Jackson is a rarity among the world’s great ski destinations in that it is busier in summer than winter, and except for peak holiday periods (Christmas-New Years, Martin Luther King Day and President’s Day), ski season is the off-season. That’s because it is the gateway to the world’s first national park, Yellowstone, and adjacent Grand Teton National Park, both huge summer draws—but with secret winter appeal as well. The beauty of Jackson is that you can combine a world-class ski vacation and a great town with a chance to visit these stunning parks when they are far less crowded.
To clarify, Jackson is the town and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, JHMR or simply Jackson Hole, is the ski resort, and they are 12 miles apart. At the base of the ski resort is Teton Village, a small pedestrianized ski-in/ski-out enclave of a few hotels, numerous bars, restaurants and stores, and lots of rental homes. Because of its easy ski access, Teton Village is busier than town in winter, though many guests still regularly trek into Jackson itself for the far greater variety of dining, shopping, activities, and nightlife. Jackson proper has its own smaller in-town ski resort, Snow King, but this appeals mainly to beginners learning to ski and for its illuminated night skiing.
One of the most Western of Western ski towns, Jackson is a place where every stereotypical image of America’s Wild West comes to life, from the grand arches made of elk antlers framing the town’s square to the wooden sidewalks to the bar stools in the famed Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, topped with saddles. On the short drive from the airport (the only one in the US set within a National Park) to town, you might well see bison and you will certainly see elk. But beneath this romantic Butch Cassidy veneer, it is also one of the wealthiest enclaves in the United States, full of excellent dining, retail therapy, art galleries and spas along with all the world-class outdoor recreation.
While it is one of the nation’s snowier resorts, averaging well over 450 inches the past five years, ski season is a bit shorter than at many competitors, from late November to early April, with a hard-closing date set by the National Forest Service to facilitate elk migration. It can get quite cold here in the heart of winter, especially December and January (average daily high and low of 28-29°F and 6-7°F), but starts to warm up in February (between 33°F and 8°F), while March generally offers the most reliable combination of snow coverage and enjoyable weather (between 44°F and 19°F). Snow is plentiful all winter long, with lots of deep, dry powder.
On and off the slopes, here is how to make the most of a winter visit to Jackson:
Skiing and Snowboarding
Jackson Hole is perennially rated among the world’s best ski resorts, and in 2015 readers of the nation’s biggest ski publication, Ski Magazine voted it the best in all North America. Nicknamed “The Big One,” it lives up to its grandiose billing, with the highest vertical of any U.S. resort (41,39ft), and an equally impressive girth. Because Jackson has relatively few trees, far more of its vast acreage is skiable compared to many other resorts, with one powder filled bowl after the next, spanning over 2,500 skiable acres.
As if that’s not enough, advanced skiers and riders effectively have access to more than double this terrain through the resort’s unique partnership with the National Forest Service. Jackson was the first mountain to install backcountry access gates in its border, opened when snow conditions are deemed safe enough to allow backcountry skiing. There is no avalanche control or ski patrol, and if you want to explore this lift served-wilderness area and are not a very experienced backcountry skier, a guide is highly recommended—the resort has a special dedicated backcountry program.
There is plenty of in-bounds terrain, with 135 trails served by 11 chairlifts, two 8-passenger gondolas and the signature tram, “The Red Sled.” Jackson is famous throughout the ski world and best known for its extreme and beyond-expert terrain, with some of the most challenging runs in the world, and fully half the trails are rated black/expert or higher. While it is a bucket list destination for the most skilled skiers and riders, this often overshadows its extensive and impressive blue/intermediate terrain, which accounts for 40% of the trails. The area in which JHMR is lacking is green/beginner trails, just 10% of the total, but since it has an exceptional ski school, it is still a good place to learn, though the resort really appeals to those who already know how to ski.
Getting Around and Getting Lessons
The mountain has excellent access and is user-friendly. From almost anywhere in Teton Village it is easy to jump on the three main lifts, including the tram. While the tram goes all the way to the peak and is fun to ride, it often has a long line and is necessary only for accessing a tiny amount of advanced expert and extreme terrain. You can get to everything else via the much faster Bridger Gondola, which runs right up to the middle and accesses both sides of the mountain. The third lift at the main base is the brand-new Sweetwater gondola, unveiled this season, which goes from the main base to the Casper lift and the heart of the best intermediate terrain.
