JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. -- The bike trail between Teton Village and Jackson, a gloriously scenic route, has a safety message designed to shake up the squares:
"BE BEAR AWARE," it warns, reminding riders that Ursus arctos horribilis -- the North American grizzly -- is one of the natives of this upland, upscale valley.
With crystal skies, a 10,000-foot skyline, and more than 400 inches of snowfall each winter, the Grand Tetons are a powder animal's dream. But the spectacular valley setting -- a 50-mile "hole" in the mountains near the Idaho border -- invites other wildlife, from wolves to moose, elk and bison, that converge in fall and winter on the area to socialize and eat. That's absolutely cool with the locals, who delight in sharing close encounters of the four-legged kind.
"Wrecked my car last week. Bull elk. He walked away," sighs Kathryn Brackenridge, a marketing manager.
"I had a brand new tent, and that bear was headed for it. So I just said to him, in my mean voice, 'You're a bad bear. Go away,' "recounts outdoor guide Jason Williams.
"Yesterday started bad. A deer totaled my car," moans chef Paul O'Connor.
Even in the off-season, Jackson (pop. 8,647) is a work-hard, play-hard kind of place. The exhilaration of high altitude spurs its rock-hard residents to constant action. Nine-to-fivers leave the office on a fall afternoon for a quick run up Snow King, an in-town mountain with a 1,000-foot ascent, and ride the chair lift down. A weekend excursion to the 13,770-foot summit of Grand Teton, the premiere local peak, means spending Saturday climbing to within a few thousand feet of the peak, camping overnight, rising at 3 a.m. to reach the summit, then turning around to arrive home in time for the work week.
"The talent level in Jackson is amazing," says Jason Williams, who launched Wildlife Safaris, his outdoor guiding service, last year. "You've got paragliders, photographers, chefs, artists, athletes."
When Ms. Brackenridge and Anna Cole pick me up at the eco-friendly Hotel Terra, to guide me on a day hike in the Grand Teton National Park, they're already wearing casts. Ms. Brackenridge has an ankle brace (a hiking stumble); Ms. Cole sports a pink wrist cast (a mountain bike fall). Nevertheless, the two young outdoorswomen are ready to rock. We're heading to the newest addition to the national park, the Laurance S. Rockefeller Preserve.
Mr. Rockefeller was a relative latecomer to the valley, where the first white settlers arrived in the 1880s. His 35,000-acre holdings protected the area from development for decades. After his death in 2004, the last remaining ranch buildings were removed from his property. Today, the only structure in the pristine wilderness is a well-designed visitor's center, a base for our trek through wetlands, aspen forest and sagebrush meadows to Phelps Lake.
We've arrived in the park before winter closes the main park roads. But trails are open to hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers year-round. In the Teton Range, with a dozen peaks topping 11,000 feet, heavy snows begin in November. Avalanches and storms are always possible, but magnificent vistas are guaranteed. When we reach the lake, a half-dozen photographers are snapping views of golden aspen, and the water reflects the snowy peaks as faithfully as a mirror.
We break the three-mile hike for a shoreline picnic, and scan the map to put the park in perspective. Phelps and a handful of other high-altitude lakes are dwarfed by Jackson Lake, a glacial 25,000-acre expanse at the park's northern tip. That's where 484-square-mile Grand Teton meets mighty Yellowstone, some 3,742 square miles. (Delaware and Rhode Island would fit inside Yellowstone with room to spare.) Wild animals shuttle between the two national parks as easily as summer tourists. But it's fall and winter that offer the most opportunities to see wildlife. That's when animals descend to the valley to find food.
Of course, humans graze in the valley, too, and the pickings are good. Between Teton Village, a 12-mile drive from Jackson, and the modest town center, there are half a dozen good restaurants. After just one day of easy hiking, I'm ravenous. Ms. Brackenridge drives us to the Rendezvous Bistro, where regulars such as Harrison Ford enjoy big plates of Big Sky food. Here, the pork chop is a massive joint served with a white bean and sausage ragu, and the trout was caught just over the Idaho border. For gourmet all-you-can eat pizza, she recommends hitting the Betty Rock for its Thursday night BYOB special.
Wood-fired pizza is also a specialty at Hotel Terra's Il Villaggio Osteria. Chef O'Connor (he of the deer-wrecked car) is the talented tattooed chef here, a transplant from Troy, N.Y. A canoe trip on Jenny Lake in 2001 convinced him to move to Jackson Hole. Most nights find him orchestrating a classic trattoria menu, but he's also part of the local music scene, spinning turntables at clubs and parties as DJ Flambe.
A day with Jason Williams, a former river guide, is like touring the wilderness with Paul Bunyan. An interest in alpine geography first drew Mr. Williams to these mountains; now he "lives and breathes Jackson Hole." His business, Wildlife Safaris, lets him share local lore. As we cross from Grand Teton to Yellowstone, he cheerfully explains to our van full of visitors why the meadows are so quiet (migrating birds have already headed south), what fruit bears prefer (huckleberries), and how the magma under the volcanic landscape creates geysers like Old Faithful. He makes overnight snowmobile trips through Yellowstone sound like a walk in the park, and he almost persuades me to sign on.
Hotel Terra is the closest I want to come to roughing it -- which is to say, not at all. The 72-room hotel has an all-natural luxe style, and it's a short stroll from the Big Red Tram. The huge gondola zips me to the top of the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski run in nine minutes. As I survey the spectacular valley sunset, a pair of well-muscled hikers appear below. They're ending the day with a 4,000-foot climb from Teton Village to the summit, and they're grinning from ear to ear.
Christine H. O'Toole: email@example.com . She is a freelance writer based in Mt. Lebanon.