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For decades, Jackson Hole’s reputation for its abundance of expert terrain — and relatively little else — preceded it.
It was a place most attractive to hard-core, expert-level skiers — often guys, or as a longtime female resident put it, “Pretty stinky guys.”
After all, who has time for hygiene when you’ve got to catch the first tram on a powder day?
Yet, steadily, a resort once synonymous with the “steep and deep” has become increasingly attractive to families, regardless of their abilities on the slopes.
Jess McMillan, a Freeskiing World Tour champion who was raised in the area, remembers well when “everything was about big air and jumping and how hard core can you possibly be.”
“Now there’s a different side to Jackson Hole with the luxury hotels and getting a massage. It’s totally different,” she said. “You can go out for a nice dinner and everyone’s showered, looks clean and fresh. It’s not like you just go down the bar at the Mangy Moose and talk about how awesome you were.”
Even the Mangy Moose is full of children now, during winter holidays in particular, some getting their first taste of a buffalo burger.
Decades ago, most of the children skiing at Jackson Hole grew up there, while families from regional hubs such as Idaho Falls and Pocatello, Idaho, tended to gravitate to Grand Targhee, a smaller, wide-open, winter-wonderland type of place on the other side of the Teton range.
Grand Targhee and Jackson Hole are separate resorts, but practically impossible to discuss independently of one another — and they know it. They work as partners to promote ski trips to their somewhat remote but stunningly scenic northwest corner of Wyoming. Daily buses transport skiers from one to the other.
Recent developments at both resorts, usually less than an hour apart by car, have made them each more attractive to skiers of all types.
Grand Targhee — renowned for its consistent snowfall and routinely dreamlike powder conditions — has worked to improve options for advanced skiers, including snowcat tours.
Jackson Hole has poured resources into a process called summer grooming, which entails removing rocks, stumps and brush from slopes, widening runs, planting grass and installing winch points to make trails easier to groom in winter and consequently more inviting to less aggressive skiers. About 50 acres of terrain have been improved in areas called Sun Dog, Wide Open, South Pass Traverse, St John’s, Laramie Bowl, Amphitheatre Bowl, Gros Ventre, Slalom and Cirque.
The new Teton Lift, scheduled to open next year, will serve some new intermediate terrain. But the resort has had to strike a balance between making the resort more inviting to a wider customer base and preserving its essence as a place where the best skiers find challenges. Not that the terrain, with 4,139 vertical feet and 2,500 skiable acres, could be altered much — after all, the Tetons’ beauty lies in the stark contrast created by their rugged rise from the relatively flat valley below that was once dominated by ranch land along the famous Snake River.
But amenities have improved, with more family-friendly lodging — replete with indoor pools and day care — around the resort base area and fine-dining with a panoramic view of the Gros Ventre Range partway up the mountain. Upgrades at the Jackson airport, along with more flights, have also made the area more accessible.
“It’s incredible — 10 to 15 years ago there weren’t a lot of options at Teton Village, in the resort proper,” McMillan recalled. “Now, essentially, you could fly into Jackson, go to the resort and never leave.”
But regular bus service into Jackson actually makes it easy to check out the town’s dining and shopping options, many featuring local ingredients — an elk and huckleberry bratwurst, for example, or beef from local ranches, or cutthroat trout from the Snake River.
There is a movie theater, art galleries featuring local artists’ depictions of life in the Mountain West, as well as museums and a visitor’s center.
Other activities include cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, an outdoor skating rink, dogsledding, sleigh rides, and even sleigh or wagon rides into the heart of an elk refuge. A day trip to the Granite Hot Springs is yet another option.
McMillan, 35, who’s traveled the world for competitions or to star in Warren Miller movies, still lives in Jackson Hole. When she’s home, she notices how local ski fashion has transformed, and sees it as symbolic of a resort that is increasingly welcoming to skiers of all genders, ages and abilities.
“I remember when almost every good skier was wearing black so they could go poach (ski under the ropes into closed-off sections) and not get caught. They were like Ninjas hiding from the ski patrol and trying to get the sickest line,” McMillan said. “Now it’s almost like a fashion show — bright colors everywhere.”
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