An Expert Guide to Ski & Snowboard Resorts in Montana
If you're planning a ski trip to Montana, you'll have no shortage of choices. Ski expert Matt Wood offers some local advice for picking the best resort.
Wide valleys, high peaks, and big skys. Coldsmoke powder, coldsmoke ale, and northwestern flows renowned for drowning out the hoots and hollers of those lucky enough to experience them with feet of cold, dry powder. Log cabins, Lodgepoles, and people who trade ski boots for cowboy boots at the end of the day. Big fires and bison on the grill.
Skiing in the last greatest place.
Montana should be on every skier’s bucket list. While a bit off the beaten path, a breath of fresh air awaits those intrepid enough to buy the ticket and take the ride. Immediately and palpably missing is any air of pretension that can be found in larger, more developed ski resorts in the western United States and Europe. Parking is free. The bar is priced sensibly. The place feels worn-in, like a set of leather boots that fit just right and bend with your foot. You can see it on the walls and floors of every Montana resort. The polished oak of the bar, where ski boots have worn indentations into the spots on the floor where skiers belly up for a beer, the same way they have since the resort was a logging camp.
Walk into the base area bar after a day on the slopes and you’ll notice a few things. The patrons all know each other by first names. The bartender has a goggle tan, a cowboy hat, and looks suspiciously like this morning’s liftie. Timeless. You could come through in 20 years and the place would be the same, just as it was in the 20 years before the present.
You realize that skiing in Montana is spiritual. It is not about recreating the glitz of St. Moritz or Courchevel, it is not about extracting every penny out of the tourist crowd, and it is not about t-shirt shops, crepe stands or any other current fad in any other ski destination. Skiing Montana is about keeping the traditions of good turns, low crowds and nice people alive and well, maintaining a living embodiment of western culture and community for all to enjoy.
Big Sky Resort - Best for the All-Terrain Skier
- Location: Big Sky, Montana
- Season: December to April
- Number of Runs: 300
- Number of Lifts: 38
- Summit Elevation: 11,167’
- Average Annual Snowfall: Over 400 in.
Big Sky is well known for having the biggest skiing in America. Rising thousands of feet above the Gallatin Valley, Lone Peak, upon which the majority of the Big Sky Resort is located, leaves a lasting impression on those who look at it, and captivates those that ski its terrain. The resort is almost unfathomably large, with a variety of terrain to keep every skier occupied, no matter their skill set. The 11,167-foot summit elevation and latitude of Big Sky ensures consistent snowfall and low temperatures in the winter season, meaning it is unlikely you’ll get skunked by a bad snow year. They also recently acquired the joining Moonlight Basin, meaning 5,800 skiable acres of the best ski resorts on Lone Mountain are both accessible on the same pass, while cutting lift lines in half!
Local’s Lap: For those with an advanced skill level, the Lone Peak tram is a must do. The 360-degree views and skiing off of Lone Peak are not for the faint of heart, but will keep the adventurous skier coming back for more again and again. The dictator chutes are classic, and reward skiers with thousands of feet of fabulous powder on their best days. Lower on the mountain, Swift Current holds a number of Big Sky's signature trails - wide open and fast groomers!
Local’s Tap: The Gallatin Valley area has a plethora of microbreweries, and one of Big Sky’s favorites is the local Beehive Basin Brewery. With a number of beers all brewed in house and killer food, this is a great place to grab a bite and a brew.
Local’s Nap: Big Sky has TONS of ski-accessible housing. Access runs and snow roads make it possible to ski back to many of the properties in Mountain Village, so Airbnb and VRBO will be your friends here. The Huntley Hotel is a good slopeside option right at the main base area - plus it has a killer hot tub and sauna.
Local’s Tip: Bring lots of clothes. Big Sky is notoriously cold, and with so much of the skiing being situated in the alpine, you're gonna want the insulation to keep you warm while you are lapping that spectacular Montana pow.
Bridger Bowl - Best for Hardcore Shredders
- Location: Bozeman, Montana
- Season: December to April
- Number of Runs: 75
- Number of Lifts: 11
- Summit Elevation: 8,800’
- Average Annual Snowfall: 300 in.
This local Bozeman hill is steeped in legend. A short drive from town, Bridger is known as an incubator for some of the greatest skiers of our generation. While skiing the legendary “Ridge” at Bridger, you will never be more than a stone's throw from lines pioneered by pioneering surnames such as Coombs, Jungst, Schmitt, and Gaffney. While the advent of modern skis and boots have made many of these lines accessible to mere mortals, the spirit of adventure, personal responsibility and "sending it" is alive and well. Where the complexity of the terrain at Bridger Bowl would make every mega-resort lawyer quake in their boots, the mountain culture has set a precedent of personal responsibility and patrol does a great job of keeping everything open on the mountain all season. This means that Bridger Bowl is best enjoyed with a locals perspective, and there is a culture of sharing! Ask most people on the lift for directions and advice, and you will get great information on how to get the most out of the hill. You might even make yourself a new guide friend for a lap or two, as most locals are proud to show off their community-owned mountain.
