The Western Approach

In Teton Valley, a Quieter Alternative to Jackson Hole

Culture By Photo by Elle Curtin

Formed over 10 million years ago along an earthquake fault line, the towering Teton Range is one of the most inspiring vistas in North America. Its jagged mountain peaks and 7,000 feet of vertical rise from the valley floor gave us one of Ansel Adams’ most iconic photos, The Tetons and the Snake River, and a popular National Park, Grand Teton, established in 1929.

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Grand Teton is generally mentioned in the same breath as Jackson Hole, the broad valley and resort to the east that shares its name with the swank cowboy town of Jackson, Wyoming. But there’s a quieter, if more rugged side to Grand Teton that deserves exploring: the western approach from Idaho called Teton Valley. What was once primarily an agricultural valley producing hay and grain developed into a bedroom community for Jackson Hole’s tourism industry during the second half of the 20th century. Today, it has become a great destination itself for those looking for a less traveled — if a bit less polished — experience in the region.

The first non-native to discover Teton Valley was John Colter in 1808. One of the original “mountain men”, Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and passed through the shadows of the craggy Teton Range during his travels to the area that now encompasses Yellowstone National Park in northwest Wyoming. The shallow valley soon became a popular link in the fur trade, and trappers named it Pierre’s Hole. A quarter century after its discovery, Pierre’s Hole was the site of the “Rendezvous of 1832”, a gathering place where traders, Native Americans, trappers and mountain men sold furs and traded supplies. Hostilities between parties flared and a well-chronicled battle ensued.

A rental car is a must from whichever direction you approach. The quickest way to get to Teton Valley is to fly into Jackson, although the Teton Pass can be a bit dicey in winter. Another option is to fly into Idaho Falls and drive northeast over the Pine Creek Pass. Finally, you could drive 4.5 hours from Salt Lake City, which has excellent flight connections across the US and generally cheaper rental car options.

Where to Stay
Fox Creek Inn has four luxury rooms and a terrific sit-down breakfast every morning. Doubles start at $99. Teton Valley Cabins costs less. If you’re going to ski, Grand Targhee Resort offers several lodging options from luxury to more basic rooms, including lodging at the base or farther down the mountain on the road to Driggs.

Where to Eat
Spoons Bistro in Victor is a can’t-miss dinner spot for local fare. The service might be a bit spotty, but you’re not in New York City. Forage in Driggs has modern American cuisine with Idaho flair, while Grand Targhee offers a family-friendly sleigh ride dinner in a luxury yurt, if you’re really looking to impress the kids. For 31 beers on trap, head to the West Side Yard in Victor.

What to Do
Winter activities are abundant, including alpine skiing, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing (for trail info, go to Teton Valley Trails and Pathways). Grand Targhee ski resort is 25 minutes up an easy mountain road, while world-class Jackson Hole is about 45 minutes away over the Teton Pass. If you’re a cyclist, fat biking has taken off here and there are plenty of trails to ride. If you burn out your quads, consider a visit to the potato vodka distillery in Driggs.

The next century was decidedly more quiet in Teton Valley, but the birth of two ski resorts in the 1960s — Jackson Hole on the eastern side of the range and Grand Targhee on the western slope — was a new beginning. It’s also what drew us: Having heard of Grand Targhee’s epic powder stashes and brilliant views of the Teton Range, we set out on our road trip to explore the Teton Valley.

Teton Valley is shaped like a “U”, closed off on three sides by mountains. There are three approaches, including the Teton Pass that leads east to Jackson and Pine Creek Pass that winds its way through the foothills from Idaho Falls to the southwest. The third route is less direct, but flatter and straighter, passing through Rexburg across potato and hay fields on the open north side of the valley. For our winter weekend trip, we took the northern route, a one-hour drive from Idaho Falls.

A pair of one-stoplight towns called Driggs and Victor bookend the two-lane road that runs north-south, bisecting the length of the valley. Victor is the last town before heading over the mountains toward Jackson via the Teton Pass.

Teton Valley still has only a smattering of accommodation options, and the few bistros that have popped up are very small and emphasize local foods with a laid-back atmosphere that makes it seem that they are there primarily for locals. And the local population has certainly grown: there’s been a threefold increase in residents in Teton County as a result of the booming real estate prices in Jackson Hole about 30 minutes away.

The big draw of the region is Grand Targhee Resort. Though not as well-known as Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, its wide-open runs, ample snowfall and vistas of the valley to the west and the Tetons to the east make it a true hidden gem. And how many other resorts take you from the car park to the main lodge by horse-drawn sled? If Grand Targhee didn’t have Jackson Hole just a mountain pass away, it would might be a much bigger draw. While much of the terrain is intermediate, better skiers can make the popular hike up Mary’s Nipple for a terrific long run.

Beyond lifts and runs, there’s plenty to do off-piste, like backcountry skiing in Teton Pass and Grand Teton National Park, or cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Teton Canyon. There’s even a drive-in movie theater; you won’t find that in Jackson Hole.