Spring skiing usually means groomers, top-to-bottom corn snow, greasy sun block and the occasional bikini.
But at Red Lodge Mountain Resort, Mother Nature bucks tradition and frequently dumps a foot or two of March powder on the Beartooth Mountains.
Those late-season storms, added to El Nino’s benevolence, should help Red Lodge shake its antiquated nickname, “Rock Dodge.”
And if the natural stuff isn’t enough, the resort owns bragging rights to the largest snow-making system in the region. Coupled with a major facelift - including two new high-speed quads - Red Lodge is finally graduating from ski hill to winter resort.
Advanced and expert skiers will appreciate the recent expansion into Cole Creek terrain, north-facing and due west of the main ski area. Two new high-speed Cole Creek chairs open 700 additional acres of skiing, bringing Red Lodge’s total to 1,600 acres and 2,400 vertical feet.
One of them, the Palisades lift, accesses 60 acres of tree skiing for intermediates and experts.
The chair is named for the limestone outcroppings that project an eerie Easter Island image to the resort’s otherwise-Western ambiance. These mystic monoliths were once horizontal and in the bottom of an ancient sea. Fifty million years of volcanic forces, upthrusts and erosion still shake and shudder next door in Yellowstone National Park.
Non-expert skiers will appreciate that 55 percent of the mountain trails are labeled intermediate, and 15 percent beginner. Certified instructors teach a variety of ski and snowboard lessons, ranging from Teepee Creepers for kids to powder clinics for adults.
To spray manmade snow over 40 percent of the mountain, Red Lodge installed a 15-million-gallon reservoir at mountaintop. The ski area plans a new summit lodge on Grizzly Peak at the 9,400-foot elevation.
Eventually Red Lodge hopes to add an ice-skating and fishing pond, guest cabins, horse corral and other year-round amenities, moving from winter resort to all-season playground.
The town of Red Lodge borrows its name from the Crow Indians who used to live in the region. They stained the buffalo hides for their teepees (lodges) with a red dye, thus Red Lodge.
Among the oldest buildings in town is the 1893 Pollard Hotel, where famous characters like Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and Jeremiah “Liver Eatin”’ Johnson hung their cowboy hats.
Although liver isn’t often on the menu in the Pollard’s Greenlee Dining Room, chef Scott Greenlee crosses culinary borders to indulge guests in dishes from Europe, Asia and the Southwest. Main courses range from the steaks and chops to ostrich and vegetarian fare.
Just far enough from town to feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere, Pepi Gramshammer’s Rock Creek Lodge offers dining, lodging, indoor swimming and mountain biking.
For chili-pepper dining at cucumber-cool prices, there’s Serrano’s on Broadway. Known for seafood enchiladas and black bean soup, Serrano’s generous meals average $9.
Another local favorite is Lyle Schultze’s Beartooth Mountain Guides shop on the way to the ski slopes. Besides selling a gnarly T-shirt of the Bear’s Tooth (a rock climbing spot), Lyle guides climbing trips on nearby 12,799-foot Granite Peak and offers all-season backcountry information.
Red Lodge may be on the brink of national celebrity, but for now it’s still a sleepy, friendly hamlet populated by environmentalists, ranchers, miners, professionals - and the occasional wolf wandering north from Yellowstone.
Like a good dime-store Western, Red Lodge offers lots of fun at a sensible price.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: If you go Red Lodge is 60 miles south of Billings, with flights from Spokane on Alaska/Horizon, Delta and United Airlines. Travelers fly to Billings and take the Red Lodge Shuttle or rent a vehicle. The drive from Spokane is 400 miles east on Interstate 90, then exit on Montana Highway 78 at Columbus to Red Lodge. Red Lodge Mountain Resort remains open through April 12. Lift tickets for adults run $32, juniors (13-18) $26 and children 12 and under $12. Good deals are the $22 adult passes on Mellow Monday and Terrific Tuesdays. Midweek lodging/skiing packages for three days and nights at Super 8 and Best Western run $153 per person, double occupancy. Included is continental breakfast and use of the pool and hot tub. The Pollard’s rooms range $85 to $185 nightly with midweek discounts of $10 per room. Ski packages including meals are available. Rock Creek Resort rooms range $86 to $235 nightly. Ski packages are available. For more information: Red Lodge Mountain Resort, (406) 446-2610; montana.net/rlmresort on the Web. Yellowstone Country Info Line, (800) 736-5276. Red Lodge Chamber of Commerce, (406) 446-1718. The Pollard, (800) POLLARD. Rock Creek Resort, (800) 667-1119. Red Lodge Central Reservations, (800) 444-8977. Beartooth Mountain Guides, (406) 446-1952.