You’ve drooled over a half-bazillion stories about pro skiers riding the most untouchable terrain in the most farfetched places around the world. Those articles have caused some serious procrastination and jealousy on par with that of an East Coast backcountry skier. But you’ll probably never visit any of those ridiculous places. You know where you will go? Montana. You’ll vacation there because it’s not crowded, it’s inexpensive, and it has ski offerings that can hold their own against anything else in the lower 48.
The modest price of your flight to Kalispell’s Glacier Park International Airport and spacious rental car will leave you with enough cash to eat something other than bread and string cheese. That night, while walking around nearby Whitefish, the roughly 3,000-foot elevation won’t cause the headaches that your alternative high-altitude ski trip would have. And even without a reservation, you’ll have your choice of places to sleep without the fear of a “no vacancy” sign.
Your first day riding around Whitefish Mountain Resort—formerly (and currently by locals) called Big Mountain—you’ll notice its predominantly south-facing trails. That means you can spend most of your day on the accessible East Rim, riding couloirs like NBC and hopping three-foot cliffs that will, with each time you tell the story back home, become a foot higher. It feels good to get those ski legs back under you.
Luckily, your second day will introduce you to all that Whitefish’s north side has to offer: mini-golf, steep trees, and excellent backcountry access. Gray Wolf will become your preferred access run, and during the afternoon you’ll quickly come to love Montana’s unofficial open-backcountry policy that allows you to leave the resort where and when you choose. Exhausted, you sleep deeply and easily. Your trip is only beginning.
The backcountry hooks you, so you find the only guide company permitted for multi-day ski tours in Glacier National Park. It’s Glacier Adventure Guides, and they’ve put together a perfect overnight ski tour package, so you give it a try. Owner Greg Fortin understands that you may not have much experience in the backcountry, and that’s OK. He caters to not only your familiarity, but also your food preference and how much you want to suffer. Coming out of the mountains 36 hours later, your igloo is warm, you haven’t seen another soul, and you’re slightly desensitized to hearing “best run of my life.”
You’ll wake up tired. Your half-day at Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, a bit more than an hour south of Whitefish, will be spent largely enjoying the awesome views of Flathead Lake, which is the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. At the small ski area, you’ll probably see the owner mingling with guests in the restaurant, and his wife will probably sell you your $30 lift ticket. The liftie/photographer/park manager, will offer you the advice you need, and might even escape his duties for a hot lap with you. On the drive to Missoula, you’ll be tired and the first night in the college town will put a toll on your system, but you’ll rally. Snowbowl is only 7 miles from town.
Despite its only four lifts, Snowbowl skis like a big mountain. When you finally realize you’re starving, the pizza at Last Run is the must-stop—just make sure to grab a 50-cent hardboiled egg that was pickled in habanero juice while you wait. And if you ask nicely, the bartender may put one of the habaneros on top of the egg, which is elegantly served in a shot glass. Full from pizza and eggs, backcountry skiers will head up the LaVelle Creek Chair. By then, you’ll hopefully have met Snowbowl-lifers Landon Gardner and Donovan Power. They’ll show you the zones that are only accessed via ski touring. Then, on your 20-minute skin back to the resort, they will convince you to have one of Last Run’s famous après selections—like flatbread and Brie with raspberry chipotle or a bloody mary. Listening to them talk about their careers with the U.S. Ski Team will be the perfect precursor to another night in youthful Missoula. Rent a bike and easily move around the flat downtown.
Your 8 a.m. start will be a prime opportunity to top off the gas tank and get a cup of tea for the two-hour drive to Lost Trail Powder Mountain. The jumps and rails near the Lost Trail base lodge are sweet, but instead, head skier’s left—far left—and find Chair 4. It’s slow. Deal with it. The cliffs to looker’s left come in all shapes and sizes, and are as good as it gets. If you’re scared or too old, hit them anyway. Keep an eye on the time, and don’t get stuck on that side of the mountain after closing. It’s a long way back to the car via flat traverses.
Hardboiled egg pickled in habanero juice.
You’ll lose cell phone service a couple miles after you turn up the 25-mile stretch of Highway 12 toward Lolo Pass, and you won’t have it again until tomorrow. Enjoy it, and revel in the simplicity of The Lodge at Lolo Hot Springs. The hot springs may be far from what you’re expecting—you’ll find a mismatching pool-tiled bathtub situated in a sauna with dim, gaudy lighting and a faucet that spits mineral water. Relax before tomorrow’s ski tour, but don’t lose track of time because the restaurant next door—the only source of food in the canyon—stops serving at 9 p.m. Vegetarians be warned: Onion rings and a grilled cheese off the kid’s menu will have to get you through the two-man-band dinner entertainment.
If it’s Saturday, jump back in the rental car and head 10 miles down the road to the Lumberjack Saloon. You’ll never be happier to feel so out of place. The youthful patrons, high-quality music, and raw ambiance are truly one of the most genuine expressions of Montana culture that you can experience. Cowboys with big belt buckles, college girls, and some of the best country dancers you’ve ever seen. It’s OK to sit back and take it all in. Upon your return to the lodge, your room is welcoming—free of buzzing phones and anything 2013. It will put you to sleep and ready for the complimentary morning waffles.
It’s good that you packed your lunch in Missoula two days ago, because you won’t want to stop hiking around Lolo Pass long enough to forage for berries. The poorly marked trailheads will make you glad you got all kinds of advice from locals. You feel like you can’t go wrong. You want to keep skinning, but you end up skiing this stupidly awesome pillow line a few times, making you an hour late reaching your objective a series of North-facing chutes that take you right back to the road. But that’s OK, because your line is sheltered from the sun and skis fresh. Get back to your car early enough to change, pound a bottle of water, and drive less than an hour back to the Missoula Airport for your evening flight. Shower in the bathroom sink.