Western Snow Sports: Montana Ski Areas

Montana: Short lines, uncrowded slopes

By Peter Schroeder

Locals call their slopes “Skiing’s Last Frontier.” That’s because there are few skiers — just wide open slopes, no lift lines and awesome terrain.

The entire state, with 16 ski areas, registers only 1.2 million skier visits a year, less than what a single major Colorado resort tallies in a season. On average there’s only one skier/snowboarder for every acre of skiable terrain. But while the slopes may be wild and untamed, the resorts offer every modern amenity. Best yet, a lift ticket costs only $39 on average.

The largest ski resort in the state, Big Sky Resort, will open five new gladed ski runs with 20 acres of terrain on Andesite Mountain this winter. No over-grooming here. Big Sky leaves the snow on all its black diamond runs just the way Nature deposited it. Also new, Big Sky is opening the new 3,000-square-foot Solace Spa.

A joint lift ticket for Big Sky and neighboring Moonlight Basin (operating on the opposite face of Lone Mountain) accesses 5,532 skiable acres, the largest terrain for skiers and boarders in the country. Together, the two resorts offer 220 runs served by 23 lifts. If you have an extra day, make a visit by Snowcoach into nearby Yellowstone National Park.

Bridger Bowl Ski Area has replaced both its Deer Park and Bridger chairs with the new triple Bridger lift. The change not only aligns the runs in a more logical way, it also allows easier access from both Pierre’s Knob lift and Deer Park Lodge. Loading carpets at Powder Park quad and Pierre’s Knob triple chair make it easier to load for beginners; they also allow for increased lift speed, increasing uphill capacity by 30 percent.

The recently installed Schlasman chair offers lift-served big mountain terrain and opens up 311 additional side-country acres. Free skier buses operate from the town of Bozeman to the ski area. Bridger’s non-profit status allows all profits to be reinvested back into the mountain.

As the locals at Discovery Basin Ski Area like to say, the lifts may be slow, but the prices are low—at just under $40. At first glance, this ski area appears to be just a family-friendly intermediate ski area. But head to the back side served by the Limelight Lift, and you’ll find some of the country’s gnarliest, steepest slopes.

Whenever Missoula receives a big dump of snow, local businesses, including the University of Montana, unofficially shut down, allowing for an unofficial “sick day” at Montana Snowbowl. Two new runs, both intermediate with 600 feet of vertical, were recently cut in the LaValle Creek area. Between the runs, trees have been thinned to make additional glade skiing. Work continued on the access road over the summer to smooth the tortuous turns and widen lanes.

Moonlight Basin offers skiers long, well-groomed runs, open bowls and challenging chutes in a spectacular setting along with fine dining and excellent accommodations at the slopeside Moonlight Lodge. Its emergence from bankruptcy is expected by the end of 2011.

The largest and most noticeable improvement at Red Lodge Mountain is new snowmaking on the Lower Miami Beach beginner run. Other enhancements include the clearing of brush from four runs, a new deck at Midway Chalet, renovation of the main lodge, one additional snow groomer and an expanded ski patrol dispatch hut at the top of the Triple Chair. Top-to-bottom snow-making on 40 percent of the 70 trails gives Red Lodge some of the most extensive coverage in the northern Rockies. In addition, the ski area offers 30 acres of extreme chutes and 60 acres of gladed tree skiing. Much of the authentic western town of Red Lodge is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Top: Wide open powder slopes await at Big Sky Resort. Photo courtesy of Big Sky. Above: The Rocky Mountains stand sentry over Whitefish Mountain Resort. Photo courtesy Whitefish Mountain Resort

At Whitefish Mountain Resort, the new Bad Rock triple lift provides an additional way up the mountain from the base to above Russ’s Street lift, helping maintain the reputation for short lift lines. Repairs have been completed to Chair 1 after a slope depression last summer created misalignment at one of the towers and forced closure of the lift that fortunately didn’t affect ski season.

The base lodge has been remodeled with a new lounge area. The Fishbowl group of four progressive terrain parks has a dedicated chairlift for those who want to make park laps and also features a skier/boarder cross course. If you have an extra day, make a trip to nearby Glacier National Park.

The Tram at Whitefish. Photo courtesy Whitefish Mountain Resort

Montana Resorts

Ski Montana – www.wintermt.com/dhski.htm

Big Sky – www.bigskyresort.com

Blacktail Mountain – www.blacktailmountain.com

Bridger Bowl – www.bridgerbowl.com

Discovery Basin – www.skidiscovery.com

Great Divide – www.skigd.com

Lost Trail – www.losttrail.com

Maverick Mountain – www.skimaverick.com

Montana Snowbowl – www.montanasnowbowl.com

Moonlight Basin – www.moonlightbasin.com

Red Lodge – www.redlodgemountain.com

Showdown Mountain – www.showdownmontana.com

Teton Pass – www.skitetonpass.com

Turner Mountain – www.skiturner.com

Whitefish – www.skiwhitefish.com

Check out the winter resorts in these other western states/provinces:

>> Washington Resorts

>> Oregon Resorts

>> Idaho Resorts

>> British Columbia Resorts

>> Alberta Resorts

>> The Rest of the West’s Best

>> Click here to see our Winter Lodging Directory