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As the gateway to both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Jackson, Wyo., is coming off a record tourism summer, as travelers eagerly celebrated the centennial of America’s National Park Service. But just down the road another milestone took place, as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR), arguably the world’s top independent, family-owned ski resort, turned 50, complete with fireworks during a celebratory weekend in March.
The semicentennial caps years of aggressive reinvestment and improvement at the resort, in town, and throughout the surrounding area. As Jackson Hole, long nicknamed “The Big One,” enters its second half century, both the resort and its namesake town are better positioned than ever before to welcome winter (and summer) tourists.
“The Big One” refers to both the immensity of terrain and the highest vertical drop of any ski resort in the United States, over 4,100 feet. While there is plenty of skiing for every ability — and in fact it is a surprisingly good place for first-timers to learn — the breadth, height, rugged exposed vertical cliff bands and many extreme movies filmed here have always given Jackson a rarefied air as a daunting expert mountain. One infamously steep chute, the double black diamond Corbet’s Couloir, is probably the best-known expert trail in skiing, a pilgrimage for daredevils.
Early on, the resort’s founder built a loyal but limited following by carving out a reputation for authenticity and challenge. But 25 years in, the operation had yet to turn the corner, and the original owner sold out. Wyoming’s Kemmerer family bought JHMR in 1992 and quickly kicked off decades of investment. The rest of the region followed suit, and all around the valley, new hotels, restaurants and businesses sprang up, infrastructure has been upgraded, and both Jackson and Jackson Hole have evolved into a world-class winter destination — yet there is still a distinctly mom-and-pop feel to the resort.
In the 20 years since, the owners have spent more than $150 million, added six new chairlifts, two gondolas, and completely replaced “The Red Sled,” the iconic aerial tram that soars from base to peak. But activity has accelerated recently, with annual on-mountain improvements averaging over $11 million — and climbing. In 2012, JHMR redeveloped Casper Bowl into a new intermediate experience, a major project that included regrading slopes, tree removal and another high-speed detachable quad chair, all to woo less-advanced visitors with groomed corduroy cruisers. Last winter saw a new chairlift and on-mountain restaurant, Piste Mountain Bistro.
For this season, the big addition is the new $10 million Sweetwater Gondola. Set between the Bridger Gondola and Teewinot chair, Sweetwater is the first phase of a dramatic expansion of the ski school. In the short term it will significantly increase capacity out of the base area, and will later access a new dedicated teaching area and facility.
Teton Village is the ski resort’s base area, where those seeking ski-in/ski-out lodging and easy access to the slopes choose to stay. While it has far less to offer in terms of lodging, dining and shopping than the actual town of Jackson, choices have grown significantly in recent years and it has evolved into more of a true village.
“Teton Village has essentially become a year-round destination,” said Dr. Kathryn Noyes, an avid skier and physician who first came to Jackson post-college to teach skiing in 2001, then returned after her residency to join a practice in town. Noyes was married at the top of the gondola, and since her first season, she has seen lots of changes on and off the slopes that have helped make the area more appealing to visitors. “It’s now a popular place in the summer with easy access to the tram and hikes in Grand Teton National Park. There are some great mountain bike trails at the base of the mountain, a new ropes course, and plenty of playground space for kiddos.”
Teton Village is home to the most luxurious area hotels, including the Four Seasons Jackson, one of only three Forbes 5-Star ski-in/out hotels in the nation. It’s one of four slopeside hotels here with extensive spas and full-service restaurants and bars.
“Food is also a real attraction,” said Noyes. “Some of my favorite restaurants are now in Teton Village: Teton Thai, Osteria and the Spur. You can also grab a drink for happy hour at the top of the gondola or go big at Couloir or Piste, the resort’s newest high-altitude restaurant.” The Village is also home to the iconic Mangy Moose, a base area bar and grill that is considered one of North America’s classic après ski watering holes.
Jackson itself, or “Town” as it is known, is 12 miles from the ski resort and Teton Village, and the biggest choice faced by winter visitors is where to stay: the Village gives easy access to lifts and trails, but Town has more of everything tourists seek out, especially charm. The layout radiates out from the central town square, famously featuring welcoming entry arches made of shed elk antlers. It’s not a hard commute, thanks to a user-friendly bus system, while many hotels also operate their own complimentary shuttles. Jackson has Old West flair, history, and is chock full of art galleries, unique retail shops, tour operators and plenty of hotels and restaurants.
Some of the more famous “cowboy chic” must-visits include the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, where barstools are topped with saddles, and the Silver Dollar Bar, where the drinking surface is inlaid with over a thousand uncirculated 1921 Morgan silver dollar coins. The Silver Dollar Bar is located within the 4-Diamond Wort Hotel, the oldest lodging in Jackson and a historic landmark that has just renovated all rooms and upgraded its suites. Just down the street, the Town got its first entirely new upscale lodging in years, the two-seasons-old Hotel Jackson, a sleek boutique property that is Jackson’s first LEED-certified lodging.
