They call it "the biggest skiing in America," and for good reason. With 3,832 acres spread across two mountains, 4,350 vertical feet, and more butt-puckering gnar than you can shake a GoPro at, Big Sky serves up terrain as burly as Jackson Hole, as expansive as Vail, yet with nary a lift line to be found.
Founded in 1973 by NBC news anchor Chet Huntley, Big Sky is Montana's premiere resort, and one of the premiere ski resorts in the world. You might have been excused for overlooking it back in Huntley's day, but once the summit tram, which carries skiers to the top of 11,166-foot Lone Peak, entered service in 1995, there was no dismissing Big Sky as a cruiser's snooze. The tram opened up 1,200 acres near the peak and an additional 1,400 feet of vert, making for a massive resort on paper. But the stats don't even begin to capture the awesome proportions of the summit scene. It's huge, steep, and uncommonly deep. Essentially, Big Sky delivers lift served big mountain riding, the kind of rugged, high alpine thrills you usually need a helicopter to access. No wonder lines at the tram occassionally reach an hour long on powder days (making it pretty much the only lift on the mountain that ever requires a wait).
Without a doubt, the tram adds sizzle, but there's a very satisfying resort beneath it, with ripping groomers, scattered glades, and excellent lift service. Four high-speed quads handle the bulk of the traffic, but powder hounds make for the expert only Challenger double chair or the Dakota double chair on the southern flank of Lone Peak. Newbies will be drawn to the yawning bowl that dominates the east face of the mountain, but it's hard to catch it with good snow and good visibililty at the same time, and when conditions are right, it takes only minutes for the pow to get cut to ribbons. Better to explore the tree sking on adjacent Andesite mountain or the southern forests under the Dakota and Shedhorn chairs.
The resort amenities are commendable, but don't expect ultimate luxury. You'll find a diversity of lodging and dining options, some of them very good, some of them very basic. The gazillionaires have a strong presence, as evidenced by all the fancy homes climbing the ridges of the surrounding foothills, but compared to places like Aspen and Vail, Big Sky is still a bit rough around the edges. And that's just fine for most of the Montanans who love it.
Known for its dramatic snowghosts (and persistent fog), Whitefish Mountain gets fairly average snow (about 300 inches yearly), but the mountain wears it well. Powder stashes in the bowls and glades present even the most accomplished skiers with ample thrills, while intermediate terrain provides plenty of opportunity to carve up a storm.
Drop off the kids for a lesson and head up the Big Mountain Express to explore the chutes and forests of Hellroaring. Or take the whole family out to slay corduroy on the mountain’s extensive—and worthy—front side.
As far as Montana resorts go, Whitefish is big, with 98 runs scattered across about 3,000 acres, hence the vintage moniker “Big Mountain.” Size-wise, it’s on par with Colorado resorts like Copper Mountain and Crested Butte, and unlike most of Montana’s ski areas, it has a base “village.”
Fortunately, the development hasn’t turned Whitefish pretentious. Tourists still blend in easily with locals while grabbing coffee in town before hitting the slopes. Apres-ski means grabbing a beer at The Great Northern or The Craggy Range. For the most part, skiing in Whitefish is still about skiing. But be wary: Now that Ski Magazine readers have ranked Whitefish Mountain Resort the 11th-best resort in the nation, there might be more competition for first tracks.
From Bass Lake, Bass Peak (8,761’) looks imposing as it rises from the southwest edge of the shore; however only from the dam-end of the lake can the actual summit be seen, and then just barely. Point 8752 blocks views of the summit from most all other spots near the lake.
Reaching the summit of Bass Peak requires Class 3 climbing and, though it can be climbed on a single-day round trip from the Bass Creek trailhead, it is much better to establish a base-camp at Bass Lake and make it a multi-day affair.
