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Sports >  Outdoors

Explore three great small resorts in Western Montana

By John Nelson For The Spokesman-Review

One snowy day long ago, explorers Lewis and Clark got lost as they trekked through the mountains of Montana.

On another snowy day recently, I am following in their footsteps, doing my own bit of exploring. I’m at Lost Trail Powder Mountain – named for their misadventure in the Bitterroots – getting lost in five inches of fluffy fresh powder.

I drop into Shark Fin, a cliffy double-diamond run off the Saddle Mountain lift, cranking turn after turn of lovely Montana powder. Yes, Lewis and Clark were onto something: This is a fantastic place to lose yourself.

Days earlier, I shredded at Montana Snowbowl near Missoula and at Discovery Ski Area, near Philipsburg. All three resorts offer fantastic skiing with a quintessential Montana flavor, making them perfectly suited for a weekend tour from the Inland Northwest.

Montana Snowbowl

When you pull into Snowbowl, be ready to ski the steeps.

Most of the front-side runs are wild and rough, dropping from a top elevation of 7,560 feet to a base nearly 2,600 feet below.

Intermediate skiers aren’t completely left out. The LaVelle Creek Chair on the back side is a great place to spend the day with its collection of blue and black runs.

Snowbowl is a true throwback to a different time. The runs on the front side have little grooming and the base area is a hodgepodge of A-frames and funky outbuildings.

At this time, the resort has two chairs, a T-bar, and a beginners’ rope tow – but that will change in the future. Snowbowl is in the process of expanding, with a new chairlift from the base to TV Mountain (6,800 feet) adding 1,100 acres of terrain to the 950 acres currently served by lifts, said Pat McKay, Snowbowl mountain manager.

The resort had hoped the chairlift would be ready for this season but it’s now scheduled to open next year.

“It’s going to open up a lot more intermediate and beginning terrain,” McKay said. “That’s one thing we lack.”

In the future, Snowbowl will also add a lodge to the top of TV Mountain and improve parking, McKay said, “depending on money.”

Any visit to Snowbowl should include a stop at the excellent Last Run Inn at the mountain base. The Last Run’s Bloody Mary is consistently voted the best in Montana, and when I visited they even used the Bloody Mary mix in their spicy “Detroit Clam Chowder.”

Where to stay: You can’t beat downtown Missoula, which is a happening place filled with University of Montana-themed bars and craft breweries. I stayed at the Grant Creek Inn Best Western, a comfortable motel that is closest to the ski area. For those who want to stay on the mountain, the Gelandesprung Lodge has 20 rooms at the Snowbowl base.

Discovery Ski Area

Disco, as it’s known, is a little resort that feels big.

With seven chairlifts on its 700 acres and a large day lodge, Discovery can handle crowds easily – not that it gets any. The resort has lots of grooming, which helps keep its front-side intermediate and beginning terrain buffed out.

The back side is where the steeps live. Runs off the Limelight chairlift are legit double-diamond drops that will challenge any expert. Two other chairs serve the steep backside terrain.

“For advanced skiers, the terrain on the back side is really special,” said Ciche Pitcher, president of Discovery Ski Area.

The resort is located between the uber-cute historic mining town of Philipsburg and its rougher-edged cousin, Anaconda. Discovery also draws skiers from Butte (one hour away), Missoula (90 minutes away), Bozeman (two hours away) and Helena (two hours away).

In all, Discovery has a vertical drop of nearly 2,400 feet and it tops out at 8,150 feet. The front-side base, at 6,850 feet, is higher than most resorts in Montana, and the terrain is excellent for beginning skiers.

Things are about to change at Discovery. A new road is under construction that will shorten the drive from Philipsburg to just a few minutes. Pitcher said the road may be completed in time for next season, helping further tie Philipsburg, with its tourist-friendly shops, dining and lodging, to the ski area.

Any discussion of Philipsburg has to include its exceptional brewery. The Philipsburg Brewing Co. is a force to be reckoned with: It is the cultural center of town and makes excellent beer to boot. On a recent subzero January night, the streets were empty but the craft-brewery was a shoulder-to-shoulder, sweaty, raucous place.

Where to stay: I loved the Caledonia Bed & Breakfast in Philipsburg. Anita and Steve Immenschuh were gracious hosts in the wonderfully restored home, which turns 100 this year. Other options include the historic Broadway Hotel, just above the brewery, which has lovely rooms and common areas.

Lost Trail Powder Mountain

Lost Trail lives up to its reputation of getting the most snow among these three resorts.

Located on the Idaho-Montana divide on U.S. Highway 93 between Darby, Montana, and Salmon, Idaho, Lost Trail receives an average of 325 inches a year.

“They always seem to have powder,” said Alec McNeill, a season-pass holder from Lolo, Montana, “and there’s never anyone here.”

Thursdays are usually a powder day at Lost Trail, McNeill said, because the resort is closed Mondays through Wednesdays.

The parking lot and lodge at Lost Trail are situated mid-mountain (elevation 7,000 feet). Chairs 1 and 2 take riders to a summit of one of the area’s two mountains and they deliver primarily intermediate terrain with a few steep runs. Hit those early, and then look for more powder on the Saddle Mountain chair to the northwest. This chairlift offers the most vertical at Lost Trail: 1,800 feet, topping out at an elevation of 8,200 feet.

Runs off the top are stellar: Shark Fin, Hollywood Bowl and Sacjac Trees are all great areas to explore Lost Trail’s ample snowfall.

Where to stay: Neither Darby nor Hamilton, the two nearest towns in Montana, have a lot of options for lodging. I stayed at the Townhouse Inn in Hamilton, a serviceable motel. Another option is to day-trip from Missoula, a roughly two-hour drive.

John Nelson is a freelance outdoors writer based in Seattle. Follow his blog at skizer.org.

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