Given the vagaries of winter weather, the best ski plan may involve a mountain destination with diversity.
That was the thinking that led our family to Jackson, aka Jackson Hole, last winter.
In western Wyoming, Jackson offers not just legendary skiing and snowboarding, but access to several national parks, including Yellowstone and Grand Teton (the airport resides within the latter) and a lively town that quasi-masks its sophistication behind saddle-shaped bar stools and wooden sidewalks.
Seeking more than skiing alone, we put Jackson to a series of tests: town or ski village? Ski or snowboard? Snow or no snow?
Town vs. mountain
Visiting Jackson in winter inevitably involves a choice: Stay at Teton Village, the ski area base, which is well equipped with ski-in, ski-out hotels, and then drive to town when the urge strikes; or stay in Jackson, a lively town filled with shops and restaurants, while driving the 12 miles daily to the ski area.
Eager to ski, we started out in Teton Village at the Hotel Terra (rooms from $209), ideally located at the base but out of the fray of the busy day lodge. A so-called ski valet took our skis and stowed them nightly, allowing us to pick them up each day and easily kick over to the lifts. Outside, a skating rink and a children’s snow village made the hotel a great family choice. Among apres-ski attractions, the raucous Mangy Moose bar faces the hotel. Nearby, the sleek Old Yellowstone Garage restaurant drew lively crowds of Argentines and Australians, as well as Americans.
The trade-off for all this convenience: driving to town for more diversions and returning in the icy dark. That compelled us to relocate to Jackson’s Anvil Hotel (rooms from $135). This stylish overhaul of a former motel offered ample rooms, free spiked hot chocolate around the potbellied stove, and a pedestrian-friendly locale. We did more equipment hauling this way, but at least our commutes were in daylight.
When it comes to dining, Jackson, a town of roughly 10,500, overachieves for its size, offering an array of choices, from authentic Lebanese at Figs to inventive sashimi at King Sushi. Glorietta Trattoria used the kitchen’s massive wood fire and the genuine welcome of its staff to create one the warmest dining rooms in town, serving hearty pastas and truffle honey chicken.
Spending evenings curling at the rink at Snake River Brewing confirmed our choice: town.
Expert vs. beginner
Our crew of intermediate and expert skiers arrived to decent conditions and immediately embraced Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (lift tickets from $94). Half of the runs on its 2,500 acres are designated expert, while 40 percent are intermediate — a sign that these Tetons are formidable.
Whether expert or beginner, it’s a Jackson Hole rite to take the packed 100-passenger tram 2.4 miles, or 4,139 vertical feet, to the top of blustery Rendezvous Peak, the jumping-off point for backcountry skiing. The conductor engaged in a call-and-response with riders heading to out-of-bounds terrain, reminding them of safety precautions.
“If you don’t know?” he cried.
“Don’t go!” skiers bellowed back.
The rest of us, including tourists in street shoes and more mortal skiers, got off the tram and warmed up over waffles at Corbet’s Cabin, elevation 10,450 feet. Mostly, we went up to be able to take the uncrowded ride down, allowing great views of Corbet’s Couloir, the ski area’s trickiest terrain, a narrow, nearly vertical chute and a double-black descent. It’s a good place to learn the definition of “yard sale” (losing all your gear) and “tomahawk” (cartwheeling).
The Jackson Hole ski groomers were doing their best to move snow around overnight, re-furrowing areas that were skied bald. But by the second snow-free day, I decided to try the beginner area with a snowboard lesson.
“Jackson Hole is the kind of mountain that needs snow,” said one instructor, riding the lift. “It’s a challenging mountain, and the more snow there is, the more forgiving it is.”
On paper, Jackson Hole has little to offer beginners, with just 10 percent of terrain devoted to them. I joined the tots learning pizza-wedge stops on the magic carpet, strapped my board on goofy (or left foot forward) and proceeded to have my most satisfying and quad-taxing day. By the afternoon, I was able to navigate the Teewinot chairlift to higher green runs and make it down to report that Jackson Hole, despite its expert reputation, treats beginners just fine.
This season, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is debuting Solitude Station, a new on-mountain learning center with dining and retail that’s poised to make the resort more beginner-friendly (see story on this page).
Slopes vs. surroundings
By Day 3, with no snow in the forecast, we set out to sample Jackson’s other-than-vertical attractions, starting at the National Elk Refuge.
The thousands of elk that live in the vast 24,700 acres of the refuge cluster in a valley just outside of town each winter, offering visitors close contact with the animals. A wrangler in chaps boarded about 15 of us onto a wagon well stocked with blankets for a sleigh ride to see them. The western safari rewarded us for sitting still with mostly playful displays of dominance, as the bulls locked their majestic racks and began mock fighting (things get serious during rut season).
Overlooking the refuge, the National Museum of Wildlife Art captures the wilds in realist, impressionist and modernist moods. It also illustrates humanity’s inherent love of nature from Native American stone sculptures of birds that date to 2500 B.C. to the grand landscapes painted by Thomas Moran — works of art that helped persuade Congress in 1872 to establish the first national park in Yellowstone.
Arguably the park’s most magical season, winter cloaks Yellowstone in downy snow, and its geyser eruptions frost the trees. Getting there and back is an all-day affair; check out the nonprofit Wildlife Expeditions of Teton Science School. In the closer Grand Teton National Park, Hole Hiking Experience guides snowshoe tours.
In the end, we didn’t have to choose between the slopes and the surroundings. Mother Nature delivered, socking in Jackson with a two-day storm, granting us a final powder day and a crack at some black runs.
We also endured another ski-country staple: the flight delay on departure, a small and welcome price to pay.