Independent Ski Area Profile: Bridger Bowl, Montana - Ski Mag

Independents Day: Bridger Bowl, Mont.

Community-owned and starkly independent, this Montana ski area is a masterpiece for skiers looking to leave fancy ski resorts for something real.
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Bridger Bowl

The ski area is located on the east slope of the Bridger Mountain Range and boasts four wide-open bowls within its boundaries. 

Bridger Bowl, outside Bozeman, Montana, carries in its character much of the gritty mythology that defines Montana as iconic of the American West. Take the Bridger Mountains, which are named for mountain man Jim Bridger, the fur trapper, scout, and prolific adventurer made famous in the film “The Revenant.” Or consider the story behind Schlasman’s Lift, named for one of four coal miners entombed in their cabin after a gargantuan avalanche ripped from the top of those limestone peaks in the dark hours of an early 1885 morning.

While so many resorts have been absorbed by giant conglomerates, Bridger Bowl has remained a community-owned, non-profit ski hill since the first platter lift was triumphantly installed on the mountain in 1955, a feat organized by 60 powder-hungry volunteers. The Bridger Bowl Association is still governed by volunteers, and its mission statement is the same as it’s always been: To provide the best possible skiing experience at a reasonable cost to local, regional, and destination skiers. Basically, to keep skiing affordable (lift tickets run $63, while neighboring Big Sky rings up at $168), which isn’t a guiding ethos embraced by all that many ski resorts.

But that’s part of what makes Bridger Bowl a ski area, not a ski resort, as the locals will adamantly emphasize. “We’re not trying to be something we’re not. We are who we are, and we appreciate who we are,” says Erin O’Connor, Bridger Bowl’s marketing and communications director, in perhaps the pithiest identity statement of the place.

Coming in at 2,700 feet of vertical and 8,800 feet at its high point, this east-facing ski hill gets a hefty share of blissfully light, dry powder. But all that snow doesn’t breed an agro attitude of fighting for first chair or muscling to get the highest vert tally. Skier after skier at Bridger will wax poetic about the tight community feel here, characterized by radical friendliness and looking out for each other, a vibe based on a shared love of this mountain and the sheer joy of playing in its snow.

“The fact that it’s community-owned matters so much,” says Jennifer Fiebig, who’s lived in Bozeman with her husband Michael for over a decade. “It’s not about the profit, it’s about the mountain and the people.”

Skiing powder at Bridger Bowl

Bill Buchbauer finds freshies on the Apron. 

Check out: Locals Guide to Bozeman, Mont.

Its terrain literally offers something for everyone to make that tight community a uniquely diverse set of skiers, from the low-angle corduroy at the bottom of the mountain and the beacon-required lift-served runs off Schlasman’s, to the storied bootpack-access Ridge with its steep chutes and technical lines. “The Ridge provides a level of risk and exploration. You go up there and you’re seeking,” explains Jennifer. “To have that inbounds is like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere.”

And, not least in the hierarchy of importance, because Bridger Bowl is community-owned its skiers feel a sense of ownership over the mountain that’s hard to come by at big resorts. “Bridger is actually giving public lands access back to the people in the way those forest service leases are intended,” says Michael Fiebig. “The divide between rich and poor and access and equity regarding public lands is becoming really stark. Community-owned ski areas will be the future that addresses that, and I hope we see more of them, not less.”

Read next: Ode to Montana

How to Get to Bridger Bowl, Mont.

While Montana may seem remote, Bridger is surprisingly not that difficult to get to. The ski area is situated on the east face of the Bridger Mountain Range, just 16 miles north of Bozeman on State Highway 86. The town of Belgrade, 7 miles west of Bozeman, is home to Yellowstone International Airport, which offers direct flights to and from most major U.S. hubs. If arriving to Bozeman by air, there’s no real need for a car: the ski area offers free bus service to and from the mountain with multiple pick-up and drop-off points in Bozeman.

Bridger Bowl Skier Stats

  • Skiable Acres: 2,000
  • Annual Snowfall (Inches): 350
  • Summit Elevation (Feet) : 8,800
  • Vertical Drop (Feet): 2,700

More Great Independent Resorts Worth Celebrating

Wolf Creek, Colo.

Cannon Mountain, N.H.

Mount Bohemia, Mich.

Mt. Rose, Nev.

Sierra at Tahoe, Calif.

Mt. Baker, Wash.

Originally published in the January 2020 issue of SKI Magazine. For more great writing delivered directly to your inbox, SUBSCRIBE NOW.

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Anatomy: Bridger Bowl's Schlasman's Lift

Schlasman’s (pronounced Slushman’s) lift opened in December 2008 and accesses 300 acres and 1,700 feet of steep terrain. It’s more skier-friendly (translation: fewer places to get cliffed out) than the rest of Bridger Bowl’s gnarly Ridge, but beacons are required and nothing is marked. Case in point? Last season, patrol regularly performed rope rescues here.