Your guide to epic resorts, gnarly lines, sweet watering holes and a stylish season on the slopes
By Myers Reece
There are 470 ski areas in the United States, down from more than 600 in the 1980s, due to consolidations and closings. Montana stakes claim to 15 of those 470, three of which are nestled in the state’s northwestern corner: Whitefish Mountain Resort, the smaller Blacktail Mountain and the even smaller Turner Mountain. Extending eastward, the state’s two other ski areas along the 48-degree latitude line are Choteau’s Teton Pass Resort and Havre’s Bear Paw Ski Bowl. The rest are scattered among the typically higher-elevation mountain ranges farther south, from Lookout on the Idaho border to Red Lodge in the Beartooth Mountains east of Yellowstone National Park.
Flathead Valley residents and visitors, however, needn’t limit their ski adventures to within state borders, nor do they need to dip below the 48-degree latitude line to find new snow. A hundred miles west of Turner is Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain, while 100 miles north of Whitefish lies British Columbia’s Fernie Alpine Resort. If you want to change up your winter routine, you can get out of the state for a day on the slopes and be back in the Flathead in time for dinner.
Every resort in the Rockies has something unique to offer; it just depends what you’re looking for that particular day. If you’re looking for something in the greater Flathead area, here’s a quick-hitter guide to the resorts’ histories and vital statistics, along with some local insight on favorite runs and post-skiing hangouts. And if you’re looking for something just outside of the Flathead, we’ve put together the same information for Fernie and Schweitzer, as a little encouragement to think outside the box and see what Montana’s neighbors have to offer.
In the 1930s, a small tribe of skiers began meeting north of Whitefish to explore the tracts of deep powder that blanketed a mountain they called “The Big Mountain.” If the snow had been touched at all by skis at that point, it was only by their skis. The group would become known as the Hellroaring Ski Club, led by president Lloyd Muldown, a local high school teacher.
As the Hellroaring Ski Club’s membership and community profile grew, a ski culture began forming in the area beyond those initial hardcore pioneers. A seminal moment occurred in 1939 when the Montana High School Ski Association championships were held on the mountain, attracting 86 boys from 10 schools. The idea of building an official resort was gaining traction, led by the ski club’s enthusiastic members and leaders.
All of this helped lay the groundwork for the founding of Winter Sports Inc. in 1947 by two Great Falls businessmen, George Prentice and Ed Schenck. With $20,000 from the co-founders and $40,000 from the community via the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, Big Mountain Ski Resort was born, with a gas-powered T-bar towing skiers up the mountain.
Schenck would stay on as president of Winter Sports Inc. until 1980, overseeing the pivotal installation of Chair One in 1960 and decades of growth at the resort. Today, Whitefish Mountain Resort – its name since 2007 – is a nationally recognized ski destination that tallies over 300,000 skier visits annually, attracting a loyal local following as well as a steady stream of out-of-state and Canadian visitors.
Serving as both a recreational and cultural cornerstone of the Flathead Valley, the resort has taken the aspirations of those earliest 1930s ski pioneers to heights they never envisioned. But if a mountain needs a solid base layer of snow, a vision also needs a good foundation, and the Hellroaring Ski Club laid a foundation that has held strong for six decades and counting.
The Bierstube Whitefish, MT
Situated in the resort’s upper village, the Bierstube – or the ‘Stube, in the local parlance – has the essential ingredients of a perfect after-skiing hangout: location, satiation and reputation.
Boasting a wide on-tap beer selection and a full liquor bar, the ‘Stube has all of your beverage needs covered. If you need something to soak up those beverages, the hearty bar fare is down to earth but solid. And if you’re there on a weekend, chances are that a good local band will be rocking the house, so be prepared to trade in your ski boots for your dancing shoes.
Open since 1998, Blacktail is one of the newest ski areas in Montana. It came to fruition after a team of business partners recognized the mountain’s potential for a ski area in the mid-1990s and then stayed committed to tapping that potential despite a number of hurdles. For one, ski resorts were closing at a steady clip across the country, not opening. For another, no ski area in the United States had been permitted on U.S. Forest Service land in the last two decades.
