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Big Sky Adventure: Jackson, Wyoming

View Wyoming ski trip 2023 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

The Jackson Hole resort had been my initial choice for our three days of skiing but when I looked into the lift tickets and especially the prices for lessons my stomach turned. I soon found a much better option in Montana but I decided we should stay for a few days in Jackson for other activities such as snowmobiling and snow tubing. Jackson is another iconic Rocky Mountain ski town and has a plethora of good restaurants as well as plenty of activities outside of skiing. Accommodations were generally quite expensive but I had found a nondescript motel with good ratings that had clean, well-heated rooms. The place had none of the character of the motel where we'd stayed in Lava Hot Springs but we weren't planning to spend much time in our room. From the second floor balcony we could see a colorfully pained doctor's office, a sub shop, and a wide hill at the edge of town.

The plan for the evening was to meet up with a group called Wyoming Stargazing to give the kids a chance to see some celestial bodies through a high-powered telescope. The only problem was that I had only a vague idea of the time and location of the event. I' had tried calling the group's number a couple of times but only reached voicemail. Their website stated that they would meet just after sunset in the northwest corner of a specific parking lot a short distance from the town. After combing through some more web pages I concluded that six PM would be the optimum time to show up even though sunset was at five. We found the parking lot without much trouble but it was enormous, and there were several sections which could have fit the description of being the northwest corner. Cars occasionally circled around and some people returned to their vehicles and drove away, but there was nothing resembling a stargazing group. After half an hour of waiting I was starting to conclude that no one would be showing up. I made one last ditch attempt to call their phone number and to my surprise someone actually picked up after I made a few selections on the voicemail. It turned out the event was scheduled for seven PM, which was quite annoying since it would have been a simple task to have entered the correct information on the website. By now we had already been waiting for forty-five minutes and we figured we might as well wait fifteen more. Somehow the group arrived a couple of dozen yards from us without my noticing and by the time I spotted them they were already clustered around the large, stubby telescope that was mounted on a low platform.

The dark parking lot had the coldest temperatures we'd experienced thus far on the trip. After a few viewings Mei Ling and the kids had had enough and tromped back to the warmth of the car. One of the surprising things was that the cold of the ground was chilling our feet despite the insulated boots. After waiting so long I was determined to extract everything I could from the stargazing but I also grew tired of feeling my feet freeze as I waited for each person in the group to take their turn checking out each celestial body. People were leaving quickly but others were continuously arriving and I bowed out just a quarter of an hour after the rest of my family. We arrived back in town a little early for our eight thirty dinner reservation and we used the extra time to check out the brightly lit streets of the town center. The most notable facade belonged to the Jackson Hole Playhouse, a musical theater.

Gather was a decent American bistro with an energetic vibe. We enjoyed our meals but we were a little disappointed the menu didn't offer any game dishes aside from an elk carpaccio.

We had an early morning wake up call for our snowmobiling tour. While we were getting ready I realized that I had somehow forgotten to pack our ski goggles. This wasn't an issue for snowmobiling since we would have helmets but we were going to have to buy them locally before we went skiing. That was quite annoying because I knew we'd have to pay through the nose at a ski store and the goggles I had at home had only been used three or four times. It was a short drive to the headquarters of the tour company and we got outfitted in our helmets. We already had our ski clothes on so we didn't need the bulky coveralls. It was an hour long drive to the departure point as dawn broke over the Tetons. The kids were too young to drive, of course, so the older kids rode behind us and Spenser took the back seat behind our guide. We set off on an easy trail and Mei Ling and I quickly got the hang of the machines, although it had been a few years since our last snowmobiling experience in Colorado. The only problem that cropped up was that Cleo’s handholds didn’t warm up when I toggled the mechanism and she soon began to complain vigorously about her cold hands. We stopped and our guide gave her warm packs to put in her gloves but they didn’t help much. Eventually she just put her hands in the pockets of my ski parka and I prayed that no sudden jolts would throw her out of her seat. Before long we came to an open area where we could dismount for a few minutes and admire the mountains.

