Flanked by jagged mountain spires scratching at the sky and slashed by the crystal waters of the mighty Snake River, the valley of Jackson Hole sets the stage for some wild Wyoming adventures, where the spirit of the West sings out loud. Early fur trappers used the term “hole” to describe a valley entirely encased by mountains, which perfectly sums up Jackson Hole’s terrain. Thickly forested mountains are carpeted in fir, spruce and Lodgepole pine trees. Lodgepole trunks served as trusty tipi poles for Native Americans. Then there’s the lush alpine meadows and the silvery-gray-green sagebrush flats - all guarded by the Tetons’ towering peaks, that are part of the Rockies.
Crossing over into Wyoming from Idaho, the vertigo-inducing Teton Pass, at an elevation of 2500 metres, served up my first eagle’s perspective of Jackson Hole. It’s a mesmerising perspective and searing reminder that this is a land of rugged adventurers and stoic settlers. This sprawling valley not only plays host to hordes of wildlife, but the Grand Teton National Park and the ebullient town of Jackson. As the warm autumn sunshine bathed the bucolic landscape in a soft glow, I was staggered how many road-trippers were out in force, well past the summer peak. But nature’s towering glories, whether you’re magnetised by the ski slopes, the hiking trails or serendipitous wildlife encounters, underpins Jackson Hole’s year-round pulling power.
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The tourist hot-spot of Jackson is a charismatic, exuberant and irrepressibly characterful town, with its covered wooden walkways and saloons on every corner. It may be cliché, but a quintessential Jackson experience is to stroll through Town Square and get your pixel-fill under the iconic antler arches, strung across the four entry points. Each eye-catching arch was made by hand using 2,000 elk antlers shed on the nearby National Elk Refuge.
Just outside town, this is arguably the best place in the world to watch elk. The refuge's 7000-stronge resident elk herd roam the 25,000 acres of grasslands, forest and wetlands that have been reserved for them as a winter habitat, between November to May. When the autumn chill sets in, Jackson’s resident bull elks fill the air with their shrill bugle calls. In addition to viewing the animals from turnout points along the road, take a guided tour on a horse-drawn sleigh ride in the refuge for an up-close look, which is also home to bighorn sheep and coyotes.
Across the road from the National Elk Refuge sits the National Museum of Wildlife Art, a truly superlative gallery dedicated to showcasing the beauty of the outdoors. Over 550 artists, including Georgia O'Keeffe, Andy Warhol, and John James Audubon, are represented in the collection that boasts more than 5,000 items. Jackson is still a cowboy town, but there’s a flourishing cultural scene here too, with a glittering array of art studios, galleries and top-notch giftware stores that also tout authentic indigenous works. My brother-in-law bought some gorgeous jewellery here for my sister, crafted by Navajo artists.
Saddle up! The Million Dollar Cowboy Bar is a Jackson staple, a classic slice of Americana, with its roots dating back to 1937. Crowned by a rotating rooftop neon cowboy on a bucking bronco, the Wild West theme continues with the cowboy décor in this honky tonk bar. It's the best place in Jackson to, quite literally, saddle up to the bar in their saddle stools and enjoy live music. Legend has it that the bear taxidermy in the glass case was killed by a man who bit into its jugular vein. Dust off your cowboy boots and get ready to do the two-step because the dance floor gets packed, seven nights a week.
Photo / Mike Yardley
History is at the heart of The Wort Hotel, which first opened its doors in 1941. (Pronounced as Wurt.) The site had been a livery stable run by 19th-century homesteader Charles Wort, who dreamed of a hotel there. His sons, John and Jess, carried out the plan, even though many locals scoffed at the need for a fancy hotel in Jackson. It soon became a social meeting place for the town. A staple in downtown Jackson, the 55-room property encompasses the idea of timeless hospitality. Upon entering the lobby, you’re greeted by a grand timbered staircase, roaring fireplaces, and an assortment of Western art and photographs. The rooms are spacious and appropriately outfitted with Western charm. I had a gorgeous grizzly bear soft toy draped across my bed post.
The stately stone building suffered huge damage in 1980. The town watched in horror as columns of smoke and flames leapt from the hotel's roof when a bird’s nest built on the transformer of the roof’s neon sign caught fire. The fire burned in to the night, collapsing the gabled roof and threatening an end to this historic landmark. But after an extensive rebuild, the landmark hotel reopened a year later. The lobby’s grand staircase leads to one of two cozy fireplaces, and more than 200 paintings, sculptures, furniture, and photos are on display.
