STANDING ON A MOUNTAINSIDE in Wyoming’s Teton Range, Matt Combs surveys the broad valley known as Jackson Hole. Combs’s ancestors were Mormon homesteaders who settled here in the 19th century, joining a few hundred hardy prospectors, ranchers and trappers. The valley’s economy has changed considerably since then: Outdoor-oriented tourism now rules. This explains—at least in part—why Combs has a passenger attached with carabineers to his chest harness, and a paragliding sail tied with long lines to his back.
Together, Combs and the visitor run down a steep, grassy slope. One second their feet are striking terra firma; the next they’re pedaling pure air, like Wile E. Coyote as he hurtles off the edge of a cliff. They have become a human kite.
The sail soars as Combs pulls on the lines to steer. His passenger, vision-blurring vertigo ebbing, cautiously takes in the view. The paraglider banks left toward a line of snowcapped summits and jagged black rock that shoots up from the valley floor to a height of nearly 14,000 feet, like the armored plates of a stegosaurus. (The name of the Teton Range was devised by lonely French-Canadian trappers who traversed this valley in the 1800s. The mountains reminded them of tétons, or breasts, and the reference stuck.) Now the paraglider banks right, heading out over Jackson Hole, 12 miles wide by 40 miles long, ironing-board flat and flanked by peaks. The Snake River winds through golden plains that are home to elk and bison.
“Do you like roller coasters?” Combs asks his passenger.
Too late: With sharp tugs on the lines, Combs sends the paraglider into a highspeed series of corkscrews. At the last second, just as the ground gets dangerously close, he eases up, and they land lightly. Though it’s a familiar event for Combs, he’s still energized by the flight—and by his surroundings. “I’m living inside the magic bubble,” he says. “Where else could I support myself by paragliding?”
TICKET TO THE TETONS
Very few people, in fact, are lucky enough to live where Combs does. With real estate scarce and exorbitantly priced, Teton County has only 20,000 or so full-time residents. Fortunately, the area is served by a growing number of luxury hotels and high-end restaurants. Hundreds of thousands of visitors each year come here to experience Western heritage and some of the country’s most spectacular natural landscapes.
Paragliding is only one way to appreciate it. Short hikes, rafting trips, horseback rides and scenic drives also showcase Jackson Hole. A full 97 percent of the county is protected as public land, including the National Elk Refuge, on the valley floor; and two national parks: Grand Teton, encompassing the mountainous west, and Yellowstone, whose steaming geysers and multicolored pools lie to the north. (Admission to the refuge
is free; a $25-per-vehicle pass allows a week’s admission to both Grand Teton and Yellowstone.)
BIRTH OF A PARK
More than any other mountain range in the United States, the serrated, pyramidal Tetons resemble the Swiss Alps. Congress established a 96,000-acre national park in 1929 that included only the mountains and the lakes at their bases. More than a decade later the park was expanded eastward by 221,000 acres after President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a group of conservationists triumphed in a battle against local ranchers. A key player in the effort was John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who purchased more than 35,000 acres of land and turned most of it over to the park. It was only last November, after another generous donation from the Rockefeller family, that Grand Teton National Park opened its newest addition to the public—the 1,100-acre Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve.
To explore it, drive or bike the Moose-Wilson Road, watching for deer and moose as you go. From the new visitor center (which opens this summer), hike the trail through a gray-green sagebrush meadow and along Lake Creek into the forest. After about two miles, you’ll emerge to a stunning vista of Phelps Lake, backed by the rocky wall of the Tetons. Until recently, it was a view admired by only the Rockefellers and their friends.
The national park has dozens of other hiking trails, some also open to horseback riders (Grand Teton Lodge Co.; $48 for a two-hour ride; 800-628-9988; gtlc.com). For a more adventurous exploration, consider a guided two-day mountaineering ascent of 13,770-foot Grand Teton with Exum Mountain Guides (from $515 each for two people; 307-733-2297).
RIDE AND RELAX
Toward the southern end of the Moose-Wilson Road is Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. A ski area in winter, in summer it’s open for mountain biking on seven miles of single-track trails that snake through forests and wildflower-dotted meadows. In the base village, JH Sports rents mountain, road and hybrid bikes (from $25 for a half-day; 307-739-2687).
After all that activity, relax at one of the base-village hotels, such as the 145-room Teton Mountain Lodge, which has a new spa, or the luxurious Four Seasons. The newest of the group is the 72-room Hotel Terra, opened in January. An eco-friendly option (it expects to earn a coveted Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification this year), Terra has a spa and two restaurants. Vacationers on a budget should consider Hostel X, a rustic, family-owned ski lodge. You can play ping-pong or pool with locally famous skiers and climbers in the bunkhouse common room.
