A kinder, gentler Jackson Hole
JACKSON, Wyo. — For many of the hard-core skiers who call Jackson Hole home, a spa treatment used to mean snowshoeing to a natural hot spring in Yellowstone National Park and hoping a buffalo wasn’t wallowing in their favorite swimming hole.That all changed last ski season when the ski-in/ski-out Snake River Lodge and Spa opened in Teton Village, providing a dash of Vail-style pampering right at the base of one of North America’s most extreme ski areas. And the trend continues in the fall of 2003 with the opening of a new Four Seasons Hotel next door.Clearly, an unforgiving mountain that boasts more than 4,000 vertical feet of chutes, couloirs and seriously steep-and-deep bowls is getting a little soft around its base."We really have been cautious of using the word soften, because we do own that niche hard-core market … and we don’t want to lose it," Jackson spokeswoman Anna Olson says of the mountain’s mystique as a mecca for young males looking for snowriding bragging rights. "But all those guys who come here can now come here once in awhile with their wives and kids."Don’t be fooled, this is still a macho place. More than half the mountain’s 2,500 acres of terrain is deemed expert and we’re not talking those faux double-black-diamond ego-booster trails you’ll find at Vail. Even the 13,770-foot Grand Teton, a massive dome of rock that looms over the ski area on clear days, has a chauvinistic name.Dubbed the "Large Breast" by 19th Century French fur trappers who obviously had been out in the woods a little too long, the Grand, as the locals abbreviate it, towers over the Jackson valley, or hole, and defines the entire region by virtue of its sheer ruggedness.Problem is, sometimes you can ski Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee ski area on the other (west) side of the Tetons for an entire week and never see the Grand.That’s because more than 400 inches of snow falls on Jackson every ski season, and the much smaller and more retro Grand Targhee gets blasted by upwards of 500 inches.The experienceIt had been a few days since the last March plastering when a buddy and I left our significant others behind for a dose ofbig-mountain male bonding, meeting for five days of knee and lower-back abuse at Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee.Our egos egging each other on, we immediately jumped into Jackson’s signature 63-passenger aerial tram and 10 minutes later we were at 10,450 feet.Judiciously deciding the snow was a bit too firm to leap into the infamous Corbet’s Couloir basically an elevator shaft of snow that would be permanently roped off at most areas we instead skied hard-packed snow out to the Headwall, where we threw our skis on our shoulders and began hiking.Numerous backcountry gates provide European-style "ski-at-your-own-risk” access that’s intoxicating to the aforementioned testosterone set, but the gates can have disastrous consequences for the ill-prepared. (Later that afternoon we would watch a helicopter rescue of two snowboarders from the out-of-bounds Cody Bowl area).My friend Andy and I weren’t looking for 50-foot cliffs to ski off. Our thirty-something bodies would have none of that. Instead, we were searching for the last vestiges of a powder storm that had passed through the previous week. After about 45 minutes of trudging in ski boots, we found the fluff still lingering in the steep chutes of Casper Bowl.Following 20 or so lung-busting jump turns in mid-calf mashed potatoes, we stood grinning and gasping, and in my mind I began running through the menu at the Avanyu Spa, the brand-new facility the Snake River Lodge fully debuted last season.Two more days of testing ourselves against the endless tree skiing of the legendary Hobacks, and playful playgrounds like Moran Face and Saratoga Bowl, and a deep-tissue massage became more of necessity than a luxury. I was thankful Teton Village is becoming known for more than just the quintessential apres-ski bar, the Mangy Moose."The reputation is starting to change," Snake River Lodge and Spa general manager Bruce Grosbety says of Jackson. "It’s not just for the steep-and-deep, hard-core skier anymore. We want people to start thinking that Jackson can be a spa destination."Built from the ground up, the Avanyu, with its 10 treatment rooms and sports therapy tubs, will definitely change people’s perception of the attached Snake River Lodge, a 1970s hotel that at one time was a Best Western.Jackson area lodging runs the gamut, from the ultra-exclusive Amangani (Amanresorts’ only North American property) to a Super 8 right in town. The prices also vary widely, with the Amangani’s plush suites setting guests back between $650 and $900 a night and motels like the Trail’s End going for as low as $32 a night. (Rates are per room, double occupancy.)Going high-end obviously comes with some perks. Located just outside the town of Jackson, Amangani’s Health Center includes two exercise studios, four treatment rooms and steam rooms, and a range of massage and facial services.The Snake River Lodge and Spa is the only full-service spa in Teton Village, right at the base of the mountain.Since purchasing the property several years ago, Vail Resorts has pumped $32 million into the hotel, completely renovating all 88 rooms and 44 condos. Needless to say, there are no traces of the Best Western, and Grosbety, who hails from New York’s Hotel Pierre moving from "Central Park to Grand Teton National Park" brings an upscale resort mindset more common in Aspen or Vail.But heading back into town, a quick 12-mile drive from