Some ski areas might get more snowfall. Others might have interesting terrain and big vertical. But none have them in such sublime combination as Jackson Hole, Wyoming. And with a 100-person tram shooting you up 4,139 vertical feet to a rugged and beautiful alpine environment, Jackson occupies the top spot on just about every skier's hit list.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary this season, Jackson adds a new high-speed quad accessing what was previously hike-to only terrain (a blessing and curse, depending on your perspective), and increases its accessibility to the world at large with 13 nonstop flights from cities across the country (again, a blessing and a curse, depending on your perspective). Much of the classic backcountry lines easily accessed from the tram are no longer secret, and the long-held Jackson Hole Air Force tradition of staying silent about "first-tracks OB" feels like a distant memory. The base area of Teton Village now features high-end luxury accommodations, fine dining and retail shops, with very few of the original structures still standing, among them the classic Mangy Moose Saloon, the Sojourner, and the Hostel (your best deal for lodging, shared bunks start around $38/night).
It's all part of a plan by the Jay Kemmerer family (the resort's owners since 1992) to turn this once rugged, isolated ski-bum paradise into something more palatable for those who prefer a softer ski experience. These days, it's not uncommon to meet people on the chairlift who used to take their ski vacations to Beaver Creek or Deer Valley.
But you still find the dirtbag who lives with five roommates in Jackson and just wants to ski pow. They'll be in the tramline before sunup. On a powder day, if you're not in line by 7:30 a.m., you might as well wait till 10:30, or find another way up the mountain to avoid a four-box wait. From the top of the tram, the options are plentiful. Backcountry skiers head out of bounds, taking advantage of Jackson's liberal open-gate policy. But don't go if you don't know, because it is deadly. No, seriously, you could die out there.
If the wind is blowing, as it usually is, Rendezvous Bowl can be so buffed out as to require just three or four face-stinging turns down the entire 1,000 feet. Corbet's has a deserved reputation. So suck it up and drop in. You might bounce but the landing should be soft. If not, hey, you've got a good story at the bar.
Jackson also has some of the best lappable chairs in the country. From the Thunder chair, drop into the Tower 3 chute. On Sublette, it's all about the Alta chutes. Get your game face on, because both of these cliff-studded lines are right beneath their respective chairs. And of course, there are the Hobacks, 2,000 vertical feet of straight fall-line skiing. They get skied out amazingly fast these days, but if you're among the first, there's no finer powder skiing in the country.
The new Teton Lift, a high-speed quad located on the northern reaches of the mountain, is the big addition this year. Stretching 1,600 feet into an area known as the Crags, this chair provides access to rocky chutes that had previously been the domain of backcountry lurkers who enjoyed hiking for their turns. Now, it's an enclave of intermediate runs and fast groomers. Hard to tell if the Crags will be a series of bump lines, but locals are hoping the Teton Lift helps ease congestion at Thunder and Sublette.
When your legs are fried--and they will be--trendy après spots include the Moose (nachos and 20-ounce drafts of Paco's, a local IPA) and the Spur (Wyoming-style poutine). To hang with a finer crowd, go to the Handle Bar at the Four Seasons Hotel (Wyoming Whiskey and hushpuppies).
But Jackson isn't only about Teton Village. The reason locals put up with one of the most expensive zip codes in the country is due to the amazing access to a deep variety of skiing. Grand Targhee, located an hour and a half drive from Jackson, offers a more modest experience. It's not as steep or big as Jackson Hole, but it receives more snowfall on average (500 inches vs. 450), more affordable lift tickets ($75 vs. $120) and free parking. Plus, the Trap Bar is one of the best après-ski spots in the country, with live music and WyDaho nachos (which replaces tortilla chips with waffle-cut fries).
Though it's crowded parking lot can be a buzz kill, Teton Pass on Highway 22 is world-renowned among backcountry skiers for a reason. The terrain, snowfall and access seems a gift from Ullr himself. Once you get away from the parking lot, either hiking up Glory or skinning through old-growth Douglas fir and whitebark pine, chances are most of the people you meet contradict Jackson's "bro-tude" mentality. They're just happy to be skiing.
In town, Snow King Mountain--Wyoming's oldest ski area built in 1939--is in the midst of a rebuilding plan, offering a new fixed-grip quad this season to access new beginner and intermediate terrain. "The King" is still a local's favorite, providing night skiing Monday through Saturday, the "Mini-Hanhenkamm Downhill," which crowns the valley's fastest skiers, and a friendly "uphill skiing" policy.
The view from the top makes it all worth it.
Marquee image: Andrew Whiteford dropping the higher side of Corbet’s Couloir inbounds at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. PHOTO: Jay Goodrich