Deep in the Tetons, the champagne’s on ice: Jackson Hole, the Wyoming ski resort, is preparing to mark its 50th birthday on December 19 with a raft of celebrations and an unveiling of some key new attractions. Three hundred miles to the south, in Utah’s Wasatch Moutains, Park City – famously the venue for Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival – is similarly preparing to toast its own major upgrade to America’s largest ski resort. The architect of its transformation is new owner Vail Resorts, which has linked it to adjacent Canyons, a previous purchase, for the 2015-16 season.
As is often the case with landmark celebrations, these destinations’ most satisfying gifts are the ones they’ve given themselves. High above the Jackson Hole base, the brand new Doppelmayr Teton quad lift releases easy riders onto an uncharted ridge, the start of a network of virgin trails down the forested Moran Face. While locals shudder at this brazen repurposing of a once-sacred tree stash, marauding tourists happily blast down the shoulder on the new Crags trail, crank it up into a fierce right hairpin and cruise the long Werner descent to base in Teton Village. Jackson Hole regulars are relatively unfamiliar with ego-boosting intermediate pistes; the resort focus has traditionally been the austerely hardcore Rendezvous Mountain, its global appeal for ambitious skiers rooted in narrow rocky chutes (couloirs) and bowls with big bumps. Runs with names like Laramie, Cheyenne and Cody evoke the Wild West, an ambience enhanced by the moose populations that still share the territory.
The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, based in Teton Village, owes its elite status to its founder, Paul McCollister. After falling in love with the Teton mountain range (named after the French word for breasts) on a hunting trip in 1942, the Californian advertising executive moved to the Snake River Valley 14 years later. As the main gateway to Yellowstone National Park, the motel town of Jackson, 12 miles south of Teton Village, was rammed in summer, but lapsed into ranch torpor between October and May. McCollister’s antidote to the boredom of early retirement would change that forever.
When the Christmas bells rang out in 1965, a modest chair took the first paying customers part way up the mountain. The distinctive red cable cars started running the following year, generating instant queues of beards with backpacks containing shovels and avalanche probes, as they’ve been doing ever since (though the shiny 2008 replacement cars with their signature bronco branding have greatly reduced the waiting time). Ominous broadcasts on the 10-minute trip may persuade the risk averse to ride straight back down. Near the top, strangers gasp as they spot Corbet’s Couloir – depending on snow depth, taking it on requires a 6-10m freefall jump into the abyss, followed by a pinpoint turn to avoid the rock wall below. Nail it, and you can call yourself a skier – an honour earned by Financial Times travel editor Tom Robbins, who made it look nothing short of easy.
Over the past two decades, Jackson Hole has embraced the challenge of blending core values with sophistication. Luxury – at the slopeside Four Seasons, or at Amangani, a resort of Zen-like calm in an isolated valley between Jackson and Teton Village – doesn’t automatically gel with extreme derring-do. Many feel more confident on the mellow slopes off the Bridger Gondola, installed in the mid-1990s to open up the area between Rendezvous and Apres Vous, its much smaller sister peak. At the top is a Euro-style restaurant complex, which includes good mountain fare at Piste (another 50th birthday present) and fine locavore dining in Couloir. Next season, the Sweetwater Gondola from the base will replace two oldie chairs, to get everyone up the mountain faster.
If the self-gifting is ongoing, so too is the (increasing) dilemma of where to stay: Teton Village versus downtown, convenience versus nightlife. In the Village, the Terra, a boutique hotel with a good Italian restaurant and compact suites inspired by townhouses, is a smart alternative to the Four Seasons. The Mangy Moose’s Music-and-Marg (margarita) combo has always ruled the après scene, though it’s now rivalled by Spur, where the mixologist infuses vodka and tequila to create Bacon Bloody Marys and Jalapeño Margs. Jackson town shares this vibe, its main square surrounded by a boardwalk overlooked by elk-horn arches and the Million Dollar Cowboy bar’s tinselly lights. With pool tables, saddles as bar stools, a rampant grizzly in a glass case and a country band to inspire revellers to break into Western swing, it is itself a compelling reason to stay in town.
Within a minute’s walk, the half-timbered Wort has always appealed to discerning travellers. As of June 2015, it shares the high end with Hotel Jackson, next door. The first quality newcomer in 15 years is owned by Jim Darwiche, a stranger when he checked into the Circle A Motel in 1978 (then £25 for a week’s stay). The Lebanon-born aeronautical engineer returned in 1979 to mastermind an empire that now includes his dream hotel on the Circle A site. “It took me years to get planning permission so near the historic centre, but I never take no for an answer,” he says. The 58 rooms and six suites are immaculately contemporary, with Kohler tubs, Turkish towels and chenille-lined robes for the short walk to the rooftop hot tub. Some rooms have wraparound terraces, but only one has a cheminée (ask for 301). Darwiche is a bit of an Anglophile, ordering custom carpets in patterns inspired by Native American art from Axminster and collecting cars that include a 1963 E-Type Jaguar in British racing green (though modern Mercs do the complimentary shuttle service to Teton Village).