Beginners should invest in lessons, either group or private, and are limited entirely to the lower section of the resort around Teton Village. For intermediates the epicenter of the resort is off the Casper Quad Lift, an area known as “True Blue” that underwent millions in recent renovations, including summer regrading of the slopes and improved grooming and snowmaking to create a self-contained, corduroy paradise of blue groomers, undisturbed by the gung-ho experts who call Jackson home. A step up in challenge from this is the Teton Quad Lift, which serves a few longer blue runs, several of the resort’s less aggressive black trails, and glades with generously spaced trees.
For experts, the sky is the limit here. The entire left third (looking up) of the resort is a sea of black and double black runs served by the Sublette chair, including the famous leg burning bump runs of the Hobacks (North, South, Middle). For those tackling steep, narrow chutes for the first time, the runs under the Thunder Quad chair are a good introduction, the shortest chutes on the mountain, including Paint Brush and Tower Three Chutes. The stuff you see in ski action films is higher up, served by the tram: the Expert Chutes, trails on the Critique and Headwall, and most famously of all, Corbet’s Couloir, arguably the best-known expert trail on earth. It’s such a rite of passage that for the rest of your life when you mention visiting Jackson Hole, you will inevitably be asked: “Did you ski Corbet’s?” But you don’t ski it, as much as jump in, with a launch off the lip and freefall of 10-20 feet into a rock-lined chute, and when you finally hit the snow it is on a slope of 40-50°.
Here’s a tip: most people want to ride the tram at least once, and carefully peer over the lip of the trail before wisely turning away, and if you want to do this, do it in the morning when you can pop into Corbet’s Cabin at 10,450 ft for one of the worst kept breakfast secrets in skiing, waffles. Flavors include Nutella and strawberries, peanut butter and bacon, brown sugar and butter, and more. Corbet’s is front and center, but most of the other true cliffs and chutes you see in the movies are in Casper Bowl, which requires a hike, so happily, you won’t end up here my mistake. In general, it’s a good idea to assume the difficulty ratings here are a perceptible step up from those at most other places you have skied.
The world’s first national park, Yellowstone opened its gates in 1872 and is most famous for its Old Faithful geyser, which erupts like clockwork every 91 minutes, shooting superheated water and gas up to 160 ft into the sky. In winter, several operators offer snow-coach tours, using buses retrofitted with treads on half day trips.
Even closer is Grand Teton Park, just outside of the town of Jackson, and local outfitters, including Hole Hiking Experiences, offer two-hour, half day and full day excursions in Grand Teton on Nordic skis or snowshoes, which require no prior experience.
The popularity of AT (Alpine touring) gear has skyrocketed the past few years, and Exum Mountain Guides, the oldest and most acclaimed mountaineering school in the U.S., offers full-day backcountry ski adventures in the Tetons. Much less strenuous activities include half- and full-day dogsledding adventures, visiting the National Museum of Wildlife Art, or the region’s signature sightseeing escape, a one-hour horse-drawn sleigh tour through the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, where thousands of elk spend the winter. Ample time should also be left for simply strolling the streets of Jackson and its many galleries.
Dining & Drinking
In Teton Village, the best upscale options are Couloir, part of the ski resort and located atop the gondola at the ski resort and Il Villaggio Osteria in the Hotel Terra. The former specializes in locally sourced mountain cuisine such as elk and trout, the latter authentic Italian specialties. Much more casual local favorites, both hidden gems, are Teton Thai and Bodega, a gourmet general store, both located in the resort parking lots. In between is upscale gastropub The Handle Bar, by celebrity chef and James Beard award winner Michael Mina. The Alpenhof offers a classic European fondue experience, and the village is also home to one of the most famous après bars in skiing, the legendary Mangy Moose, with frequent live music.
Jackson has much more of everything, but fine dining standouts are the Snake River Grill and Rendezvous Bistro, long the town’s premier celebratory options. A drink and maybe a steak at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a must, while the food is better—and a drink also prerequisite—at the Silver Dollar Bar, Jackson’s other atmospheric Old West spot. The local favorites are Bin 22, an extremely popular tapas and wine bar that is also a wine shop where you can buy bottles at retail and drink them with dinner, and absolutely beloved Persephone Bakery & Cafe, for breakfast and lunch only. Other casual and family-friendly highlights include the town’s best pizza (Pinky G’s), BBQ (Moe’s) and burgers (Liberty). Large and loud, Snake River Brewery is Wyoming’s oldest and most popular craft beer spot, with a decent and extensive full-service food menu as well.