Wearing an avalanche beacon and 18 layers of sunscreen, I left my Jackson, Wyo., hotel at sunup and drove my rental car to Togwotee Pass. Many tourists want a ski-in/ski-out chalet with a roaring fire to welcome them off the slopes, but I was heading an hour and a half outside of town to find some of the area’s best snow conditions away from the resorts. As a visitor from the East Coast, I had never been backcountry skiing before, but this is where locals go to get away.
How to ski like a local in a mountain resort town
Where to rent a room, go off-resort and eat like the ski patrol in Jackson, Wyo.
I wanted to figure out the best way to travel in a mountain town, so I came to Jackson with a plan to see how people who live and work here do it year-round, from backcountry skiing to “àpres” nachos. I booked my trip for early December, right before the place swarms with tourists for peak ski season. Major ski towns such as Aspen, Colo.; Park City, Utah; and Jackson can go from sleepy to slammed in winter months.
“Most locals will avoid Town Square — aside from having to go to the ER — during the big booming seasons,” says Nick Phillips, a co-owner of the Sweet Cheeks Meats butcher shop. “Down there, we call it Disneyland.”
Since the Jackson Hole Ski Corporation formed in 1963, Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (JHMR) has grown into a premier ski destination with 2,500 acres of groomed, patrolled terrain. A world-renowned ski destination, the Jackson Hole valley has a population of about 10,000 but draws more than 2.6 million visitors annually. The majority descend on the valley in the summer to see nearby national parks such as Grand Teton and Yellowstone, but the winter is also a major draw — and growing.
So how do the locals do ski season? I spent four days finding out.
How to lock down lift tickets
Last year, many ski resorts reduced capacity by requiring visitors to buy tickets in advance. Although most are back to operating lifts, gondolas and trams at full capacity, many still mandate reservations. Even if last-minute lift tickets are advertised, it is a safer bet to buy in advance.
“Don’t just show up at the ticket window where they could sell out, but they’re also more expensive,” JHMR spokesman Eric Seymour says.
The JHMR website specifically recommends buying lift access at least two weeks ahead of time. Passes for weekdays and days during the front and tail ends of the ski season will be cheaper than passes for peak weekends. It can be a gamble to book ski days early or late in the season, however, because irregular climate has brought early snow to some ski destinations and thin cover to others.
How to save money on skis
Over beers from giant steins at the Alpenhof Lodge, local Erika Dahlby told me she recommends buying secondhand gear if you’re going to be skiing regularly. She found her skis on Facebook Marketplace, but she advises shoppers to consult an expert before buying used equipment.
If you’re going to ski more than a day or two, Dahlby said it’s also a good idea to buy multi-resort season passes like IKON — although those must be purchased well in advance.
I rented my gear online from JHMR, which came with a 20 percent discount. I heard later that you can sometimes find cheaper rates on a rental by going to shops in town (although JHMR owns many of them).
How to find an affordable room
Many tourists prize direct access to ski resorts, but Dahlby recommends staying in town. Not only are you more likely to find a better room rate, you will get a taste of local culture.
I started my stay at Cache House hostel for an affordable (for me) $80 a night. Then I moved to the Lodge at Jackson Hole, a modest place surrounded by strip malls that runs more than $500 per night during the high season. It cost me about $170.
“Your Motel 6 room in Kansas is $80 a night. Your Motel 6 room in Jackson is $240 a night,” said Phillips, the butcher shop owner. “Expect that across the board.”
Phillips also wants visitors to know that encountering higher prices on lodging or food in a mountain town is not always a product of price gouging. Supply chain woes are driving prices up across the board, and it is costlier to operate in a remote destination.
“This place is five hours away from the rest of the world,” he says. “Don’t expect anything to be easy, cheap or free.”
How to beat traffic
Melissa Turley, executive director of the Teton Village Association, told me over smoothies at Healthy Being Café & Juicery that her “number one tip” for visitors is to travel without a car, because tourist traffic congests mountain towns. Throughout my trip, I rode buses with a mix of locals and visitors juggling their skis.
I relied on Jackson’s public START bus (and Uber or Lyft) all but one day, when I rented a car to go backcountry skiing. The town boasts a free bus service thanks to lodging taxes. Other buses that run to the main resort charge a few bucks per ride through a cashless app. The town also recently launched a free, on-demand shuttle service within a certain radius.
If you do end up driving, be mindful of how you park. Paul Rachele, a professional mountain guide, says everyone is constantly jockeying for a precious space, so “people need to park together close.” Skier etiquette and the type of parking space you have also dictates whether you should “kit up” beside or behind your car so you’re not flailing in someone else’s way.
How to backcountry ski
In the back of Rachele’s office at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, he says the annual glut of visitors does not diminish his experience on skis.
“There’s a lifetime of skiing in like a quarter of this range, and so I’ve never really been bothered,” he said.
To Rachele, the protectionist stance some locals adopt doesn’t acknowledge tourism’s economic impact. Without visitors, “the only people who would be here are the rich,” he said, “And right now, because there is a [tourism] industry, we can have working class people.”