For adrenaline junkies with a taste for the good life, combining Jackson Hole with the Utah frontrunners, Park City and Deer Valley, is a seductive – and very doable – endeavour. There are regular flights between Salt Lake City International and Jackson Hole, but an SUV roadie leaves a lasting impression of the wilds of Wyoming – and they’re wild indeed, and spectacularly scenic. When you cross into Utah, the car number plates promise “the greatest snow on earth”. In a generally arid area, prevailing winds pick up moisture from Salt Lake and dump it as super-light powder on the Wasatch peaks.
In Park City, where Canyons is now a subdivision, hoteliers and restaurateurs can barely conceal their glee at the merger. One carrot for skiers is the Vail Resorts Epic Pass, a £500, season-long carte blanche that includes Perisher in Australia, in addition to its portfolio in Utah, Colorado and Lake Tahoe. “It pays for itself in just under five days; Vail already sells 470,000 worldwide,” says Jim Mikula, a consultant for Main & Sky, near Main Street. “Think what that means in terms of foreign visitors.”
Silver mined on Park City’s hillsides from 1868 led to a 50-year boom, followed by a 50-year bust. Pioneering Norwegian miners brought skis from home, but the sport didn’t really take until the 1960s, when the resort’s mellow ski-in, ski-out slopes developed their appeal, and it expanded upwards as its popularity grew. The venerable Jupiter Chair opens up double-black-diamond adventure on steep slopes at 3,000m. If Jupiter and Scott’s Bowls aren’t tough enough, the intrepid can hike the precipitous Pinecone Ridge to McConkey’s for glorious tree skiing (but never, if they know what they’re doing, in a high wind).
Vail Resorts is investing £32m in its new endeavour, much of it on the new Quicksilver two-way gondola. It connects the bases of Canyons’ Flatiron chair and Park City’s Silverlode high-speed quad. The mid-station on Pine Ridge is a gateway to significant off-piste in Thaynes Canyon and Pinecone Ridge. The King Con and Motherlode chairs have been upgraded to improve access to the extensive network of blue and black pistes near the gondola. But Park City regulars seeking their favourite lunch spot may be bemused by unfamiliar buildings: the Snow Hut at Silverlode and the Snow Hotel at the base have gone, replaced by larger, sleeker culinary experiences.
There’s no shortage of recognisable local colour in either resort. Jackson sequesters its own veteran superstar Harrison Ford, who flies his Bell Jet Ranger helicopter in, emerging only occasionally from the ranch he’s owned for nearly 40 years to ski with third wife Calista “Ally McBeal” Flockhart. As the founder of the exclusive Sundance resort, as well as the Sundance Film Festival, held in Park City every January, Redford is a more public presence in the territory he bought into in 1969 with the proceeds of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The Festival has grown from a modest independent showcase into a premium-quality cinema market. When it’s on, Hollywood flocks to Park City and neighbouring Deer Valley.
A mile apart, the two are chalk and cheese ideologically, with Deer Valley famously forbidding snowboarding or ducking under the ropes to ski between the two. Commercially, however, they’re interdependent, with Deer Valley building prestigious hotels and condos and Park City providing wealthy guests to make them profitable. Located at the Deer Valley mid-station, the Stein Eriksen Lodge, the only five-star in the area, is well shielded from prying eyes.
At the isolated Montage, Monty, the resident Bernese Mountain dog, does lobby duty to promote the hotel’s multigenerational message. Although it offers complimentary self-drive Mercedes to its guests, many are never tempted off property. Those in search of brighter lights should stay near 19th-century Main Street, which is guaranteed to come vibrantly alive after dark. The Washington School House, built in 1889, has just been reinvented – in its own eyes at least – as “the world’s number one boutique hotel”. The style is intimately yesteryear, with high ceilings and antiques in the 12 rooms and suites. The dead-central, 33-suite Main & Sky is contrastingly contemporary and reassuringly informal (though the 325sq m penthouse boasts three bedrooms, dining and sitting areas, wraparound decks, two hot tubs and amazing views).
Too big for a solo traveller… but as I soaked in my own terrace hot tub at sunset, I heard people gearing up for Saturday night in Zoom, Redford’s popular bar and restaurant. As things gathered momentum, I strolled up Main for pool in O’Shucks and a spot of shuffleboard in No Name. Plenty of sawdust still on these floors – but however ambitious the surrounding developments, in this historic mine zone in the mountains, one wouldn’t want it any other way.