2003 Number 9 Resort in North America: Jackson Hole, Wyo

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There's big, there's bigger, and there's Jackson. Split hairs about where to find the greatest vertical drop, but Jackson's 4,139 feet from the top of Rendezvous Bowl to the bottom of the Hobacks is the king-daddy of continuous, leg-burning descents. Step out of the tram and behold the real untamed deal. From the skyrocketing Tetons to the supersized wildlife, from the open-backcountry policy to the come-as-you-are Western feel, Jackson is indeed "awesome, baby." It's rated No. 1 in both Terrain and Challenge, and you'll quickly see why. As one reader says, "If you can ski the blacks at Jackson, you can ski anywhere." Testimonials notwithstanding, the mountain extends its own Western hospitality with ballroom-smooth intermediate cruising on Après Vous, scenic alternatives to nearly every he-man/she-woman chute and inventive clinics for all ages. Sure, it's "freezing at times," but 500 inches of helium-light snow that cradles your skis as you point them down the Alta Chutes is a fair trade. Off the hill, unexpected luxuries like the Snake River Lodge and Spa are part of the expanding Teton Village, which features two new lodges this season. Après ranges from roll-off-the-hill casual at the Mangy Moose to roll-out-of-your truck casual at the Stagecoach. Fear not, gourmets, and even vegetarians, for Jackson's wild facade is spiked with upscale cuisine that assures all will enjoy the "great atmosphere in the cowboy town." -E.T.

WHAT'S NEW Teton Mountain Lodge; Crystal Springs Lodge; vastly expanded jet service from four major carriers.

A GOOD DEAL Four nights' lodging, three days' lifts, starts at $325 per person; Dec. 7-20, Jan. 4 -Feb. 7, March 18-April 6 (800-443-6931).

MEDALS GOLD Snow, Terrain, Challenge, Dining, Off-Hill Activities, Scenery; SILVER Value, Lifts, Service, Weather, On-Mountain Food, Lodging, Après, Family Programs, Terrain Parks.

HIGH/LOW RANK Terrain (1), Challenge (1), Scenery (5); Family Programs (32), Weather (33), Grooming (46).

DON'T MISS The Cowboy Downhill, Feb. 7-9, to see the real locals.

READER REMARKS (+) "Everyone should ski the Hole!" "The quintessential ski town and ski vacation." "Long wait for the crowded tram." (-) "Few and slow lifts." "Not a resort for beginners."

Great Lodging Deals here.