JACKSON, Wyo. — Most of our family trips, I spend hours online planning.
This one, I stole from family.
My wife’s cousins were planning to spend New Year’s cross-country skiing in the Tetons — a trip that got even more enticing when I learned that my family of beginner Nordic skiers wouldn’t have any trouble with the trails involved. We invited ourselves along.
We crammed two ski days — one on the Idaho side of the Tetons, one in Grand Teton National Park — and a wagon ride on the National Elk Refuge into two days in the Jackson area. We could have used more snow but couldn’t have asked for any more sun, which made the Tetons even more stunning than usual.
We broke up the drive with a night in Idaho Falls, then headed to Teton Canyon for a late-morning ski on New Year’s Eve. The trail is an unplowed road that services campgrounds in the area near Grand Targhee Resort. It’s groomed Mondays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for skate and classic skiing. Dogs are allowed.
The trail climbs gradually from the parking lot but is a terrific spot for newcomers to the sport. I learned to cross-country ski last winter; my wife and son took their first lesson a week before this trip. Teton Canyon was my 9-year-old’s second time on cross-country skis and he covered a total of 4 miles, 2 miles each out and back. We gained about 100 feet of elevation, so it was fairly easy going. There’s a nice view of the back side of the Tetons from the parking lot and for about the first mile of skiing before the forest takes over.
At the 2-mile mark, we found Reunion Flat Campground. We brushed the snow off a frozen picnic table, broke out the sandwiches we packed and enjoyed lunch. Regular users told us we could go another 3 miles but the view wouldn’t open up again, so we headed back to the car — tired and smiling.
Grand Teton National Park offers many cross country skiing and snowshoeing options, and the winter entrance fee is $10 per car. We opted for the most straightforward option with guaranteed mountain views. The Teton Park Road is closed and groomed for skiing from the Taggart Lake trailhead to Signal Mountain Lodge, which is more than 10 miles. There’s a Jenny Lake Trail adjacent to the road that creates an 8-mile loop for more experienced skiers.
We just hit the road for another out-and-back trek. Unfortunately, the snow was terrible — about 2 inches of packed snow/ice on the road, which was uncovered along the shoulders. The lack of snow created a mess of crumbling classic tracks on the road. My son, though, found the answer — he just hopped off the road into the fields of untouched (albeit crusty) snow. That was much more fun as we skied, stopped to marvel at the mountains, skied, posed for some photos, and skied some more.
Having visited the park on Fourth of July weekend in 2016, it was incredible to be on what then was a busy highway — and having a snack in what normally would be a packed pullout — with no one else around. With every stride, we seemed to draw closer to the snow-dusted Tetons.
Oliver, my son, insisted that we couldn’t turn around until we’d gone farther than 2 miles, so we could top the previous day. So we went 2.25 miles. By the time we returned to the trailhead, the grooming had deteriorated to the point that people were taking off their skis and walking for a bit. Many probably decided to ski another day. But getting deep into the national park was well worth the hassle.
National Elk Refuge
This was supposed to be a sleigh ride, but thanks to our disappointing winter, it became a wagon ride. It was still well worth taking the one-hour tour of the massive elk refuge just north of Jackson that welcomes thousands of the animals each winter. The tour begins with a short bus ride from the Jackson Hole and Greater Yellowstone Visitor Center, then the ride, pulled by two horses and narrated by a guide who will educate you about elk and their habitat. It can get brutally cold, so dress warm (blankets are provided, which helps).
The elk don’t mind the horses, wagon/sleigh or gawking tourists, so you can get quite close. We also saw a bald eagle, learned about some of the unique qualities of elk (their one-of-a-kind antlers, the way they regulate temperature, etc.) and watched our guide delicately try to answer Oliver’s questions about the elk’s peculiar breeding habits. You get a nice view of the Tetons as well.