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A long weekend in the Tetons

Ted Alvarez
Vail, CO Clorado

This is Colorado. We know mountains. And yet, nothing can quite prepare you for your first view of the Tetons: They erupt nearly 8,000 feet above northwestern Wyoming’s flat sagebrush valley, a violent maze of rocky talons and parapets scraping at the sky. Adorned in snowy highlights and free of obscuring foothills, the 40-mile range seems to be growing before your eyes.

And it is: This youngest spur of the Rockies is still rising, still under the throes of an initial uplift that began 9 million years ago or so. The host town of Jackson mirrors this rise, transforming from trapper hideout to ranch town to full-blown vacation paradise.

While tourist traps have sprung up to reel in dollars from families who visit the national park without ever leaving the van, the pervasive feeling is one of rugged class ” think Aspen without the pretension and with more extreme terrain. Couple that with a fierce eco-friendly streak in a blood-red state, and you’ve got yourself the perfect mountain oasis.

The 1 Percent For the Planet movement (in which corporations donate one percent of sales to environmental charities) has roots in Jackson, so it’s fitting that one of the world’s premier eco-hotels resides here as well. Steps away from the lifts at Teton Village and closer to that national park than the town itself, the Hotel Terra prides itself on combining luxe accommodations with environmentally friendly practices.

The dark, wood-and-chrome lobby doesn’t instantly smack of crusading to save the planet, and other than the odd bronze moose, it seems more New-York slick than western chic. The first thing you’ll notice that does is the toilet: On top of the tank are two buttons. One depicts a half-full circle, while the other is a full circle. You might first think these might correspond to the cycles of the moon, but actually it allows you to choose how much water to use during a flush. Choosing the half-full button means you’re helping save water ” something to feel good about after relieving yourself.

The chrome theme extends to the bathroom, but it’s not an aesthetic choice. Instead of tossing teeny plastic bottles in the trash, all of the metal shampoo and soap containers are reused and refilled for new guests.

The entire building is certified as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), and nearly everything from the shingles to the carpets either comes from recycled materials or sustainable organic compounds. All the wood is renewable or reclaimed, and if something can possibly be recycled or reused, it is.

That’s fine and good, but Terra goes beyond environmental self-importance by ensuring that certain environmental choices actually make for a more comfortable stay. 100 percent organic cotton bed sheets, towels, and bathrobes make bedtime and bath-time extra plush. Pumping in healthy amounts of outside air helps maintain temperature efficiently rather than using air conditioning, but it also gives the interior air a crispness you usually only get outside.

But enough about the insides of buildings: If you came to Jackson, you came to get outside.

Grand Teton National Park is so achingly scenic that it attracts droves of wildlife watchers who rightly come to see plentiful herds of buffalo, elk, moose and even the occasional bear or wolf. As part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, a natural corridor of wilderness provides a habitat conduit between the two parks; it’s one of the largest intact ecosystems in the United States.

On high-season summer days, minivans can clog the two-lane highways and overflow the shores of Grand Teton’s admittedly gorgeous front-country lakes (like Lake Jackson or Lake Jenny). But there is a silver lining: The Tetons’ sheer slopes and granite ramparts make for strenuous hiking up steep slopes. The masses stay out, but those with a high tolerance for distance and burning quads can access a gorgeous, expansive and often lonely interior filled with high cliffs, crashing waterfalls, and blue tarns.

For dayhikes, Amphitheater Lake remains a superstar choice for locals and visitors in the know. After the jeans-and-t-shirt crowd ditches out for the much lower Bradley Lake, committed hikers will switchback three miles through alpine groves and steep meadows filled with lupine and brilliant yellow balsamroot. Watch out for marmots, deer, and even the occasional bear trundling through the underbrush.

At the crest, hikers gain access to Amphitheater Lake, a topaz-blue tarn nestled right beneath the towering Grand Teton. A waterfall pours off of Amphitheater into the smaller Surprise Lake below, and intimidating rock walls bear down on three sides (hence the name “amphitheater”). This is a staging ground for many of the big climbs in the area, including the 13,770-foot Grand Teton itself.

Daring scramblers can continue without climbing equipment to tackle 12,325-foot summit of Teewinot, but be warned: You’ll need nerves of steel to tackle this without a rope. High-consequence hand-and-feet movements will take you past breathtaking drops and high exposure to culminate in the summit of Teewinot, a tiny horn not much larger than a shoebox perched atop a 45-degree slab.

If you’re looking for more than a daytrip, Jackson’s waiters and guides alike (who insisted on remaining anonymous) recommend Avalanche Canyon ” if you can find it. The unmarked trail is closely guarded secret, and is sometimes even blocked with rocks and branches. If you manage to discover the trail, you’ll gain access to 10,000-foot passes and pristine campsites near the heart of the Tetons at Snowdrift Lake and Lake Taminah. By the time you return via Cascade Canyon, the fannypacked crowds at Jenny Lake will think you’re a grizzled local.

Watch your weather: In early July, sections of Amphitheater lake were still covered in deep snow. It’s wise to check in with the Grand Teton ranger station in Moose, as variable conditions meant certain portions of this “summer” hike resembled an ice climb more than a stroll up a dirt path.

Trekking through Grand Teton’s backcountry requires the most of any hiker, and any who take it on owe themselves a reward upon returning to civilization ” preferably in the form of tasty morsels and frosty beverages. Jackson has a plethora of quality eateries, but two stand above the rest: The Snake River Grill and the Snake River Brewing Company.

The Snake River Grill nestles surprising, five-star food into a welcoming atmosphere ” wood, antlers, and blazing fireplaces disguise an encyclopedic wine list and hyper-attentive waitstaff. They’re just as likely to suggest a hidden hike or unknown climb as rush out a glass of complimentary champagne. But food is king at the Snake River Grill, and modern takes on classic dishes like potato-crusted Alaskan halibut and crispy pork shank keep this restaurant thrumming 15 years after its debut.

The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is more famous (both for its saddle bar stools and bar fights), but the beer and company is better at the Snake River Brewing Company. Home of award-winning brews like Snake River Pale Ale, Snake River Lager, OB-1 organic brown ale, and Zonker Stout, the place looks like a cross between a factory and a high-school gymnasium (banners proclaiming their gold-medal wins at the Beer Olympics hang from the walls). But around happy hour, mellow ski bums and slumming billionaires join forces to share tables and pints as the music gets louder and the night gets longer.

If you can’t find the way back to your eco-hotel and the soft respite of your organic cotton sheets, friendly locals will help point the way. But they won’t bother saying goodbye ” because they know you’ll be back.


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