When down-and-out prospector Noah Kellogg's mule got loose and wandered off into the mountains, Kellogg found the animal in a hidden gulch atop one of the richest silver lodes ever seen. A century later, folks in hardscrabble Kellogg, Idaho, joke that their town was discovered by a jackass and is inhabited by its descendants. But there's still wealth in them thar hills, thanks to little-known Silver Mountain, a twin-peaked resort rich with some of the nation's finest powder skiing.
I, too, am utterly surprised by Silver Mountain's sparkling assets. After a mere hour's drive from Spokane, Wash., I ride the world's longest single-stage gondola up three miles and 4,000 vertical feet into a sprawling origami of ridges and faces, a bonanza of varied terrain. Best of all, it's blanketed by a foot of untracked powder. The wide-open trails serve up repeated runs through boot-topping fluff, and I haven't even sampled the woods. I race around Silver like a kid on Christmas morning, which greatly amuses Bea Gordon, a local on a pair of Rossis as fat as waterskis.
"There's no need to rush around here," says Gordon. "It's almost always like this." She pulls out her ski journal to prove it. Over the prior 17 days, it had snowed all but three. Words like "freshies," "powder" and "deep" stand out as exclamation marks on almost every page, with depths to the knees, the waist, even the arms.
"No way," I say.
And a safe bet, too. It snows every night I'm at Silver. A few years back the mountain got an astounding 1,100 inches. The resort is a powder machine, set high in the Idaho panhandle. Topping out at 6,300 feet, Silver lies squarely under the Pacific storm track, just west of the Continental Divide.
All of the resort's 1,500 acres are legal, making for nearly endless powder shots between widely spaced ponderosa pines. And challenge? Tall Paul drops like a wall. The North Face Glades are so steep you wonder how trees cling to them. There are 52 advertised trails, but you can probably ski twice that. And, says ski-school director Nikol Hampton, "We've found cut trails—cut trails!—that aren't even on the map."
Hampton and her husband, Scott Evans, didn't strike Silver by accident. After working in, living in and eventually fleeing virtually every major Colorado resort, they started searching for a better mountain. Their modest requirements: more challenging terrain, more and lighter powder, and housing they could afford. They searched the Internet for years, road-tripped thousands of miles, and, finally, found Silver.
The couple were thrilled that they could buy a decent-sized house in Kellogg, right at the base of the mountain, for about $50,000, thanks to a downturn in silver prices and a now-completed EPA cleanup. Yet that big rock towering above town means that in a decade or two Kellogg could easily be the next Telluride or Park City. As Evans puts it, "It's a rowdy mountain with a ton of potential."
And Evans and Hampton aren't alone. Developer Eagle Crest Communities purchased Silver in 1996 and has permits in place to craft a jewel of a four-season destination. Work has begun on a golf course, a new base area and lodging, as well as expansion of the ski area itself. Eventually, Silver will have nearly 4,000 feet of vertical and an additional 800 acres of terrain. Skiers probably won't stumble in by accident by then, but you can bet they'll still feel like lucky jackasses when the day is done.