WYOMING WINTER WONDERLAND: JACKSON HOLE

Nestled in Northwestern Wyoming, just a stone’s throw from the Idaho border, Jackson Hole is a postcard-perfect setting. Surrounded by jagged peaks and threaded with rushing rivers, the valley is rich with flora and fauna, while the town itself is still small enough to epitomize our vision of the American West.

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The unique name was coined by trappers and early settlers who had the sensation of entering a “hole” as they descended into the valley from the neighboring Teton Mountain Range in the west and the Gros Ventre Mountain Range in the east. A paradise for outdoorsy types, Jackson Hole is home to world-class skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling in the winter, as well as top-notch white water rafting, fly fishing and hiking in the summer.

Getting There

Jackson Hole has its own airport just 20 minutes from the center of town. Though touted as the busiest commercial airport in the state of Wyoming, that’s not to say it’s large. However, United does offer direct flights from both Newark and San Francisco once per day during peak season. There are also several connection options through Salt Lake City Airport and Denver Airport.

Now that I live in Southern California, we flew Delta on a quick hour and a half flight from San Diego to Salt Lake City where we then hopped on our next flight to Jackson that only took 31 minutes! The Salt Lake City airport is small enough to make connections a breeze. And any stress from travel will immediately dissipate when you land at Jackson Hole Airport and are greeted by locals with complimentary mimosas and granola bars as you wait for your luggage.

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Where to Stay

There are two main areas to stay in Jackson Hole: (1) Teton Village which is situated at the base of the primary ski mountain and (2) Jackson town center, which is located about 20 minutes’ drive from Teton Village. It’s relatively easy to travel between the two even if you don’t rent a car, as the town offers free shuttle service. I discovered that many of the hotels offer their own shuttles as well. Teton Village is just steps from the slopes and has a handful of hotels and restaurants, while the town of Jackson is further to the main ski mountain but offers a wider variety of lodging and dining options… so where you choose to stay is really based on personal preference.

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The first time I visited Jackson Hole (albeit 10 years ago) we stayed at the Alpenhof Lodge, a cozy, chalet-style hotel in Teton Village. This time I was eager to stay in the town of Jackson, and came across Hotel Jackson. Touted as a luxury boutique property, the hotel features: 55 rooms with in-room fireplaces, a rooftop hot tub to soothe your muscles post-skiing, a fitness center, restaurant, and a stunning library. As mentioned above, they also offer complimentary shuttle service to the base of the ski mountain, as well as cookies and tea each day around 4:30-5 pm. Beyond the amenities of the hotel and the comfort of our room, the location was absolutely perfect – just steps from the main town square and less than 5 minutes’ walking distance to everywhere we wanted to eat.

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I was also lucky enough to extend my stay in Jackson Hole for a work trip where I had the opportunity to stay at Amangani – the ultimate luxury property, operating by Aman Resorts. Amangani doesn’t really fit into the two location camps I mentioned above, but instead is located off on its own, perched atop a hillside with stunning views of the surrounding valley and mountains. With just 40 suites (all with terraces overlooking that incredible view), the property is incredibly intimate. While the whole experience at Amangani is stunning, the perfectly heated pool and hot tub on the terrace is really the showstopper.

