Witness Jackson Hole's Wildlife and Wilderness

Whether you take a hike or visit a museum, this Wyoming resort town is rich in scenic and cultural offerings off-season

I'm usually not one to voluntarily prolong winter, especially after enduring months of record snowfalls and relentless cold. But this year, a spring visit to Jackson Hole, Wyo., satisfied my yearning for warmer places.

As it turned out, my timing was just right.

At the height of winter, the area fills up with skiers heading for the Jackson Hole Ski Resort at Teton Village, famous for its challenging powder skiing and dramatic, 4,139-foot vertical drop. During the summer, ski boots are replaced by hiking shoes or sandals as rafting, kayaking, and trout fishing along the Snake River take over.

But between cold and hot seasons, it's just you and the bluebirds - and some of the town's 4,500 year-round residents who stay for the transition before meltdown gives way to mud season.

If you go to Jackson during the off season, plan to do some skiing. You may have mentally left winter behind, but if you've never experienced spring skiing, try it.

Unforgettable white Tetons

Jackson's back country is ideal for cross-country skiing, and it's likely that lift lines will be nonexistent at its three alpine resorts (in addition to Jackson Hole, there's little Snow King right in the village of Jackson and Grand Targhee, one hour north.) Temperatures vary from lightweight parka to T-shirt weather. And you won't easily forget the look of those spiky white Tetons against the big blue sky.

If you time it right, you could watch - or participate in - the Pole Pedal Paddle (PPP), a triathlon-like race that's become an annual rite of spring here.

Athletes ski, bike, and kayak solo or with teammates. Some are fiercely competitive; others just want to have fun. Still others, like Teton County Sheriff Roger Millward, who won the men's recreational class for five years, do both.

But that was when he was able to come up for air during spring. "I don't feel the off season anymore. Year-round population growth keeps me too busy to train," he says.

Start your day with a stack of flapjacks (or half-stack; portions are ample) at Jedediah's House of Sourdough. "Jed's," as the locals call it, is a Jackson institution named for legendary Western trapper Jedediah Smith and housed in a historic log house just down the road from the town square. While you're waiting for your bargain breakfast, newspaper clippings on the back of your menu will tell you all about Jed's clean character and hair-raising adventures.

Options abound for satisfying appetites later in the day. In addition to the many steak houses, restaurants range from the local favorite, Bubba's Bar-B-Que (you can't miss its parking lot jammed with trucks) with its cowboy-size servings of ribs, to the more relaxed and refined Shades Cafe (gourmet burritos and quesadillas), to upscale places like Off Broadway, our hosts' favorite, for special occasions. Seafood, pasta, and garden-fresh salads are all excellent there.

When you're ready to explore more of the valley, head straight to the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Open since September 1994, the 51,000-square-foot building houses the world's most extensive collection of wildlife art.

Its 12 galleries display masterly paintings of the rugged Western landscape and its wildlife, dignified photographic portraits of native Americans, imposing bronze sculptures, and even a replication of painter John Clymer's studio. An imaginative children's gallery invites them in to draw pictures, test their nature knowledge, or parade around live trees as wolves or buffalo.

Design of museum building

Enhancing all of this fine art by such famous figures as George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, and Carl Rungius are elegant surroundings. Museum founders didn't skimp on this facility (cost was $9.5 million), and it shows. From skylights above to animal tracks embedded in sandstone floors below, design details are elements of beauty in and of themselves.

The building's exterior is also stunning. Composed of Arizona sandstone, it subtly blends into a sagebrush-covered hillside about three miles north of Jackson.

Obviously, even better than seeing animals immortalized on canvas or in stone is seeing the real thing. You won't need to go far for that. About 8,000 elk winter just across the road at the 25,000-acre National Elk Refuge. You may want to take a tour by horse-drawn sleigh into the refuge. It's unlikely you'll get a closer look at elk, but don't leave your binoculars behind.

While touring other parts of the valley, keep them close to watch coyotes searching for rodents, moose grazing, or to glimpse a red fox. Look up, too: Red-tailed hawks often sit on signposts and treetops, Western meadowlarks (the state bird) are common, and iridescent mountain bluebirds will stop you in your tracks. Bald eagles are here, too.

All this wildlife keeps Peter Dederich, a ranger-naturalist at Grand Teton National Park excited about getting up each day.

"While driving to work this morning, I saw 10 sage grouse," he says. "Another morning, I counted 21 moose." He adds that the area is "a great example of the abundance and diversity of wildlife we used to have in this country." Mr. Dederich and his colleagues warn off-season visitors that fickle weather can botch up plans, so it's important to be flexible.

And don't count on touring Yellowstone National Park, even by snowmobile. It's usually closed from late March until summertime, when 3 million tourists turn it into a "total nut house," the ranger says.

The appeal of springtime here is that "you can find solitude," Dederich says. For a change from skiing or snowshoeing, he recommends biking, walking, or in-line skating on the Teton Park Road. Cars are off limits on this road in early spring, so it's a peaceful way to see the Tetons, Jenny Lake, and surrounding meadows.

Cowboy culture

Jackson's cowboy culture may have been pushed aside a little by chain stores, and these Western characters may have changed over the years ("They don't tip their hats to the ladies anymore," laments one longtime resident), but they are still the backbone of the area.

When they're not tending cattle at their ranches, you'll pass cowboys on the wooden-plank sidewalks in town, see them doing the two-step at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (some say "real cowboys don't line dance"), or crooning at the weekly Hootenanny, a gathering of townspeople who sing and play music at Dornan's General Store in Moose.

In the audience at "the Hoot," you may spot Margaret (Mardy) Murie. She and her biologist husband, Olaus Murie, worked to preserve America's wilderness, especially in Alaska. Since his death in 1963, she has carried on their fight. Now in her 90s, she still inspires visiting naturalists and groups of schoolchildren.

At her log house in Moose, she spoke of the importance of not taking nature's beauty for granted. When asked what advice she'd give to those hoping to make a difference today, she paused, looked up at a wall filled with her husband's lovely wildlife illustrations, and responded succinctly: "Work for wilderness."

* For more information about the Jackson area, call the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce at: (307) 733-3316.

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