Jackson Hole Holiday Yields Luxury, Adventure

November 16, 2010  
Filed under Travel

By Steve Bergsman

The snow stopped falling, but the temperature gauge barely moved, holding steady at about 20 degrees. There was no wind, and despite wearing nothing more than a bathing suit, I was very comfortable. A hot tub happily gurgling away in a frozen landscape does wonders for a person’s psyche, especially when it is on a mountaintop ledge that looks down on the Snake River Valley and across the expanse to the Grand Tetons.

To be perfectly honest, I couldn’t actually see the Grand Tetons because heavy, dark clouds filled with snow obscured the ranges that should have been in my line of sight. The evening would bring more snow. I was luxuriating in a splendid mountain resort outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming called Amangani.

How I ended up here had a lot to do with my winter sojourn of the year before.

Every year I look for some wonderfully frosty spot where I can enjoy cold-weather adventures such as hiking, ice fishing, dog-sledding or snowshoeing, and the winter prior I had traveled north of the Arctic Circle via Tromso, Norway. After getting caught in a five-day snowstorm, finding myself stranded in the Arctic wilderness and sleeping in a tent, I swore next winter I would instead travel to the land of luxury.

I made my arrangements for the delightful mountain burgh of Jackson Hole, where wealthy businesspeople mix with the Hollywood crowd over bison burgers and Beaujolais. My game plan was to start at the Amangani and end up at the Four Seasons, which was also well-sited at the base of the Teton Village ski lift. Any other year I would have skied until my knees collapsed, but not this trip. I was fully tuned into the lazy man’s outdoor experience.

I started with a stroll through the idiosyncratic shops that sell winter gear for extreme activities such as ice-climbing, gewgaws made from elk antlers and bronze statues of broncos stuck in mid buck. I didn’t buy anything, but I counted my walk as equal to a 10-mile hike through the backcountry.

After all that strolling about, I headed back to Amangani, which sits on the side of a mountain overlooking a flat river valley with the Tetons rising behind. It was time for a hot tub and a swim. Amangani also believes in the outdoors, as the lap pool was located next to the hot tub on the outdoor veranda.

The Four Seasons hot tub and lap pool wasn’t so picturesquely placed but was ornately and handsomely designed on a series of elevations. What I liked about the Four Seasons outdoor water area was that the attendees would snatch my towel and bathrobe and place them in a warming closet.

Besides the indulgences, however, my wife and I also found a number of outdoor activities that actually involved wildlife and the environment. One morning we took a kind of wildlife safari into the environs surrounding the city of Jackson (nee Jackson Hole).

Promptly at 7:30 a.m., with the temperature at a chilly minus 18 degrees, Kevin Taylor, a biologist with the Teton Science School’s Wilderness Expeditions unit, took us out to show us what kind of wildlife was in the area. Our first stop was the National Elk Refuge, 25,000 acres on the northern border of the city. Since time immemorial, tens of thousands of the region’s elk have migrated to this valley floor to avoid the deep snows of the surrounding mountains. On two sides of the refuge, a fence keeps the elk off the main road and out of the city, but in the other two directions, the elk are free to migrate in or out as their whims and needs dictate.

Our objective wasn’t to see the elk but rather to find a small group of bighorn sheep that made themselves at home along a lengthy butte in the middle of the refuge. The foggy morning made it difficult to spot them, but Taylor persistently kept us focused through binoculars and other sight scopes until it seemed we could almost touch the bighorn’s intricately curved headers.

We then drove north and stopped along the side of the highway to see a small herd of pronghorns that were making a rare appearance so far north in the winter. A few minutes later, we parked in a drive-out overlooking a winding river. Down below we could see two dark-furred moose lounging amongst the bushes.

(In 2009, the Four Seasons initiated its own customized wildlife expeditions, a four-hour trip with its own biologist/guide through the Grand Teton National Park, the Bridger Teton National Forest and the National Elk Refuge.)

The Jackson Hole Visitors Center sells tickets for a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the refuge. Not only is this a lot of fun, but sleigh drivers take their passengers directly into the herds of elk. They are so expert at this maneuver that the elk, normally very skittish, allow the sleighs filled with picture-taking tourists to mingle among them. While passengers can’t leave the sleigh, the elk wander very close.

Since the National Elk Refuge is open to the wide world of wildlife, it is also visited by other animals, mostly predators. Wolves, for example, have been spotted on the refuge. During my visit, we saw a number of coyotes. However, the biggest treat for many was a bald eagle that roosted in one of the few trees — and it, too, didn’t seem to mind a sleigh full of camera-toting tourists.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole is also worth a stop. Even our wrangler/sleigh driver, a tough outdoorsman, waxed poetic when he recommended the museum to his passengers.

While all of these activities (except the museum) are outdoors, they don’t require any specialized hiking gear since visitors are mostly inside a vehicle, nor are special skills required beyond dressing warmly. When my safaris were over, I journeyed back to the Four Seasons, warmed my cold feet before a roaring fire and ordered sushi.

IF YOU GO

Amangani has a fabulous location on the side of a mountain. While it is isolated, the resort runs shuttles to Jackson Hole and, for skiers, to Teton Village: www.amanresorts.com.

For skiers, the Four Seasons Resort at Jackson Hole is the most advantageous resort because it is located at the base of the Teton Village gondola. At the end of the day, enjoy apres-ski refreshments while watching the last of skiers head down from the mountain: www.fourseasons.com.

At Teton Science School Wildlife Expeditions, biologist Kevin Taylor doesn’t quit until you’ve seen what you came for: www.wildlifeexpeditions.org.

For Jackson Hole information and to arrange sleigh rides into the National Elk Preserve: www.jacksonholechamger.com.

The National Museum of Wildlife Art offers terrific collections of John Clymer and Carl Rungius, the masters of this genre: www.wildlife.org.

 

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