In winter, Yellowstone is closed to cars, and the only road kept open is US-212 between Gardiner and Cooke City, Montana, at the northern edge of the park. But if you’re here anytime but summer, don’t despair: US-26, a very different but still unforgettable route, is open year-round, running south of Yellowstone between Idaho Falls and Casper, through Jackson Hole and the spectacular scenery of Grand Teton National Park.
Climbing up from Idaho Falls along the banks of the Snake River, US-26 crosses into Wyoming on a sinuously scenic route, past cottonwood trees and white-water-running kayakers, before linking up with north-south US-89. The tourist mecca of Jackson Hole, one of the country’s most popular “wilderness” destinations, takes its name from the main town, Jackson (pop. 10,523), which sits at the center of a broad, mountain-ringed valley. Drawing upward of 35,000 visitors on a summer day, Jackson isn’t exactly an idyllic spot, but it has managed to retain its Wild West character, especially in the few blocks around the lively Town Square. Here, false-fronted buildings linked by a raised wooden sidewalk hold upscale boutiques and the wonderfully kitsch likes of the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar (25 N. Cache St., 307/733-2207) on the west side of the square, a huge and always lively hangout with silver dollars implanted in the bar top and real leather saddles instead of bar stools. There are free dance lessons on Thursday nights!
Jackson has many very good (and very expensive) restaurants, like E. Leaven Food Co. (175 Center St., 307/733-5600), a spacious and unpretentious pre-ski breakfast spot serving house-made omelets, soups, and salads. Jackson caters to so many visitors that accommodations, however plentiful, can be booked solid in summer. There’s something for everyone here: campgrounds and RV parks; $4,000-a-week dude ranches; B&Bs; and highway motels, including an affordable Motel 6 along US-89, about two miles south of town.
The Jackson Hole area is one of the country’s most exclusive winter resorts, with world-class ski areas including Grand Targhee Resort (800/827-4433 or 307/353-2300), powder-hound heaven on the Idaho border; and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort (888/333-7766 or 307/733-2292), which boasts one of the longest vertical drops in the United States: an astounding 4,139 feet!