Ingrid Osborne finds that powder, wildlife and waffles – plus a taste of the original settlers’ life – make Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the perfect family skiing destination
‘Coming home to a place we’d never been before’ could have easily been penned about Jackson Hole, Wyoming. As the youngest of the Rockies, the Teton Range has that ‘just woken up’ look, with sprawling prairies below wearing little other than willow bushes and sagebrush strewn across the plains like morning bed hair.
I enjoy gauging a place by its airport signage; Jackson Hole Airport had one that read, ‘Bear-repellent spray prohibited’. It stops you to think, ‘Should we have packed it to begin with?’
As the southern gateway to Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole naturally has wildlife overshooters alongside its own: a coyote slinks across the prairie; a bald eagle circles over sloppy remains of an elk carcass, the handiwork of a mountain lion.
And the family bit? That’s nine miles shy of the airport, away from wildlife’s roulette, in the cowboy town of Jackson, where saloons and ageing log homesteads mark Wyoming’s great days of old… Well, youngish, given permanent settlers only arrived in 1884.
While Jackson is more bang for your buck as a base, it also rivals Teton Village (20 minutes’ drive away) in terms of culture and cuisine, where Jackson Hole Mountain Resort lays down a frozen gauntlet across mountain giants Apres Vous and Rendezvous, the latter with a 3,185m summit.
Jackson was numbing cold – not a problem for the Anvil, a hotel that keeps its wood-burning stove stoked as a warm greeting, helped by its New York-quality coffee, cocoa and croissants. Once a blacksmith shop, the Anvil has preserved an early settler feel: minimal, blueberry-pie hues and comfy wrought-iron queen beds wrapped in Woolrich blankets using origami precision.
With a forecast of bluebird days and dry powder, skiing conditions had gloriously aligned in time for taxi company Alltrans to take us out to Teton Village, where the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort was putting on a Christmas-morning welcome of snow-coated chalets and gondolas strung like glossy baubles dangling promises of good fun. But first, was the resort glam or fam?
The founder, Paul McCollister, never intended for it to be an Aspen carbon copy, regardless of being the first ski resort to be home to a Four Seasons Hotel. So, forget high fashion and leather skiing apparel. The resort attracts a smart jumper and jeans set who are serious about carving powder and beginners (like ourselves) concerned with staying upright, helped by having essential facilities at the mountain’s feet.
With ski passes to hand and an easy gear fitting at JH Sports Rental, I stood with poles, boots and distinctly short blades, primed to face my daughters’ ridicule. Then a dignity preserver appeared: Kids Ranch. Set within a purpose-built chalet, the kids club/ski school makes families lives easier between 9am to 4pm. Children are geared up at in-house JH Sports Junior before heading out with their first-aid qualified ski instructors onto the escalator-served slope to earn animal badges of progression.
With the kids sorted, it was my turn, but I had cold feet. Forget bears – soaring over icy slopes in the Sweetwater Gondola made me too aware of my fragile mortality. The upside, though, was that disembarking was easy and we had 10% of the mountain to learn on. Thankfully, my ski instructor, Stanley, had a sunny ‘you can do it’ disposition, resulting in me (miraculously) skiing by lunch.
Our mood was celebratory, lending itself to a ride on Bridger Gondola to an elevation of 2,772m, where Piste Mountain Bistro created a heavenly moment, its sleek glass restaurant frontage exposed endless mountains, somehow solidifying why après-ski is so compelling: hearty game-chilli cups, unspoken camaraderie and epic scenery.
Yet, like all good things… After lunch, I mowed down three skiers who just grinned (bless them) and said, ‘That’s alright, we all gotta start somewhere’.
And where it ended for us was in Bar Enoteca, a Spanish/Italian mountain-side bar that’s a tad too easy to settle into with a bottle Piedmont red expertly paired with wild-game sausage. Thankfully, Kids Ranch happened to offer ‘kids night out’ between 6-9pm – that sorted date night.
Back in Jackson, Hotel Jackson capped our evening with its primal polish. From the tips of its antler door handles to its lavish New Zealand wool rugs, it’s the epitome of earthy goodness, with fur-draped beds and mountain views. Hotel aside, in-house restaurant The Figs appealed, with its refined spin on Lebanese kebabs, falafel, hoummous and flatbreads.
We wanted an easy day in Jackson town and found it, beginning in an old settler’s log cabin named Café Genevieve. Oozing American culture and cuisine, their friendly, ‘What can I getcha’, folks?’ was served alongside a Brit-worthy breakfast of wholesome grit and eggs.
Vast prairies, raw mountains; this felt like David Attenborough territory, where being absorbed into the landscape was entirely possible and the National Elk Refuge gave us the chance to be specks on its snowy surface. We had cosied under thick blankets alongside children wrapped from top to toe in the horse-drawn red wooden sleigh, feeling early settler-like, as we plodded around North America’s largest elk herd.
Across from the refuge, our need for ‘old America’ was further fuelled by the National Museum of Wildlife Art, a place that once released a live lion inside to observe its behaviour. This may be no man’s land, but the art was of exceptional calibre, including works from Picasso that hang alongside 5,000 wildlife pieces. Even young painterly types can create their own masterpieces in the Children’s Discovery Gallery.