So when Steve Spencer, a former Whitefish Mountain Resort manager, and his partners embarked on the lengthy federal permitting process, the odds were decidedly against them. But environmental studies determined that the project met federal criteria regarding water quality and wildlife impact. The permit was issued in 1997 and construction crews quickly went to work.
By December of the following year, Blacktail Mountain Ski Area was open to the public, touting itself as an affordable ski hill with an impressive view overlooking nearby Flathead Lake. It immediately distinguished itself with a unique top-to-bottom arrangement: the lodge is located above the runs, meaning skiers and snowboarders start down the mountain before ever getting on a chairlift.
Over the last 16 years, Blacktail has grown in popularity, evolving from a locals’ mountain to a destination resort, with more Canadians and out-of-state skiers joining the loyal locals on the slopes. It has broken records in recent years for skier visits.
But the mountain, in spirit and scope, remains somewhat of a mom-and-pop operation. Spencer still manages the mountain, and while it’s larger than ski areas such as Turner it’s considerably smaller than the state’s biggest destination resorts. It’s found a happy medium, burnishing a family-friendly reputation with numerous runs considered beginner or novice and through its highly regarded ski school, while remaining attractive to skiers of all abilities from all over the map.
Tamarack Brewing Co. Lakeside, MT
Located down the road from Blacktail, Tamarack Brewing Company is among the Flathead Valley’s most consistently popular dining destinations, catering to summer lake crowds and winter ski crowds, as well as thirsty and hungry locals at all times of the year.
Tamarack features a lineup of its own beers made in house, along with an expansive selection of other Montana beers, plus a full liquor bar. The food menu has a bit of everything: burgers, salmon, fish and chips, ribeyes, bruschetta, burritos, egg rolls, pizzas. Stop by and you’ll understand why people keep coming back, season after season, year after year.
Turner Mountain Ski Area fits the landscape of Lincoln County, both geographically and culturally. Tucked away in densely timbered mountains between Libby and Yaak, Turner doesn’t demand attention. Lift lines are unheard of, with locals representing the majority of boarders and skiers, though the famous powder beckons a smattering of people from all over the map. In fact, Ski Magazine once said the mountain “might offer the best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.”
Yet, even with this reputation, on any given day you’ll likely be able to find your own little slice of untrammeled powder.
“The big thing is there aren’t any crowds,” says director Bruce Zwang. “We don’t have lift lines, and most days you can park within a couple hundred feet of the lift. It’s a real small-town feel. I think that’s our biggest selling point.”
Turner opened in 1961. It operated with a single T-bar for 40 years until 2001, when the double chairlift in use today was constructed. Though a great deal of its skiable acreage is considered advanced or expert, Zwang says the mountain is a great destination for all abilities: “It really has something for everybody.”
As a small operation, Turner is almost entirely volunteer run, with a few lift operators representing the bulk of employees. It’s only open Friday through Sunday, but is available for groups or ski clubs to rent it out for the day Monday through Thursday. “They get a private hill all to themselves,” Zwang says.
Turner has a base lodge with a full-service snack bar, but for the most part you won’t find a lot of frills on the mountain. Instead, you’ll just find superb secluded skiing without long lines, and that might be better than any frill.
Red Dog Saloon and Pizza Libby, MT
Lisa and Bruce Mohr are celebrating their 30th year owning the Red Dog Saloon and Pizza, which is the only business located between Libby and Turner Mountain. It’s the kind of throw-your-peanut-shells-on-floor joint with yummy food and cold beer that any skier can appreciate after a long day on the hill.
The Red Dog has a full liquor license to go along with a full menu that includes steaks, burgers, chicken, sandwiches and appetizers. But it’s most famous for its pizza, which Lisa Mohr says is made with a “hand-rolled whole wheat blended crust.”
One might be tempted to use climatology and geography to explain Fernie’s remarkable 35 feet of snowfall each year. But that would be science. A much more satisfying explanation is that a 300-pound man born in a grizzly bear den shot an eight-foot musket into the sky in the late 19th century, causing powder to forever rain down on Fernie’s slopes.
