Jackson Hole Jaunt

Sharing an ice cream cone with my maternal great-grandmother at Yellowstone Lodge is one of my earliest and fondest childhood memories.

Sharing an ice cream cone with my maternal great-grandmother at Yellowstone Lodge is one of my earliest and fondest childhood memories.

Our family has vacationed each July in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks for several generations, and this past summer I watched my little daughter’s sticky face light up in awe at the Old Faithful geyser, while one hand clutched a dripping cone from the very same shop and the other hand held my mother’s. The ancient geography of this precious corner of Wyoming is reassuring, but while the Tetons remain immutable, the town that has sprung up as their gateway is not.

Jackson Hole sits at the southern entry point to both the parks, and while it was once a haven for real cowboys—who fought John D. Rockefeller’s preservationist plans tooth and nail—it’s hardly a frontier town these days. Jackson has undergone a radical transformation in the past two decades, and with world-class skiing in addition to national park splendor, it just may be my favorite place on the planet.

While you can still toast to the Old West at places like the Silver Dollar Bar or Cadillac Grille, a new generation of fine dining and accommodations squarely places Jackson Hole alongside peers like Aspen or Vail, if not ahead … as Colorado can’t compete when bison, geysers or Harrison Ford are counted as assets – the latter a type of nouveau cowboy himself with extensive real estate holdings in the Jackson area.

Jackson Hole is closer than you think. United Airlines’ new direct flight from LAX means you can be on the ground in the shadow of Mt. Moran in just two and one-half hours, with no time-consuming plane changes in either Denver or Salt Lake City. When our house fills with winter refugees craving Southern California sunshine, I find myself craving snow, and Jackson offers some of the finest powder and most challenging runs in the West. And if sitting on bar stools made of saddles at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar isn’t your speed, there are plenty of other dining choices to round out your ski weekend.

One of the best meals I have had in recent years was at the Snake River Grill, where James Beard-nominated Chef Jeff Drew’s cuisine is matched by a surprisingly deep and sophisticated wine list. snakerivergrill.com

Just a few blocks off the Jackson Town Square and tucked into the superlative Rusty Parrot Lodge is Wild Sage, a tiny treasure of a restaurant I hate to mention, as its intimate dining room can only accommodate 26 guests. Make sure you’re one of them by making a reservation ahead of time, and ask to sit by the gorgeous river-rock fireplace. If ever there were a place to order a big, wintry red wine to savor, it’s at Wild Sage. Try a Cornas from Jean-Luc Colombo, one of my favorite northern Rhone producers, and pair it with game. rustyparrot.com

While holing up at the Rusty Parrot for the whole weekend might be tempting as the inn and spa are both also superb, the most luxurious of Jackson’s accommodations requires journeying outside the town itself. Amangani is one of just two U.S. properties operated by the legendary Aman group. Located about 15 minutes outside Jackson Hole, this über-resort is perched at the top of the East Gros Ventre Butte, and its panoramic views are without compare, as are its service and room rates. (Rooms in peak holiday season range from $925 for a suite to $4,800 a night for a private home at the resort.) Staying at Amangani at least once in your life ought to be mandatory, not discretionary. Its Zen aesthetic belies the sheer indulgence of it all; it’s restorative and egregiously luxurious at the same time, and it remains one of the most amazing resorts I have ever visited, bar none. amanresorts.com

An even newer addition to the hotel scene in Jackson is the very hip Hotel Terra, a LEED-certified eco-hotel that is located slope-side in Teton Village. Proving that green works even in wintry white settings, the Hotel Terra is modern without being austere and is fast becoming a favorite destination for a younger crowd of guests who genuinely care about both sustainability and snow. They’re offering a very tempting “stay three nights, get the fourth free” promotion this winter that just may convince you to make that long weekend even longer. hotelterrajacksonhole.com

Don’t forget to take time to appreciate the natural splendor of this area, even in winter. While some parts of Grand Teton and Yellowstone are decidedly inaccessible in the snowy season, the main road up from Jackson usually remains open. Consider a sleigh ride through the Elk Preserve or a scenic drive to watch the bison herd roam against colossal fields of virgin white. And Old Faithful remains faithful year-round, even if you wisely swap the ice cream for a hot chocolate while there for a visit yourself this holiday season.