There is a certain idea of the American West that is lost, locked away in bronze sculptures of heroes on horseback, preserved in paintings of dusty oranges and browns and fading in photographs of snow-covered peaks before they had names, before it seemed all was plowed beneath pavement and progress. But there is a valley out west in Wyoming, split in two by the Snake River, next to two national parks and surrounded on all sides by snowcapped mountains. Named Jackson’s Hole by 19th-century fur trappers who descended its jagged slopes, here the Continental Divide looks down from rocky spires into a winter oasis for wildlife, for cowboys, for outdoorsmen seeking to recapture this ideal.
Today plank-wood sidewalks persist, cowboy bars thrive, dude ranchers amble into the 9,577-person mountain town for supplies, yet plentiful are the opportunities for basking in the glory of pampered nights. Wine bars like Bin22 offer vintages from the world’s finest vintners; slow-food masterpiece Snake River Grill causes the most ardent foodies to salivate. You can sleep in luxury cabins at the Fireside Resort or go the traditional upscale route at the impeccable Four Seasons. In the global arms race to maintain authenticity in the face of five-star offerings, Jackson Hole is winning. Unlike the overdeveloped and overrun Aspen or Vail or the weekend-warrior-seeking Park City, Jackson has been happy to sit on the sidelines and maintain some semblance of privacy to its little slice of heaven. Come for the nation’s most rugged, difficult ski terrain and stay for refined après-ski. In this day and age, you shouldn’t have to give up one to get the other. Call it the New Mountain Modern.
Fly into Jackson and the difference between here and everywhere else is immediately made clear: It’s the only airport anywhere that resides within a national park. There could be an extra charge for sightseeing as you coast onto the runway and quickly collect your baggage at the recently renovated boutique of a terminal. Along the 20-minute drive into town, unobstructed mountain views beckon with wildlife meandering just off the two-lane road, which still passes for a highway around these parts. A mamma moose and her calf rummage the grass poking from the snowpack on the roadside not a mile from the airport. Sleighs glide through the National Elk Refuge, the world’s largest, where thousands of elk converge on the protected valley floor each winter. This time of year there are fewer crowds; given the summer riches of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, it’s actually the off-season.
I pull into Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Teton Village, the entry point to Grand Teton. Dropping my bags at the Snake River Lodge & Spa—my home for the next few nights—I catch the final tram of the day to get in one quick run to wash off the New York City grit before the sun disappears behind the peaks. The 100-person tram speeds to the top of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain in ten minutes, lifting me effortlessly above slopes that stretch 4,139 vertical feet above the base, which collects upwards of 25 feet of snow each winter. There are two mountains, 2,500 in-bounds acres and 3,000 more acres in the backcountry. Of the 116 named trails, 50 percent rate as expert, 40 percent intermediate (of which most are found on Après Vous Mountain) and a mere 10 percent beginner. There’s a reason why dozens of top skiers, snowboarders and all-around adrenaline junkies call the place home. No North American resort offers a stiffer challenge—and I’ve skied every last one of them. I always return to Jackson, to be left alone with the mountain to test my body and free my mind. And after pushing myself on the hill, damned if I don’t deserve a tumbler of the finest tequila, 1,000-thread-count sheets and a massage in the morning before doing it all over again.
At the top, I peer over the edge of the resort’s most famous and daunting run, Corbet’s Couloir. Not today. But it’s an annual must. I push off, taking Tensleep to Broadway to Paint Brush instead. Not even a two-minute walk from the mountain’s base and I’m back at Snake River, feet kicked up at the Fireside Bar. A festive feeling fills the room, where men in cable-knit sweaters and Moncler vests mingle with women warmed by fur and the fire from a giant stone hearth. The freshly refurbished lodge is compact enough to feel like home yet big enough to offer a 17,000-square-foot, five-story spa; a 1,500-square-foot gym; and indoor-outdoor hot tubs and a pool. And at every turn an Old West aura washes over you: Carved wooden bears, antler chandeliers, cowhide-covered wing-back chairs, pine and fir beams are found throughout. Historic photographs line the walls, lending a sense of place and attachment to the land—an important theme in Jackson, if not always so outwardly depicted.
