Skiing in the lap of nature in Jackson Hole
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Jackson, Wyoming, is a rarity among the world’s great ski towns because it is one of the few that is busier in summer than winter. But this is hardly the only thing that sets Jackson apart; it is rare in a lot of other enticing ways. It is a place where every stereotypical image of the American Wild West comes to life, from the arches in the town square made of elk antlers to the bar stools in the famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, topped with saddles. You might well see a bison on your short trip from the airport to the town and you will certainly see an elk. But beneath this romantic Butch Cassidy veneer, it is also one of the wealthiest enclaves in the US, where second home owners run the gamut from movie stars (Harrison Ford) to superstar athletes (Tiger Woods) and even former vice-presidents (Dick Cheney). There is no shortage of luxury accommodations, excellent dining, retail therapy and spas along with all the outdoor recreation. It’s posh without any pretence, the kind of place where even at the slopeside Four Seasons resort, one of only three Forbes five-star ski hotels in the nation, they serve beer in cowboy boot shaped pint glasses.
For the skier, the beauty of Jackson’s unique features is that you can combine a world class ski vacation with a chance to visit these stunning parks when they are far less crowded. There is no compromise of quality in this dream trip—last year, readers of the US’s biggest skiing publication, Ski Magazine, voted Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the single best ski area in North America. Jackson Hole’s nickname is The Big One, and it lives up to its grandiose billing, with the highest vertical of any US ski mountain, and equally impressive girth, with a broad face stretching from one side to the other as far as the eye can see. Jackson has relatively few trees, and compared with many resorts, much more of its impressive acreage is skiable, with one powder-filled bowl after the next, spanning an awesome 2,500 skiable acres. If that’s not enough, the resort is flanked by plenty more skiing through a unique partnership with the National Forest Service. Jackson was the first mountain in the country to institute this, and backcountry access gates in its border fence are opened when snow conditions are deemed safe enough to allow backcountry skiing. This effectively more than doubles the amount of terrain, but it is a good idea to hire a guide if you venture out of the gates, since there is no avalanche control or patrol. Jackson is best known for its extreme and beyond expert terrain, because it has some of the most challenging runs in the world, but this can overshadow the fact that it also has plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain and, in recent years, has spent million on earthmoving, new lifts and grooming equipment to expand its intermediate offerings. It is also renowned for having one of the best ski schools in America, and despite its daunting reputation, is a fabulous place to learn to ski. Between the pistes, the parks and other area activities, it’s easy to spend two weeks around Jackson. It is also surprisingly easy to get to. The airport is very close to town and accommodates full-sized jets, with lots of connecting service from Denver, as well as non-stops from 12 other US gateways, including Atlanta, Chicago, Minneapolis, Washington DC and Newark on Delta, United and America Airlines.
Week One: Skiing or snowboarding Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
Stay: The top choice for luxury accommodations is the Four Seasons Resort, Jackson, which sits slopeside next to both the gondola and Jackson’s famous 100-passenger tram, which climbs non-stop to the highest spot on the ski resort, rising about 1,400m.
In addition to a great location and ski-in/ski-out convenience, the resort has a full-service state of the art ski concierge area, Basecamp, where equipment is stored, boots dried on heaters overnight, skis set out on the snow for guests, and attendants will even help you take your boots on and off. Special concierges here can provide everything from rental equipment to lift tickets to booking lessons. The resort has a topnotch spa and wide array of dining options, including the fun Handlebar gastro-pub, the perfect spot for après ski snacks and drinks, with live music on weekends. White glove service includes touches like poolside (heated!) cocktail service. If the Four Seasons is booked, there are two other luxury hotels located at the base of the mountain with equally good locations. The Teton Mountain Lodge is home to the excellent Solitude Spa and Spur, an upscale western-style restaurant using local ingredients that is worth eating at even if you don’t stay here. The same is true for Il Villaggio Osteria in the Hotel Terra next door, easily Jackson’s best Italian eatery, and the Terra also has a full service spa.
Ski: The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Ski School offers a wide variety of lesson options. Private instructors are available for 1-5 skiers for half day (4 hours) or full day (7.5 hours). Learn to Turn and Learn to Ride packages are especially for first-time skiers and snowboarders, including both instruction and equipment. Two-day True Impact clinics are for intermediate and advanced skiers looking to quickly make a leap in ability and include video analysis.
Advanced skiers can hire one of the Backcountry Guides, a special subset of the ski school, for a tram-served excursion into the adjacent backcountry using the National Forest Service access gates. Or skip the resort altogether one day and opt for a decadent heli-skiing trip in the nearby Snake River Range with long established operator High Mountain Heli-Skiing.
Other activities: Take a one-hour horse drawn sleigh tour through thousands of elk wintering at the National Elk Refuge, just outside of town. Iditarod Sled Dog Tours does half- and full-day dogsledding adventures in nearby Bridger Teton National Forest, a fun must for anyone who hasn’t tried the sport. Exum Mountain Guides is the oldest and most acclaimed mountaineering school in the US, and they operate the beginner-focused Exum Ice Park in the town of Jackson. It’s like a gym climbing wall, but for learning to ice climb, with half- or full-day instruction and equipment packages.
Week two: Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks
Days 1-2: Decamp to the luxurious and escapist Amangani Resort, with just 40 lavish suites set in a private valley surrounded by high peaks near the entrance to Grand Teton National Park. Local outfitter Hole Hiking Experience leads 2-hour, half-day and three-quarter-day excursions in the Park on Nordic skis or snowshoes, which require no prior experience. For advanced alpine skiers, Exum Mountain Guides offers full-day privately guided backcountry trips in the Park using Alpine Touring or randonee skis.
Days 3-5: Check into the Old Faithful Snow Lodge, one of just two lodges within Yellowstone National Park open in winter. Besides proximity to the famous Old Faithful geyser, the Lodge is surrounded by user-friendly snowshoe and Nordic ski trails, and is the epicentre of the park’s snow-coach tours, using buses retrofitted with treads to explore the snow covered wilderness in winter. Routes include a 4-hour trip to Fire Hole Basin with geothermal activity; a four-and-a-half hour wildlife viewing excursion along the Madison River; a wildlife safari for avid photographers; and several others.
Days 6-7: Move to the other end of the Park and the Mammoth Hot Springs and Cabins, also within Yellowstone. This is a great spot for exploring the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by snow-coach. Take one day for a guided snowmobile tour. All snow-coach and snowmobile tours are operated by the two lodges.
Larry Olmsted is a golf and travel writer, and a columnist for Forbes and USA Today.