“I moved to Jackson in 1996 and have seen the area grow tremendously since I first arrived,” said Gavin Fine, a chef who now owns several popular area restaurants in Town and Teton Village, including the hot new tapas and wine bar, Bin 22. “Besides the significant upgrades Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has invested in, which have improved on-mountain dining options and increased intermediate terrain, the entire valley’s offerings have grown … While we’ve grown, a great deal of time and attention has been spent maintaining Jackson’s authenticity, which I believe is clear to anyone who comes here.”
Jackson has also proven increasingly popular with wealthy second-home owners, as a proliferation of upscale golf communities has grown around the region. Longtime resident and former vice president Dick Cheney was joined by buyers ranging from financier Charles Schwab to golfer Tiger Woods — many of whom also came for the region’s famed fly fishing, available summer and winter.
For non-skiers, there are all sorts of winter activities, including “snowcoach” tours of Yellowstone and Old Faithful when the park is much less crowded. Snowmobiling is incredibly popular, with numerous tour operators and rentals. Another popular activity is a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge, winter home to thousands of elk, which you can view up close. One of the most popular cultural attractions is the National Museum of Wildlife Art, just outside downtown.
Nordic skiing is offered in several places, including guided trips into Grand Teton National Park. For beginners, Jackson even has its own in-town smaller ski resort, Snow King, where many locals learn. More advanced skiers and snowboarders can sample the vast backcountry offerings with expert guides from the ski resort or from the nation’s oldest alpine school, renowned Exum Mountaineering, which also offers beginner ice-climbing sessions on a purpose-built climbing wall in Town. Sno-cat ski tours are offered at Grand Targhee ski resort, an hour away, while Jackson is one of the few resorts in the Lower 48 with an onsite heli-skiing day operation, High Mountain Heli.
Even the airport — the nation’s only commercial one within a national park — has risen on the tides of the area’s growth. Two years ago it completed a $30 million renovation and expansion that added new long-haul non-stop flights, from as far off as from New York, Los Angeles and Houston. One of the most accessible and user friendly airports in skiing — it is just 8 miles from Town — it is also more reliable, landing larger planes less affected by mountain weather.
Longtime resort president Jerry Blann praises the vision that’s guided the resort’s expansion. “What we’re most proud of is that we’ve (invested) in a manner that’s kept the spirit of Jackson Hole the way it’s always been … We will never have one million skier days, our guest experience will not become industrial, and we will never experience the sort of sprawl you see in other ski destinations. Jackson will remain wild and adventurous and true to our character.”
If you go
Getting there: American, Delta and United all serve the Jackson airport with non-stops from major cities on both coasts and the Midwest, as well as frequent service via Denver and Salt Lake City. Salt Lake is less than five hours by car. The town of Jackson is just 8 miles from the Jackson Airport, and Teton Village is 12 miles further with numerous shuttles, taxis and rental cars available. Low-cost public bus service connects Jackson with Jackson Hole Mountain resort and Teton Village, while many hotels operate ski resort shuttles for guests.
Lodging: Located right at the base of the Jackson Hole Mountain ski resort, Teton Village is home to the region’s most luxurious hotels, including the Four Seasons Jackson (fourseasons.com/jacksonhole), Hotel Terra (hotelterrajacksonhole.com), Teton Mountain Lodge (tetonlodge.com) and Snake River Lodge (snakeriverlodge.com). The ski resort also offers an assortment of ski-in/ski-out rental homes and condos in a variety of sizes and prices, many packaged with lift tickets through its Jackson Hole Resort Lodging (jhrl.com).
The town of Jackson also has extensive lodging in a wider range of hotels, motels and inns. Upscale choices include the Wort Hotel (worthotel.com), Hotel Jackson (hoteljackson.com) and Rusty Parrott (rustyparrot.com). More affordable options include the Wyoming Inn (wyominginn.com) and Virginian Lodge (virginianlodge.com), and there are a number of national chains including Hampton Inn, Motel 6, Quality Inn, Homewood Suites (Hilton) and more. The Snow King Hotel at the base of the smaller town ski area is a popular mix of value and ski-in/out convenience, especially for families.
Dining: In Jackson, top-rated eateries are the upscale Snake River Grill and Rendezvous Bistro. Notable more affordable options include Bin 22 and Pinky G’s Pizzeria. In Teton Village, fine dining choices include Couloir atop the gondola at the ski resort, Il Villaggio Osteria in the Hotel Terra, and Westbank Grill in the Four Seasons Hotel. More affordable options include Teton Thai, the Mangy Moose and Q Roadhouse (barbecue).