Later, strolling through Teton Village, past the range of luxury slopeside accommodations that improve every year (most resorts shut down between summer and fall to speed the rate at which they can raise the bar), past the Mangy Moose Restaurant & Saloon, a Jackson classic where visitors and locals alike happily intertwine over microbrews and pub food, I recall the advice of Art Wrubel, one of the new investors in the Snake River Lodge and a part owner of the Philadelphia 76ers: “Ski your ass off, have some drinks and good food and fly home tired.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone making more of life than Wrubel. At 48, he lives (and looks) as if he’s much younger. He’s Ivy League-educated but left any pretentiousness on campus. He made his millions by managing others’ fortunes and now lives a New York-based jet-set life under a single guideline: Making money is great, but it’s not as great if you’re not doing things you love.
In August 2012, Wrubel and a small group from the East Coast invested in Snake River. When he was approached to join the venture, it was a no-brainer. “Look,” Wrubel says, “I love skiing. Jackson Hole is an extreme-sports capital. There’s Jackson, and there’s Chamonix. That’s my list. When I found out we had an opportunity to buy a hotel in an area that I love, I mean, are you kidding me? I’m in.” But everything else Jackson offered was just as much of a draw. “You could say you’re either a guy who likes the Mangy Moose or a guy who likes the Rose,” he says. “Personally, I like both. You have these kinds of choices here. Jackson is a wide-open, blue-sky kind of place.”
Curious if the two brothers in charge of the lodge were in it for the investment or if they too shared Wrubel’s cowboy dreams, I grab breakfast with Doug and Jon Cohen, founders of the Rhode Island-based Newport Hotel Group. (The fourth investor is former Goldman Sachs partner and Wrubel buddy David Heller, who’s also a part owner of the 76ers. “All Heller and I want to do is have a few beers and root for the guys running the place,” jokes Wrubel.) Over smooth oatmeal and crispy bacon, Doug, age 46, tells me they’re attracted to properties that fit the soul of their environment. “Snake River,” he says, “is among the oldest hotels in Teton Village, full of character. We simply wanted to elevate it.” Built in 1967, it’s not that it had become run-down, but with the competition getting better each year, it needed to up its game. “We came out to look at the hotel, never having been to Jackson,” says Jon, who is older by two years. “Frankly, we were blown away. My first thought was that we didn’t have to buy Snake River to want to return. But our families joined a trip shortly thereafter, and everyone fell in love with the place. The spirit of the Old West still looms large in the town, and every day you’re excited to wake up at dawn and get out there.” It turns out everybody is a little bit of a cowboy—it just takes coming to Jackson to figure it out.
Whereas Vail and Aspen have pinched nearly every parcel of developable land between town and the ski mountain, along the route from Teton Village to downtown (a 15-minute drive), Jackson maintains open spaces protected by local, state and federal law; only 3 percent was ever available for construction. So building more is not an option, which is reflected in the steep residential and commercial real estate prices and makes the choice to renovate the old instead of buying the new barely a choice at all.
On downtown’s quaint streets, New Mountain Modern ebbs and flows from western nostalgia to urban chic. The classic town square, complete with antler archways, rests at the center of a grid of boardwalks and storefronts packed into a few square miles. I pass Stetsoned cowboys, pro snowboarders and ladies skating over icy streets in high heels. Hats tip, cars yield and rusted Ford F-150s park alongside rented Land Rovers. Classic cowboy bars stand next to gastropubs, wine bars and fine art galleries, and stereotypes break each time a door swings open. The eclectic mix can cause anyone with even the smallest interest in mountain towns to immediately begin calculating how to make this self-contained snow globe home. I find myself constantly trying to come up with a viable business idea. A quick survey of Jackson proves I’m not the only one. Competition, especially in the hospitality industry, is fierce, which is harsh for investors but fantastic for patrons. Taking over a stalwart like the Snake River Lodge is probably the safest bet.
That evening, as I sit at the supremely popular, barely year-old bar The Rose, taking down Ten Cent Claudes (Four Roses bourbon, housemade Darjeeling syrup, muddled sweet orange with lemon and Angostura bitters) as if they’re water, it all comes together. Tucked upstairs right off the town square in Pink Garter Plaza, a location still in need of some love after a decade of failed businesses tried to make sense of it, The Rose is perhaps the best example of Jackson’s future. Just as you walk through alleyways and past broken storefronts to find hot spots in Greenwich Village or West Hollywood, The Rose flips the dilapidated plaza in its favor. Last year it beat fierce competition for the first liquor license granted in six years by the town council and with it the ability to breathe new nightlife into the plaza through coordination with the Pink Garter Theatre, one of the few indoor concert venues attracting national music acts to town. The brainchild of Dominic Gagliardi, who was the entertainment manager of the famed Mangy Moose and owns the locals’ hideout Village Café, The Rose delivers on the urban upscale front.
