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Steep, Deep and Cheap

Story and photos by Lee Juillerat   February 1, 2011

  Skiing at Snowbowl, Montana  
Zipping along at Snowbowl

Days on snow-covered slopes, evenings soaking in hot tubs, sometimes before or after dinners that were not only hearty for the most ravenous appetite but equally deliciously prepared. This was no ordinary vacation.  

Montana is no ordinary state. Mention Montana to skiers and snowboarders and the places that immediately come to mind include Big Sky near Bozeman and Whitefish Mountain, the former Big Mountain, near Kalispell. Fantastic places. But, as I learned, several smaller ski areas that mostly attract locals and people who prefer to avoid lift-lines offer a more laid-back atmosphere and all varieties of terrain at bargain prices. As the locals like to brag, Western Montana harbors a hidden stash of areas that are steep, deep and cheap.  

Missoula, the state's second largest city and home of the University of Montana, offers easy access to several of the unusual suspects. The closest is Snowbowl, an easy 20-minute drive from downtown. Three are within 100 miles - west to Lookout Pass, south to Lost Trail Powder Mountain and north to Blacktail Mountain.

They're all fun, rambunctiously funky and reasonably priced – less than $40 for a full-day adult pass. Each has its own personality. All are near commercial hot springs, where kickback post-soaks helped me and a group of new friends ease our burning thighs to be ready for another day of skiing.

  Snowbowl, MT  
Beautiful views at Snowbowl
  Snowbowl has only two chairlifts and a T-bar but the amount and variety of terrain ranges from gentle beginner runs and deceptively fast groomers to elevator shaft steep black diamonds on its skiable 950 acres. It feels and skis a lot bigger.  
  Snowbowl skiing, Montana  
Finding the way to base village
  From the summit of 7,560-foot Big Sky Mountain, it's 2,600 vertical feet back to the base village with lots of choices. We cruised along corduroy intermediate runs, some with golly-wow views. We also picked our way down black diamond plunges dimpled only by others who'd taken advantage of the previous night's fresh powder. We followed routes flanking both sides of the mountain back to the village and Last Run Inn. The longest ski was down Paradise, a three-mile scoot that mostly curled along challenging cruisers. At one junction, I surprised myself, opting for the more direct route down the black diamond Spartan Headwall.  
  Chuggin' 'em down at Snowbowl;s Last Run Inn  
Chuggin' 'em down at the Last Run Inn

At lunch we devoured reasonably priced but incredibly tasty handmade pizzas and microbrews at the Last Run Inn, a place with as much personality as its delightfully odd-bodkins blend of diners and drinkers.

Back in Missoula, using the Hilton Garden Inn as an overnight base, I took advantage of the heated indoor swimming pool and whirlpools, piled down all-you-can breakfasts at the inn's Great American Grill and satiated myself during a wine-dinner pairing at the Blue Canyon restaurant, joining a magical dining tour that included yellow fin tuna crudo, toasted coriander sea scallops, roasted duck, bison strip lion, three chocolates and glasses of Sauvignon blanc, Riesling, Malbec, Zinfandel and Cabernet sauvignon.

We learned the method to planning the perfect ski tour. Because the areas in Western Montana are smaller than the mega-resorts, some are open only four or five days a week. The idea is to hit them on their first mid-week opening day, especially after snowstorms, for fresh powder.

  Steep and deep snow at Blacktail   Taking a powder at Blacktail  
Steep and deep at Blacktail   courtesy Blacktail
Taking a powder   courtesy Blacktail
  That’s why we rolled into Blacktail Mountain, which is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, on a Wednesday morning. With little midweek competition, we found fresh tracks on runs sprinkled with four inches of untouched powder and saved our legs on baby-butt smooth groomers. Located above the Flathead Lake community of Lakeside, Blacktail's well-designed trail system offers eye-popping views of the lake and surrounding mountain ranges - the Mission, Swan, Whitefish, Purcell and Cabinets - and Glacier National Park. Blacktail is an unusual area as it is skied top-down. The lodge is at an elevation of 6,675-feet, with runs dropping nearly 1,500 vertical feet. The area includes 70 acres of gladed tree skiing, a terrain park and a challenging mix of runs.  
Deep snow at Snowbowl, Oregon
That’s deep!                     courtesy Blacktail

At lunch we sampled locally produced Tamarack Brewing Co. beer, actually, several varieties, which might explain why the afternoon ski session went so quickly.