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The guestrooms celebrate the sense of place, warmly dressed in “New West” style, with leather chairs and cowboy-themed art. The hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar is a Jackson institution, named for the 2,032 silver dollars inlaid in the bar. Opened in 1950, the bar was built by a German cabinet maker using the uncirculated Morgan Silver Dollars from the Denver mint. The Silver Dollar Bar & Grill still pulls in the punters, with live music and swing dancing revving up the atmos at night.
Wild game abounds in Jackson, with restaurants seducing the experimental palate. Breakfast with a difference? Try the buttermilk biscuits and wild game gravy at the Wort Hotel's Silver Dollar Grill. Shaved and diced bison, elk and boar float atop a thick, salty gravy, obscuring two very large biscuits. Strong, but not at all gamey, the meats mix with accompanying flavours to create a sharp, tangy taste experience. Just across the hall, have a dabble with the elk sliders and buffalo meatballs at the Silver Dollar Bar. www.worthotel.com
Also try The Gun Barrel Steak and Game House, which offers up everything from elk chops to buffalo ribs and a venison bratwurst. A signature Jackson Hole specialty is the aptly named “sloshie,” a cross between a shot and a slushy. You’ll find them on sale everywhere – including service stations. Also on the tourist trail, check out the Jackson Hole Playhouse. The rustic performing arts theatre offers a stellar dinner and a show, both with an Old West feel.
Part of what makes Jackson Hole so special is its direct access to some of the nation's best national parks. Grand Teton National Park, home to the magnificent Teton Range, sits just north of town. Within the park, you'll find beautiful alpine lakes, hundreds of miles of trails, and plentiful wildlife, including bears, moose, and elk. Plan your travels for the shoulder seasons. Jackson Hole is less crowded in the spring, and wildlife viewing is at its best with newborn calves and fawns at their mother's side. Early autumn (October and November), before snow poses a threat, is also recommended. With fall foliage all ablaze, elk viewing with the rut in full swing is not to be missed, while bears head down to the valley to gorge on berries, before their big sleep.
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Tucked off the Antelope Flats Rd is Mormon Row, a collection of abandoned structures like the photogenic Moulton Barn that date back to the 1890s, when Mormon settlers first traversed the area. Not only is it a preeminent example of classic western homestead architecture, but one of the best views you can savour without hitting the trails - its plains flow seamlessly into the Tetons. Continue on to Moose-Wilson Road which is often where you will see moose and bears down in the willow flats. Oxbow Bend is another go-to wildlife spot, where you might strike it lucky to find moose wading in the wetlands, river otters, pelicans and bald eagles.
Mormon Row Barn in Grand Teton National Park. Photo / Supplied
Hiking trails lace the park like spaghetti. If you’re visiting in autumn, stake out the Aspen Ridge trail, when the aspen groves are aglow. One of the most popular spots within Grand Teton National Park is Jenny Lake. Dubbed the park’s centrepiece, this dazzling turquoise lake is easily accessible from the eastern shore, with a dreamy lakeside loop trail serving up a dress circle perspective on the serrated peaks of the Tetons, including the Cathedral Group, which are the tallest bunch of peaks in the Tetons.
I was transfixed by this mountain range, which runs the full length of the national park. The Teton fault line pushed the peaks upward, before huge glaciers sculpted the range into the rugged rocky spires you see today. Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that this spectacular range “are what mountains are supposed to look like.” Reminiscent of the piercing, fanged majesty of Queenstown’s Remarkables, what accentuates the Tetons’ stature is their soaring height, with a long necklace of peaks all thrusting 4000 metres above sea level, which is the elevation of Aoraki/Mt.Cook. https://greatamericanwest.co.nz/
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I tripped to the American West, via San Francisco, with Air New Zealand. The full-range of cabin products is available on Air New Zealand’s services to San Francisco. Skycouch is available in Economy, while Premium Economy is an excellent mid-range option including premium check-in, premium seating with increased leg room plus fine cuisine & beverages. For the best sleep in the sky across the Pacific, splurge on Business Premier, entitling you to complimentary lounge access, premium check-in, luxurious leather armchair seating which converts into a fully lie-flat bed, plus fine cuisine & beverages. With well-timed overnight flights, I slept well right across the Pacific. For best fares and seats to suit, jump to www.airnewzealand.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.
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