According to legend, the baby born in the grizzly bear den in 1879 was named “The Griz.” One day, when The Griz had become an adult, local skiers saw him dressed in a grizzly coat, presumably made from the bear he had slain, shooting his giant musket into the sky. Delighted by the falling powder, locals would honor The Griz from thereon out, to this day holding an annual carnival in his name.
To take advantage of The Griz’s annual snow offerings, a ski club formed in the 1950s. Then on Jan. 10, 1962, Fernie Snow Valley Ski Resort opened with a rope tow and T-bar. Over five decades later, and many expansions later, the resort – now called Fernie Alpine Resort – has 10 chairlifts and 142 trails. It’s owned by Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, which also owns five other resorts in Canada, making it the largest private ski resort operator in North America.
And The Griz is still working his magic: annual snowfall is 444 inches per year. All of that powder fills in five distinct bowls, giving Fernie more bowls than any ski area in North America. Furthermore, resort officials say that moderate temperatures keep the snow conditions soft. Combine those conditions with the diverse selection of both groomer and tree skiing, on top of the fun-loving and friendly locals, and it’s no wonder Fernie has been recognized by publications across the world as a top ski destination.
Matt Mosteller, senior vice president of marketing for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, sums up Fernie as “just plain and simply a magical and inspiring experience – from the passion of the people to the incredible natural beauty to the deep fresh powder.”
The Griz Bar Fernie, BC
Griz Bar has been Fernie’s top spot for post-skiing food and beverages since the resort opened. Or, to quote the local slogan, it’s been “keeping rippers ripped since 1962.”
Voted regularly by Ski Canada Magazine as one of the best places in Canada for après ski entertainment, Griz Bar features drinks like the “Mogul Smoker” and dinner specialties like its prime rib burger. It’s the only on-hill venue with pool and foosball tables, and it has live music every weekend, with the parties stretching deep into the night.
Schweitzer Mountain celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, though skiers were navigating its slopes decades before it became an official ski area, as far back as the early 1930s. The movement to build a ski area began in the early 1960s, spearheaded by a Spokane doctor named Jack Fowler. Fowler was tired of traveling all the way to Whitefish for a day on the hill, so, after spotting Schweitzer’s bowl of snow during a road trip rest stop, he made it his mission to bring quality skiing closer to home.
Fowler initiated a community effort that would lead to the opening of Schweitzer Mountain on Dec. 4, 1963. A 1963 story from the Spokesman-Review quoted Sandpoint Mayor Floyd L. Gray describing the “three-year struggle to finance and build the ski facility.”
“More than 600 residents of our area have invested in the project,” Gray said in the 1963 article. “That’s an awfully high proportion for a town of our size.”
The small ski area initially had just one chairlift and a rope tow, but a businessman named Jim Brown Jr. took Fowler’s vision considerably farther and helped transform Schweitzer Mountain from a local ski hill to a nationally recognized resort. Harbor Resorts, beginning in 1998, and then subsequently McCaw Investment Group, have continued to build on Fowler’s dream.
Today, Schweitzer is the largest ski resort in Idaho and Washington, growing from Fowler’s initial purchase of 160 acres to nearly 3,000 skiable acres.
“Most people don’t know it, but it’s almost twice as big as Sun Valley,” said Sean Mirus, marketing director for Schweitzer.
With two bowls and nearly 100 trails, Mirus says Schweitzer has an array of options for skiers of all levels, particularly intermediate and advanced, and there’s a “general lack of crowds.” And though it has great groomer skiing, Schweitzer is especially known for its tree skiing, with more than 1,200 acres.
Through all the change and growth, Fowler hasn’t been forgotten. In 2002, Schweitzer celebrated his 80th birthday by dedicating a new run to him: “Jack’s Dream.”
Pucci’s Pub Sandpoint, ID
Pucci’s invites you to come in and “celebrate powder turns with 16 oz. curls.” Located in Schweitzer Mountain’s village, this pub is a favorite with the locals and is packed with thirsty skiers on any given winter day.
It has a wide selection of microbrews on draft, to complement a menu that specializes in hearty pub food and excellent tapas, with an emphasis on local and organic ingredients. Stop by for lunch or dinner, or maybe just a few 16-ounce curls.