more like an exotic ruin carved into the hill's face.

Built from irregularly shaped slabs of Arizona sandstone, the museum's exterior mirrors the rocky outcroppings that surround it. The museum - which moved to its new location in September after having been established in 1987 - exists in ruggedly charming environmental harmony with the adjacent landscape.

The museum is stunning to view from the outside, but it's also unusual inside. Small, medium and large animal tracks have been sandblasted into the stone floor, providing delightfully startling touches throughout the ground level. The rustic exterior is replicated inside, including a staircase with a crouching, larger-than-life cougar at the top.

The museum's 12 galleries offer a sense of openness. Visitors may easily wander from room to room, viewing a collection spanning almost two centuries and featuring 1,300 works by more than 100 of the world's wildlife masters - including, in addition to Audubon and Rungius, Frederic Remington, George Catlin and Charlie Russell.

There also is a reproduction of wildlife artist John Clymer's studio, designed from photographs of the original. The installation also includes more than 200 artifacts from Clymer's original studio - canvases, paints, brushes, furs, furniture, skins and saddles. As with Audubon, Clymer, a native of Washington state and an illustrator by training, painted meticulously researched, painstakingly detailed animals in historically correct, geographically accurate settings.

It's an unusual museum, granted, but a thoroughly engaging one.


MUSEUM HOURS - The National Wildlife Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

ADMISSION - Adults pay $4; students and seniors, $3; families, $10.

INFORMATION - Call (307) 733-5771.