Male elk fighting Elk herd in the National Elk Refuge of Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Male elk fighting Elk herd in the National Elk Refuge of Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
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by Lee Foster

Between December 1 and April 10 you can discover the copious winter pleasures of Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, an unusual terrain that might be called John Colter country.

John Colter arrived here in 1807, after serving in the Lewis and Clark expedition. A host of rugged mountain men later followed him to supply beaver pelts for the fashionable men’s hats of the period.

Today your experience can approximate the pristine adventure of Colter and his peers as you take a sleigh ride among the 7,500 elk at the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson Hole. You can also drive the back roads, on your own or with a trained biologist, to see more of the area’s abundant wildlife. You can then don cross-country skis, as Colter did, though technologies of ski design will make your skiing easier. Your immersion in the beauty of natural scenery, gazing at the Grand Tetons, will be quite similar to Colter’s. The Jackson Hole-Teton area is rightly called the last great preserved ecosystem of the temperate climate zone in North America.

NATIONAL ELK HERD

Regardless of your other interests, be sure to start your trip with a visit to the national elk herd. Get tickets for the ride at the National Museum of Wildlife Art, which is perched on a hill north of Jackson, overlooking the wintering herd. The museum itself is a fascinating place, with many bronze sculptures, paintings, and photo exhibits about wildlife. A van takes you from the staging area at the museum down to the horse-drawn sleighs for the ride out to see the elk. The elk have gathered here from time immemorial for their winter feeding, pawing through the snow to reach the dense grasses on the plains north of Jackson.

Under careful supervision of the National Refuge rangers, the sleigh operation takes visitors through the herd, which causes little stress to the animals. Rangers have learned that the elk feel minimal concern about the predictable horse-drawn sleigh or its 20 passengers, as long as no one leaves the sleigh.

As you approach the herd, you see them clustered in the distance, much as Colter did, like miniatures in the landscape. Gradually the antlered bulls and smaller cows stand out. When the sleigh moves through the herd, you are less than a hundred feet from these magnificent wild creatures, which comprise the largest herd of antlered animals in the U.S. Your experience of the elk in winter can’t be duplicated in summer, when the animals are skittish and disperse in the hills from Jackson north through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park.

Beyond the elk, there are exceptional opportunities to see other wildlife in winter at Jackson Hole. You can do this on your own by meandering the back roads with a map provided by the Information Center on the north edge of town. Alternatively, the service known as Teton Science Schools can put you in a safari-type van with a trained biologist to inform you thoroughly about wildlife and ecology in the Jackson Hole area.

OTHER WILDLIFE

With Teton Science Schools I saw wild moose, buffalo, coyote, bighorn sheep, trumpeter swans, ducks, and eagles, all in a three-hour trip. People taking the trip actually do wildlife research. We tracked several collared moose, noting their location and condition. Our guide had conducted studies over the years on porcupines and ferrets, working with forest service and park service biologists, but involving his daily travel customers in the research gathering.

A traveler learns wildlife-viewing etiquette from Segerstrom. For example, wildlife is not disturbed by people in cars because wildlife has learned that cars remain on the road and are not a threat. But people getting out of the their cars, walking, pointing, and making direct eye contact can put huge stress on the animals, many of which are on the edge of survival at the end of a cold winter. The pronghorn antelope is said to have eight-power eye magnification, making it possible to discern the frown or smile on your face even from considerable distance.

Male elk fighting Elk herd in the National Elk Refuge of Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
Male elk fighting Elk herd in the National Elk Refuge of Jackson Hole in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

After seeing the wildlife, treat yourself to some cross-country skiing at the Teton Village Nordic Center. There you can rent skis and use their loop trails adjacent to the National Park or take the skis in your car a few miles into the park to the groomed trail at Jenny Lake. Colter traversed the snow fields on home-made wooden skis. You benefit today from the 1970s breakthrough to fiberglass skis, whose flexibility and durability made cross-country skiing much easier.

