Jackson Hole, WY, in winter is like a magical scene inside a snow globe – snow-covered mountains sparkle in the sun; in the valley, lights wink from shop windows in a postcard-pretty Western ski town; elk and other wildlife gather on the range outside town.
Winter is an exhilarating season for a wildlife safari. The area, tucked between the Teton Mountain Range and the Snake River along the border of Wyoming and Idaho, is home to over 60 species of mammals and 100 species of birds, plus a half dozen game fish.
Bison, big horn sheep, moose, coyotes, fox, bald eagles, wolves and trumpeter swans are all here, having migrated in search of food, but crowds have thinned dramatically. As a bonus, the National Elk Refuge – home to some 8,000 wintering elk – is located here, just outside the town of Jackson.
Where the bison roam
With the National Park Service marking its 100th anniversary in 2016, there is no better time to follow the animal tracks and their scat while exploring the geologic marvels of Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park – and no better outfit to tour with than Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. The company was founded in 2007 by Jason Williams, a professional wildlife photographer, Wilderness First Responder and Leave No Trace Master Educator.
All Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris’ guides are avid and accomplished outdoorsmen and women with keen interest in outdoor sports, photography, archaeology and wildlife conservation. Knowing they’re in such capable hands, visitors can relax and turn themselves fully over to the adventure of tracking and photographing bison, elk and other wildlife.
“I love showing this to people,” said guide Kyle Williams, indicating the snow-covered landscape. “I get a kick out of being next to a bison, seeing a carcass. And yes, I will take a stick and poke scat. You can tell the type of animal by scat droppings.”
Williams’ enthusiasm is contagious, and visitors touring with him have been known to grab their own stick and do likewise. Whether trekking across a frozen lake to capture a scene of two foxes flirting with each other or racing to a wolf kill site, Williams brings an edge-of-the-seat breathlessness to his tours. It feels like a scavenger hunt for wildlife – where some of the wildlife are scavengers.
“We are a great PBS special that can turn into National Geographic real fast,” he said.
Western ski town
Base yourself at Snow King Resort, the largest full-service year-round resort in Jackson Hole, just six blocks from town. Recently renovated to the tune of $16 million, it sits at the base of Snow King Mountain, which opened in 1939 as Wyoming’s first ski resort, and is mere minutes from Grand Teton National Park.
Dining at the second-floor Hayden’s Post Restaurant, which overlooks skiers schussing and tubing, is casual with a warm and bracing Wyoming-focused menu – bison chili, elk sausage, house-made jerky – and lots of Western-style hospitality. A favorite on the bar menu is Chile Verde poutine, a piquant mélange of braised pork, green chile, cheese curds, onions and cilantro.
A year-round activity center offers ski, snowboard, mountain bike and other rentals, plus information on nearby trails and all the outdoor activities found in Jackson Hole. The resort also has a fitness center, day spa and a pool with lots of comfy seating warmed by fire pits.
In town, browse the shops clustered round Jackson Town Square. You can outfit yourself with a pair of custom-made boots and a cowboy hat; pick up woodcarvings, antiques, leather goods, artisan-made jewelry; and find a book to take back to the hotel for reading by the lobby’s double-sided fireplace.
Plan to have dinner at the architecturally beautiful Kitchen, with bamboo bar and tables, softly illuminating light and a comfortably elegant ambience. Food focus is on natural ingredients and sleek presentation. The Lotus Cafe is another come-hither culinary gem with its organic, vegetarian and vegan dishes and delectables.
Nightlife includes the Silver Dollar Bar with live music and the iconic Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, known for its authentic western memorabilia, live entertainment and string of country music greats that have performed here, including Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr. and Willie Nelson.
Adventure guide to don’t-miss moments
· Bring camera, phone and selfie stick for a narrated horse-drawn sleigh ride through the National Elk Refuge, the largest established elk preserve in North America, where you’ll be surrounded by thousands of wintering wild elk.
·Tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain for sweeping views of the Grand Tetons and waffles and wine at Corbet’s Cabin. Served in a warm foil packet, the waffles are gooey-delicious with toppings including lemon curd, brown sugar butter – even peanut butter and bacon.
·Explore the National Museum of Wildlife Art, home of one of the world’s premier collections of wildlife art, including one spanning three centuries and capturing the American West in all its former glory.
Adventure gear to take along
The Qlipter ($19.95, www.Qlipter.com), a new gadget invented by Seattle entrepreneur Mina Yoo for her company, Lulabop, is a carabiner hook with a rotating clip. For winter trips and outdoor adventures like skiing, where you’re packing more luggage and equipment, this versatile device can bundle luggage or sporting equipment together.
Qlipter swivels 360-degrees to open and folds open and closed. Its surface-protecting rubber end helps with gripping. In your hotel room, you can use Qlipter to hang your cosmetic kit from the back door of your bathroom; at a restaurant, Qlipter makes a handy purse hook to keep your bag off the floor.
Snow King Resort, 800-522-5464, offers a winter ski package from $169/two people. Room rates are from $99 at the resort hotel, $199 at the adjacent Snow King Condominiums and Grand View Resort Lodges.
Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris, 307-690-6402. Half-day wildlife safari tours and custom photography workshops are offered Nov. 1-April 30. Full-day Best of Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris are offered Dec. 15-April 1. New are Winter Wolf and Wildlife Safaris that start from both Jackson and Bozeman, MT, and spend time in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and Jackson Hole. Pick-up offered at Snow King Resort. Check website for details and updates.