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Missoula, Mont.

Mountain Life

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Thursday night is pint night at the Rhino, a cheapo chance to dent the weathered brick bar’s menu of 50 draft beers. Drink all 50 and you win a shirt. By the looks of the rough-and-tumble loggers, bikers and slumming doctoral candidates who shuffle through the peanut shells littering the worn floor, many are only a pint or two shy of the mark. Add the smoky residue from a dozen unfiltered Camels to the eye contact from the attractive girls sitting at the bar, and you have the makings of a memorable night in Missoula, Mont.

At first glance, it’s a cozy little scene, but one that some outsiders might find off-putting. Indeed, to hear some of Missoula’s fiercely protective locals tell it, it’s a mystery why anyone would eddy up in this weathered city of 56,000.A writer sent to profile the town draws narrow-eyed stares and no small number of “friendly” editorial suggestions from natives determined to ensure thatMissoula remains safely below the radar. “Emphasize how the inversions trap the sawmill smoke,” they’ll say. Or, “Mention how the wages are half the national average.” Most argue that Missoula is decidedly not a ski town: “Missoula? Hell, no. Now Bozeman, Bozeman is a ski town…” someone will say, all but scrawling out directions to the interstate in a furtive bid to send a reporter and his tape recorder quickly down the road.

So what are they hiding? As it turns out, Missoula does have a few secrets. Hidden treasures, actually. Beneath the town’s hardscrabble exterior lurks a pleasantly historic, increasingly diverse and surprisingly enlightened town. More than that, just a quick jaunt up a nearby canyon sits Montana Snowbowl, one of the West’s least known but most worthy powder playgrounds.

When you swing into town from the south on Highway 93, Missoula presents an uninspiring mix of fast food outlets, low-rent motels, prefab shopping malls and neon retail. But work your way downtown along the placid Clark Fork River and you’ll find the town’s appealing historic heart. On one side of the river sits a classic 19th-century brick-and-mortar retail district filled with established shops, as well as two dozen bars, where students, loggers and grizzled heavy-equipment operators belly up and get down in harmony. Indeed, despite the town’s rugged exterior, barroom disputes are as likely to be settled by references to Plato, Nietzsche, Locke and Jefferson as with bare knuckles.

Thank the University of Montana for keeping the peace. Defined by a prestigious faculty, red-brick architecture and expansive lawns, the century-old school is often referred to as the Harvard of the West. University Hall, built in 1899, is Montana’s centerpiece, perched on the south bank of the Clark Fork, where it lends an intellectual bent to what might otherwise be a straight-ahead blue-collar town. Some 2,400 students graduate each year; far fewer actually leave. “UM traps you,” says 31-year-old Alex Vondrell, who received his geography degree in 1995 and now works as an instructor at Snowbowl. “It’s true that you may make more money on the outside, but why would you trade the lifestyle?”

What has some locals worried is that others are performing the same calculus and increasingly reaching the same conclusion. Scattered on area roads among the hippie vans and beat-to-hell pickups are a growing number of new Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Cadillac SUVs, driven predominantly by white-collar immigrants fleeing the West Coast’s congestion and crime. The U.S. Forest Service, the University of Montana and various logging companies are still the town’s major employers, but tourism and residential construction are blooming.

Born and raised in Missoula, Cara Morgan graduated from the University of Montana in 1997 and now works for Lambross Real Estate. “Prices are higher inside the city limits, with houses near the university rarely selling for less than $200,000,” she says. If you’re willing to live outside of Missoula, you can find property foor $150,000. River frontage or significant acreage will fetch $300,000 to $750,000, or more.

Brad Martens, who owns the Rhino, emigrated from Iowa and received degrees in forestry and resource management in 1986. Now 47, he skis 40 days a season and has two young daughters. Dropping his guard, he’ll allow that “Missoula is a safe, friendly town with little crime and tremendous open spaces where you can ski, fish, hike and boat. Local schools average about 15 kids per class. Missoula is just a great place to raise a family.”

And then there’s the skiing. Set in a high cirque 12 miles up a serpentine gravel road from Missoula, Snowbowl is one of the West’s true hidden treasures. The ski area recalls the late ’70s, when fixed- grip doubles, long skis and grant-no-mercy runs were the norm. Rage nonstop through the bumps on Snowbowl’s infamous Grizzly Run, and your buddies on the chair will hoot, holler and buy you one of bartender Steve Curtis’ bloody marys at the base lodge. Locals love the resort’s 2,600 vertical feet and 950 acres of glades, fall line runs and bowls. Grooming is widely seen as a pointless exercise that serves only to flatten the resort’s 300 annual inches of snow. Other than powder, amenities are basic, which is precisely how the mountain’s disciples prefer it. “Snowbowl is down and dirty,” says local Luke Nerras. “There’s no glitz, no glam, no attitude. Everyone just rips.”

Brad Morris, 55, owns the ski area. An ear, nose and throat surgeon, Morris was invited to join a Missoula medical practice 25 years ago. Before he agreed to uproot from Madison, Wis., Morris checked out the local skiing. Snowbowl, as it happened, offered some of the best fall line skiing in the northern Rockies. When the mountain came up for sale in 1984, he convinced six fellow doctors to invest—a mission of mercy, you might say. “Snowbowl was failing,” Morris says. “We believed that the ski hill was critical for the health of the community.” In subsequent years, the resort added snowmaking, a new lodge and groomers, and replaced the T-bar with a surplus double picked up from Big Sky Resort nearBozeman. Snowbowl’s skier days tripled from an annual average of 18,000 to a still-very-manageable 54,000.

A powerful storm is building in the west when Alex Vondrell gives me a tour of the mountain. Snowbowl’s signature run is Grizzly, a perfect 2,600-vertical-foot mix of big bumps and changing pitches. But Vondrell leads me instead to Windows, a gladed warren between Grizzly and West Ridge. Windows demands quick edges and case-hardened nerves. Here, table-sized patches of snow close out against thickets of lodgepole pine that, in turn, open to narrow white alleys. Skiing Windows means threading a dozen needles. Vondrell flows between the trunks. One turn leads to another until the lodgepole gradually close around him, leaving only flashes of his yellow parka to mark the line down to Bowl Outrun. By day’s end, I understand why Snowbowl locals are so protective.

Ironically, though, the mountain might actually benefit from the extra revenue generated by an additional 30,000 or so skier days each year. And even if those extra skiers did brave Snowbowl road, there’s little chance the resort would invest the extra income in detachable quads, fleets of groomers or slopeside condos. Still, Vondrell doesn’t want to take chances. On the chair he confesses, “If you didn’t work for SKI, I might lead you to one or two chutes.” Vondrell’s problem, he explains, is that if anyone ever found out that he spilled the Bowl’s private stashes…well, he refuses to discuss the consequences. That’s just one more Missoula secret, I suppose.