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.
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.
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.
Within a few boardwalk blocks of the still-rowdy Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on the town square, you find more than 30 art galleries. Three miles north of town, on a slope overlooking the vast meadows of the National Elk Refuge, the National Museum of Wildlife Art stands sheathed in rugged red rocks, its galleries full of compelling paintings and sculptures. (This, by the way, is a great rainy-day option.)
A few miles farther north, Jackson Hole Airport (inside the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park) is in the final months of a two-year expansion project.
On Wednesday and Saturday nights from late May through early September, the Jackson Hole Rodeo takes over the Teton County Fairgrounds.
Meanwhile, in town, Jackson's Center for the Arts (completed in late 2004) hosts concerts in a 500-seat theater. Alongside all the cowboy ritz, a Ripley's Believe It or Not! gallery has stood near the town square for more than a decade — a reminder that plenty of middle-class families pass through this town too.
As long as you're in western Wyoming, step outside now and again. One place to start is the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort's Teton Village, 12 miles north of Jackson, where they're working hard to attract summer travelers.
We rode the Jackson Hole Aerial Tram, which (since completion of a major upgrade in 2008) takes just nine minutes to whisk you from the valley floor (about 6,200 feet above sea level) to the top of Rendezvous Mountain (above 10,000 feet).
The round-trip costs $25 per adult. Here's how rich and generous some Jackson Hole tourists are: As we pulled into the parking lot, another family was getting ready to leave. Casually, the dad offered us two extra tram tickets free. Enjoy, he said.
From up top, we gazed down upon all creation (or so it seemed) and gorged (after a too-long wait) on waffles in Corbet's Cabin. Down below again, we rented bikes ($15 an hour).
Somewhere in there, we also strapped Grace into a bungee trampoline contraption ($12 for six minutes) and watched her giggle and bounce high into that big sky, making the same euphoric face as that boy on the bike. And then we came back later to the Teton Village stables for an hour-long trail ride ($35 per adult) on a tree-lined path used by cross-country skiers in winter.
The thing about the outdoors, though, is that you don't get that giddy, boy-on-bike result every time. While we were on top of Rendezvous Mountain, Jerry Moseley, a taxidermist from Georgia, decided to try a tandem paraglider ride. Somehow, his takeoff went haywire, and instead of running downhill and launching into the clear, blue yonder, the sixtyish Moseley and his guide staggered and bellyflopped onto the pebble-strewn snow.
It hurt just to be standing nearby. But give Moseley credit. He rose to his feet, scrambled back upslope, hollered, "Take 2!" and relaunched flawlessly with the same guide a few minutes later.
Once we were inside Grand Teton National Park, less than two miles north of Teton Village, we came across more staggering landscapes and another guy I didn't envy: the young man assigned to hold a stop sign to protect the workers upgrading the main road through the park.
Because summer is the only time the National Park Service can do road repairs, there were at least half a dozen crews out on the park roads, their labors requiring drivers to wait, sometimes five minutes, sometimes 30. (There's more roadwork than usual this year, thanks to $23 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.)
Even on a beautiful day, it wouldn't be fun ordering restless tourists to idle. But on the afternoon we crossed the young man's path, the sky was thick with charcoal-colored clouds, a thunderstorm was expected to begin shortly, and he was stuck standing there, with his metal sign, in a park where lightning regularly injures people and occasionally kills them. (On July 22, a 21-year-old climber fell to his death after being struck by lightning in the park.)
I hope that road-crew job comes with a health plan.
Fortunately, the storm was brief. The park was otherwise in fine form, offering not only natural wonders but also good values. First, there was the entrance fee: $25 per vehicle, good for seven days in Grand Teton or Yellowstone to the north.
Then there was the boat ride across Jenny Lake — a mere $10 per person , and it gave us a chance to make the little hike to Hidden Falls and spot a marmot on the way. (The trail was crowded, but nobody was in a hurry and everybody was happy.) At the Jackson Lake stables, Grace was too young for a trail ride (you have to be 8), but just right for one of the $5 pony rides offered between 9 and 10 a.m. and again between 2 and 2:30 p.m.
At $224 nightly, the Jackson Lake Lodge wasn't a great value, if you measure by service and amenities, and I have to agree with those who say it could be the ugliest building in Wyoming. But the trees hide it pretty well. And when you're inside, looking out, you see only the greenery of Willow Flat, Jackson Lake and the Tetons.
In the evening, we sat on the terrace of the hotel's Blue Heron Lounge and watched clouds tumble past the peaks while a bunch of brown dots lounged in the distance (a herd of elk). Down in front of us, meanwhile, a bird-watching woman stared so intently through her binoculars that she never noticed the interloper creeping out of the nearby brush, strolling up the path, then brushing right past her ankles: a red fox.
The next morning, I crept out of our room about 6 a.m., grabbed coffee in the lobby, and climbed a gentle hill next to the lodge as the sun slowly rose. The light was coming from behind me now, and while I waited on the hilltop, the day's first rays shot across the valley and struck the Tetons at their peaks.
So maybe the hotel was worth it. Also, with all respect to the happy boy on the bike, that made two Wyoming euphoria moments within 16 hours. Doesn't that make me King of the World?