We had another hour or so of riding afterwards and to be honest I was looking forward for it to be over. Cleo was still uncomfortable and it wasn’t that exciting for the kids to be riding on the back of the snowmobiles. The course wasn’t very interesting or challenging for us adults either, which was a necessity for the safety of the kids. It was painful for this experience to fall somewhat flat since it was the most expensive single item of the whole trip. I resolved not to do any more snowmobiling until the kids were old enough to drive their own machines. We had one more stop among the trees for the kids to throw a few snowballs and take pictures and then thankfully we returned to the starting point.

Thanks to our early start it was mid afternoon when we arrived at Jackson Town Square. This was the focal point of tourism and commercial activity in the small town, and the most interesting place to walk around. The first order of business was to buy ski goggles for the five of us. I never knew how much ski goggles could cost at a sporting equipment store in a ski town until I saw the displays. They varied from five to ten times what I had paid on Amazon for the ones sitting in the closet at home. I chose to humiliate myself by asking a sales assistant where I could find the cheapest ski goggles. After all, we were only going to use them once a year. He showed me to a shelf I hadn’t noticed where the price was only three times what I had paid previously. At this point that seemed like a steal and I gladly bought five pairs. Having dealt with that one hiccup in our travel planning we spent a couple of hours touring some of the interesting stores and art galleries arranged around the square.

As we walked away from the town square the stores and restaurants began to be replaced by residential buildings. The town was really very small and from the center we could see all the way to the Snow King ski resort at the southern edge of the town. There was also a steep hill just west of the town, locally known as Saddle Butte, that was a prominent background feature almost anywhere we stood. There's an unofficial ski run on the hill called Taco Bell Couloir which derived its name from the possibility of skiing directly to the front door of a no-longer extant outpost of the fast food chain. During our visit there was barely a dusting of snow on the butte, which seemed like a foreboding presence looming over the town,

We stuck around downtown until after the sun went down, exploring some more specialty stores and local landmarks. Mei Ling had a custom cowboy hat made for her at a western clothing outfit called Kemo Sabe while I toured around the nearby streets with the kids. Jackson Drug is a century-old institution with a throwback menu and design that we unfortunately never had a chance to visit during our stay. The town center became even more colorful after dark with illumination and neon signs.

We ducked home quickly to drop off our bags and freshen up before heading out to dinner. By this point I'd realized that the town square was just a couple of blocks from our motel so we went on foot. The entrances to the small park in the center of the square were marked with beautiful illuminated elkhorn arches. The Kitchen was a decent enough bistro but fell a little short of our experience at Gather the previous night. The menu had typical offering and nothing that was particularly memorable.

On our second full day I had booked snow tubing at the Snow King ski resort. We had time for a decent breakfast so we went to Persephone Bakery where the atmosphere was warm and the food was delicious.

Our reservation online was for nine but when we arrived the ticket window was closed. I went to the hotel reception where I learned that snow tubing didn't open until one. Why would the website begin booking reservations at nine? Shrug. Now we had four hours to kill but fortunately our planned afternoon activities could be easily switched to the morning. The first was a drive along the National Elk Refuge Road where we hoped to see some animals such as elk and bighorn sheep. During the winter huge numbers of elk migrate down to Jackson from their summer ranges on the mountainsides of the Tetons. We had seen them from a distance the previous day while driving on the highway to the snowmobile trail. The road extends just a few miles and further access is prohibited to private vehicles. We didn't see any animals at all but the scenery was beautiful. The only building the route is the Miller House, a historic home that has been turned into a museum that is closed during the winter.

The short drive into the elk refuge didn't use much time so we went to the next item on the list which was the Thal Glass Studio a few miles northwest of Jackson. I've always been fascinated by the incredible variety of glass sculpture and the intricate process of creating art out of glass. I also think it's a great experience for the kids to meet artists in their studios to get a first hand look at their process. I started to feel a little uncomfortable when our GPS took us into a residential area off the main road and when we pulled up to an unmarked house I knew I had screwed up. These folks were operating out of their own home and I clearly should have called and made an appointment. If I had been on my own I would have slunk back to the road but I knew Mei Ling wouldn't approve so I went to the front door and knocked anyway. The gentleman who answered was Dan Altwies, the partner of Laurie Thal who owns the gallery. He confirmed that visits were by appointment but good-naturedly told me that since we were there anyway we might as well come in. I guiltily shepherded all the kids into the somewhat cramped space and Dan gave us a very detailed discussion and demonstration of his work which was extremely kind of him. Laurie does the glassblowing while Dan does the cutting and sandblasting before the pieces are assembled. I did my best to keep the kids from moving around unnecessarily, although it seems like whenever fragile objects are around they suddenly acquire the kinetic energy of heated gas molecules. Their pieces, even the small ones, were a little out of our price range for souvenirs so once the demonstration was done we thanked him and beat a hasty retreat.