SKIING AND OTHER WINTER ACTIVITIES

Jackson has become one of the country’s leading cross-country ski destinations because of its breathtaking terrain. A mixed terrain of flat meadows and gently rolling hills affords an ideal ski setting. The dry, powdery snow packs well into firm trails. The Grand Tetons or other steep mountain vistas loom above the nordic skier.

With a groomed trail your skis and poles glide over a packed snow rather than sink deeply into unpacked powder. However, back country ski trips, even helicoptering you to remote sites, can be arranged for those who want the most rustic experience.

Teton Village is a particularly convenient setting because the resort area consolidates many of the attractions of the region. Besides the cross-country ski trails, there is the superb downhill skiing at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which has outstanding mountain terrain and full resort amenities, including lodging and restaurants. Try the Alpenhof, for fine dining, and the Mangy Moose, for western eclectic decor and a relaxed atmosphere. The Mangy Moose is where the locals kick up their heels on Friday night to the sounds of local bands.

Connoisseurs of downhill skiing rank the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort as one of the finer ski experiences in the west. The 4,139-foot length of the vertical descent, with many challenging black diamond runs, plus the relatively uncrowded skiing conditions, are extraordinary. The quality and quantity of the snow, not to mention the scenic beauty, draw repeat customers.

Whether you ski or not, ride the gondola to the top of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for a stunning view of the Rockies. The view has changed little since John Colter first gazed upon this terrain.

Combine this view with a drive north into the park to see the pointed mountains that the early French trappers named The Great Breasts, Les Grands Tetons. The ruggedness of these geologically young mountains and the abruptness with which they rise from the plain are both impressive.

Colter, who had such expertise in outdoor skills, would have appreciated one other adventure available to you in Jackson. That adventure is dogsledding. Frank Teasley is one of the longterm providers. Pulled by a team of 12 Malamute or Alaskan dogs, you glide silently over the snow, covered by a warm buffalo robe. You may also stand on the back runner, help guide the sled, and shout out the musher lingo, telling the dogs gee (go right), haw (go left) and hike (move forward). A good musher will immerse you in the lore of dog sledding.

“Dog sledding isn’t exactly a hobby or a job,” says Frank Teasley. “You could call it a way of life.”

When John Colter, who might be called Wyoming’s first tourist, ventured into the region, it could not be said that the natives welcomed him warmly. In fact, the local Blackfoot Indians allowed Colter to escape with his life only because he had sufficient wit and stamina to elude them. Today’s Wyoming residents take an entirely different attitude toward visitors.

The genuine friendliness of Jackson can be attributed to many factors. The region is somewhat underdiscovered. The natives exhibit an underlying cowboy dude-ranch friendliness (13 working cattle ranches flourish in the area). There is also a vast space here with only 470,000 people in this least-populated state (outside of Alaska).

The typical native is an accessible outdoorsperson who likes to hunt and fish. Many of the residents are themselves outsiders who came here by choice to live. Residents of Jackson, moreover, are wise enough to realize that your presence here is the state economy’s #2 industry, after mining, which is mainly oil.

ACCOMMODATIONS

When considering your lodging, know that there is good lodging both at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and at Snow King Resort, a lodging on a second ski mountain, directly overlooking the town of Jackson Hole. Whether you lodge in town or outside, public shuttles can take you to the downtown square, noted for its elk-antler arches on each of the four corners. Stop in at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar or the nearby Silver Dollar Bar to absorb some of the local color. Jackson Hole is as close as a traveler will get to an authentic western-motif environment in a winter-sports setting.

In Jackson Hole, it could be said, much of the best that John Colter experienced remains. The more recent amenities enhance the region for a traveler without destroying its beauty.

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JACKSON HOLE, WYOMING: IF YOU GO

For information on the area, contact the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 550, Jackson, Wyoming 83001; 307/733-3316; www.jacksonholechamber.com.

Many lodgings in Jackson Hole can be arranged through the central reservation number, 800/443-6931.

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