Many have already posted some great solutions to address your situation, but I too sometimes find these high-contrast scenes a challenge to get right in-camera.
I shoot RAW with a JPG backup, but as you discovered in Elements, you can bring up the shadows and back down the highlights even in a JPG image.
I'll grant that it can be time consuming and does add an extra step or two to your workflow, but I think of it this way: With film, you could turn things over to a lab to develop your work and create prints; or, you could do it yourself and spend much time (and money) in the darkroom dodging and burning in an effort to control how much light certain portions of the paper were exposed to.
To me, post-processing in the digital domain is no different. It's just a virtual darkroom. It sometimes gets a bad rap because people tend to OVER process, or worse yet, forget how important it is to get things right whenever possible in the camera. The "don't worry about the camera settings - we'll fix it in post" mentality is dangerous, but sometimes you just need to grab the shot, meter for the subject, and tweak things later on.