To reach the summit, follow the established trail around Bass Lake to the saddle south of the lake—the trail is not very well maintained after it leaves the area of the lake. Leave the trail and hike in an easterly direction up the ridge-crest to an elevation of 7,550’. To avoid the arêtes guarding the upper portion of the ridge, drop off of the ridge-crest and hike southwest across the bowl toward the south ridge. Once on the south ridge, it’s an easy hike to the summit.—Michael Hoyt
Skiing with the family doesn’t have to be a mind-numbing experience. With its euphoria-inducing views of Flathead Lake and the Mission range, Blacktail Mountain makes any day of cruising groomers a happy day indeed. Whether you’re looking for a chill day on the slopes or an escape from Missoula’s inversion, whether you’re just learning to ski or keeping a novice company, Blacktail has the proverbial “something for everyone.”
The area’s 200 acres may be small, but the terrain boasts a good 1,440 feet of vertical. Located just outside of Lakeside on the western shore of Flathead Lake, Blacktail attracts locals who don’t feel the need to go clear up to Whitefish for a decent day of skiing.
At Blacktail, you can take turns speeding down the ultra-long intermediate Lakeside and Blacktail runs and working up a sweat in the Glades. There’s just enough variation to keep things interesting. Once you’ve had enough activity for one day, hit Muley’s for grub and warming beverages. The restaurant offers $2 Kokanee pounders on Sundays through February, and if you’re lucky, you might just hit a night with live music. Sounds like a good end to a laid-back day.
Sixteen miles up Bridger Canyon from Bozeman, Bohart Ranch offers quite the nordic ski center. The ranch, open from 9am to 4pm daily from December to March, grooms 30 kilometers of trail regularly using a snowcat and snow mobiles. Trails are 15 feet wide, set with both classic tracks and a skate lane. Of the 25 trails, six are easiest, six are more difficult, and 13 are most difficult terrain. The Kiddy Kilometer Trail (a signed interpretive trail) and the I-Spy Trail are favorites among kids and families.
The base of Bohart sits at 6,100 feet, giving plentiful cold snow conditions. Skiing along, you might just catch a glimpse of wildlife, from squirrels and rabbits to moose and deer. But please do not bring your dogs. Bohart Ranch has hosted many competitions such as the 2002 US National Championships Olympic Qualifie and regional/national NCAA events. There’s even a biathlon range available for year-round training.
An adult day pass to Bohart Ranch runs at $15. Kids 7-12 cost $8, and children six or younger ski free. Bohart does offer rental equipment as well as season passes for $195 per adult. Grooming conditions are updated here.
During the summer and fall, Bohart Ranch trails can be used for walking, running, mountain biking, horseback riding, folf, and summer biathlon training.
Looking for America’s best local ski hill? The search ends at Bridger Bowl. Located just 20 minutes north of Bozeman, Bridger possesses all the essentials: good snow, 2,500 feet of vert, and some of the tastiest expert terrain anywhere. What you won’t find are extravagant amenities or high prices. At Bridger, it’s about the skiing. And the skiing is about the powderhounds’ heaven of “the ridge.”
An exposed, rocky face, the ridge looms like a wall over the resort. When it’s covered in snow, it begs to be shredded. Accessed by established bootpacks from the lift-served terrain, it’s just a 20 minute hike to get up there. Short, but sweet. The object of the game is to find a daring, snow-choked chute through the very dangerous cliffs. Then swallow hard, drop in, sink past your knees in Bridger’s legendary cold smoke powder, and shriek like a six-year-old on a carnival ride when you emerge a few turns later, unscathed.
Alternately, head over the the recently installed Schlasman’s lift, an expert-only double chair that reaches the steep and the deep on the southern end of the resort. Note that an avalanche transceiver is required to ride Schlasman’s and to access the ridge as well.
Word to the wise: Bridger locals include some the strongest skiers and mountaineers in the world, along with many others who might wish for a bigger reputation on the slopes. Bridger skiers, not unlike the patrons of distant neighbor Jackson Hole Mountain, have been known to spray their turf with a competitive vibe. Should you encounter a bad attitude there, shrug if off. Remember, skiing’s really fun, regardless of how the guy next to you on the lift approaches it.
