Winter is a hot time in Montana - not in terms of Fahrenheit, but in terms of skiing. The 1990s have seen vast improvements at most ski areas in the Big Sky state.
Big Sky’s tram turned that sedate ski area into an extreme skier’s nirvana. Discovery Basin’s North Side chair opened expert territory formerly known only to back-country skiers. New territory at The Big Mountain places the northwest Montana resort among the country’s top 10 for skiable acreage. Showdown and Bridger Bowl added new lodges.
Despite additions, renovations and retrofittings, the hallmarks of the Montana ski experience remain value, friendliness and quality.
General statewide ski information can be found in the Travel Montana Winter Guide, available by phone at (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 Web at travel.mt.gov/ to find current snow conditions, and ski and travel information.
The Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort
The Big Mountain Ski and Summer Resort’s 50th anniversary celebration begins with the addition of two lifts. A new high-speed quad replaces the North Side chair, and a new triple lifts skiers out of the West Bowl/Hellroaring Basin area. Skiers find 67 runs on 3,000 acres with a 2,500-foot vertical drop.
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 ski and board shops.
Information: Located 8 miles north of Whitefish.
Tickets: Adult $40; junior (ages 7-18) and senior (62+) $27; youth 6 and under free; night skiing $12. Kiddie Korner Day Care Center offers supervised indoor and outdoor activities for newborns and up; reservations are necessary.
Lessons: Group $23; private $55 an hour.
Nordic: 10k groomed tracks leave from the Outpost Lodge, where $5 tickets and rentals are available. Nordic skiers can kick and glide 15k in Whitefish at Grouse Mountain Lodge on a golf course for a $5 donation. 3.8 kilometers are lit for night skiing.
Contact: Snow phone: (406) 862-7669. General information: (406) 862-1900. Reservations (800) 858-4152. Web site: bigmnt.com/resort
Big Sky Ski and Summer Resort
Big Sky’s 3,500 acres of skiable terrain make the south-central Montana resort the largest in the state and one of the largest in the country. Visitors encounter finely groomed slopes, high-tech lifts and ski-in/ski-out accommodations.
New this year is the Swiftcurrent Express replacing the Gondola II. The high-speed quad will carry four times as many skiers in half as much time as the old Gondola.
Also new this season at Big Sky is an additional slope-side skier services building called the Snowcrest Lodge, renovations at the Mountain Mall, renovated Huntley Lodge rooms and expanded dining opportunities.
In its third season, the lofty Lone Peak Tram zips to 11,150 feet, offering 1,200 acres of extreme, expert and advanced skiing.
Although 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 seek the tamer terrain for which Big Sky is famed.
The Lone Peak Tram and three other lifts installed last year gave the resort over 4,000 vertical feet of skiing on the two mountains, attracting 25 percent more skiers than Big Sky’s previous record season. Along with the most vertical, Big Sky also sells the most expensive lift ticket in the state at $47.
Of the 75 trails on two mountains, all on private land, 47 percent of the runs are classified intermediate slope. Most guests 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.
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.
Information: Located 43 miles south of Bozeman.
Tickets: Adult $47; seniors (70+) $24; youth (11-17) $40; child (10 and under) free; discounted multi-day tickets available. The Handprints Daycare accepts children 18 months and older; parents must bring proof of immunization; reservations suggested; (406) 995-5847.
Lessons: Group $27; private $70/hr.
Nordic: Excellent cross-country trails are just a few minutes from Big Sky Resort at Lone Mountain Ranch. Lone Mountain offers 65k 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.
Contact: Snow phone: (406) 995-5900. Information: (406) 995-5000. Reservations (800) 548-4486. E-mail: email@example.com; Web site bigskyresort.com. Tourism information: (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 chair lift 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 of well-placed picnic tables are perfect slopeside seats for Ridge watching and picnicking. New lunch facilities 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.
Bridger’s approach to business is also unique: The ski area is a nonprofit organization. Profits roll back into facilities like the new Powder Park quad.
Also new is “Cold Smoke ” (Mountain Press, $24), a book about the skiing at Bear Canyon and Bridger Bowl, edited by Edna Berg and Annie Cicale. The book highlights the rich and tumultuous history of Bozeman’s two ski areas (Bear Canyon no longer operates).
Information: 16 miles north of Bozeman.
Tickets: Adult $29; senior $20; child $12; kids 5 and under ski free. Children 18 months to 6 years are welcome for day care at $20 a halfday, $35 full day.
Lessons: Group $20; private $45.
Nordic: Bohart Ranch, just a couple minutes north of Bridger, offers 25k of groomed and tracked skiing for both diagonal and skate skiing; day tickets are $8 adults and $5 for kids 7-12; youth 6 and under and seniors 70 and over ski free; (406) 586-9070.
Snow phone: (406) 586-2389. Information: (406) 586-1518. Reservations: (800) 223-9609. Tourism information: (800) 228-4224 or (406) 586-5421. Internet: bridgerbowl.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Discovery Basin/Fairmont Hot Springs Resort
High in the remote Pintler Range of Western Montana is Ski Discovery at 6,850 feet base elevation. Nearby at Fairmont Hot Springs are two Olympic-size pools and two soaking pools filled with natural hot springs water. Combining the slopes and soaks creates a recipe for great family vacationing.
Rates starting at $125 for two days skiing and 2 nights lodging/swimming attract skiers and swimmers from the region.
Although it boasts of some of America’s steepest lift-served slopes, Discovery’s mellower side opens up plenty of beginner and intermediate terrain.
Discovery tapped into its North Side terrain a few years ago, uncovering a challenging set of runs.
After skiing, the 350-foot five-story-high water slide at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort is a favorite with kids.
Information: Discovery Basin is 22 miles west of Anaconda.
