"I don’t think you can get to Jackson from here," my husband said as we waited in a long line of cars for the highway to reopen. The road over Teton Pass from eastern Idaho had been closed by one of those wind-whipping snowstorms for which the Rockies are famous. Fred glowered out at the swirling snowflakes. "Yeah, Mom," our daughter chimed in. "We don’t think there is any Jackson." After a few hands of Go Fish, the snowplows triumphantly emerged. The traffic inched forward, and then we were barreling down the bleak wintertime road, each car its own world, past fields of thigh-deep snow and towering mountains shrouded in clouds.
Yes, Jackson exists, I could prove. But in the 20 years since I’d last visited, the place had changed. I’d heard the stories. Jackson, the Wyoming ranch town where billionaires are chasing out the millionaires. The home of the "6-2-2"—6,000 square feet for two people for two weeks a year. As we made our way through the snow-heaped streets in breath-catching 20-below cold, I wasn’t surprised to see high-end real estate companies, boutique Western wear stores, tony restaurants, and glitzy galleries by the dozen.
Despite the unabashed wealth, Jackson is quite manageable for those of us who aren’t just managing our investments. The city has an inexpensive public bus system, a range of restaurants, and hotels with good ski packages. Attendants are genial, if impersonal—like the bellboy who each night gave us a big smile, helped us schlep our gear, and asked us anew where we were from.
In fact, people have been traveling to the area for centuries, whether it was the Blackfeet and Gros Ventre on hunting trips, trappers arriving for their annual rendezvous, big-game hunters in the 19th century, or Easterners flocking to guest ranches in the 1930s. Even the conspicuous affluence is nothing new. John D. Rockefeller Jr. bought vast cattle ranches in the late 1920s and 1930s and eventually donated much of the land that became Grand Teton National Park.
"Tourism has been a part of Jackson since the settlers arrived in the late 1800s," says Lokey Lytjen, executive director of the Jackson Hole Historical Society and Museum. "The things that have historically attracted people here—the landscapes, vistas, wildlife, recreational opportunities—still attract people here."
We began our own stay at the Wort Hotel, opened in 1941 by Charles Wort, who homesteaded here in 1893. Built of hand-quarried red stone, the Swiss-style hotel remains a Jackson centerpiece with its buffalo mounts, overstuffed chairs, antique blackjack table, and vintage photographs of long-skirted women on boiled-wood skis and rodeo cowboys on wheeling broncos. While my children savored chocolate silver dollars in the lobby, I followed shouts to the hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar, where ruddy-faced skiers leaned elbow to elbow over a bar paved with 2,032 silver dollars from the Denver mint. That night we flopped, exhausted, on a peeled-log bed.
Jackson, the next morning, was clean swept and open. As we lugged our skis to the town square, where the bleached elk antler arches have been Jackson’s emblem since 1932, we watched skiers and tubers descend the slopes at Snow King, a ski area just six blocks away. Aboard our shuttle to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort across the valley, we toured the snow-flocked town as the ponytailed bus driver joked about the guy from Kansas who didn’t like Jackson because "the mountains got in the way of the scenery."
And then we skied, as visitors have been doing since early residents put up a rope tow at Teton Pass in the 1930s. At the top of 10,400-foot Rendezvous Mountain, we breathed in the thin, cold air and gaped at the high peaks of Grand Teton National Park and, below, at the wide valley or "hole" named in 1829 for fur trapper David Jackson.
"Mo-om," my son, Tobin, said quietly. "How do we get down?"
"Hey," his sister, Phoebe, said and shrugged, "we’ve skied black diamonds before."
We took the plunge—but followed green dots marking the safer route, negotiating moguls and traverses with clean, light snow floating out behind us and my own heart soaring as I watched my kids turning down the slopes ahead of me.
Weary but happy, we set out to dine—high adventure in a town with more than 70 eateries. That night we enjoyed veal-stuffed agnolotti at Nani’s, a snug and jumbled house with checked tablecloths and friendly waiters. Another time we splurged for maple-glazed duck breast with truffled mascarpone orzo at Wild Sage, an intimate restaurant with handmade hickory chairs and a crackling blaze in its stone fireplace. Our bank account’s salvation was Pearl Street Bagels, where we munched fresh baked goods with the lift operators on their way to work.
In the morning the kids and I packed into a van with a dozen others and headed out past Hoback Junction to Jackson Hole Iditarod Sled Dog Tours, an outfit that Iditarod veteran Frank Teasley started as a "pension plan" for experienced racers. At his headquarters, guides harnessed dogs to sleds while nearly 200 Alaskan huskies with names like Pop Tart and Brewster howled, barked, umped, and whined. Then, with my children in the sled’s basket and a guide beside me on the runners, we drove into the quiet of deep snow, eight dogs bounding ahead of us toward Granite Hot Spring. Miles on, we gathered around a campfire, glad to stretch, drinking cocoa and hot soup as the dogs eyed us, panting, ready to spring back into action.
Later, at the sod-roofed visitor center in the National Elk Refuge, Tobin and I ogled wildlife displays and heard recordings of bugling elk before boarding a horse-drawn sleigh to ride among the wintering herd of nearly 7,200 white-rumped elk, who one by one raised their magnificent heads at the clop of the horses’ hooves. As our guide explained how the animals move into the valley in autumn, Tobin leaned forward. I knew he wanted to touch one. So did I. But for some reason—perhaps the elk’s sheer wildness—we didn’t.
Just across Highway 89 at the National Museum of Wildlife Art we discovered wildness in another medium. The museum’s 14 galleries feature a 3,900-piece collection of oils, sculptures, photographs, and sketches of Western animals and landscapes. Just as the refuge was planned to preserve wild elk, the exhibits here preserve our respect for wildlife itself.
While I studied the massive bison in George Catlin’s Buffalo Bull Grazing and the venerable grizzly stalking across a snowy mountain meadow in Carl Rungius’s The Humpback, Tobin immersed himself in an organized treasure hunt, trying to locate paintings of predator and prey or a female animal and her offspring.
That evening we found ourselves roaming among the elk antler arches of the town square, dipping into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar—famous for its saddle-topped barstools—and ambling past bright art galleries, espresso shops, and a 1911 log church. "Dudes winter better than cows," someone had said of Jackson’s transformation. And there we were, like so many before us, strolling and people-watching, soaking up the cow town ambience on a boardwalk that still creaks.