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With a unique weather system that creates the mythical Jackson powder, this vast valley in Wyoming is not only a ski and snowboarding mecca, it’s also one of the USA’s greatest winter wildlife safari destinations.
Bordering both Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, visitors are instantly awed by the majestic beauty of Jackson Hole – a vast, flat plain dotted with bison, moose, buffalo, elk, and the occasional bear. Fenced in by peaks soaring 1mi (1.6km) up from the valley floor, it’s also lorded over by the 13,775ft (4,199m) Grand Teton mountain. Savvy businesses have made the most of the natural social distancing that the great outdoors offers, with stringent anti-coronavirus measures to make sure that all this wilderness exploration comes with great peace of mind. But, of course, it’s always worth double-checking current travel measures before planning your trip.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, with its unique terrain and easily accessible back-country skiing, is the superstar of the valley. For a quieter scene, insiders head to the other side of the Tetons to ski the Grand Targhee Resort, which, thanks to its western-facing slopes, is a giant powder cache with 500in (1,270cm) a year. When the action ends on the big slopes, head to the more intimate Snow King Mountain, loved by locals and generations of Olympians who cut their teeth on the Exhibition run, which stays open well after the sun goes down, thanks to an extensive floodlight system. This season, make lift ticket reservations to all three resorts in advance, as safe social-distancing guidelines are in effect to prevent the spread of coronavirus, meaning smaller crowds and shorter lines.
Few sights are more endemic to the area than the herds of moose and elk that wander through the steam of the geysers and hot springs, framed by jagged peaks that soar into cobalt-blue winter skies. You can catch this and other great sights, while also getting vigorous exercise, by joining one of the daily snowshoeing expeditions into Grand Teton or Yellowstone national parks. If you prefer to speed things up, join a snowmobile expedition and let a naturalist show you the winter habitats of moose, fox, coyote and buffalo, among other animals lurking in the far reaches of the parks. Full- and half-day trips are available, with riders of all experience levels welcome. The snowmobiles have heated grips, and warm clothes, food and drinks are provided, so these expeditions are as comfortable as exploration gets.
Jackson Hole is classic sleigh-riding country. Cowhands from the Double H Bar ranch will accompany you for an hour-long horse-pulled sleigh-ride through the stunning herd of up to 7,000 elk that migrate to the National Elk Refuge every winter. If you want to see this dramatic winterscape from above, snuggle onto a sled at Spring Creek Ranch for a glide along the ridge of East Gros Ventre Butte – 1,000ft (305m) directly above the refuge – for one of the continent’s most unforgettable views.
Sitting on a hillside overlooking the National Elk Refuge is the renowned National Museum of Wildlife Art, an impressive building modelled on the ruins of a Scottish castle. Here you will find exquisite depictions of the wilderness, including a gorgeous outdoor sculpture walk, where you can compare dramatic animal installations with the real version wandering around below.
The whole valley bubbles with underground thermal activity that makes for exotic swimming holes, but the pool-sized Granite Hot Springs, southeast of Jackson, is one of the most comfortable, thanks to its convenient wooden decks and changing facilities. During winter the springs are accessible via easily rentable fat-tire bikes, snowmobiles and cross-country skis. Or, for a unique adventure, join one of the daily sled-dog tours, where you’ll learn to glide through the pristine wilderness and still have plenty of time for a hot soak.
The Cache Creek trail network was named one of the top 10 fat bike areas in the US by Singletracks magazine for good reason. These regularly groomed trails, some of which are within minutes of Teton Mountain Bike outfitters in downtown Jackson, will take you deep into the wilderness of forests, meadows and epic panoramas behind Snow King Mountain. The trails provide loops for every level of biker. Ride the main road up Cache Creek and zip around the front trails such as Sidewalk and Hagen. Or, an hour’s drive north will bring you to Turpin Meadow Ranch, where bikers can explore the miles of fat biking and Nordic trails.
Those tantalising mountains surrounding you are meant to be explored, even in winter, and Exum Guides are ready to lead you with one-day courses in alpine skills, back-country survival and off-piste skiing and snowboarding. If you’re feeling ambitious, Exum offers extraordinary customised expeditions into the heights, including the chance to ski down Grand Teton itself. For wildlife encounters, head to the Elk Refuge Road for glimpses of majestic bighorn sheep, or Yellowstone to see wolves in their natural habitats.
There are so many outdoor winter activities to enjoy in either Grand Teton or Yellowstone. At Grand Teton you can Nordic ski or snowshoe to Taggart Lake and Phelps Lake, while some of the most popular routes in Yellowstone are Bunsen Peak, Mt Washburn and Uncle Tom’s Trail. Yellowstone has a number of natural wonders to see, including the Old Faithful geyser, and a trio of waterfalls, the lowest of which is named Artist’s Point due to its inspirational light and beauty. When the weather turns warmer you can take a scenic raft trip along the Snake River in Grand Teton National Park, trek through a peaceful wood area to Leigh Lake or take a short hike to Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, go horseback riding, fishing, or simply relax with a picnic and a dip at Colter Bay Swim Beach.
Your day in the outdoors is done; time to celebrate western style. Slide up to a saddle bar stool at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, the bucking bronco of Jackson Hole’s nightlife since 1937, for a bottle of the local stuff or a mug of the signature fire cider made of whisky, cider and cinnamon. Here you’ll find yourself amid knobbled pine beams and Wild West artefacts, including a stuffed grizzly killed barehand by local legend C Dale Petersen. Around the corner, Silver Dollar Bar & Grill, in the Wort Hotel, is another cowpoke scene featuring live fiddling bands, providing the perfect opportunity to work on your cowboy two-step – locals are happy to show you how – beneath curved pink lights of the “cowboy deco” bar. Both places serve delicious western grub, but do check for local travel and socialising restrictions before visiting.
For more information and to plan a trip to this wonderful winter destination, head to visitjacksonhole.com, and be sure to check the Covid restriction information and border status before travelling.