Let’s get something cleared up right now. Jackson Hole is the 48-mile long, 15-mile wide valley in which the largest town is Jackson. Jackson Hole is home to the country’s largest free-roaming buffalo herd. Jackson is home to an elk-antler-arched Town Square and the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. Other towns in Jackson Hole are Wilson, Moose, Kelly, Teton Village, and Moran. Grand Teton National Park is in Jackson Hole.
Geography lesson out of the way, it’s time to get wild…and western. Wonderfully isolated in the northwest corner of Wyoming, Jackson Hole is both. In winter, it is also a great ski vacation. But no longer is a ski vacation here just about skiing as it was as recently as ten years ago.
5…Take a two-horse open sleigh
At the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge, wedged between Jackson and the southern border of Grand Teton National Park, sleighs pulled by 2,000-pound Belgian and Percheron draft horses get much closer to thousands of wintering elk than is possible by foot. Wrapped in nothing more than a blanket, you’re literally surrounded by them, but perfectly safe. The secret? These elk are accustomed to the sleighs, which have been visiting the herd for nearly 100 years, and don’t see them as a threat.
Out at Teton Village, Yellowstone Outfitters has teamed up with Gamefish restaurant to offer a sleigh ride and dinner package. The 40-minute ride on a wooden sleigh starts in Teton Village and passes onto the historic Snake River Ranch before looping back. Marvel at the stars while learning the history of one of the valley’s oldest ranches and Grand Teton National Park and then walk over to Gamefish for elk hanger steak raviolis, venison osso bucco, and cedar smoked salmon. Have a wanna-be princess in the family? Ask Yellowstone Outfitters for the Cinderella sleigh.
Nearly three million people visit Grand Teton National Park annually, but only about 30,000 of them come between December and April. Yes, the main road through the park is mostly closed to vehicle traffic, but that just means that there are more places to snowshoe and cross country ski and fewer cars to worry about while you do. It’s not like the mountains disappear. Another winter plus is wildlife that is easier to see – aside from the bears, who are in pseudo-hibernation.
Starting at the end of Dec., rangers help visitors spot wildlife as well as some of the historic structures in the park on two-hour long snowshoe hikes starting from the Craig Thomas Discovery and Visitor Center daily at 1:30 at the park’s southern entrance at Moose. Appropriate for novice and experienced snowshoers alike, the hikes aren’t just about what you see – perhaps a moose or two or even a wolf if you’re lucky – but also about the experience. The park wants you to feel like you’re taking a step back in time.
To help create the feeling of an old-timey experience, the snowshoes the park hands out as part of the hike’s $5 cost date mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Don’t expect streamlined plastic or aluminum platforms; these are four-foot tall, racquet-shaped wood and rawhide lace-ups. Some of the snowshoes made it to the park via the famous 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division of the U.S. Army activated during WWII to give troops special training in mountain skills such as snowshoeing and skiing. During the summer, park staff painstakingly repair these, soaking rawhide strips in water until they're malleable enough to be restrung where needed.
Jackson Hole is pretty chichi these days. Not so much as Aspen, but enough that it’s just as cosmopolitan as it is cowboy. Taste the valley’s New West flavor at Westbank Grill in the Four Seasons in Teton Village. The valley’s premiere steakhouse – and there’s tough competition as Wyomingites know their meat – Westbank serves only local and regionally produced meats alongside sustainably harvested seafood. The 20-ounce dry-aged, bone-in buffalo rib-eye causes you to wonder why anyone bothers with beef.
For Old West flavor, it’s got to be the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. The Cowboy’s neon bucking bronco sign lords over downtown Jackson like a Sheriff over a cornered outlaw. Inside, real cowboys share pool tables and a dance floor with visitors. In winter, the latter definitely dominates, although not all that many work up the courage to hop off their saddle-topped bar stools, which are much more comfortable than you’d think.
Right out the Cowboy’s front door, Jackson’s Town Square might as well be the featured photo when you search Wikipedia for the word “western.” Each corner is arched by a 10-foot wide, 13-foot tall span of elk antlers collected from the nearby National Elk Refuge. Don’t feel bad if you enjoy this attraction. No elk were harmed to make the arches; every winter male elk shed their antlers naturally. FYI, while Jackson’s elk antler arches are the state’s most famous, they are not the state’s largest. That honor goes to Afton’s main-street-spanning arch. It’s an impressive 75 feet wide and 18 feet tall. Afton is an hour south of Jackson.
2…Recover and refuel
From the top of East Gros Ventre Butte (Amangani and Spring Creek) to Teton Village (Snake River Lodge and Spa, Shooting Star, Chill Spa, Four Seasons Spa), opportunities for pampering abound. At the 11,600-square foot Four Seasons Spa, each of the 16 treatment rooms has its own fireplace. And deep soaking tub. Getting an 80-minute Peak Performance treatment – part therapeutic massage and part assisted stretching – or High Altitude Adjuster facial is just a bonus. Chill has a rooftop hot tub. Amangani has a Zen vibe – as all Aman Resorts do – that inspires relaxation as soon as you walk through the front door.
Man cannot recover on massages and facials alone. The interior at Blu Kitchen looks like a Washington D.C. metro station, but there’s nothing industrial about the food, from the seasonally-changing hand-patted burger with truffled fries to the nightly sashimi special. Snake River Grill has been doing fine dining longer than most anywhere else in the valley. Its chorizo stuffed, bacon-wrapped medjool dates followed by the crispy pork shank is perhaps the best way to warm up after a day of skiing, especially if you ask for a table near the fireplace.
1…Carve some turns
At the southern end of the Teton Range in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is considered as one of best places for extreme skiers on the continent. But over the last decade the resort, the heart of the mock-Tyrolean Teton Village, has worked hard to expand upon this reputation, and it’s worked.
The continent’s first slopeside Four Seasons Resort opened here in 2003, and in December 2008 the resort opened a $32 million, 100-passenger tram that whisks skiers up over 4,000 feet in eight minutes. There’s a also gondola that brings 2,000 skiers an hour up to a wonderland of intermediate terrain and the exceptional Couloir restaurant.
On a much smaller scale, Snow King Resort looms over downtown Jackson. The valley’s first ski resort – opened in 1939 -- the King can’t compare to JHMR in terms of acreage, amenities, or vertical, but its lift tickets start at $20 and it has night skiing Tues. – Sat.