Under the big sky that Montanans are so proud of are several ski areas as varied as a patchwork quilt.
While some areas offer complete home-away-from-home villages, others are day-use adventures where skiers find nonexistent lift lines and unspeakable beauty at reasonable prices.
Beyond the skiing are snow dances, spring carnivals, sleigh rides, dogsleds, torchlight parades and fun races.
General statewide ski information can be found in the Travel Montana Winter Guide (800) 847-4868 (or 800 VISIT MT). Local ski reports are updated on weekdays and can be accessed at the 800 number. Skiers can visit Montana via the internet at http:/ /travel.mt.gov/ where they will find current snow conditions, ski and travel information.
The Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort
As The Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort heads into its 50th year of pleasing powder lovers, some changes and additions await the nearly 300,000 skiers who visit between Nov. 28 and April 6.
Known for superbly groomed runs, steep and deep powder shots, and apres-ski antics at the Bierstube, The Big Mountain officially opens the Hellroaring Basin area (locally known as the West Bowl) for advanced powder skiing - or tumbling, if one is so inclined.
Also new this year is the Snowboard Park, a revived version of a snowboarding area with a halfpipe, natural jumps and lots of kids.
And speaking of kids, the inner-tubing track brings out the kid in just about every winter-lover who tries the track aboard the giant tubes.
Snowcat skiing for 4 to 10 runs a day is $40 per person for a group of four or more skiers in addition to a lift ticket.
The full-service Village area offers a variety of lodging, dining, shopping and evening activities for singles and families. In nearby Whitefish, travelers will find all services and several ski and board shops.
Location: Located 8 miles north of Whitefish.
Lifts tickets: Adult $38; junior (7-18) years and seniors (62+) $25; child 6 and under free; night skiing $12. Multi-day and group rates available.
Day care: Kiddie Korner Day Care Center offers supervised indoor and outdoor activities for newborns and up. Reservations required.
Instruction: Group $23; private $52 an hour.
Nordic: 10 km of groomed tracks leave from the Outpost Lodge, where $5 tickets and rentals are available. Nordic skiers can kick and glide 15km in Whitefish at Grouse Mountain Lodge on a golf course for a $5 donation; 3.8 kilometers are lit for night skiing.
Snow phone: (406) 862-7669.
General Information: (406) 862-1900.
Reservations: (800) 858-3913.
Internet: http://www.bigmnt.com/ resort
Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort
After the first year of operation of Montana’s only tram, Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort can pat itself on the back for a job well done. The lofty Lone Peak Tram zips to 11,150 feet, opening up 1,200 acres of extreme, expert and advanced skiing. The tram boosted Big Sky into an exclusive club of North American resorts with over 4,000 vertical feet of skiing.
While skiers flock to the tram, not all of them actually ski the black-diamond runs; some get cold feet and ride the tram back down after taking in the sights of a dozen mountain ranges. They prefer the tamer terrain for which Big Sky is famed.
Of the 75 trails on two mountains - all on private land, by the way - nearly half is intermediate slope, groomed and buffed for the guests. Most visitors stay on the mountain in one of the 1,000 rooms and condominium units available.
Some two dozen fine eateries attract hungry skiers both to the resort and to the community of Big Sky, 15 minutes down the mountain. One of the finest restaurants in the state is the Cafe Edelweiss, an authentic Austrian restaurant that specializes in European cuisine. Reservations are necessary: (406) 995-4665.
Many of Big Sky’s guests stay for a week, and plan at least one day in Yellowstone National Park either cross-country skiing, snowmobiling or sightseeing aboard a snowcoach tour from West Yellowstone.
Location: Located 43 miles south of Bozeman. Opens Nov. 28.
Lift tickets: Adult $43; seniors (70+) $21.50; juniors (11-16) $37; children 10 and under free. Discounted multi-day tickets available.
Day care: The Big Sky Playcare Center is in a new facility this winter, and under new management. Children 18 months and older accepted, and parents must bring proof of immunization.
Instruction: Group $27.
Nordic: Some of the best cross-country trails in North America are just a few minutes from Big Sky Resort at Lone Mountain Ranch. Lone Mountain offers 65 kilometers of professionally groomed, tilled and tracked trails for all levels. Day tickets are $10 adults. Kids 12 and under are free. Call Lone Mountain Ranch at (800) 514-4644 for a brochure.
