The Big Wide Empty

Way, way out in the land of powder, the cornices are steeper, the trails go deeper, and the crowds are nonexistent. Where is this mythical kingdom, you ask? Right here in North America.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
Since this is Montana, why not knock yourself out with a mind-bending view and start your ski journey at Bridger Bowl? (It's only a 16-mile drive northeast of Bozeman on Montana 86.) You'll find yourself at the Big Daddy of Montana's mom-and-pops, with seven lifts, a vertical drop of 2,600 feet, and 800 lift-served acres. Despite the proximity to Bozeman, a good weekend day here attracts only 3,000 skiers, roughly the same number that ride the Orient Express quad at Vail in an hour.

Above the lifts, Bridger's infamous ridge, called The Ridge—hey, people are plainspoken out here—adds 400 skiable acres of steep rock-wall chutes (among them the dauntingly named Deviated Septum) and alluvial snowfields. (Avalanche transceivers and a buddy are required.) Warren Miller's early extreme skiing stars grew up here. But for all its muscle, the place is incredibly low-key. Bridger is a nonprofit run by a committee of dues-paying locals determined to fight off corporate takeovers, preserve the base area from condo-mania, and keep skiing affordable. Right on. Every year on the second Friday in January—the anniversary of Bridger's grand opening in 1954—you can ski for ten bucks. If you decide to stay a few days, check out the Powderhound Package: four nights' lodging plus four days' skiing for an extremely thrifty $150.

Don't get the wrong idea, though; there's nothing wrong with pampering yourself. Just do it Montana-style, taking a few leisurely days to explore some outstanding, (slightly) flatter terrain. Get in the car and head east on I-90, and then pick up U.S. 89 south at Livingston. After 45 miles of the state's most dramatic mountain scenery, turn out of Paradise Valley into Tom Miner Basin and up to the classy, yet rustic, B-Bar Guest Ranch. On the northern edge of Yellowstone in the western part of the Absaroka Range, the B-Bar offers spectacular gladed steeps as well as 25 miles of trails groomed by—get this—Suffolk Punch draft horses. If you're really bushed, you can skijor behind the horses; it's like waterskiing, only colder. And in keeping with the backwoodsy feel of the place, the lodge is small (it sleeps 34), and the food is homegrown and chemical-free.

OK, enough of all this plush stuff. It's tele time. Retrace your steps to Bozeman and head west on I-90 to Three Forks. From there, go north on U.S. 287 to Helena and work your way out 24 miles northwest of town on Green Meadow Road to Marysville and a down-home hill called Great Divide. The four lifts at Great Divide creep, and you'll be looking at the same view all day—the rounded hills of the Big Belt Mountains. Get over it! You've landed in telemark turn–honing heaven: After a nice snow, the peripheral terrain between runs like Big Open and Hi-Voltage lovingly mimics the backcountry, with varying steeps, deep untracked snow, and mature trees. Plus there's a bit of kick and glide at the top and bottom just to keep you honest. On weekdays, lift tickets cost $5 an hour, $24 for the day, and the place is postapocalyptically empty. You'd think the local free-heelers would be all over it, but there's no one here. Ha! Don't tell them.

While you're in the neighborhood, check out the unassuming Alice Creek Ranch, a quick, 46-mile drive on Montana 279 over Flesher Pass and west to Lincoln. Here, on the edge of the Scapegoat Wilderness, $8 will buy you a day pass to 25 miles of skate-groomed trails, and you can rent a modest cabin that sleeps up to six. For an extra fee, the owners will snow-cat you to nearby untracked slopes for tele or alpine skiing through the rolling, Douglas-fir dotted landscape.

Your next stop is the town of Anaconda, famous for several things: an old smelter smokestack taller than the Washington Monument, a very strange black-sand golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, and the beautiful, snow-drenched Pintler Mountains. To get to the peaks, jump on U.S. 12 west out of Helena, pick up I-90 south, and then take Montana 1 to the Discovery Basin Ski Area. A few years ago, this operation doubled its size by bringing lift service to its steep, north-facing backside. The back bowls and chutes stay blessedly ungroomed all year. By March, the bumps are big as half-ton Fords. The gentle front side is ideal for perfecting your fakeys and 360s. Then you can hit the half-pipe. You'll see guys wearing Carhartts and you'll ride vintage lifts, one cranked up so fast that it's like watching laundry fall off a clothesline. But no problem: The lift ops will learn your name and pick up the pieces.

On the other side of the Sapphire Mountains, west of Anaconda, is Lost Trail Powder Mountain, considered the premier powder sink in the state. (To get there, take I-90 going east and follow it to I-15 south. Pick up Montana 43 and head west to the Idaho border.) Straddling the state line at 7,000-plus feet, the slopes here funnel in the flakes—300 inches a year—from steroidal storm systems in both the Pacific Northwest and central Rockies. Even better, the tiny operation—three double-chairs and a rope tow—is closed three days a week, which means the stuff just sits there, waiting for you. "We haven't done a lot of long-range marketing," declares Bill Grasser, who's owned the place for 30 years. "We like it like this."

It's nestled in the Bitterroot Mountains, so the views are underwhelming, but the trees and chutes will either keep you grinning or grimacing all day. If Lost Trail feels like it's in the middle of nowhere, that's because it is—even Lewis and Clark couldn't figure out the terrain, hence the name. None of the nearest towns—Hamilton, Darby, and, across the state line, Salmon—boasts a population bigger than the Broadway IRT subway on Sunday morning. You might even get lonely. Full-day tickets are only $19.

It's finally time to head back to Bozeman, but just before you get there, one more detour. Pick up U.S. 191 south and follow it to Big Sky Resort. I know, I know, we said this was a guide to mom-and-pops. So we lied. You're in western Montana; you can't leave without skiing Big Sky! It's big, it's bountiful, it has steeps off Lone Mountain that will make you cry. Lift tickets are a pricey $52, but consider this your one chance to splurge. If you really feel like indulging, stay at the luxe Lone Mountain Ranch for some serious cross-country skiing and gourmet-food eating—elk medallions and chocolate bread-pudding cake—on your days off. The ranch's 40 miles of skate- and classic-groomed trails skirt a subdivision now and then, but guides and instructors can lead you up and down the nearby wilderness slopes of the spectacular Spanish Peaks or into Yellowstone, where, if you're lucky, you'll cap off your few-frills Montana ski adventure by spotting a moose. Just be sure your dog is up to the challenge.

Outside correspondent Florence Williams lives in Helena. She profiled Eustace Conway in September.