Road Trip – Montana
February 17, 2021
Did Someone say ROAD TRIP?!
Most normal skiers think about skiing perhaps three months of the year. We at conSKIerge aren’t normal. We have been known in the heat of August not only to dream of skiing daily but plan the next road trip while drinking our gin and tonics. At least once a year we abandon our creature comforts of home, throw the bare necessities in the truck and head off. Packing is made easy when you follow my father’s mantra of “skis, boots, poles, wallet – you can buy the rest.” But don’t worry, we also let our dog, Rumble, hop in with us.
So it was with the clarity provided most likely by two gin and tonics that the Montana road trip came into focus, and the pieces of the puzzle that had eluded us fell into place. We could start in western Montana and criss cross the state headed east and hit an intriguing mix of lesser known resorts. Our ideal road trip combines visits to “smaller” unknown areas; one cup of coffee length drives in between; and hopefully an element of who the hell knows what we will find. This trip hitting Lost Trail, Montana Snowbowl, Discovery and Bridger seemed to check all these boxes.
Fast forward to a gray foggy morning at the Missoula airport where I picked up Charlotte, and we headed 2 hours south to Lost Trail Powder Mountain. How can you not ski a place called Lost Trail Powder Mountain!? There are many logical reason not to: it is in the middle of nowhere; nobody has ever heard of it; and perhaps most importantly, it is only open Thursday through Sunday so half of the week you couldn’t ski it if you tried. It was for all the potential reasons listed above not to ski it that we were there first thing on a Thursday morning. The base sits in Montana, but the resort itself straddles the Idaho/Montana state line. (How many Thursdays can you start your day in Idaho and end up in Montana?)
With an 1,800 ft. vertical drop and an average snowfall of 325 inches, Lost Trail did not disappoint. I was a little worried I had fallen in love with the name (how can you not love it – “Lost Trail” sounds mysterious and “Powder Mountain”… well you get the point) and the actual skiing would fall short. We spent two days fighting the ten other people there for the untracked snow that had accumulated earlier in the week. While we cannot say we found anything super steep, who cares!? We had a blast bombing around forgetting there was any other place in the world other than the Idaho/Montana border nestled in new snow. And if you want to find out how incredibly nice the folks are who own this place make sure your truck breaks down in their parking lot like ours did.
Accommodations around Lost Trail are VERY basic but perfectly comfortable and, except for a couple yurts, are not at the mountain. We stayed in a cabin and ate most meals at Sula Camp which was perfectly adequate. What it lacked in ambiance was made up for by the great people who own it.
Montana Snowbowl, the local ski “hill” for Missoula is twenty minutes above the city. After leaving Lost Trail we drove up to the Snowbowl on its dirt access road in the pouring rain. Being used to NE conditions, this didn’t totally alarm us, and we were on a mission to find somewhere to watch the Super Bowl. We quickly realized that the base operations hadn’t been updated since the hill originally opened, so back down to Missoula we went only to watch the Patriots (Please don’t hold it against us, but roots are in Boston so…) lose to the Eagles.
Thankfully for us, the rain turned to 6-8 inches of snow overnight and we enjoyed an incredible ski day where we were once again seemingly the only skiers on the mountain. The Montana Snowbowl is a true step back in time, but with 2,200 acres of skiable terrain and a vertical drop of 2,600 ft. this is one hell of a local ski hill. Again, we didn’t find super steep pitches, but it has a great variety of very accessible terrain including some impressive tree runs. We spent most of the day on the summit chair since that was where the snow was best, but we had a couple memorable runs through trees on sustained pitches down to the base. It is worth exploring for at least one day. Their slogan of “The Whole Point of Winter” felt SO true.
Do you remember that we like the uncertainty of what we may find on a road trip? We had zero expectations for Discovery Ski Area, but in many ways it was the highlight of our trip. Disco, as the locals refer to it, is that one cup of coffee 1.5 hour drive from Missoula, so we ventured east to get there after our day at the Snowbowl. And while these trips are mostly about the skiing, we love finding an unexpected ski town like Philipsburg, MT. Close your eyes and think what Jackson must have been like 30 years ago before New Yorkers discovered it. Then open your eyes and drive to Philipsburg. We stayed at the Broadway Hotel; drank at the Philipsburg Brewing Company; and satisfied our sweet tooth at The Sweet Palace, all of which we would highly recommend.
Disco is seemingly in the middle of nowhere but has a pretty serious local following. We now know why. Our search for steepness was over since the backside of Discovery has sustained 35 degree plus pitches that roll through sparse trees. Their website does not speak in hyperbole when it states “This north-facing area is true double black with treed slopes, narrow chutes and virtual free-falls that give way to fields of powder.” And we just couldn’t get enough of it. Again there were no crowds and we hit it on a day with 8 inches of new snow. The place has a great feel to it with a front side and back side making it ski like two separate mountains. Oh, did we mention it has a vertical of 2,400 ft.!? It only gets a little over 200 inches a year, so check conditions carefully before you go… but go, damn it!
The drive from Disco to Bozeman, which would be our base for our exploration of Bridger Bowl, almost breaks the one cup of coffee rule at 2.5 hours. But for better or worse, most of it is on Interstate 90 so it’s an easy drive. We chose to stay outside the city at the Gallatin River Lodge and were really happy with that choice – extremely comfortable and high quality food. (We noticed they are not open this winter – not sure if that is Covid related or not.) It is best known as a high end fishing lodge but worked very well as a winter hideout.
Unlike Lost Trail, Montana Snowbowl and Discovery, we had heard a lot about Bridger, and our fear was that it wouldn’t meet our expectations. Ha! Like the other areas on this trip, the vertical drop is impressive at 2,600 ft. Bridger is set up along a long ridge and the steeps, bowls and chutes seem endless as you hop from chairlift to chairlift along the ridge. Our first day there we met up with a long lost college friend of mine who is a true local – ex-president of the non profit (Bridger Bowl Association) group that operates the area. Once again we were blessed with new snow, and with his expert guidance we had probably our best day of the trip – steep and deep (sorry, overused phrase, but it was).
The whole area has a backcountry feel to it. In fact, you can only use the one chair that reaches all the way to the top of the ridge if you have a complete set of avalanche gear. Speaking of lifts not going to the top of the ridge, we spent a good portion of our second day climbing above the tops of the other lifts to find, you guessed it, more steeps, bowls and chutes! If you doubt us, check out the Ridge Terrain Guide on the area’s website Bridger Bowl Ridge Guide.
Yes folks, we got a bit lucky. We had new snow all week – nothing incredibly deep but enough to motivate us to get first chairs. But that is one of the advantages of road trips. We didn’t pull the trigger on this trip until we knew the snow was going to be good. Our advice: think about hitting the road and giving Montana a serious look!