Snow phone: (406) 995-5900.
Information: (406) 995-5000.
Reservations: (800) 548-4486.
Internet: http:/ /www.bigskyresort.com
Tourism Location: (800) 228-4224 or (406) 586-5421
Just down the road from Big Sky is Bridger Bowl, another favorite of steep-skiing lovers. Bridger Bowl is well-known for its brand of light, dry powder snow, locally called “Cold Smoke.” College students from Montana State University in Bozeman, 16 miles south, study the slopes daily. Some of those students join for their own brand of academics on the “Ridge,” an intimidating 2,000 vertical feet of extreme skiing.
Skiers and snowboarders who test the Ridge must wear an avalanche transceiver, travel with a partner and should carry a shovel. Oh yeah - and they must hike from the top chairlift at 8,100 feet, some 800 crunching steps to the 8,500-foot level.
Fortunately for the rest of Bridger’s skiers, there’s Cold Smoke on the intermediate and beginner slopes, as well. A couple well-placed picnic tables are perfect slope-side seats for Ridge watching and picnicking. New lunching this year can be found in the 3,000-square-foot Deer Park Chalet (which replaces the old Deer Park Chalet).
Bridger Bowl’s reasonable ticket prices and nonexistent crowds attract skiers from Spokane to the Dakotas. Most lodging and restaurants are in Bozeman, although a stop at the Jim Bridger Lodge in the base area is a must for apres-ski snacks and local brews.
Location: 16 miles north of Bozeman. Opens Dec. 14.
Lift tickets: Adults $28; seniors $19; child $12; kids 5 and under ski free.
Day care: Children 18 months to 6 years are welcome for $20 for a half day, $35 full day.
Lessons: Group $20; private $45.
Nordic: Bohart Ranch, just a couple minutes north of Bridger, offers 25 kilometers of groomed and tracked skiing for both diagonal and skate skiing. Day tickets are $9 adults and $6 for kids 7-12; kids 6 and under and seniors 70 and over ski free.
Snow phone: (406) 586-2389.
Information: (406) 586-1518.
Reservations: (800) 223-9609.
Tourism Location: (800) 228-4224 or (406) 586-5421
It’s somewhat of a misnomer that Discovery Basin is called “Discovery.”
Relatively few skiers have discovered the western Montana ski area, even though it boasts some of America’s steepest lift-served slopes. Located high in the Pintler Mountains, Discovery tapped into its backside terrain a few years ago, finding a challenging set of runs.
Discovery attracts local skiers from Anaconda and Butte. Recently, however, Missoula skiers found this gem. Part of the glitter attracting skiers to Discovery includes a stay at Fairmont Hot Springs, about 30 minutes from Discovery. Fairmont and Discovery offer a ski-and-stay package for $239 which includes two nights for two people, four lift tickets, and four all-day water slide passes for the 350-feet, five-story-high water slide. Midweek discounts are available. All guests have 24-hour access to the pools.
Location: Discovery Basin is 22 miles west of Anaconda.
Lift tickets: Adults $22; juniors and seniors (65+) $11.
Day care: None.
Lessons: Beginner package $28; private $25 per hour.
Nordic: The Mile High Nordic club maintains excellent groomed trails on Mount Haggin near Anaconda.
Information: (406) 563-2184.
Reservations: (800) 332-3272.
Lost Trail Powder Mountain
When winter begins, usually sometime in October for Lost Trail Powder Mountain, snow piles 300 inches deep in the Bitterroot Range. Lost Trail skiers never lack snow.
In the skiing business for over 50 years, Lost Trail loves intermediate skiers and snowboarders - 60 percent of the runs are designated medium difficulty. Families flock to Lost Trail for the homey atmosphere and the $17 lift tickets. The ski area is open Thursday through Sunday, plus holidays.
Lost Trail offers two unique lodging facilities. Camp Creek Inn Bed and Breakfast is 9 miles north, and has both rooms and cabins with kitchens.
Lost Trail Hot Springs Resort is 6 miles away, and offers cabins, motel, condos, restaurant, lounge, natural hot springs pool, jacuzzi and sauna.
Location: On U.S. 93, 90 miles south of Missoula.
