Another ski area turns 50 this year. Not many are likely to know it. Well-wishers for this one may even direct best wishes to the wrong area.
Snow King hasn't exactly been a must-ski stop for destination skiers in recent years.In ski circles outside the city limits, skiing in Jackson Hole is down the road a piece, at the Jackson Hole ski area, home of the aerial tram and the world's greatest vertical. Or over the pass to Targhee, land of the deep powder and view of the Tetons . . . neither of which is old enough to remember wooden skis with "bear trap" bindings, vintage equipment a half century ago.
But Snow King is old enough; 50 this year. Same age as Utah's Alta, and only two years younger than Sun Valley, first of the modern ski areas.
It was back in 1939 that Jackson Hole townsfolk strung 4,000 feet of wire cable around the wheel of an old Ford tractor and up the projecting slopes of a mountain that stated somewhere within city limits.
All this a few years after the Engen brothers, Alf and Sverre, had skied down from Teton Pass into the city center to show townsfolk good ski-jumping techniques and stimulate a growing skiing interest.
An interest that had locals skiing on anything that would slide, including home-made skis with boots tacked to the skis; skiing that involved some jumping but mostly "going as long and as straight as you could until you fell," said one report.
In 1947, the area followed its twin to the south - Alta - and converted an old mining tramway into a chairlift. There was none finer, not in cattle country, anyway, and certainly not in Jackson.
But, things didn't go well for the big little ski area. A reputation for slipping chairs hurt, and for having runs that went up and came straight down, steeply, didn't help.
Then, in 1966, the tram came in and put the Jackson Hole ski areas on skiers' lips. A few years after that, Targhee began running lifts and marketing for skiers.
These were some tough times for the senior Wyoming ski area, noted Jim Sullivan, area manager. "There were times when it didn't look like the area would survive . . . times when we were about to go under."
Incoming skiers knew about Jackson Hole and Targhee, but Snow King was news to them. And even when they did come, many found the area's 1,571-foot vertical rise too vertical, too intimidating.
The turn-around came, said Sullivan, when a 204-room lodge was built and then named after the ski hill.
"And," he continued, "when we began marketing what we had and being honest with the skiers."
- A mountain that was steep, but very skiable, with proper grooming and new runs . . . "20 to 25 percent more over the past few years and 30 percent more beginner terrain, which may sound like a lot but isn't when viewed in acres. Each year, though, we develop more."
- An area with northern exposure, which means drier snow and few of the melt/freeze cycles that lead to icy conditions.
- A ski area that is close by . . . the closest area in the country to an airport - nine miles - and to a city center - seven blocks.
- Price: $18 for an adult, but really $15 if you walk into one of the town merchants and pick up a discount slip.
- And, continued Sullivan, a no-frills, down-to-earth ski area that delivers to skiers skiing the way it was . . . "It's fun to ski here for natural and historical reasons. Skiing here, you experience skiing like it used to be."
Now, said Sullivan, the area is growing. Not up but in width (runs) and reputation.
When skiers come to Jackson Hole, this year's planner gives them three options: Jackson Hole (the ski area), Targhee and the birthday resort, Snow King, complete with trail map and easy direction to locate it - just turn your head south.