Chalk it up to Schweitzer Mountain Resort’s remote location and Germanic name, but many skiers have no clue where it is.
“Some people hear the word ‘Schweitzer’ and they think, ‘What’s a Schweitzer?’” says Sean Mirrus, the area’s director of marketing and events. “If you’ve never seen it on a map, some people think it’s in Switzerland.”
For the record, it means “Swiss man” in German, and it’s located in the Idaho Panhandle, that curious northern sliver of mountainous land sandwiched between Washington and Montana that pokes into the belly of British Columbia like the bone of the pork chop that is Idaho’s shape.
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Named for a Swiss hermit who lived at the base of the mountain more than a century ago, Schweitzer is the biggest little resort you’ve probably never visited. With 2,900 acres of inbounds terrain—and an open boundary policy—it’s Idaho’s largest ski area, bigger than Sun Valley and larger than any resort in neighboring Washington as well. Who knew?
Now, with two new lifts, a boutique hotel under construction, a new master development plan created by the respected SE Group, and an influx of people moving to Sandpoint and the nearby cities of Spokane, Wash., and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Schweitzer is poised to pop.
“We are still under most people’s radar,” says CEO Tom Chasse. “Our toughest challenge is getting people here for the first time. Once they visit, they are hooked.”
Count me in. Before moving to Seattle a few years ago, I’d never put any thought into Schweitzer or spent any time in the Panhandle except to drive through on my way to somewhere else. But here I am, on a brilliant blue day, pausing on the summit to catch my breath and take in the views of Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho’s largest body of water, and Sandpoint, a charming lakeside town tucked into the rugged Selkirk Mountains.
I’m whooped after spending the morning exploring the chutes and trees of the resort’s backside bowl. Now it’s mid-afternoon and I’m racing to hit all the best terrain on Schweitzer’s frontside before the lifts close. With about 2,400 feet of vert, Schweitzer’s runs are hardly the longest, but the area’s sprawling layout—consisting of two large back-to-back bowls and a separate beginner area served by its own lift beneath the base village—spreads out and segregates skiers by ability and thins out the lift lines.
Resorts of the Year: Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Idaho
Schweitzer reminds me of another remote northern ski area, Montana’s Whitefish Mountain, right down to the frequent fog and ice-covered trees known as snow ghosts. “It’s a big mountain with a small feel,” says season pass holder and Sandpoint resident Stephanie Aitken. “There is so much terrain that it never feels crowded.”
This is especially true on the resort’s backside, known as the Outback Bowl. In the summer of 2019, Schweitzer replaced the 47-year-old Snow Ghost fixed-grip double chair with a high-speed quad and a triple. While some locals grumbled at this loss of local history, Snow Ghost was spooky for newbies and ponderous for hard chargers. The resort also carved seven new runs and thinned some previously choked tree stands in the Outback, creating about 300 acres of intermediate to advanced glades that are more welcoming to guests of all abilities. Intermediates can now easily disembark from the Cedar Park Express at mid-mountain and lap the tamarack pine glades and blue runs on the lower mountain, while advanced skiers can take the Colburn Triple to the summit and drop into the black and double-black chutes including Lakeside, Kohli’s, and Pucci’s.
While skier densities remain low, with about 1,000 people on the hill mid-week and between 3,000 and 6,000 on weekends, Schweitzer has experienced record attendance on peak days in recent winters, breaking 250,000 visits for the first time in its history. Most visitors are local season pass holders. Destination visits are limited by a lack of on-mountain rental properties. Schweitzer manages only 110 rental units, and it doesn’t own any of them. Most out-of-town visitors stay 20 to 30 minutes away in Sandpoint. “Our lodging is full most weekends and we are turning people away,” Chasse says.
The new 30-unit, 66,000-square-foot boutique hotel will increase the resort’s appeal to luxury travelers. Scheduled to open in 2021, the property will bring some modern flare to Schweitzer with its glass expanses, rooftop spa and terrace, underground parking, 50-seat restaurant and bar, and lake views from every room. Privately owned and proudly independent in an era of consolidation, Schweitzer was able to move quickly to install the new lifts and break ground on the hotel because it operates almost exclusively on private land.
Finishing my mountain tour with some hot laps in the chutes off the South Ridge accessed by the appropriately named Lakeview Triple chair, I hit the rowdy Lakeview Lodge for après and bump into local skier and real estate agent Alison Murphy, who is sharing pitchers and cocktails with friends. All are notably proud of both Schweitzer and Sandpoint, with its lively arts scene, microbreweries, wineries, and trendy restaurants.
“Being born here,” says Murphy, who skis across the West but can’t imagine living elsewhere, “I won the lottery.”
Trip Planning: Schweitzer Mountain Resort, Idaho
With Sandpoint a 20- to 30-minute drive away, visitors who want to maximize their fun time can choose from a rental pool of on-mountain condos or two hotels in the base village: Selkirk Lodge or White Pine Lodge. Both feature hot tubs, fireplaces, a range of room sizes—from couples to families—and are just steps away from the lifts, restaurants, and bars. In Sandpoint, the La Quinta Inn Sandpoint is located in the center of town. Shuttle buses connecting downtown to the ski hill depart every 30 minutes until 8 p.m.
Chimney Rock Grill offers comfortable fireside fine dining in the base village with a menu including steaks and burgers, fish and chips, salads, and more. Gourmandie Café in the village is the spot for healthy lite fare and artisanal plates, farmhouse cheeses, cured meats, and wine. With brick walls and large windows, the Fat Pig bistro in Sandpoint offers a cheeky fusion menu with delectable dishes including duck confit nachos and oxtail ragu.
With multiple local microbrews on draft and an ample supply of tallboys, Pucci’s Pub is a lively watering hole and local’s hangout in the base village. Two nights in a row, friendly strangers bought me drinks. Utara Brewing Company in Sandpoint is a British-style ale and curry house with affordable Indian bites, light lagers, IPAs, and an intense imperial stout.
Keep Reading: The Other Idaho, Schweitzer, Lookout Pass, and the resorts of remote Northern Idaho.
We are still under most people’s radar,” says CEO Tom Chasse. “Our toughest challenge is getting people here for the first time. Once they visit, they are hooked.