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What to Do

  • SkiingJackson Hole Mountain Resort is one of the more challenging ski mountains in the United States. With dozens of un-groomed trails and a steep vertical grade, this mountain is no joke. For those looking to ski at the resort, you can purchase passes in advance to avoid ticket lines on the day of. And for those renting gear, I would also highly recommend Door2Door Ski Rental, which can also be reserved in advance and will be delivered straight to your hotel room upon arrival. IMG_8694
  • Heli-SkiingHigh Mountain Heli Skiing is the only heli-ski operator in town and, while they will pick you up in Jackson, their base of operations is actually about 30 minutes away in nearby Victor, Idaho. Heli-skiing is weather dependent and a much more expensive ski option, however the conditions are like nothing you have ever experienced at a standard ski resort. With untouched powder up to your knees, you will glide down backcountry slopes with your guide, winding through evergreen trees, and meeting the helicopter slope-side to take multiple runs through the pristine wilderness. This is definitely a bucket-worthy experience if you can stomach the price tag and are up to the challenge. But get ready for your legs to seriously burn! IMG_8706 2IMG_8680IMG_8697
  • SnowshoeingThe Hole Hiking Experience offers guided hikes in the summer, and guided snowshoeing in the winter. This was my first time snowshoeing but it is basically assisted walking and easy for anyone to try. They offer 2-hour, half day and full day excursions based on your preference. We opted for the full day and that meant that we had a private guide take us snowshoeing through nearby Grand Teton National Park. While the day was fairly overcast making it difficult to appreciate the beauty of the mountains, we were treated to warm weather and some sun/snow showers that made us feel like we were walking through a snow globe. IMG_8738IMG_8739
  • Snowmobiling – On my first visit to Jackson Hole, I did a full-day snowmobiling tour of Yellowstone National Park, which is about an hour’s drive from town. Though this is a longer excursion, it was incredibly worth it and probably one of the most memorable days I’ve spent with my family. This year, as part of my work trip, we took part in a shorter snowmobiling excursion. IMG_8837
  • National Parks – As mentioned above, Grand Teton National Park is only 5-10 minutes’ from the town of Jackson and Yellowstone National Park is just an hour or so north. While both parks are beautiful to visit in the summer, they are equally as enjoyable in the winter where you can enjoy snowmobiling, snowshoeing and spot plenty of wildlife.  LRG_DSC01644
  • National Elk Refuge – Another unique aspect of Jackson Hole is that it’s home to the National Elk Refuge which was founded in 1912 in order to help preserve the area’s elk population. In the summertime, elk disperse into the nearby forests, mountains and national parks, but in the wintertime with colder temperatures and snow blanketing the ground, the elk congregate at lower elevations in search of food. The National Elk Refuge welcomes thousands of elk during the winter months, protecting them from predators and starvation by providing a safe area and supplemental feedings. Guests to Jackson Hole can visit the Elk Refuge on a sled or wagon to learn more about these animals. The elk also shed their antlers every year on the refuge which are then collected and used to create the iconic arches in Jackson town square.IMG_8707

Where to Eat & Drink

Earlier this winter we took a ski trip to Breckenridge, CO and while the food was hearty and satisfying after a long day skiing, it was about what you’d expect from a mountain town. Jackson Hole, however, really blew us away with the diversity of restaurants, the quality of the ingredients and the creativity of the chefs.

  • Snake River Grill – A Jackson Hole staple, this is one of the finer dining establishments in town. A local gave us a tip to order the steak tartar pizza and she did not steer us wrong! IMG_8708
  • King Sushi – You wouldn’t think to order sushi in a mountain town, but this tiny spot seriously impressed with the quality of its fish and innovative dishes.
  • The Bunnery – If you’re staying at the Hotel Jackson and walk out the back door, The Bunnery is just across the way – a perfect spot for very quick, yet delicious breakfast.IMG_8713IMG_8710
  • Lotus Cafe – Capitalizing on recent trends in Wellness, the Lotus Cafe offers plenty of healthy options (both vegan and non) in an absolutely stunning space. IMG_8735IMG_8732
  • Bin 22 – Part wine bar, part wine store, this is a great place for a cold glass of wine and some fresh mozzarella. They also have great happy hour deals – perfect for après ski.
  • Piste Mountain Bistro – I love an on-mountain sit-down lunch. There’s no better ski break then kicking off your boots and sitting down to a gourmet meal. This restaurant at the top of The Bridger Gondola offers just that. Don’t miss the cheddar biscuits with honey butter. IMG_8716
  • The Kitchen – Another trendy restaurant in town with interesting decor and a modern spin on traditional American fare. The scallops entrée I ordered was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.  And who could pass up a skillet chocolate chip cookie topped with vanilla ice cream? IMG_8807
  • Snake River Brewery – Another great après ski spot, especially if you’re into local beer. You can order a tasting flight (pictured) to try multiple brews. IMG_8720
  • Million Dollar Cowboy Bar – Just off the town square this iconic bar has been around since the 1930s. The barstools are made out of saddles and the bar is full of Western paraphernalia including old cattle brands embedded in the bar top and local taxidermy. Hidden beneath the main bar is a newly opened speakeasy steakhouse serving up some really delicious food. IMG_8717
  • Yippy I-O Candy Company – Your childhood dreams will come true at this traditional candy store filled with barrels and buckets of almost every candy you can think of.

Wildlife

As with elk, big horn sheep and moose also congregate at lower elevations in the winter months making it easier to spot these amazing animals!

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We absolutely loved every aspect of visiting Jackson Hole – from the welcoming locals, to the diversity of activities, the town offers something for everyone and we can’t wait to visit again in the warmer months!

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US NATIONAL PARKS: CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION

This past month was the 100th Anniversary of the US National Park Service, which was created in August 1916 through the National Park Service Organic Act. The NPS now manages 59 separate parks throughout the United States, encompassing 84.4 million acres!