At this point we were halfway to the Jackson Hole ski resort so we decided to press onward to see what we were missing by choosing a cheaper option in Montana. It's common for people to blur the distinction between Jackson and Jackson Hole. Jackson is the main town and the county seat while Jackson Hole refers to the entire surrounding valley. The Jackson Hole resort is located in Teton Village, which is a twenty minute drive north of Jackson. The village comprises the mountain, a few hotels that belong to the resort, and a number of short roads that snake up the mountainside. We drove up a few of these roads and plugged a few of the addresses into Zillow, just to be amazed at the eyewatering prices the homes commanded despite being nothing remarkable to look at. Living adjacent to a well-regarded ski resort is a highly prized commodity in the Rockies.

We had a quick lunch at Miazga's, a beloved Polish restaurant in Jackson that specialized in sausages and other comfort food from Poland and elsewhere. By the time we returned to Snow King the tubing trails had opened. I was surprised to see that there was only one lift which led to just three runs. The line immediately became long and at the top it was clear the tubing was understaffed. There was one person regulating the three runs so tubers had to wait for the attendant to get back around to their run before they could set off. It was a far inferior experience to what we had enjoyed the previous year in Québec and the kids were tired of it after just one hour of the two I had paid for in advance. Things improved somewhat with the Cowboy Coaster where we got in several rides in our hourlong time slot due to rapid progress on the short lines. The ticket office was decent about refunding me for the hour of snow tubing that we hadn't used.

Our final activity for the day was a sleigh ride into the National Elk Refuge which proved to be better than any of us had expected. Of course since there wasn't any snow they were using wagons with wheels rather than sleighs but this didn't compromise the experience. Each large wagon had the capacity for twelve people and was drawn by two large draft horses. The horses took us along a very bumpy path through the brown grassland with beautiful views of the surrounding Tetons.

Getting up close to the herd of hundreds of elk was a fascinating experience. Our diver pointed out the differences between the male and female animals, and between the juveniles and mature adults. For example, only male elk have antlers and they are shed every year for a new, often larger set to grow in their place. For the most part the elk took no notice of us as the wagon maintained a respectful distance. We even got to see some mothers nursing and protecting their calves.

After the ride into the elk refuge we decided to return to the refuge road to see if more animals might be around later in the day. This time we did see some bighorn sheep walking around the tops of the buttes but we could only make out their silhouettes. We also got to see the colors of sunset through the clouds above the Tetons which was quite a remarkable sight.

Since we hadn't been able to eat any game meat our first two meals Mei Ling convinced me to cancel our dinner reservation at yet another bistro and switch over to the Gun Barrel Steak & Game House which we had passed frequently driving around the town. The restaurant was very busy when we arrived with an expansive, wood-paneled interior. Whimsically placed taxidermy specimens completed the atmosphere of the wilderness frontier. There was indeed game on the menu such as elk loin and bison rib, but the preparation was no different from the beef at a low end steak house. Aside from the thrill of knowing we were eating unusual meat there wasn't much to be said in favor of the food. In the end I wished we had kept our original reservation.

On our last morning in Jackson we had breakfast in Cafe Genevieve, which was even better than Persephone Bakery the previous morning. One thing about traveling in the United States is that it's never hard to find an awesome breakfast. With that we bid farewell to Jackson and set off north once again to our ski destination in Bozeman, Montana.

Posted by zzlangerhans 17:35 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip family jackson family_travel travel_blog jackson_hole tony_friedman family_travel_blog national_elk_refuge snow_king thal_glass_studio

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