The ritzy Jackson Hole resort has its man-made attractions - but Stephen Wood finds the wildlife just as enticing

Once the road was clear of skiers I could concentrate on where I was going - namely, to the bottom of Teton Pass on the road that leads from the great plains of Idaho to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. As the road bottomed out beyond Wilson I made a surprising discovery: that Jackson Hole is a place of astonishing natural beauty.

Jackson Hole is one of the most evocative names in skiing. Most skiers who have never been there know a lot about it. First, this is a place for serious skiers: the slopes are steep, the style is rugged, the attitude is - well, this is the kind of place where people will ski anywhere, even on the highway. Second, it's pretty inaccessible, a quality that always adds to a ski destination's aura. You might just shrug your shoulders and say "OK" to a trip to Vail or Breckenridge, but you only make it to Jackson Hole if you really want to go there. Third, it has the cachet that some of those rich enough to live anywhere in the US choose Jackson Hole. The last time that Forbes magazine surveyed the most expensive ski homes in the US, only Aspen had more properties in the top 10 than Jackson Hole.

I knew all that - no great achievement since, although Jackson Hole has a small ski area and sells only about 400,000 day-passes per season, a search on Google turns up more than three million references to it. Nevertheless, I had no idea how beautiful the place is, although I might have guessed: nobody would spend $32.5m (£18.7m) - the asking price of one property mentioned in Forbes - on a ski home in an ugly location.

Jackson's "Hole" (probably a corruption of "hollow") is a high plain surrounded by peaks up to 14,000ft; Jackson is its main settlement, a town of 8,647 permanent residents. The plain is actually a narrow corridor, between the Rocky Mountains and the Tetons. It is the latter range, about 40 miles long, which makes the landscape exceptional. The Tetons have almost no foothills: they simply rise out of the plain. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is set on the eastern face of these mountains, which is why the skiing is steep.

Statistically, "an acre of Jackson Hole is likely to contain 2.5 elk, or 3 horses, or 2.3 tons of hay, or 1.5 cattle, or 1 buffalo, or 0.8 skiers". That information comes from an advertisement for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in the 1991/2 season, so it might not be strictly accurate. But it does indicate that skiers are far outnumbered by the animals, many of which also come (via the Grand Teton National Park and the adjoining Yellowstone park) for the winter season. So with the promise of seeing not just thousands of elk but also bison, moose, bighorn sheep and coyote, I spent my first day in Jackson Hole on a wildlife expedition in the company of Benj Sinclair of Teton Science Schools.

Elk can, apparently, travel at 30mph. No doubt they do when wolves or mountain lion approach; but being grazing animals, they can also spend a long time in one spot. And at Jackson Hole - where they can fill not just a horizon but the foreground, too - elk are so plentiful as to seem commonplace.

Much more engaging were the bighorn sheep that Sinclair spotted on a ridge in the elk refuge. Outlined against the sky, the male's "kiss curl" horns (up to 30ft long) looked absurdly dramatic, and were worn with pride. Bighorns are excellent climbers, but the population in the refuge amounts to less than three dozen animals, and is under threat, with calves falling prey to eagles.

The 25,000-acre area north of Jackson is, officially, the National Elk Refuge; but animals don't read signs - and anyway, what doorman would deny entry to a male bison weighing the best part of a ton? In his Jeep, Sinclair drove us near a group of about 65 bison that were milling around and "cratering", or clearing snow with their heads before grazing. The decent distance between us and the bison shrank alarmingly as they ambled over to look at the Jeep; but a close-up view of a bison is not to be missed. They are beautiful animals, thanks to the dark-brown, shaggy fur around the head and shoulders which makes them impervious to cold.

It is estimated that bison in the US once numbered 70 million. But a 1904 survey reckoned that less than 1,000 had survived. Why? Because the native Americans were reliant on them for everything from foodstuffs to boats. Driving the bison almost to extinction was a tactical strategy in the white man's battle to colonise America.

Outside the refuge, we saw six mule deer, one coyote that paused before scurrying off into the undergrowth, and a moose grazing on a riverbank.

And the skiing? Steep and exhilarating, as I knew it would be. I am prejudiced against ski areas where all the terrain is on a single face: they can be very dull. But at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort the steep pitches keep you alert; and, when you stop, the view across the "Hole", hatched with elk and dotted with bison, makes you glad to be there.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Ski Independence (0845 310 3030; www.ski-i.com), which offers a week at the Snake River Lodge and Spa from £1,415 per person, including return flights with United Airlines via Denver, and transfers.

You can reach Jackson Hole via Salt Lake City, Denver and Chicago. Airlines serving the cities include Delta (0845 600 0950; www.delta.com) and American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.americanairlines.co.uk). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Chicago is £13.20. (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org)

STAYING THERE

Snake River Lodge, Teton Village, Wyoming (001 307 732 6000; www.snakeriverlodge.rockresorts.com). Doubles from $129 (£72), room only.

The Lodge at Jackson Hole (001 800 458 3866; www.lodgeatjh.com). B&B from $147 (£82).

MORE INFORMATION

www.wyomingtourism.org; 001 307 777 7777.

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