“Nothing like The Rose existed when I first moved here in 1996,” Gagliardi says. “Now it’s happening organically that people are inspired by others. You see someone take a chance with a restaurant that at first you may not think would thrive in Jackson, but it does well, like when Gavin Fine first opened the Rendezvous Bistro. He took an old Denny’s on the other side of town and turned it into one of the more happening spots immediately, and then he was able to take that momentum and open a couple more restaurants.”
It’s not always that simple. Jackson, like any small town that becomes a destination, has had its growing pains and surely will have more. Dig through the history books and you could probably trace it all the way back to the naming of Yellowstone as the first national park in 1872, which put the region on the tourism map. There’s invariably going to be the push and pull of those who want no change, who would rather not attract visitors, and others fighting under the banner of progress. Gagliardi, at just 41 years old, is part of a younger generation of entrepreneurs who have settled in Jackson over the last decade and don’t want to see the town outgrow its roots. But they’ve also traveled the world and have brought their cultural tastes to their adopted home. “That’s the driving force behind the movement of the cosmopolitan businesses showing up in Jackson,” he says.
Another driving force is a guy like Travis Rice, one of Gagliardi’s partners and arguably the world’s best snowboarder. He grew up in Jackson, the son of a ski guide, remains in Jackson and knows better than anyone, having traveled to the ends of the earth for mountains and snow (stopping in bars along the way), what makes the place unique. “I stay because of the community and the natural resources,” Rice says. “Next, it’s the cutoff. There’s no city influx. You look at Utah and Colorado, even Seattle and California, and the one thing they all have in common is that their resorts are two to three hours from a major metropolitan area, which means weekend-warrior blowout.” (Salt Lake City is the closest metropolis, and it’s still a five-hour drive away.) He rattles off more reasons: distance from the coast means less inclement weather; snow from big storms has more longevity in the backcountry; take a hut trip and encounter no people or machines for days. “And now,” Rice finishes, “we have hip places to hang out. I used to think I was from a small town, but now I know that I’m spoiled.”
My final day arrives with more snow, and I spend the hours exploring the overlooked nooks and crannies of the mountain with local guides, searching out the hidden powder. You don’t have to hike or climb to get to the good stuff here. Rendezvous Bowl offers an open snowfield on one side, while Tensleep Bowl brings tighter steeps and a European appearance with that above-tree-line feel. At any point you can dip into the trees and disappear for a moment or an hour as you weave your way down the mountain. We pop out at the base and converge at the gondola, which takes us up 9,095 feet to Couloir, the resort’s award-winning mountaintop restaurant. The duck wings confit and braised bison sliders were easily the best meal I’ve ever had at the top of a mountain. Even still, I’m not sure that makes it worth the near hour wait. Don’t get me wrong, the dishes are memorable—but there are 5,000 acres of pristine snow outside. This is a moment when I’m happier to have a granola bar and keep skiing.
I make the 30-minute hike from the top of the gondola over to Casper Bowl and the Crags, which are accessible only through limited gates. For those capable and a little adventurous, this is where Jackson Hole really shines. If Corbet’s Couloir is the famous son, the Crags are the siblings whose attitude would never allow them the glory...but makes them the most fun to party with. After I make a few passes through the Crags, the sun begins to fade. There’s one last run to do: Corbet’s Couloir. I drop down the 10- to 20-foot cliff onto a 50-degree slope, immediately forcing a hard right turn before I’m welcomed by softer snow that collects in a narrow crease framed by the towering granite outcrops. The whole thing happens so fast, it’s hard to remember how you make it through, but the exhilaration remains.
With tired legs and an early flight the next morning, I set up a final test: Thai food. Recently relocated from downtown to Teton Village, Teton Thai is a small spot that, I quickly discover, serves up phenomenal Thai food. It’s been here for about 15 years, in Wyoming. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been unaware of it but am now even more curious. How its owner, Suchada, a premier chef from Thailand, ended up in Jackson is a mystery until you learn that her husband, Sam Johnson, may be the hardest-working ski bum around, managing a business that includes trekking authentic Thai spices and fresh ingredients from Los Angeles in order to keep pace with the outsized demand. But of course, they have no plans on expanding the place. And no one who knows them would ever ask them to.