Teton Village, quickly dispels any resemblance to Jackson’s glitzier cousins. From the arches made of hundreds of elk antlers in the town park to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar with its saddle barstools, Jackson oozes Western charm.With Western charm in mind, I bought Andy a huge T-bone steak and a martini at the Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse, just downstairs from the bar, as a reward for a tough day on the slopes.Re-energized and ready for some nightlife, we headed upstairs. The Cowboy Bar is probably the most famous nightspot in the town of Jackson, but it was a bit slow on a Monday night, so we wound up at the Stagecoach in Wilson, a short drive out of town. A local’s hangout that also attracts its fair share of tourists, the Stagecoach provided our live-music fix before we called it an early night and headed back to the hotel in anticipation of another full day on the slopes.We spent another full day exploring Jackson, a giant terrain park of a mountain, but with a storm moving in from the west, we were ready for the softer and more gradual slopes of Grand Targhee.Bruised and battered by Jackson, and eyeing the Weather Channel, Andy and I called and moved our snowcat skiing reservation at Targhee up by a day. An hour’s drive over harrowing Teton Pass, into Idaho and then doubling back into Wyoming, Targhee is a throwback to the glory days of skiing. Our rooms in the Teewinot Lodge were rustic and modest compared to the Snake River Lodge, but so was the price, and we were slopeside for an early morning rendezvous with a snowcat.Six inches of new snow had fallen the night before a dusting by Targhee standards but now the clouds were burning off and the western faces of the Tetons were glinting in the sun. My third time cat skiing at Grand Targhee nicknamed "Grand Foggy" because of the low-lying and moisture-laden clouds that cling to its slopes and this was the first crystal-clear day I’d enjoyed.Sometimes called poor man’s heli-skiing, snowcat skiing, especially at Targhee, can be a religious experience, with two treaded behemoths shuttling 8-10 true believers and their guides 2,400 vertical feet up to the lift-free slopes of upper Peaked Mountain.Moderate pitches, wide-open glades, fat skis and sugary snow combine for 7-10 truly heroic runs in untouched fluff, totaling more than 20,000 vertical feet in a day.Targhee is a big mountain 2,000 skiable acres-with minimal facilities. New last season, the Sacajawea high-speed quad chairlift opened up 500 new acres on Peaked Mountain (which used to be the sole domain of the snowcat operation), bringing the total number of lifts to just four. Now the snowcat picks up skiers at the top of Sacajawea."I hear from a lot of people who say this is the first time they’ve ever ridden a lift here," says guest services director Scott Kauf. "They’ve just come for the cat skiing and then they’re gone, which is amazing."Targhee’s cat skiing is such a marquee attraction, in fact, general manager Larry Williamson doesn’t even try to push it. "It gets a tremendous amount of public and media attention," Williamson says. "That’s the easy one to promote. You take people over there and they ski it and they’re sold." And for $264 for a full day, including a fantastic hot lunch in a heated tent, about 1,500 lucky powder hounds a year get the deal of a lifetime.Remarkably, though, skiing Targhee’s designated trails can be nearly as good. With all that snow and all that terrain, only about 100,000 skiers a year visit Targhee, about the same as the week between Christmas and New Year’s at Vail.Our thighs still burning from the previous day’s epic cat adventure, Andy and I opted to stay inbounds the next day, even though an additional eight inches of snow fell the night before. On the wide-open expanses of Fred’s Mountain we found pitches aptly named Powder Area and The Face, and it left us no regrets.That night we ran into our snowcat guide from the day before, drinking a few beers at the Trap Bar and Grille. He told us most of the skiers on the cats that day had sworn it was their best day ever on skis.Having been originally booked to go out that day, Andy and I could only exchange rueful smiles and wonder how the skiing could have been any better than the day before.After five straight days on skis, we opted for a more benign and cheaper form of recreation the next day a snowshoe trip in Yellowstone National Park.Driving to Yellowstone from Targhee, we stopped at the National Elk Refuge just north of Jackson. For city slickers seeking the complete home-on-the-range experience, this is a must-see.From the observation deck of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, an impressive collection in and of itself, one can gaze out at literally thousands of elk spread out across the valley floor. Sleigh rides are available out into the herd for an up-close communion with nature.We wound up at Flagg Ranch, a snowmobiling hot spot on the southern edge of the National Park about an hour and a half from Jackson. From there we followed a recommended trail in a few miles to Huckleberry Hot Springs, a series of thermal pools where locals luxuriated au naturel amidst the primeval splendor.On the way out we encountered a pair of bison, safely standing on the opposite bank of Polecat Creek, and as we exhausted a pair of disposable cameras, it occurred to me how far we were from civilization, even the remote but trendy environs of Jackson. Indeed, the buffalo roam just 60 miles from where vice presidents and captains of industry jet in to escape the world.