Back to the Basics

The ultimate two-day ski road-trip. 

It’s tempting to wax nostalgic about the old days of Montana skiing, of tow-ropes and creaky double-chairs, of wide-open roads leading to unknown powder stashes, of small-town saloons where Carhartt-clad skiers swapped stories with cowboys and nobody called it “après” anything, it was just beers at the bar. Well here’s a secret: those idyllic days can still be had, in just a few hours’ drive from the hustle and bustle of Boz Angeles. So load up the skis, top off the tank, and make tracks for Maverick Mountain and the Big Hole Valley. And for those of you who just can’t slow down, here’s a reassuring tip: there’s more to do than just drink and ski.

Day One
Jump on I-90 west, roll up and over Homestake and into Butte, then head south on I-15. Exit at Hwy. 43 and follow the beautiful Big Hole River west by northwest, eyeballing the idyllic trout water and plotting a trip back next summer. Ignore the occasional ostentatious trophy-cabin and revel in the beauty of this quiet canyon. If you didn’t fill your belly at home, stop at the Wise River Club for breakfast and another jolt of java before continuing on into the Big Hole Valley. 

As the road bends to the southwest and the valley opens up before you, slow down and match your pace to the surrounding environs. The Big Hole is Old Montana, lost to time, a place impervious to the march of progress. Sweeping views pull your eyes across sage-flecked fields, over old tractors and beaverslides, toward the mighty Bitterroot Range far to the west. This is big-ranch country, with little in between; if you need gas or a bathroom break, one-horse Wisdom is your last stop.

Due south now, the Bitterroots flanking your right side, the fertile valley gives way to arid foothills and the forested Pioneer Mountains to the left. As the road bends back east, watch for the turnoff to Maverick Mountain. Follow the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway north, and in short order you’ll be parking the car and buckling your ski boots. Maverick’s a fun little hill, with a lone double-chair crawling 1,650 vertical feet up its cone-shaped front. Bomb the main trail a few times before exploring the hill’s 23 other runs and innumerable pockets in between. Fuel up at the lodge for lunch, then stretch your weary quads and seek out a few of Maverick’s famous jumps—including one off the side of the patrol cabin. That’s right, no uptight risk manager here to put the kibosh on the mountain’s aerial opportunities.

Nothing tops off a day of skiing like a warm soak, and just up the canyon awaits Elkhorn Hot Springs, with its rustic rooms and cabins, hearty prime-rib dinners, and inviting hot pools. Sip a red wine at the restaurant, then pack a PBR to quaff poolside before shuffling back to your bunk for a quiet night in this remote mountain retreat.

Day Two
Wake up to the smell of snow-covered pine, gorge on Elkhorn’s complimentary breakfast buffet, then strap on cross-country skis for a brisk morning tour of the surrounding forest. Classic, metal-edged skis are best, as these trails are excellent but ungroomed. Glide back in time for checkout, load up the rig, and roll southeast to I-15, where a short hop north lands you in Dillon for the afternoon. 

The mandatory stop, of course, is the Patagonia Outlet—the deals can be substantial, albeit inconsistent. If you’re lucky, you’ll snag some great apparel and sport it—tag-free, ideally—on your way to a late lunch at the Lion’s Den, where a juicy burger will replace any calories lost that morning.

Hit the road before dark to enjoy expansive views on the ride home—which is the back way, on Hwy. 41 to Twin Bridges. If they’re open, stop by the R.L. Winston Rod Co. for a quick tour—they make some of the best fly rods in the business. Continue north on 41 through the vast and primarily empty Jefferson Valley—and be sure to watch for deer. At the fork past Silver Star, veer right onto Hwy. 55 into Whitehall. Hang a right on Hwy. 2 and continue along the Jefferson, past Cardwell and into the parking lot of LaHood Park Steakhouse. This classic Montana bar and restaurant serves up fat steaks and friendly banter, all a stone’s-throw from the river. Feel free to skip the après-feast coffee; your home—and the end of another great Montana road-trip—is only an hour away.