Even though I’m living back in the Washington, DC area, my husband Bob and I still love to be in the West when we can take a break and find the time to get out there. The first time we both traveled to Wyoming over Valentine’s Day in 2004 we fell in love with Jackson Hole. Three years later, I am happy and relieved to report that it has not changed very much. One of our friends who lives in Jackson year around told us that he was worried when the Four Seasons resort was under construction at Teton Village, the complex at the base of the Jackson Hole Resort ski area. He was concerned, like many locals were, that a Four Seasons meant that Jackson would soon morph into another Aspen and become overrun with tourists. But fortunately this has not happened, possibly because Jackson is hard to get to and is a long way from anywhere by car. And although Jackson has an airport, it just isn’t that busy yet, and has at least as much traffic from private jets as from commercial carriers.
While your flight could get delayed due to a surprise visit from Vice President Cheney or one of many other well-known folks who have homes here, Jackson airport is regularly serviced by United, American, and a few other commercial airlines. From Washington via Denver on United it’s not a bad trip. No surprise, as many readers will know, check-in at Dulles was the worst part of the whole journey, requiring an hour and fifteen minutes. Three and half hours to Denver, an hour layover, and an hour and ten minute flight to Jackson later we were there. At Jackson airport you can either rent a car from one of several major companies or better yet, take the local shuttle that stops at nearly all of the hotels and motels in town. Jackson itself is (still) small, and the shuttle covers the territory rapidly, for about $15 per person. Once you’ve settled in, the START city bus is reliable, frequent, and cheap, so you don’t need a rental car here unless you plan to drive out to Yellowstone National Park or to other distant sights. If you’ve just come to ski, don’t bother renting a car - the START bus goes right to the ski area.
Jackson Hole Resort is still a laid-back, western-themed area with really nice staff, and helpful instructors should you choose to take lessons. My husband took a beginning group lesson with a dynamite female instructor who made her charges all feel very comfortable on the six or so green runs that Jackson has to offer. By the end of the afternoon the group could cut, snowplow, and turn fairly easily. A half-day group lesson with lift ticket costs $80 while an all-day private lesson runs a steep $520. The instructors have a good reputation, and we noted that one instructor was teaching a group of blind skiers, which was impressive.
While Bob was at his lesson, I ran off for a while to check out what I could during the remainder of the first day’s afternoon. Up the Apres Vous lift took me to the mountain’s “easy” side, which consists of several lengthy blue runs including Werner, Sundance, Blacktail, and others. Several of these are not groomed, transforming them into black-diamond-like moguled runs. After descending from this area, the center of the mountain features the Bridger Gondola, which rapidly whisks skiers to the top of the 9,095 Gondola Summit, which leads directly to more challenging blue runs such as Gros Ventre, or if you like, you can take Amphitheatre to the Thunder Quad Chair. This lift takes you to Jackson’s well-known bowls such as Laramie, Cheyenne, and Bernie’s. These make for tough skiing and I did not try them out as I am way out of practice these days, and my sea-level lungs kept reminding me not to push it too hard. But these are still not the hardest runs Jackson Hole has to offer. Way up top along the Rendevous Mountain ridge accessed via the East Ridge double chair (the very top sits at 10,450 feet) or hiking, are many other double black expert-only chutes. Some of these areas were closed during our visit, in part due to a lack of snow this year.
Besides skiing, Jackson is snowboard friendly with a freestyle terrain park and halfpipe area near the base. Telemarkers are frequent visitors, too, seeking hard-to-get-to terrain in the resort’s powdery bowls. For us, even more fun was the Saddlehorn Nordic Center, which we checked out on our second day at Jackson. The Nordic Center is conveniently located right next to Teton Village, and only costs $12 for a day pass. Equipment rentals are available, too. The Nordic area is not huge -; a few kilometers of trails that wind and loop around -; but it is big enough to get a great workout amidst some stunning scenery. We were nearly the only people on the Nordic course: what a treat of blissful solitude! The only other activity going on out here were a couple of dogsleds whisking by - yet another thing visitors can choose to do here.
Our third day was literally a wash, as it started to rain on the mountain in the mid-afternoon, and everyone was soaked. It was too warm for snow, and bare patches began to appear on the bottom of the lower slopes. We called it a day and headed back to town: here there are a variety of things to do when you’re not on the slopes. Snowmobile tours are available, as well as snowshoeing tours, and heaps of other outdoor activities can be found. Jackson has numerous good restaurants ranging from simple burgers - try Billy’s Burgers for cheap eats and campy, kid-friendly entertainment - to top-notch Zagat-rated cuisine. The same goes for accommodations, where houses are available for rent and hotels and motels run the gamut from simple to luxurious. One particularly nice hotel, the Rusty Parrot Lodge, deserves its AAA 4 stars. If you can’t afford to stay here, splurge on its Wild Sage restaurant one night, which makes the food at The Inn at Little Washington look like Dennys (plus it’s a lot less expensive), and try to get an affordable internet hotel rate at the Homewood Suites (a Hilton brand hotel with kitchenettes and gas fireplaces in rooms), located right around the corner from the Rusty Parrot.
One of the most refreshing things about Jackson is that it still feels like a small, western town and doesn’t sport much of a “scene.” A lot of celebrities live here, but this is not obvious at all. People are exceedingly nice and helpful, and not showy. The slow pace is a plus although as with anywhere, some growth at Jackson Hole is inevitable. A new aerial tram (the replacement for an older one) will be operational by 2008, running from Teton Village Base to the top of Rendevous Mountain. There is some new construction around the town, and the airport runway is supposed to be extended in the near future. So far, though, construction of new hotels at Teton Village seems pretty slow and regulated, and no high-rises have gone up in the town of Jackson yet.
Also FYI, there is another, smaller ski area, Snow King, located right in the town of Jackson. Snow King was the first ski area in town. It is small but steep, with 60% advanced runs. It is frequented by locals and area ski teams, but can still be a bargain for visitors with its low-priced lift tickets and convenience to town. The Snow King complex also features tubing and an ice rink, which are very popular with kids.
Jackson Hole Resort is a much bigger and very challenging area, with 50 percent expert runs, 40 percent intermediate, and 10 percent beginner. The beginner area is larger than you might imagine, because Jackson Hole itself is quite large. The ski area has a vertical drop of 4,139 feet (the web site claims this is the greatest continuous rise in U.S). Uphill capacity is 15,423 skiers per hour. And when completely open, Jackson Hole’s open backcountry gate system accesses over 3,000 total acres.
Dotted across the mountain are various cafes and restaurants, and one of my favorite things about the entire area are the typically short lift lines. Admittedly we visited during a somewhat “off” weekend and the snow was not in the best condition, but during our 2004 visit we saw short lift lines too. Finally, like many Western U.S. ski areas, the vistas are lovely. Jackson is located inside the Grand Teton National Forest and is wonderful for wildlife viewing: you can frequently see elk, moose, and big coyotes either in the forests or even near the roadways.
A regular season adult full day lift ticket at Jackson Hole is $72, while a half day is $54 beginning at 12:30 pm. All of their seasonal rates and much more information may be found on their web site at www.jacksonhole.com. It is worth a trip out here from the East Coast, especially if you are looking for a quiet, relaxing vacation, clean air, and an escape from the congestion and traffic of Washington. Jackson is a great destination for families as well as singles because of the variety of things to do, and the variety in prices. In Jackson Hole there is something for everyone’s tastes: go for a week if you want to do it all.
Anne Fitzpatrick has returned to Washington, DC area from New Mexico but gets back out West when she can. By day she works as an international science and technology policy researcher and analyst.