The soul of skiing is alive and strong in Montana at community-oriented ski areas
The soul of skiing is alive and strong in Montana. It lives on in community-oriented ski areas; affordable lift tickets, rentals and lessons; and classic double chairs. In this day and age, more and more ski areas are part of group passes and major conglomerates, and yet Montana is full of down-home, family-owned slopes where it’s all about the skiing—and keeping it real. Places like Lost Trail Powder Mountain, Turner Mountain, Maverick Mountain, and Bear Paw Ski Bowl are where the heartbeat of ski culture keeps ticking.
They call them Powder Thursdays. It’s the first day of the week that Lost Trail is open, and it’s usually, well, powdery. The ski area gets 325 inches of annual snowfall that fills into steep rock outcroppings, cliffs, chutes and trees. Fifty miles south of Hamilton, at the top of the Continental Divide in the Bitterroot Wilderness in an off-the-grid locale, this ski area that straddles the Montana/Idaho border is a hidden jewel. Lost Trail opened in 1938. In 1967, Bill Grasser purchased the resort and it’s now run by his children, Scott and Judy Grasser. It has 60 marked trails over 1,800 vertical feet and 1,800 acres of skiing, five lovely double chairs and three T-bars, lifties who create intricate snow-creatures in their spare time and adult lift tickets that are only $46. The double-black diamonds in the White House and the backcountry skiing off the backside of the plateau are steep and sporty for the advanced skier, but Lost Trail really shines in its intermediate glades, cruisy groomers and embrace of its family-oriented culture that make this ski area unlike any other.
Turner Mountain, located 23 miles north of Libby in the Kootenai National Forest in Northwest Montana, is only open Friday through Sunday and holidays. A busy day here means a couple hundred skiers, many of which sit on tailgates in the parking lot drinking beers or grilling burgers come afternoon. So while Turner has just one double chairlift, that’s all this ski area needs. The lift, which not so long ago replaced the longest T-bar in North America, rises 2,110 vertical feet to the 6,000-foot summit. The skiing falls through wide-open intermediate groomers and low-angle glades. It’s the ideal place for a company offsite—Turner allows skiers to rent the entire ski area for a reasonable rate—seasoned skiers, families and children, for whom a lift ticket costs just $21. When the day is done, head down the mountain to the Red Dog with the rest of the day’s skiers for a cold one.
In 2015, Kristi Borge, age 29, a middle school teacher in Bozeman, and Erik, her husband, age 31, a real estate agent, decided to flip their life upside down. They quit their jobs, sold everything, borrowed some money and bought Maverick Mountain Ski Area. For the lifelong skiers, it was a fantasy come true. Located in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, five miles north of Polaris, in southwest Montana, Maverick is a gem to the region. In addition to some great owners, it has 2,020 vertical feet, 450 skiable acres, consistent fall line skiing and one trusty double chair. It’s the type of place where families fall in love with skiing, or where interlopers rediscover the genuine joys of mountain culture. The terrain has several beginner and intermediate groomed runs on its flanks and steeper, ungroomed black diamonds underneath the chairlift, as well as tight trees. When the ski day is exhausted, there’s always après. The cheery Thunder Bar features four taps from Beaverhead Brewery in Dillon. Meanwhile, Elkhorn Hot Springs is only 10 minutes down the road from Maverick Mountain.
It’s an unlikely spot for a Bikini Beach, but that’s the name of the run and a sign of the fun at Bear Paw Ski Bowl, located 30 miles south of Havre, Montana. The Chippewa-Cree Tribe has allowed Bear Paw to run the ski area, which is located on the Rocky Boy Reservation, since 1959. With a double chair, a handle tow, 900 vertical feet and a $20 lift ticket, if this isn’t the spirit of skiing, it’s hard to know what is. The ski area uses local volunteers to help keep the lifts spinning, which it only does a couple days a week. When Bear Paw is open, it offers one of the most unique cultural experiences in this great ski country.