OLD WEST MEETS NEW
The town of Jackson, at the southern end of the valley, is home to 8,500 residents. Giant arches made of elk antlers mark the entrances to the town square, while wooden sidewalks crisscross downtown. More people come to Jackson to play than to work, but those who live here are proud of the area’s Wild West past—which they preserve with varying degrees of dusty authenticity and entertaining kitsch.
Wild West Designs showcases an amazing variety of frontier-themed décor: antler chandeliers, elk-antler candleholders, plastic “bison head” lamps, deerskin-framed mirrors, benches suspended between wagon wheels, and barstools with replica Colt .45 pistols for arms (140 W. Broadway; 307-734-7600). The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, meanwhile, offers pool, beer and live music—Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr., have played here (25 N. Cache St.; 307-733-2207). The bar stools at this saloon are horse saddles; tabletops are slices of massive tree trunks; and the walls are hung with murals of cowboys and frantic cattle drives. Glass cases hold spur collections and a life-size diorama of a wolf attacking a ram.
In Jackson, remnants of the Old West brush up against the glitzier New—this is a dynamic place, not simply a museum. After catching a show at the Jackson Hole Playhouse, you can order a huckleberry shake at the soda counter in the lobby (145 W. Deloney Ave.; 307-733-6994; jhplayhouse.com). Next door, Thoenig’s Fine Jewelry displays glittering Rolex and Breitlung watches (125 W. Deloney Ave.; 307-733-4916). The rustic Rawhide Motel is across the street from Sotheby’s International Realty, whose window advertises a four-bedroom house and ranch spread that will set you back $12 million.
Jackson Hole is red-meat country, and good burgers are easy to find at places like local favorite Snake River Brewing Co. Meanwhile, the highly regarded Snake River Grill serves upscale Western fare like crisp pork shank with cider glaze, and dry-aged buffalo steak with cabernet butter.
One of Jackson’s best restaurants is the unassuming Trio Bistro. The offerings are simple—roast pork, sautéed trout—but the ingredients are fresh and the preparations flawless. Trio serves special cocktails, too, but this being Jackson, a town not entirely divorced from its rough-hewn past, guests should choose carefully. On a recent night at the restaurant, a male visitor ordered a Pomegranate Cosmo. As he finished, a whiskey on the rocks arrived at his table. It turned out to have been sent by a couple sitting nearby. “Your drink just looked so . . . pink,” the woman said. “We thought you might like something else.”
Wild West clothier
The Duke, the Gambler, the Cattleman Crease—you’ll find all these styles of cowboy hat and more at Beaver Creek Hat & Leather Co. beavercreekhats.com
A perennial top 10 favorite on lists of America’s best ski-town bars, the Mangy Moose Saloon is filled with live music, cold beer and the energy of people inspired by a day of outdoor play. mangymoose.net
The National Museum of Wildlife Art displays some 4,000 sculptures, paintings and photographs, including works by John J. Audubon, Albert Bierstadt and Charles Russell. wildlifeart.org
Breakfast on the run
Pearl Street Bagels—hot, fresh, fast and delicious. 145 W. Pearl St.; 307-739-1218
RCI®-affiliated resorts in Jackson Hole include:
JACKSON HOLE RACQUET CLUB, Wilson
For more information, visit RCI.com or call
NON-RCI-AFFILIATED JACKSON HOLE HOTELS
Hotel Terra 3335 W. Village Rd., Teton Village
doubles from $189
Four Seasons Resort 7680 Granite Loop
Rd., Teton Village; 307-732-5000;
fourseasons.com; doubles from $350
Teton Mountain Lodge 3385 W. Village Dr.,
Teton Village; 800-631-6271; tetonlodge.com;
doubles from $199
Hostel X 3315 McCollister Dr., Teton Village
doubles from $60
Snake River Brewing Co. 265 S. Millward
St.; 307-739-2337; dinner for two, $45*
Snake River Grill 84 E. Broadway; 307-
733-0557; dinner for two, $110
Trio Bistro 45 S. Glenwood Dr.; 307-734-
8038; dinner for two, $80
Jackson Hole Paragliding
$225 for a tandem flight (age and medical
restrictions apply); 307-690-8726;
National Elk Refuge 307-733-9212;
Grand Teton National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort
*Prices cover a three-course meal for two, not
including drinks, tax or tip.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.