When I was a kid, my parents made a point to take my brother and I to a new National Park once a year (when possible), so I have many wonderful memories hiking through these beautiful wilderness preserves. To this day, my “bucket list” includes every single US National Park I haven’t had the chance to explore yet. To celebrate the Centennial (a little bit late), I wanted to share some of my favorite National Park trips:

  1. Glacier National Park (Montana) – While I’m not ranking this list per se, I have the fondest memories of visiting Glacier. The massive mountains, bright blue sky, crystal clear lakes, and pristine glaciers set a spectacular backdrop for a week of hiking and exploring with my family. Definitely don’t miss a drive along the Going-to-the-Sun Road and the 10-mile roundtrip hike (it’s worth it!) to Iceberg Lake
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    Glacier National Park, Montana [Photo Credit: Kerry Bollerman]
  2. Olympic National Park & Mount Rainier National Park (Washington) – This was our very first National Park trip and I still treasure the amazing photo of my brother and I in front of Mount Rainier, the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Both parks are an easy trip from Seattle. If you have extra time, I also recommend a visit to the Mt. Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument, where the 1980 volcanic eruption took place.
  3. Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) – While the majority of visitors to Yellowstone arrive in the summer months, I highly recommend visiting in the winter. A few years ago, I was skiing in Jackson Hole over Christmas and we decided to take a day trip to Yellowstone to go snowmobiling. It was an incredible day that I’ll never forget. Not only did we get to zip through the pristine winter wilderness with nary another soul around, but we also saw plenty of bison, thermal pools, and even a pack of wolves far off in the distance. 
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    Stopped by bison, while snowmobiling in Yellowstone [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  4. Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona), Zion National Park and Bryce National Park (Utah) – The Grand Canyon is indeed grand and an amazing natural wonder to see. On the South Rim, El Tovar is one of the top National Park lodges you’ll find and well positioned for a perfect sunrise viewing over the canyon. But, don’t skip exploring the less popular North Rim, which is much greener and still offers amazing hikes and magnificent vistas (with fewer crowds). A trip to the Grand Canyon can also easily be combined with two Utah parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon. My two favorite hikes in Zion National Park are The Narrows, where you actually hike through water (great for a hot day) and Angel’s Landing, a strenuous 5 mile hike that leads you to the precipice of a cliff for an awesome view. And while Bryce is much smaller than the Grand Canyon, the hoodoos are such a unique geographical phenomenon that it’s well worth the hour plus drive from Zion.
  5. Volcanoes National Park (Hawaii) – A must-see if you’re visiting the Big Island of Hawaii. A full day trip to Volcanoes National Park includes great hiking through rainforests and along the lava fields. But for a true volcanic experience, you can stay in the park past nightfall, when the lava in the caldera emits a bright orange glow and the night sky dazzles with The Milky Way. Unfortunately my camera didn’t do it justice!
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    Volcanoes National Park at night [Photo Credit: Daphne Hagan]
  6. Denali National Park (Alaska) – A cruise along the Inside Passage is a great way to see Alaskan wildlife, glaciers and coastal towns inaccessible by land, but if you have some time to head inland, Denali National Park is just spectacular. When I visited Alaska a few years ago, we didn’t quite have enough time to head into the park on foot, but from our base at the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, just south of the park, we booked an aerial tour. The eagle’s eye view of the park from our tiny plane really put the grandness and jaw-dropping beauty of Alaska into perspective. We even flew directly over Denali, the highest peak in North America reaching 20,310 feet at its summit.
  7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina / Tennessee) – Surprisingly, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park, boasting 10 million visitors annually, almost twice that of the park in the #2 spot (Grand Canyon). A perfect time to visit is in the fall, when the leaves are changing and you can hike amid brilliant autumn colors. In 2001, the National Park Service, reintroduced elk into the park which had been absent since the 1800s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Now the elk are thriving in the Smokies and are relatively easy to spot in the meadows early in the morning or in the evening. (While I have only visited the NC portion of the park, a dream of mine is to return and stay at Blackberry Farm, a luxurious, yet rustic Relais & Chateaux property just 15 miles from the park’s border in Tennessee). 

  8. Rocky Mountain National Park (Colorado) – Only an hour and a half from Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park is one of the easiest parks to visit! I wrote more about my visit to Rocky Mountain in my Denver post. I definitely recommend a stay at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park, Colorado (where the Shining was filmed).

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    Rocky Mountain National Park

There are so many more National Parks on my list, but the top parks I am dying to visit are:

  1. Yosemite National Park & Joshua Tree National Park (California)
  2. Isle Royale National Park (Michigan)
  3. Katmai National Park (Alaska)
  4. Arches National Park (Utah)
  5. Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

What are your favorite National Parks?