JACKSON, Wyo. — Between Dec. 1 and April 10, when you discover the copious winter pleasures of Wyoming's Jackson Hole and Grand Teton National Park, you could call the terrain John Colter country.
Colter arrived in 1807 after serving in the Lewis and Clark expedition. A host of rugged mountain men followed him to supply beaver pelts for the fashionable men's hats of that period.
Your experience today can approximate the pristine adventure of Colter and his peers as you take a sleigh ride among the 7,500 elk at the National Elk Refuge north of Jackson Hole. You can then put on cross-country skis, as Colter did, though advances in ski design will make your skiing easier.
Your immersion in the beauty of natural scenery, gazing at the Grand Tetons, will be quite similar to Colter's, for the Jackson Hole-Teton area is rightly called the last great preserved ecosystem of the temperature climate zone in North America.
Elk Feeding Ground
Regardless of your other interests, be sure to start your trip with a visit to the national elk herd. About 5,000 elk gather for their winter feeding, pawing through the snow to reach the dense grasses on the plains north of Jackson.
Under careful supervision of the national refuge ranger you can take a sleigh ride ($3.50) through the herd, which causes no stress to the animals. Rangers have learned that the elk feel little concern about a horse-drawn sleigh or its 20 passengers.
As you approach the herd you first see them clustered in the distance, much as Colter did, like miniatures in the landscape. Gradually the antlered bulls and smaller cows stand out. When the sleigh moves through the herd you are less than a hundred feet from these magnificent wild creatures.
Your experience of the elk in winter can't be duplicated in summer, when the animals are skittish and disperse in the hills from Jackson north through the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone park.
After seeing the elk, treat yourself to some cross-country skiing. Colter crossed these snowfields on homemade wooden skis. You benefit from the 1974 breakthrough to fiberglass skis, whose flexibility and durability made cross-country skiing much easier.
Jackson has become one of the nation's leading cross-country ski destinations, with four locations. A mixed terrain of flat meadows and gently rolling hills affords an ideal ski setting. The dry, powdery snow packs well into firm trails.
A good place to start is Teton Village Ski Center, where you can rent cross-country gear and get instruction from enthusiasts such as Peter Moedt or Jon Wiesel. In a short time they can explain the nuances of cross-country, or Nordic, skiing.
You venture out on about 12 miles of set track, as the trails are called, and perhaps go farther on the countless miles of unmanicured trails through Grand Teton National Park. The other cross-country centers in Jackson groom an additional 16 miles of trails.
With a groomed trail your skis and poles glide over packed snow rather than sink deeply into unpacked powder. Back-country ski trips, including helicoptering to remote sites, can be arranged.
Teton Village is a particularly convenient setting because the resort consolidates many of the attractions of the region. Besides the cross-country ski trails there are several lodges, with the Sojourner Inn a good choice.
Next to the Sojourner is an amenity that John Colter never had an opportunity to appreciate: Jackson's four-star restaurant, the Alpenhof. Its escallops of elk is a culinary masterpiece. The skills of chef Frances Clogston are excelled at times by those of his pastry-baking wife, Debbie, whose pecan and chocolate mousse pies rank as favorites.
Desserts Reign Supreme
Citizens in Jackson take the fine art of dessert making quite seriously, ranking the desserts of all restaurants in the region in an annual winter newspaper poll.
Behind Teton Village lies Rendezvous Mountain, which connoisseurs of downhill skiing term among the finest. Though there are beginner slopes, the special features of Rendezvous are the intermediate and expert slopes. The quality of the snow, the variety of the scenic terrain and the length of the descent are outstanding.
Whether you ski or not, however, Teton Village offers one of the best views of the Grand Teton Mountains, which have changed little since John Colter gazed upon them. A view is possible everywhere in the region, but at Teton Village an aerial gondola whisks you in a few minutes from 6,200 feet up another 4,139 feet. It's for both sightseers and skiers.
Skiers relish the longest vertical ski drop in North America, and sightseers dwell upon the pointed peaks that the early French trappers named the Great Breasts, Les Grande Tetons.
When considering your lodging, know that the best close view of the Tetons is from Signal Mountain Lodge on Jackson Lake, half an hour north of Jackson in Grand Teton National Park. It is the only lodge in the park open in winter. The Tetons come immediately into view just across the lake from the lodge.