So you’re up at Whitefish Mountain, it hasn’t snowed for a few days and you’ve had enough of the groomers. Sure, there’s a hidden slash here and there in the trees, but she’s pretty well used up until the next storm. Here’s what you do:
Load up on the “Glacier Chaser” quad lift and make your way to the top of the resort. After unloading, move past the Summit House and start down “Russ’s Street”, a popular Intermediate run heading down and East from the summit. Watch for signs leading to the “Bigfoot T-Bar” and make your way to the bottom of this out-of-the way lift. Ride Bigfoot up and head down Lodi Ridge far to the skier's left. About one-third of the way down you’ll take a sharp left onto a mostly uphill road that should show signs of foot traffic. You’ll unstrap here and start the relatively short hike. Note that you’re now leaving the ski area and heading into “avalanche territory”. There are a couple signs here to remind you as well.
Follow the tracks up the road for a spell until you see a steeper slope up to your left and a well-defined bootpack. Charge up this pitch until you reach the top of the ridge. You should see plenty of yellow snow to let you know that you’re in the right place.
From here, you’ve got a decision to make. You’ll likely find deeper turns if you veer to your right when you drop in (on the north side of the ridge) but you’ll also have a longer hike back out. If you drop in left, hugging this ridge on your way down, or even working your way to its left side, you can avoid the return hike altogether. If you choose to go straight fall line from this drop-in spot, the jaunt back out is very reasonable. Make your route choice and enjoy every turn; this is about as good as “side country” Montana skiing gets. These north-facing slopes are drenched in snow by mid winter and sections in here are STEEP. This spot is dope.
When you pop out at the bottom you’ll be standing on a snowmobile track that heads up this way from the Columbia Falls area. It is a popular area for sledders as they too can get all the way up to the resort’s Summit House from this direction. Keep an eye peeled for these machines and maybe show some skin to get one of them to give you a lift back up a ways. Also, be careful in this canyon, you’re somewhat exposed to slopes on either side of you and if a slide kicked off, you’d be trapped. So, don’t lollygag down here and head back up the road until you reach the connecting trail that leads back around to the “North Side” (Chair 7) of the resort. Once you’ve traversed your way around, hop on the lift and you’ll be whisked back up to the summit to do it all over again.
Technically, you could do this run without a lift ticket (given Whitefish Resort’s awesome/lenient policies regarding uphill travel - http://skiwhitefish.com/uphill/) but it’d be a pretty round trip big push. If you’re game for the challenge, chances are pretty good that you can figure out the revised uphill routes based on what is presented here.
Enjoy almost 25 kilometers of cross country skiing groomed weekly by the Bitterroot Cross Country Ski Club, overlooking awesome views of the Bitterroots and the Montana/Idaho border. The trail system sits on the Continental Divide 40 miles south of Hamilton down Highway 93.
Out of the 25 kilometers of trail, eight kilometers are beginner level, 14.5 kilometers are more difficult, and 2.1 kilometers will really bring a burn to your legs. Chief Joseph features trails for both classic cross country and skate skiing. There’s even a cozy warming hut open from the first of December until mid-April.
Chief Joseph Pass shares some of Lost Trail Powder Mountain’s excellent snow, making it the earliest, latest, and most reliable snowfall every year. Gently rolling terrain allows for all ages and abilities. Just remember to sign in at the trailhead because the number of visitors determines the grants available for continued grooming efforts. Parking is plentiful.
You can check the weekly groom report here.
Though it doesn’t get epic snow like ski areas around Bozeman or in the Bitterroots, Discovery’s high elevation and cooler weather keep the powder it does get on the ground just a little bit longer. As a result, there’s plenty of sweet skiing to be found among Discovery’s 2,200 acres, despite the area’s propensity for sunny blue-sky days.
