Winter Guide: The White Stuff

By Beacon Staff

Northwest Montana offers skiing in its truest and most joyous form. If you want glitzy lodges, high-priced boutiques and the pretension of massive, crowded destinations common at better-known Western resorts, look elsewhere; you will not find such distractions here. Instead, this region is home to several smaller, family-owned and family-friendly ski areas. Prices are reasonable, from lift tickets to a bowl of chili in the cafeteria. No one cares if you’re hucking cliffs or just learning to link parallel turns – as long as you’re having fun.

And then there’s the snow: It falls long, hard and in abundance. Whitefish Mountain Resort recorded 426 inches of it last year, making for a ski season many in the Flathead consider to be among the best in the last 50 years. While it’s impossible to predict a winter of that magnitude for the 2008-09 season, with 300 inches of average snowfall, 2,353 feet of vertical drop over roughly 3,000 acres of skiing, even on an average year the skiing in Whitefish is pretty darn impressive.

Surrounded by the jagged peaks of Glacier National Park, the view from Whitefish Resort’s summit lodge on a clear day is unsurpassed. If anything can top that view, it’s the sight of Flathead Lake reflecting late afternoon sun, flanked by the Swan Range and stretching out across the Flathead Valley, visible as you descend the mountain toward a celebratory beer and nacho platter at the bottom of the hill.

While Whitefish Mountain Resort is the largest ski area in this region, its prices are still reasonable considering its size. An adult day pass runs $56-$61 depending on how many days you purchase, but a number of cheaper options are available, like night skiing for $16, and a beginner pass for $18. The resort also offers a “Never Skied Before” package, which includes a lift ticket, full-day lesson and lunch for $90. To get more information call 406-862-2900.

Dusk paints a blue hue around a cross-country skier on the Whitefish Golf Course ski trails.

If you prefer skiing or snowboarding a full top-to-bottom run before riding the chairlift, consider heading up to Blacktail Mountain in Lakeside, where the road climbs up to the parking lot and lodge located just below the peak’s summit. Blacktail’s 1,440 feet of vertical drop and 24 trails over 1,000 acres of terrain offer a little bit of everything: glades, bumps and steep pitches for the advanced, along with an abundance of groomed beginner and intermediate terrain. A terrain park stuffed with pyramid jumps, rails, table tops and other features beckons the aerially inclined, and the 250 inches of snow Blacktail receives, on average, provides ample cushion for soft landings.

Rates are reasonable at Blacktail, with an adult day pass running $36 per day. Discounts are available for kids, seniors, groups and students. Rentals are also within reason, with adult ski and snowboard packages available for $22, and kids’ packages for $16. For more information call 406-844-0999.

Or maybe you’re looking to have it both ways: the rustic, small resort with inexpensive rates and access to waist-deep virgin powder skiing and riding. Climb in the car and head to Turner Mountain near Libby, which touts itself as “steep, deep and cheap.” Turner is only open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and the week between Christmas and New Years. But that means for the weekend warriors who can’t capitalize on a mid-week snowstorm, there’s still fresh powder runs at Turner Mountain when it opens the following weekend.

With 70 percent of its 20 runs classified as “expert,” Turner is a mountain for serious skiers and riders. But Turner’s rates are definitely cheap: An adult lift ticket costs $30, and rental packages are reasonable as well. Lodging is available in Libby, some 22 miles away. For more information, call 406-293-2468.

If you’re really serious about avoiding the crowds and finding the big powder stashes, Valhalla Adventures is northwest Montana’s only cat accessed backcountry service. Valhalla has a permit for 35 square miles of terrain along Stryker Ridge in the Stillwater State Forest. With a 30-foot heated yurt shelter, Valhalla offers guided multi-day trips, “dinner cruises,” backcountry skiing instructional courses and avalanche safety seminars – a safer way to learn winter backcountry travel the right way.

Or maybe you’re more interested in the rolling terrain of cross country skiing. If so, there’s no shortage of opportunities to get your blood pumping. The Glacier Nordic Center in Whitefish has daily lessons in traditional cross country and skate skiing technique. It also offers group lessons, or women’s only clinics, and the varying terrain is ideal for both beginners and competitive racers. Call the Outback Ski Shack (406-862-9498) for more info.

And when you’ve got your free-heel technique dialed in, head east to the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, where groomed trails and backcountry access to Glacier National Park and the Great Bear Wilderness abound. The Inn offers guided ski tours in Glacier Park for all abilities. Stay in one of the inn’s converted rail cars, and enjoy an after dinner night ski on the lit Starlight Trail. The Inn also has a full restaurant and bar, and Amtrak stops here. Call 406-888-5700 for more info.

If you’ve hit all of the aforementioned slopes and trails and you’re still looking for more, then your appetite for skiing is insatiable. Consider leaving the U.S. behind and head north into British Columbia for more, but in that case you’ll have to pick up another skiing guide. We’re shameless promoters of our home valley here.