Lift Tickets: $17 adults; $9 youth 6-12; child under 5 free.
Day care: None.
Lessons: Learn to ski packages $20; private $22 per hour.
Nordic: On nearby Forest Service lands.
Phone: (406) 821-3508.
Snow phone: (406) 821-3211.
Reservations: Camp Creek Inn (800) 351-3508 or Lost Trail Hot Springs (800) 825-3574.
The deep, powdery bowls and 2,600 feet of continuous vertical drop make Montana Snowbowl a steep skier’s nirvana. Yet plenty of intermediate and beginner terrain opens up the mountains just north of Missoula.
Like Bridger Bowl, students from the University of Montana take study breaks on the slopes. They find the 30 trails and groomed runs inviting and challenging.
Any skier who has tracked up the slopes of Snowbowl will recall the Gelande Jump where skiers launch themselves on purpose off a natural jump, and strive for over 200 feet of hang time.
This year’s annual Gelande Jump Championship is Feb. 22-23. Ringside seats are available from most places on the lower mountain, especially from the Last Run Inn Saloon’s deck and the brand new Gelandesprung Lodge. The Gelandesprung Lodge is a combination hotel and hostel. Some rooms have private baths and others shared bath and kitchen. Lifts plus lodging start at $36.50 per night.
Location: 12 miles from Missoula.
Lift tickets: Adults $25; student and senior $22; children $12; Kids five and under ski free.
Day care: None.
Lessons: Group $16; private $25 per hour.
Phone: (406) 549-9777.
Snow phone: (406) 549-9696.
Reservations: (800) 728-2695.
Showdown Ski Area
Sixty years ago, a handful of Great Falls skiers began spending their winter days skiing the powder in the Little Belt Mountains. This year Showdown Ski Area celebrates the anniversary with 34 uncrowded runs, and one triple, one double and two surface lifts.
Showdown’s most spectacular run is the bumps and bruises black diamond called Glory Hole. Skiing Glory Hole is like taking the down elevator without the convenience of an elevator car. Next to Glory Hole are other black-diamond beauties: Good Luck, Geronimo, Gun Barrel and Dynamite.
Plenty of less-intimidating slopes are frequented with the regional ski school groups from schools as far away as Canada, who know a good deal when they see one: Lift tickets are only $24 for adults, and $13 for juniors 6-12 and seniors 70+.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays, plus holiday weeks, Showdown is the playground of Central Montana.
Location: 65 miles southeast of Great Falls on U.S. Highway 89.
Lift Tickets: Adult $24; junior (6-12) and senior (70+) $13; children five and under ski free.
Day care: All day $15. Reservations necessary for ages 2 and under.
Lessons: Group lessons $15; private lessons $30.
Nordic: Cross-country trails begin adjacent to the ski area in the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
Phone: (800) 433-0022 or (406) 236-5522.
Reservations: (800) 433-0022.
Snow phone: (406) 771-1300.
A small and relatively unknown mountain located just 22 miles from Libby is Turner Mountain. What’s most remarkable about Turner is the price: a $16 lift ticket! Since Turner is only a couple hours from Spokane, more skiers are visiting the mountain for the great prices as well as some memorable skiing.
Of the mountain’s 20 runs, 70 percent are for advanced skiers. One of the challenges of Turner is mastering the T-bar, the only lift taking skiers to the summit. Plans are underway to add another lift in a couple years.
Location: 22 miles north of Libby.
Tickets: Adult $16; youth $13; 5 and under free. Day care: None.
Phone: (406) 293-4317.
Snow phone: (406) 293-4317.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Best deals At Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort, all kids 10 and under ski free. Seniors 70 years and older ski free at Bridger Bowl. At The Big Mountain, skiers and snowboarders may join a snowcat skiing trip for a single run at $10 (after purchasing a lift ticket). Skiers can find discounted lift tickets for The Big Mountain at some Whitefish businesses, like the Best Western Rocky Mountain Lodge, which offers a daily lift ticket with each day of a stay, and sells additional lift tickets at $30 for hotel guests only. Call (800) 528-1234. One of the cheapest deals in the state is Snowbowl’s lifts and lodging at the new Gelandesprung Lodge hotel/ hostel, starting at $36.50 per night.