Tickets: Adults $22; juniors and seniors (65+) $11. There is no day care.
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. Web site: fairmontmontana.com.
Lost Trail Powder Mountain
Well known for reliable snowfall and consistently fine conditions, Lost Trail offers bargain rates and breathtaking views of the Bitterroot Range.
When winter begins, usually sometime in October for Lost Trail Powder Mountain, snow piles 300 inches deep in the Bitterroot Range.
In the skiing business for over 50 years, Lost Trail loves intermediate skiers and snowboarders - 60 percent of the runs are designated medium difficulty. A 2.5-mile run offers beginners a 1,200-foot vertical.
Families flock to Lost Trail for the homey atmosphere and the $18 lift tickets. The area’s two double and two surface lifts are open Thursday through Sunday and holidays.
Lost Trail offers unique lodging facility. Camp Creek Inn Bed and Breakfast is nine miles north, and has rooms and cabins with kitchens. The 68-year-old ranch house is cozy, and stays include a hearty ranch breakfast.
Information: On U.S. 93, 90 miles south of Missoula.
Tickets: $18 adult; $9 youth 6-12; children under 5 free. There is no day caer.
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 email@example.com or (800) 351-3508.
The deep, powdery bowls and 2,600 feet of continuous vertical drop make Montana Snowbowl a steep skier’s heaven. Yet plenty of intermediate and beginner terrain opens up the mountains just north of Missoula. Like at 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 air. This year’s annual Gelande Jump Championship is Feb. 28-March 1.
Ringside seats are available from most places on the lower mountain, especially from the Last Run Inn Saloon’s deck and the Gelandesprung Lodge. The Gelandesprung Lodge is a combination hotel and hostel. Some rooms have private baths, and others share a bath and a kitchen. Two days of lifts plus two nights lodging start at $71 per person, double occupancy.
Information: 12 miles from Missoula.
Tickets: Adult $26; student and senior $23; child $13; kids five and under ski free. There is no day care.
Lessons: Group $16; private $25 per hour.
Phone: (406) 549-9777. Snow phone: (406) 549-9696. Reservations: (800) 728-2695. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Showdown Ski Area
More than sixty years ago, a handful of Great Falls skiers began spending their winter days skiing the powder in the Little Belt Mountains. Since then, the Showdown Ski area developed into a gem in the middle of Montana.
This year, Showdown Ski Area celebrates the addition of a new day lodge. The 10,000-sqaure-foot building will be home to the Hole in the Wall Saloon, a new day-care facility and overflow from the dining area in the existing day lodge.
Outside, 34 uncrowded runs line the 8,200-foot peak with 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 an elevator car. Next to Glory Hole are other black-diamond beauties: Good Luck, Geronimo, Gun Barrel and Dynamite.
One of the zaniest winter events, the Mannequin Jumping contest, takes place for its fourth year at Showdown on April 4. Teams build mannequins on skis that are launched off a jump. Winners are judged on best air, distance and most ingenious entry. There’s only one rule: “Mannequins cannot be named ‘George,”’ says ski area owner George Willett.
Open Wednesdays through Sundays, plus holiday weeks, Showdown is the playground of central Montana.
Information: 65 miles southeast of Great Falls on U.S. Highway 89.
Tickets: Adult $25; junior (6-12) and senior (70+) $13; children five and under ski free. Day care is $15 for all day; reservations necessary for ages 2 and under.
Lessons: Group $15; private $30.
Nordic: Trails start adjacent to the ski area in 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 and a couple of hours from Spokane is Turner Mountain. The most remarkable thing about Turner is the price: Lift tickets are 16!
Of the mountain’s 26 runs, 75 percent are for advanced skiers. One of the challenges of Turner is mastering the T-bar, the only lift taking skiers to the summit. Another lift is still several years away. Meanwhile, Turner is open weekends and holidays only.
Information: 22 miles north of Libby.
Tickets: Adult $16; youth $13; 5 and under free. There is no day care.
Phone: (406) 293-4317. Reservations: none. Snowphone: (406) 293-4317.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: HOT DATES IN MONTANA THIS WINTER Pray for Snow Party, Nov. 27, The Big Mountain. Christmas Eve Torchlight Parade, Santa’s arrival, Dec. 24, The Big Mountain. Torchlight Parade, Dec. 30, Bridger Bowl. Torchlight Parades Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, Big Sky. Snowboard Jam, Feb. 1, Showdown. Winter Carnival, Feb. 6-8, Whitefish/The Big Mountain. Montana Powder 8s Championship, Feb. 7-8, Bridger Bowl. Snow Jam, Feb. 7-8, Montana Snowbowl. Mogul Freestyle Competition, February, Lost Trail. Wild West Shred O’Fest Snowboard Competition, Feb. 21-22, Bridger Bowl. Gelande Jump Championship, Feb. 28-Mar. 1, Montana Snowbowl. Northern Division Freestyle Championship, March 7-8, Montana Snowbowl. Doug Betters Winter Classic for Children, March 12-15, The Big Mountain. Snowbowl Hexathlon, March 15, Montana Snowbowl. Freestyle Bump-Off, March 15, Showdown. Pinhead Classic Costume Telemark Race, March 21, Bridger Bowl. Best-of-the-Bowl Race, March 22, Montana Snowbowl. Belt Creek Relay, March 22, Showdown. Bridger Bowl Bump-Off Freestyle Competition, March 22, Bridger Bowl. Blood, Sweat & Beers relay, March 28-29, The Big Mountain. Matt Splatt Beer Bungie, March 29, The Big Mountain. Mannequin Jumping, April 4, Showdown. Furniture Race, April 11, The Big Mountain. Double Pole, Pad & Pedal Downhill, April 12, Bridger Bowl.