Travel Guide to Jackson Hole
The snow-time center of gravity is Teton Village, where first-rate lodging and a smattering of restaurants and bars reside at the base of the two-mountain, 116-trail Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, just 30 minutes from the airport (serviced by direct flights from major U.S. cities) and 20 minutes from the rustic-chic downtown.
Amangani: The minimalist design and hidden location with views of the Snake River Range make the 29-suite property the choice for those seeking luxe privacy. Free shuttles run to Teton Village. Rooms start at $800; 1535 NE Butte Rd., Jackson; 877-734-7333; amangani.com.
Fireside Resort: Glampers need not look farther than the insanely well-appointed cabins nestled under the Tetons. Cabins start at $225; 2780 N. Moose Wilson Rd., Wilson; 877-660-1177; firesidejacksonhole.com.
Four Seasons Resort and Residences Jackson Hole: Ski in, ski out and expect the brand’s usual top-notch accoutrements, including the year-old Michael White restaurant, The Handle Bar. Rooms start at $300; 7680 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village; 307-732-5000; fourseasons.com.
Hotel Terra Jackson Hole: A slopeside location with an urban feel, the newcomer adds ecofriendliness (it’s LEED-certified) where it departs from the traditional mountain town paradigm. Rooms start at $200; 3335 W. Village Dr., Teton Village; 800-631-6281; hotelterrajacksonhole.com.
Snake River Lodge & Spa: Pine and fir beams frame the 138-room resort, which overhauled its standard rooms this summer, bringing them closer to the epic penthouse suites. Rooms start at $260; 7710 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village; 855-342-4712; snakeriverlodge.com.
Couloir Restaurant & Bar: American classics served at 9,095 feet. Break up the day with braised bison sliders (right) or trade ski boots for dress shoes at the in-kitchen Chef’s Table, where Wes Hamilton creates one-of-a-kind dinner experiences. At the summit of the Bridger gondola; jacksonhole.com.
Local: Located on the town square, it’s the new steakhouse standard. At 55 N. Cache St., Jackson; 307-201-1717; localjh.com.
Million Dollar Cowboy Bar: Nowhere else on earth do stilettos and cowboy boots mingle together so successfully. At 25 N. Cache St., Jackson; 307-733-2207; milliondollarcowboybar.com.
Rendezvous Bistro: It’s hard to go wrong with a Gavin Fine restaurant (Bin22, Q Roadhouse, Il Villaggio Osteria), and Rendezvous is a local favorite for its excellent raw bar. At 380 U.S. 89, Jackson; 307-739-1100; rendezvousbistro.net.
Snake River Grill: Worry more about nabbing the top table (by the fireplace) than the food; you can’t misorder in what may be Jackson’s most classic American restaurant. At 84 E. Broadway, Jackson; 307-733-0557; snakerivergrill.com.
Teton Thai: Thanks to the expert Thailand transplants manning the kitchen and the authentic ingredients hand-delivered from L.A., the best Thai food stateside can be found blocks from a ski resort. At 7342 Granite Loop Rd., Teton Village; 307-733-0022; tetonthaivillage.com.
The Mangy Moose Restaurant & Saloon: Beers, bar food and live music draw rowdy crowds to the classic ski-in stop-off right at the base of the mountain. At 3295 Village Dr., Teton Village; 307-733-4913; mangymoose.com.
The Rose: Tucked upstairs at the Pink Garter Theatre sits everything you’d want out of a speakeasy: exacting mixologists whipping up magical concoctions to an in-the-know crowd. At 50 W. Broadway, Jackson; 307-733-1500; therosejh.com.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort allows unprecedented access to thousands of acres of backcountry skiing. Enlist a guide—the best in the U.S., trust me—to find secret runs and superb untracked powder. 307-739-2779; jacksonhole.com.
Granite Hot Springs: Snowmobile ten miles through the Gros Ventre Mountains south of Jackson to the only hot springs in the area. Snowmobile tours start at $225 a person; 800-647-2561; hcsnowmobile.com.
The National Elk Refuge: Hire a horse-drawn sleigh to sidle up alongside the 11,000 elk who call the preserve home from December through March. Sleigh rides start at $20 a person; 307-733-9212; bart5.com.
JH Tapped App: Check out the trail map and snow reports before you arrive. Track your skiing when you get there. Learn which lifts are open, when events are happening and discover on-mountain and in-village dining. Available on iTunes.
TravelStorysGPS: Connect smartphone to car stereo and set off on a guided tour of Jackson. GPS hot spots trigger prerecorded cultural and natural histories and soak in the scenery. travelstorysgps.com.