Missoulians who don’t want to deal with Snowbowl’s more difficult terrain take advantage of groomed cruisers and intermediate mogul runs, while adventure-seekers head up Rumsey Mountain to drop into the gnarlier (read: glades and chutes) back bowl.
The café at Discovery’s base offers a great selection of calories to replenish the ones the moguls burned. Aside from ski-lodge-staple burritos, sandwiches and soups, chef Mike Sauer cooks up delectable baked goods every day. One (or two or three) of his drool-worthy chocolate chip cookies should help keep you awake for the drive back to town.
Nestled amongst the pines of Downing Mountain’s east face, Downing Mountain Lodge caters to pretty much everybody from the gutsy backcountry ski enthusiast to the amateur hiker looking for a weekend getaway. Rustic is one way to describe it. Paradise seems more apt.
Downing Mountain Lodge boasts plenty of space for the extended family or the party crew—three bedrooms, with 13 beds and one pull-out couch. There’s a commercial-grade kitchen big enough to prepare even the most lavish meals, a hot tub out back for long après ski soaks, and a stone fireplace perfect for curling up after a tough day on the mountain. Throw in a barbecue deck and a foosball table and you’ll understand why Downing Mountain isn’t just a recreation destination.
Forget long drives on rutted roads. Downing Mountain Lodge sits about eight miles west of Hamilton on Grubstake Road. The lodge is accessible by car in summer. In winter, visitors are required to park about one mile and 500 vertical feet below. Lodge owner John Lehrman will transport gear and food by snowmobile for a fee, but guests are required to reach the lodge by foot, snowshoe or ski. Nightly rates range from $50 to $70 per person depending on day of the week. Summer 2013 rates will be $70 per person per night, with a six-guest minimum. You’ll have to prepare your meals yourself, unless you arrange catered service with Lehrman in advance.
Once settled, Downing Mountain Lodge guests will discover a backyard with endless possibilities. For skiers, it’s a 2,000-foot skin from the lodge to the upper ridge. Once there, you’re free to enjoy a powder-filled playground with 500-foot alpine runs or 2,500-foot tree runs that kick you out directly at the lodge. The terrain is largely intermediate to advanced, and skiers are cautioned that avalanche danger is constant. Winter months also offer sledding and snowshoeing opportunities closer to the lodge. Summer activities range from hiking and fishing to rock climbing and mountain biking.
Lehrman and his family have been operating out of Downing Mountain Lodge for years. But in summer 2012, Lehrman finally purchased the lodge outright—even as the Sawtooth Fire cleared hundreds of acres of forest debris. There’s literally no end to the possibilities at Downing Mountain Lodge, making it one of those rare Montana destinations that’s perfect for anyone.
Who came up with this name? No self-respecting man or woman wants to call up a buddy and say “What do you think about hitting up the G-Spot today?” A better name, you ask? How about “Smugglers Crotch?" If you’re new to the area, lets promote this instead. If you’re a local, give it a shot. Maybe you’ll find that it has a nicer ring.
As for directions to “The Crotch”, there really isn’t a closer backcountry option for Missoulians. Head south out of town on U.S. Highway 93 and take a right on U.S. Highway 12 west. Continue on 12 like you’re going to Lolo Pass, but pull off on your right after approximately 30 miles. This is one of the only turn-offs to a logging road on the right, and there’s room for two to four cars in front of the gate. If you’re late getting going, there’s plenty of additional parking back downhill 100 yards or so on the other side of the highway.
You’ll want to skin up from here and plan for a hike to the that typically takes 30 minutes to one hour depending on what sort of shape you’re in. Unless you’re really early after a storm, or really hungry in the fall, there’s almost certain to be a skin track leading up from the gate. Follow this and watch your left for alternate tracks up the ridge. This is a steeper route, but will cut a significant amount of time off of your ascent. It’s worst for the first third and then mellows out for another third. The final third is what you came out for, 600 to 800 vertical feet of the good stuff.
