Reporting from Jackson, Wyo.—Rolling through Jackson Hole on the way into Grand Teton National Park for the first time, I spotted a boy on the cycle path alongside the road.
His family was a few yards behind him, and the Tetons were off to his left, their ragged, snowy peaks jutting above the Snake River and miles of meadow. The boy was taking it all in, his helmeted head tilted back. His legs were pumping. And his arms were off the handlebars, thrown out in scarecrow fashion. He was the King of the World, astride a shiny bike instead of a doomed ocean liner.
That's why, on some summer days, 35,000 visitors or more can be found prowling the 50-mile-long valley known as Jackson Hole: They want to be that boy.
The aspens and cottonwoods along the Snake River, the prospect of a meandering moose around every bend, the Teton peaks rising beyond 12,000 feet — this landscape demands that you climb a mountain, cross a creek, ride a horse, raft the river, then maybe leap from one of these serrated peaks in a paraglider, screaming with glee.
It helps, of course, if you're rich. Even in the current slump, some fancy travelers spend $695 a night to sleep at the Four Seasons resort here, and others drop $875 for a suite at the Amangani resort. Even at the national park's Jackson Lake Lodge — an ugly, brown box with a grand location — rates start at a daunting $224 for a room with no view, no TV and no air-conditioning.
Planning your trip
THE BEST WAY TO JACKSON, WYO., AND GRAND TETON NATIONAL PARK
From LAX, United offers nonstop service and Delta and United offering connecting (change of planes) service to the Jackson Hole, Wyo., airport.
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But I'm here to say there's room for the rest of us too, especially if you book well in advance. Even in the peak of summer, a family can snag a room or cabins for well south of $200 a night. Serious penny-pinchers can grab basic rooms at the centrally located Kudar Motel for $89 (no pool, though). Those with higher style and green sensibilities can book the Hotel Terra Jackson Hole in nearby Teton Village at $199 and up. Traveling in late June with my wife, Mary Frances, and our 6-year-old, Grace, I split the difference and paid $142 (with auto club discount) for a snug, playground-adjacent cabin at the Cowboy Village Resort, about six blocks from Jackson's town square.
If we had waited two months, we might have cut costs even more. Around Labor Day, prices fall dramatically, and they keep falling as temperatures sink, the aspens and cottonwoods go golden, and furry beasts creep down from the mountains to their winter haven in the National Elk Refuge just outside of town. This year, those $695 rooms at the Four Seasons fall to $183 if you book a three-night stay between Sept. 29 and Dec. 12.
But you have to do some homework. Afternoon highs sink from near 80 in July to the mid-50s in October, and many businesses close for the season.
In Teton Village, for instance, the Aerial Tram runs May 29-Sept. 25. Couloir, the fancy restaurant at the top of Teton Village's Bridger Gondola, runs June 27-Sept. 10. The Bar T 5 Covered Wagon Cookout, which carries customers by horse-drawn carriage to a cowboy dinner and entertainment in Cache Creek Canyon outside Jackson, runs May 12-Sept. 30.
Inside the park, the Jenny Lake Lodge operates May 30-Oct. 10, and the lake's shuttle boat and canoe and kayak rental operation run May 15-Sept. 30. The Jackson Lake Lodge, cabins and restaurants operate May 21-Oct. 3. (At Yellowstone National Park, which begins eight miles north of Grand Teton National Park, many lodgings and restaurants end their seasons even sooner.) The Jackson Hole Fall Arts Festival, which brings artists, music and cowboy poetry to town, runs Sept. 9-19.
We started in the town of Jackson (about 9,000), which was laid out in the 1890s. From the beginning, the town was a looker, its little grid of log cabins cradled by curvaceous hills. By day in summer, those steep hills gleam neon green. By night, they stand in theatrical silhouette under skies that stay blue well beyond 9 p.m.
The place looks so much like a movie set that it's no surprise to learn that by the 1930s, John Wayne had shot one of his first Westerns here ("The Big Trail"). And the stagecraft has never stopped.
In the '50s, local boosters started stacking elk antlers to make a quartet of arches that still stand in the town square. They also started staging Old West shootouts Mondays through Saturdays every summer. All these years later, the shootings continue while travelers line up at Moo's Gourmet Ice Cream ($3.50 a scoop), pet the stuffed Alaskan wolf at Jackson Mercantile ($4,299) or browse the Realtors' windows for that perfect $750,000 ski condo. (People have been skiing here since the early 20th century, but the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, which went up in the 1960s, put this area on the map for many upscale travelers.)
These days, Jackson is where the Old West meets new wealth, where (as Don Pitcher puts it in his Moon guidebook to the area) locals say billionaires are buying up so much land, they're driving out the millionaires.
Stick your head into one of those century-old log cabins near the square and you may find a tony restaurant that opened just this year (Café Genevieve on Broadway) or a slightly pricier one that's in its third decade (Sweetwater on King Street). In either restaurant, you'll find $20 entrees and drinks served in mason jars.