Instead of retreating to Missoula, we overnighted along the Clark Fork River at Quinn's Hot Springs Resort between Paradise and St. Regis. At Quinn's Harwood House Restaurant we feasted on a gourmet meal and emptied bottles of imported wines before soaking in the series of side-by-side hot to hotter to hot-enough-to-boil-lobsters hot springs pools. The accommodations were terrific, but the steamy pools were so soothing and sleep-inducing that next time I’ll consider curling up in a sleeping bag on a poolside chaise lounge.

  Skiing the line at Lookout on the Montana/Idaho border   Snowboarder at Lookout Mt.  
Skiing the line courtesy Lookout
Boarder on the edge at Lookout Pass    courtesy Lookout
  From Quinn’s it was a short Thursday morning drive to Lookout Pass. Located off Interstate 90 at the Montana-Idaho state line, Lookout attracts skiers and riders from Missoula to Spokane, Washington, and everywhere in between. It's closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays and that Thursday morning the powder was plentiful - 23 inches had fallen in the previous 48 hours. Even with a late start we plunged through untouched sections of waist-deep powder. On one, a local skier showing me the mountain stalled to a stop in a wind-blown section of 4-feet deep fluff. To rest our burning thighs, we alternated between “freshies” and sweetly groomed runs locally called "ripping 'roys.”  
  Skier in powder snow   Leaping snowboarder  
Floating the powder courtesy Lookout
Overhead boarding courtesy Lookout

With three double chairs accessing a range of terrain on the Montana and Idaho sides of its 5,650-foot elevation peak, a mix of all-ability runs, glades and two terrain parks on its 540 skiable acres, there was no need to ski the same run more than once.

Our day was crazy, but Lookout Pass proudly touts itself a family-friendly area. A free Ski School for Children has been offered since 1935 along with Saturday bus service from western Montana, Idaho and Washington.

Another night we bunked at the cozy Deer Crossing Bed & Breakfast in the Bitterroot Valley outside of Hamilton, less than an hour's drive from Lost Trail Powder Mountain, another high elevation pass where Montana and Idaho converge.

  GIRL AT SKI RENTAL SHOP   Lone skier at Lookout Pass  
A little lady gets some help
Choosing his own route
  Lost Trail has a decidedly dual personality. With its adjacent peaks, skiing at Lost Trail is a tale of two areas. From the lodge, we worked our way east and rode to the 8,200-foot Saddle Mountain lift, where we variously flew down treeless choose-your-own route hillsides, buzzed along groomed runs or sliced through tree-canopied glades. The 7,800-foot peak accessed from the lodge offers a mix of beginner and intermediate runs and, more impressively, steep adrenalin accelerators like North and South Face.  
  Skier gliding at Lookout Pass  
Just kick and glide

Before retreating for one last night in Missoula, on the drive back from Lost Trail we detoured to Lolo Hot Springs for a frolicking feast at the Boulder Room Restaurant. Earlier that evening, soaking in the steamy indoor Lolo Hot Springs pool after some quick laps in the outdoor pool, it occurred to me that while touring Western Montana’s smaller but vigorously challenging and happily low-priced ski areas, the only time I got soaked was in a hot springs.

When You Go

Glacier Country, the westernmost region of Montana, spans 22,000 square miles in eight counties with eight wilderness areas and rivers, lakes and reservoirs ideal for fishing, boating and swimming. In winter, several areas offer downhill skiing while there’s copious space for cross country skiing, snowmobiling and other snow season diversions. Missoula, the usual home base, is about 535 miles east of Seattle, an easy connection by air or interstate freeways.

For more about information about the various Western Montana ski-snowboard area check out the following web sites: Snowbowl at; Blacktail Mountain at; Lookout Pass at; and Lost Trail Powder Mountain at

For information about other areas mentioned visit: Quinn’s Hot Springs Resort at; Hilton Garden Inn at; Deer Crossing Bed & Breakfast at; or for general information the Missoula Convention & Visitors Bureau at; and Glacier Country at

About the Author

Lee Juillerat works for a southern Oregon daily newspaper and is a frequent contributor to a variety of magazines, including Northwest Travel, Range and Horizon Airlines in-flight. He can be contacted at


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