From the top there are plenty of options to ski here with lots of little pillows to bounce off and plenty of slope to handle a crowd. The laps are short so you’ll get plenty of practice putting together your splitboard or dropping a knee with you skins tucked into your jacket. The only real bummer is that the runs aren’t long and that you’ll need to negotiate the nasty crust with thin baby trees near the bottom. Otherwise, this place is awesome.
As always, be careful to always check snow/avalanche conditions when you go out and pay close attention to the often wind-loaded final third of the ascent. You’ll have a great time here, especially if you don’t have to call it “the G-Spot” anymore.
Hoodoo Pass is known to be the first place in our area to receive enough snow (sometimes by mid October) to break out your (rock) skis. One can usually get a semi-accurate early season snow report from any local ski repair shop where the hardiest of souls have already dropped their gear off to be repaired.
Hoodoo is the early season hot spot because its road can be driven (bring a reliable 4x4 though, not your aging 1994 Nissan Sentra) for a window of time when the snow is deep enough to ride, but a rig can still be piloted most of the way to the pass. When the snow finally comes, this area can only be reached by snowmobile.
Ready to go? From Missoula, take Interstate 90 about 60 miles west to Superior and then take the Diamond Road back east along the south side of the freeway. The road will parallel the freeway four to five miles and then turn up and into the mountains for another 20 miles to the pass. It can be a bit of a trek depending on the condition of the road, and your chosen mode of transportation.
Upon reaching the top of the pass, you’ll hopefully see some big snow drifts and signs that mark the Idaho Centennial Trail leading up the ridge to the east. This is the most common route and you may even find a skin track established. Work your way up the ridge until you’ve come to a large bowl with Hoodoo Lake in the basin below to your left. This north-facing pocket is jam packed with powder turns as long as you are careful. Travel safely and remember that you’re a pretty good ways up there. There’s no need to take chances and barely-covered beargrass is as slippery as a poorly adhered mid-winter snowpack. Just because its early season doesn’t mean that you’re safe from avalanche activity.
NOTE: There’s an (in)famous road gap jump just over the pass on the Idaho side. If you’re on a snowmobile, take a buzz down the road to have a look. Rumor is that its been jumped, but no photos exist to prove it.
Originally built by the Great Northern Railway in 1939 for lodging railway workers, The Izaak Walton Inn now offers a retreat bordering Glacier National Park. From late November through mid-April, the inn hosts 20 miles of cross country ski trails.
The wind-sheltered trails wind through gentle, forested terrain and they’re groomed daily. Stunning views of Glacier National Park can be easily spotted from the trails. Out off the 17 trails, half are rated as blues (more difficult), while 30% are easy and 20% are black diamonds.
If you’re not feeling up to snuff for those blacks, the inn also offers cross country clinics and private lessons for all skill levels. All equipment is available for rent in the lodge.
If you’re looking to go beyond these trails, the inn also provides guided Glacier National Park ski tours, taking you along the Continental Divide. Day trips include routes for backcountry beginners, experienced tour skiers and telemarkers. Guess what? You also get lunch out of the deal.
Snow Reports are updated regularly here.
A large reservoir northwest of Darby, Lake Como is one of very few lakes in the Bitterroot Valley. It is popular spot for boating, fishing, swimming, hiking and horseback riding.
Big Rock Creek forms a beautiful waterfall as it pours into the head of the lake. From here a trail leads past the massive El Capitan, up to the high crest of the range and beyond into Idaho.
Vehicles must display a valid Recreation Pass; passes run $5 per vehicle or $30 for a season. The area includes a campground, restrooms, drinking water, grills, pinic tables, fire pits, a boat ramp, and garbage removal are provided. Dogs are not allowed. Hikers and horsepackers accessing the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness from Lake Como are subject to daily parking fees.
The Como Trails Club maintains over 30 miles of groomed nordic ski trails in the winter. Expect a bit more up and down than other nordic destinations, as the routes generally climb steadily up the nearby ridges from the lake before looping around for some fast descents. The club doesn't charge an access fee and welcomes dogs. To check snow conditions, click here.