We have a soft spot for Snow King Mountain Resort, Wyoming’s first ski resort that’s somehow not impeded by its age and the gloss of other resorts. Skirting the southeast end of Jackson town, families have quick access to 32 runs and 400 skiable acres. While it’s cheaper to ski here, perhaps explaining the absence of posh nosh and gondolas, its quality slopes are what
lures locals, ski patrols and USA’s ski team. Expect thrills on the cowboy rollercoaster, night skiing and snow tubing.
Crowning our evening was Glorietta Trattoria in Jackson. Its generous portions of home-style wood-fired Italian cuisine didn’t disappoint – it’s fuss-free food served in a casual rustic surround – and we didn’t leave hungry.
Growing up, I was exposed to a polarised view of America: everyone seemingly got sued, New Yorkers were to be feared and TV shows had actors in tight jeans skidding across car bonnets. Cue a silver-badged sheriff who meandered past the moose head in the Wort’s hotel lobby: that was my cultural Christmas, my Dukes of Hazzard moment fulfilled.
As a four-diamond hotel, the Wort is heavy on Western credential. A place where young Willie Nelson once sang. Yes, it has a Silver Dollar Bar embedded with 1921 Morgan Silver Dollar coins, however, it couldn’t be more family-friendly, with cowboy-themed suites, loan of a teddy bear and custom ranch-style beds made for proper deep sleeping. Oh, and its Silver Dollar Grill makes a mean bacon and eggs Benedict.
Back to Teton Village for its crowning glory: an aerial tram known as Big Red, a magnificent mechanical beast that stole hearts (and stomachs) as it scooted us for nine minutes up to Rendezvous’ 3,185m summit, home of black runs, including legendary Corbet’s Couloir.
Should precipitous ridge views not be warning enough, tipping out the doors to the words, ‘If you don’t know, don’t go…’ were. Clearly, black runs were out of our league. Still, Corbet’s Cabin’s brown-sugar-topped waffles weren’t.
Like a penance of sorts, I was offered a chance to redeem my sorry self on the beginners’ slopes while partially hoping Harrison Ford might rescue me — yup, he occasionally flies for search and rescue.
So, we skied into addiction: wanting to return without having left.
In December 2018, the resort will metaphorically smash Champagne over its new beginners’ learning centre, Solitude Station. Served by gondolas so (dreaded) chairlifts can be avoided, families will be able to rent gear on site, dine in one of two cafeterias, including a family café, before skiing straight out onto snow.
The Kitchen in Jackson was the recipient of our ‘last supper’ blues. Its upbeat dorm style captured jovial chatter while staff served Asian-fusion creations, including delicate beef tartare and pan-seared tuna. The chef was also happy to oblige requests for child-friendly chicken.
The morning had brought electric-blue skies, a fitting grandiose ending as we joined the ever-effable Jody of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, who had set the scene when enthusing, ‘Look, my first bluebird of the season’.
We spent four extraordinary hours in Grand Teton National Park’s deepest wilderness in search of bison, wolves and moose, across snow-caked prairie lands, over Antelope Flats, past a forlorn sign for Mormon Row staked onto an empty plain, before finishing in the National Elk Refuge.
It was the cherry, the pinnacle… And regrettably, we had to leave it behind as folks descended upon the Jackson Hole Rendezvous Festival, but not before learning Kim and Kanye (Kardashian) West had arrived.
Maybe there would be leather ski suits after all.
Prices based on a five-day stay in December:
Hotel Jackson, from £385 per night for a family of three.
The Wort, from £231 per night for a family of four.
Anvil Hotel, from £231 per night for a family of four (tip: request a quiet room).
Visit the National Elk Refuge
Double H Bar provides sleigh rides at the refuge. Adults £18, 5-12 years £11.60, kids under four free.
Museum of Wildlife Art: adults £10.70, first child £4.60, additional child £1.50, kids four years and under, free.
Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris: half-day safari from £584 for four. Also offers overnight guided tours of Yellowstone National Park (spring only).
Snow King Mountain Resort: day pass £95 (under six years old £38), kids under five ski free.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort: season mid-November to early April.
Jackson Hole Mountain Sports School & Kids Ranch: adult full-day lesson £115. Kids Ranch Mountain School: three years and over, from £157 per child per day including lunch. Creche, six months to three years.
Delta Airlines departs Heathrow for either Salt Lake City or Los Angeles then connect to Jackson Hole Airport. Takes around 14 hours dependent on route and season. May require three flights so consider a layover to catch your breath.
From £793 per person (Christmas)
The START shuttle bus is free around Jackson, then £2.30 one way per person to Teton (children under eight free).
Lift tickets: all rides are loaded on to a smart J-card – one-off cost £3.80. Jackson Hole beginners’ lift passes: adult £36 per day, adult with junior (14 years and under) £16, junior £16. Mountain lift passes: from £112 per day, (children under five ski free). Big Red Aerial Tram: adult £25, junior £13.