JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) -- Bleary-eyed skiers and snowboarders clambered into Teton Village's distinctive red tram car for its opening run, squinting as they glanced up at fresh snow sparkling under the morning sun.
Some had been out late at the Mangy Moose Saloon the night before, but a storm had passed through, so those intent on first tracks managed a short night's sleep.
And they wouldn't feel tired for long -- not with eye-widening views of hulking open bowls and pine-speckled snow fields as the lift glided swiftly up 4,100 vertical feet. And not with the accompanying mood music pulsating from retrofitted speakers -- AC/DC's "Back in Black" on this particular morning.
Fresh and abundant powder can make for a memorable day at goliath Jackson Hole.
But even those skiing under clear skies generally get no worse than a mixture of mammoth moguls and long, invigorating groomed runs -- not to mention a panorama of one of the most photogenic mountain ranges in North America. The view was captured in a famous Ansel Adams photo of the Tetons taken from the Snake River Overlook.
"I ski there day in and day out in the winter and I never get bored," says former Olympic gold medalist Tommy Moe, who has lived in the area for about 10 years.
Throw in the historic town of Jackson -- which clings to its cowboy roots even as the super-wealthy, celebrities and artists converge -- and you've got a place that satiates senses both primordial and refined.
By its simply awesome nature, Jackson Hole will always be a place best suited to courageous and motivated skiers.
After winning the downhill at Lillehammer in 1994, Moe could have settled anywhere in the mountain West. He decided to set up an advanced ski school at Jackson Hole.
The skiable terrain rises from about 6,000 feet above sea level to higher than 10,000 feet, with more than 2,500 acres of terrain. It is about as big as they come in North America -- a top-to-bottom run can take a half-hour or more with periodic stops to rest and survey the terrain.
"No matter who you are, it's going to make you feel it a little bit when you get to the bottom," says Moe.
Taking the tram to the summit is worthwhile if only for the view, but beginners may want to ride the lift back down as well -- a common practice here.
Approaching the summit, the tram glides alongside a towering cliff, offering a clear view into the heart of Corbet's Couloir, a steep, snow-filled chute carved out of the rock. The best (craziest?) skiers drop into it, landing in a deep bed of snow and carving a couple of hair-raising, high-speed turns before easing out into Tensleep Bowl below.
"You've got to do a high-speed, controlled-slide turn, and once you get over the hard part, the best is the next few turns in the wider part of the couloir, which is blown in with deep snow and it's unbelievable," Moe says. "I once flew 40 feet down the chute."
Many of the ski runs are named with a nod to the French trappers who traded with American Indians here two centuries ago. Rendezvous Bowl, a common way down from the tram, is steep but largely devoid of trees and often has a base of soft snow, which makes the skiing easier than it looks.
When conditions are at their best, advanced skiers flock directly from Rendezvous to the Hobacks -- legendary because of their vast expanse of mostly treeless terrain that provides seemingly endless powder skiing after a good snowfall. But there are some treacherous, often snow-disguised boulders, along with challenging ravines, so intermediate skiers who can't resist trying it should have companions who really know what they're doing, or a paid guide.
Terrain classified as "beginner" is limited compared to the overall expanse. It is among the reasons -- along with its relative isolation -- that Jackson Hole has struggled to get the number of ski visits of more popular Colorado or Utah resorts.
But Jackson Hole has improved options and lift service for beginner and intermediate skiers -- with two new four-person lifts since 2000 -- and has begun to come into its own as a destination resort.
The telltale signs are the multimillion-dollar homes sprouting up like the area's renowned wildflowers in spring. There are now several spas, one of which boasts the upscale Granary restaurant, built on a hilltop with giant windows overlooking the Snake River valley toward the rocket ship-shaped peak of Grand Teton.
Restaurants and stores
Last spring, the Internal Revenue Service listed Teton County as America's richest in terms of average household income. And the mixture of businesses around the main square in the town of Jackson -- distinctive for its arches made of antlers and wooden sidewalks -- seem to symbolize what the area has become.
There's a drinking and dining spot called the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar -- worth seeing whether or not one cares for the country swing played by live bands inside. With its saddle-topped bar stools and glass cases cluttered with the gaudiest displays of vintage frontier-days weaponry, it's as much museum as social gathering place.
Right next door is the Cadillac Grille, with its art-deco decor and haute cuisine that should make those with a more cosmopolitan bent feel right at home. There are numerous fine restaurants around town and at the base of the mountain, home to the Four Seasons' first hotel at a ski resort. Popular dishes include big game plates such as venison as well as buffalo burgers and steaks. A top apres-ski hangout on the mountain has long been the Mangy Moose, a multilevel bar and restaurant that hosts live music, often to packed-in, lively crowds.
Stores and boutiques in Jackson sell an array of local art, crafts and goodies. A local candy maker makes bonbons found throughout town -- the filling made from huckleberries picked over summer from around the Teton National Forest. There's also a popular bakery-restaurant, called The Bunnery, known for its signature OSM (oats, sunflower and millet) bread.
Galleries throughout town display photos and paintings of the Tetons from seemingly every angle, along with scenes from Yellowstone National Park, only an hour-and-a-half drive north and an easy trip for those who visit in summer.
Go in winter
But those who ski must come in winter -- and not just for Teton Village. There's night skiing at the small but challenging Snow King area right in the heart of Jackson. And those who have time for a day trip would cheat themselves terribly by ignoring Grand Targhee.
First, the drive takes one over the stunning Teton Pass, where parked cars and ski tracks are the clearest sign of the pull the Tetons have on backcountry ski enthusiasts.
Second, Grand Targhee has been long regarded as one of the best-kept secrets in the West. With its base lodge set atop foothills close to the timberline, Grand Targhee looks from a distance like a 2,400-foot mound of snow just waiting to be played upon.
Its western exposure keeps it in daylight later and it seems to sit in a portion of the range that captures the most snow. Powder days here are routine -- and routinely "epic," as younger skiers and boarders say.
The tree skiing in the lower portions is exceptional because the snow is deep but the slopes not too steep, allowing for speed control that helps one navigate the woods with relative ease.
And the detachable, high-speed quad lifts, often with short or no lines, allow for enough runs to wear out even advanced skiers.