Local’s Lap: For the advanced skier, the Schlasman’s lift offers a plethora of terrain mix that doesn't require a hike. You will need an avalanche beacon to access the area, although the terrain is avalanche controlled. Ask a local to point you towards Pat’s Chute and enjoy one of the best inbounds couliars around!
Local’s Tap: The Grizzly Ridge is impossible to miss at the bottom of the ski area. It will be lively - there will be dogs and ski bums nursing their Montucky Cold Snacks around the fire. Stop in for a pint, join the “mug club,” and have a pile (and I do mean literal pile) of nachos from the bar. Kick back and enjoy one of the last and best examples of a true ski bar.
Local’s Nap: Downtown Bozeman is the place to be if you are skiing Bridger, and like most college towns, it is a fairly lively place. The Lark Hotel is a nice place, recently renovated, and always has a roaring fire in the front. It also has the double advantage of putting you right in the thick of things downtown, a stone’s throw from a distillery, brewery, and more pubs than one could reasonably explore in a night while having the expectation of skiing the next day. Bozeman is also situated about 1.5 hours from Yellowstone national park, which is a great springtime excursion aside from skiing!
Local’s Tip: Make sure to pack your avalanche beacon, as much of the most difficult terrain at Bridger requires one to access the goods. They are also available for rent in the base lodge. Also bring your legs and lungs, as much of the ridge is accessed via a 20 minute hike that can be quite strenuous.
Whitefish Mountain Resort - Best for the Powder Hound
- Location: Whitefish, Montana
- Season: December to April
- Number of Runs: 105
- Number of Lifts: 15
- Summit Elevation: 6,817’
- Average Annual Snowfall: 320 in.
Whitefish Mountain is a large resort in a small town. Formerly called Big Mountain, the resort has since re-named itself to reflect the name of the small town in which it exists. Whitefish is located less than an hour from Glacier National Park, less than an hour from the nearest major airport (Kalispell), and less than an hour from the gorgeous Flathead Lake. The resort snow reports average 300 inches of the best snow in Montana a year, so you know you’ll have a good shot at deep powder. Whitefish also features some awesome low-cost ticket options and weekly live music, making it a destination for the discerning skier.
Local’s Lap: No matter if your preference is groomers, steeps, trees or bumps the 360 degree skiing off the top of chair 1 will have what you need. For the groomer crusher, over the hill gang has some of the best rollers in the state, prime for laying over strong edges. For those who are more focused on the steep and deep, head over to hellroaring basin and enjoy the ride.
Local’s Tap: For the apres enthusiast, the Hellroaring Saloon and Eatery offers some of the best suds and sammies around, with atmosphere to spare.
Local’s Nap: There are tons of options when it comes to staying in Whitefish. I would suggest staying in town, and enjoying some of the cool western vibes Whitefish offers. For a chic, modern stay the Firebrand Hotel is new, clean, and hip. For a more classic lodge experience, the posh Lodge at Whitefish Lake offers amazing views, its own dock on the lake, lodge style dining and four star rooms.
Local’s Tip: Kalispell Creamery makes the best chocolate milk this author has ever had, and a bottle should never be passed by. And give the huckleberry ice cream a try - it is served in plenty of places around Montana and quite good.
Lost Trail Powder Mountain - Best for Off the Beaten Path
- Location: Sula, Montana
- Season: December to April
- Number of Runs: 60
- Number of Lifts: 8
- Summit Elevation: 8,200’
- Average Annual Snowfall: 325 in.
Located on the border of Montana and Idaho outside of the town of Hamilton, Lost Trail offers a uniquely Montana skiing experience. Complete with slow lifts, steep terrain, friendly locals, and lots of snow, what the resort lacks in on-hill amenities, it makes up for in character! Keep an eye in the sky while skiing here, as the locals are known to jump off the huge cliffs that dot the more extreme runs at Lost Trail.
Local’s Lap: The Saddle Mountain Chair is an institution at Lost Trail. The chair goes from the lowest point on the hill right up to the top, offering amazing views of the substantial terrain available from this chair. Lewis and Clark is awesome for the person who likes a fast groomer, but if extremes are more your speed, Hollywood Bowl will captivate you.
Local’s Tap: Lost Trail Hot Springs is a naturally occurring spring 6.6 miles down the road from the ski area. Join the locals for a post ski soak and enjoy an ice cold beer from the bar!
Local’s Tip: Lost Trail is not open all week. The resort operates Thursday through Sunday during the regular season. This may seem like a turn off, but comes with a surprising advantage. Locals call it “Powder Thursday” because when the lifts start spinning after the mid week hiatus, all the snow that has accumulated is yours for the taking. Enjoy!
No matter what your skill level, skiing in Montana is a nice change of pace from the typical mega resort ski vacation. What these resorts lack in 5 star hotels, they make up for with authentic feel, nice folks and amazing terrain. Choose one resort to do a deep dive on, or make a road trip and hit all these fantastic places in one big loop. No matter your approach, you're gonna love it. I guarantee it!