Arguably Wyoming’s two greatest ski resorts, Targhee and Jackson located in the northwestern corner of the Cowboy State boast very different terrain and project distinctly different vibes. To use a television metaphor, Jackson is a “Downton Abbey” to Grand Targhee’s “Parks and Recreation.”
“It’s definitely a slower-paced lifestyle,” said Jennie White, marketing manager for Targhee. “We pride ourselves on being an uncrowded mountain. A lift line on a busy day is five minutes.”
Last week I finally had the opportunity to ski the two areas after longingly observing them from afar for my entire Montana skiing life — about 40 years. We Montanans, after all, are pretty spoiled by our great ski areas with a variety of terrain, pricing and beautiful mountains to explore, so why go anywhere else?
Yet Targhee has long enjoyed reverence among my hometown Bozeman ski friends as an early powder haven. That’s saying a lot considering the “cold smoke” snow that fills the parking lot and jams the road to Bridger Bowl ski area is only a half hour away. From Billings, "the Ghee" is about a six-hour drive.
Jackson has a different claim to fame among my ski homeys — a technical, black diamond of a mountain with long, steep runs and a town populated by hard-charging, overtly healthy outdoors folk. Just looking at the mountain map intimidated me. I joked with two fellow lift riders that the only way down for me looked like the Snowcat roads that traverse the mountain.
Yet on closer inspection the blue routes — which indicate intermediate trails — were a lot more numerous at Jackson than I originally thought. The resort website noted that 40 percent of its terrain is intermediate, with another 10 percent for beginners.
On the first run at Jackson, my friend and I had the freshly groomed trail all to ourselves. Granted it was the middle of the week, but the vacancy still seemed heaven sent. Despite warm temperatures in the valley — which sits at 6,311 feet — almost 3,000 feet above after riding Bridger Gondola the Sundance trail was coated in creamy fresh snow.
Descending the run sent us through three different snow mixtures: new snow on top, spring snow in the middle down to an icier bottom. Warm temperatures the day before had softened the lower mountain, which froze overnight, hence the icier runs at the bottom. As the day warmed up, they too would soften.
In addition to the fun of skiing 2,500 acres accessed by 13 lifts, there’s the thrill of riding the Tram to the top of 10,450-foot Rendezvous Mountain that helps make Jackson Hole Mountain unusual. The roughly 10-minute wait allows 100 skiers to pack like cattle into a stock trailer known locally as “Big Red.”
At the top, though, skiers have a 180-degree view that includes the Tetons all the way to Yellowstone National Park to the north, Jackson Lake, the Snake River Valley and south to the Gros Ventre Mountains. I decided not to ski down and instead rode the tram back. It was uncrowded providing the ability to wander around the cabin and enjoy the variety of views. The best vista had to be from the large front window as the Tram descended, making me feel like I was a bird soaring down the mountain at 28 mph, high above the ant-sized skiers and snowboarders.
For all of that access, adult riders have to shell out $135, although that price decreases by buying tickets for more than one day. Targhee, in comparison, costs $75 a day for adults, $80 on holidays.
Over the hill
The ticket price and opportunity to ski some new terrain is what drives many Jackson Hole skiers and snowboarders over Teton Pass on Highway 26 to Grand Targhee Resort. The ski area even offers daily shuttle buses that will take Jackson skiers and boarders to Targhee’s front door for $108. Called the Targhee Express, the shuttles are a lifeline for the more remote ski area.
Targhee is nested on the western, Idaho-facing slopes of the Teton Mountains, about an hour’s drive from Jackson Hole Mountain. Air travelers can either fly into Jackson or Idaho Falls for the closest connections. Maybe because it’s harder to reach, Targhee avoids some of the glitzier riders that the more posh Jackson Hole Mountain draws.
“It’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’” White said in comparing Targhee to the 1980s television sitcom about a Boston bar. “Everybody knows your name.”
The hill has that cozy feel despite the fact that its four lifts provide access to 2,000 acres of terrain. Another 600 acres is set aside exclusively for powder skiing with access provided by Snowcats, the large tracked snow vehicles. Advanced reservations are required to make turns in the Snowcat area. The price of $379 a day includes lunch and drinks.
Unfortunately for me, I hit Grand Targhee on one of its namesake days. Locals also refer to the mountain as “Grand Foggy.” Whiteout conditions at the top of the lift made for some disoriented and nauseating skiing. To help skiers find their way, the maintenance crew shreds old Christmas trees and scatters the bows across the ground to provide some contrast to the snow and fog.
Luckily, the fog burned off in the afternoon providing incredible views west across the Teton Basin to the Big Hole Mountains in Idaho, as well as revealing the surrounding cliff faces at the southern edge of the terrain. In 2006, Jamie Pierre set a record for cliff jumping by sailing off a 255-foot high Targhee crag. That mark was eclipsed in 2008 with a 352-foot leap, but Pierre’s drop is still impressive as well as frightening.
Targhee’s fog has one benefit, providing an otherworldly frost coating to the ski lifts and trees. The trees’ white frocking earns them the nickname ghost trees.
Let it snow
Targhee’s wealth of snowfall may be its best-known claim to fame. Skiers and boarders brag about having their greatest-ever day of powder skiing at Targhee. Ski Magazine rated it No. 2 this season in the nation for best snow. Last week voters in the 2016 USA Today and 10Best Readers’ Choice poll ranked Targhee No. 7 out of 10 of the top resorts in the nation. Although polls can be swayed by dedicated voters, Targhee can still boast that it was one of 20 across the nation chosen by a panel of ski and snowboard pros even to qualify for the poll.
Although February is typically a good snow and ski month for Targhee and Jackson, last week provided a mix of unusual weather. I skied in disorienting fog, soaking rain, heavy snow and even a white-out blizzard with winds so strong that Jackson Hole Mountain was shut down out of safety concerns.
Despite the odd weather, both mountains can boast of snowfall around 300 inches so far this year with some of the best skiing still possible as storm fronts hammer the towering Teton Range into April.
“The snow is great,” White said.
What more do you need to know? Pick a mountain, make the trip. Or, better yet, sample both ski hills and compare and contrast like wine, beer or bourbon connoisseurs who like to savor the different ingredients and then argue with their friends over which is superior and why.