The way locals such as Rachele can escape from the pack is to head into the backcountry, the undeveloped, uncontrolled terrain where skiers are responsible for their own safety. If you’ve never downhill skied before, backcountry skiing is not the best place to start, Rachele said.
While backcountry skiing is fun, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Backcountry skiers — and snowboarders, snowmobilers and climbers — can trigger avalanches that range from minor to fatal. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, there were a record 37 U.S. avalanche fatalities during the 2020-2021 season. That’s well above the average of 24 fatalities over the previous 10 years, although the figure had climbed to 34 and 35 over that span.
Newcomers to backcountry skiing should take an avalanche course to learn how to evaluate risks, choose safe routes, read avalanche forecasts, and get a primer in gear (namely, an avalanche beacon, shovel and probe). Easier yet, you can go out with a professional guide who knows where to find the best powder.
My backpack was full of tools that could (in theory) help me if an avalanche buried me alive. And snacks. Over the course of our four hours, Rachele schooled me on the terrain, Jackson etiquette and the mountain pine beetles killing the region’s trees. It felt so comforting to have someone figuratively holding my hand through a potentially dangerous sport — and literally holding my hand when I would fall over and sink deep into the snow.
How to ski the resorts
My guide ferried me through the backcountry a day earlier, but at the base of the resort, I stared at the chair lift line and started to panic. The guide had told me I was a decent enough skier, which convinced me I didn’t need a refresher for the downhill portion of the trip.
“I just go? I just put my boots in my skis and go start skiing?” I asked my boyfriend on the phone. My family went skiing every winter, but I stopped in college and hadn’t gone again since 2019. That was with a guide, and now I was alone.
At the very least, I thought, I would stick to the most basic runs fit for beginners. According to Rob Brennan, a member of the JHMR ski patrol who was born and raised in Jackson, that reasoning might not always work out. Because every mountain is different, a black-diamond run at one resort may feel more or less challenging at another. Jackson in particular is known for being one of the most challenging ski resorts in the country (although it has been investing heavily in adding more beginner and intermediate runs).
“A blue here doesn’t mean the same thing as it would at Vail or Aspen,” Brennan said.
Brennan’s job is often to help skiers who got stuck — or injured — on a run beyond their skill level.
To avoid those situations, don’t overestimate your abilities, and pay close attention to signs marking the appropriate trails. With the average skier reaching speeds around 10 to 20 mph, you will also want to watch out. Brennan recommends lessons, saying that learning how to slow down is the most important maneuver, because “rapid deceleration is how people get really hurt.” In additions to lessons, hiring a guide can help you stay safe and can come with the perk of skipping lines as instructors have their own express lane.
If you do hire a guide or take a lesson, remember to tip.
Viktor Marohnić, co-founder of the adventure guide booking company 57Hours, says professional help will never ask for a tip, but customers typically add a 10 to 20 percent gratuity.
Rachele says for a day of guiding, a $20 tip can be considered the bare minimum, and $100 signals you had a great time. For someone taking ski lessons at a resort, Seymour says students in group classes typically tip about $30 to $40 and someone going with a private instructor usually tips $100 to $150 per day. If you don’t have time to grab cash from an ATM before your adventure, guides are used to accepting tips digitally via apps such as Venmo and Apple Pay, among others.
How to find the best places to eat
The term àpres-ski, colloquially shortened to àpres, may bring to mind an image of sipping Dom Pérignon by a fireplace, but the reviving post-run drink isn’t really that way.
Phillips says for locals it’s more often “live music under the tram with a tallboy in your hand, catching up with random groups of people,” he says. His crowd typically ends up at the Mangy Moose bar to watch another show and split a big plate of nachos.
Ski towns have plenty of high-end restaurants ready to cater to wealthy visitors, but the local population isn’t balling out on a regular basis. Brennan, the ski patroller, says supporting local hangouts like Tortilleria y Tacos El Metate is important because they show outsiders the Jackson community is more diverse than it may appear.
Many businesses here have historically relied on seasonal labor from foreigners. But ahead of last ski season, the Trump administration froze temporary J-1 cultural exchange visas and H-2B visas. Phillips says it was common for the thousands of seasonal employees to work two to three jobs, making them acutely absent from the resorts, hotels, restaurants, bars and other businesses that depended on them.
Even with visitor numbers spiking and business booming, establishments such as Sweet Cheeks Meats have been forced to operate with skeleton crews at reduced hours amid a labor crisis that has been tagged as “the Great Resignation.”
Over tea at Persephone Bakery, Karelle Golda, a Jackson transplant and co-founder of women’s skiwear company Halfdays, says she encourages visitors to show empathy, temper expectations and overtip whenever you can.
“There is a staffing issue in probably every ski town in America now, so you have to be very patient,” Golda says. “You might wait in line for a ski run, or you might wait for your dinner.”
About this story
Editing by Gabe Hiatt. Photo editing by Monique Woo. Design by Kat Rudell-Brooks. Copy editing by Paola Ruano.
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