Less Is More

Rediscovering the simple splendor of skiing on small-town slopes.

Location, location, location—a common saying among both realtors and ski bums. And for the latter, a place like Bozeman is prime real estate, lending skiers easy access to two world-class ski resorts. But as the area grows, so do lift lines, traffic jams, and ski-pass prices. Sure, Bridger and Big Sky are great, but they’re not the only options in Montana. Within a six-hour drive are a handful of other ski hills, each imparting a different experience, each a hidden treasure welcoming worthy explorers. Taking a day or weekend trip to these places is a wonderful way to explore the true character of the state, meet some new people, and expand your skiing horizons. It’s also an opportunity—to go back in time, to places that still appreciate the simplicity of a good day on the slopes, minus all the distracting accoutrements. So this winter, when you’re ready to escape the crowds and costs to a place where culture is every bit as important as terrain, consider a road-trip to one of these smaller, less expensive, classic Montana ski hills. Relax and enjoy a more rustic experience, which re-orients the focus from the amenities surrounding skiing, back to the skiing itself—which, as far as we’re concerned, is where it belongs.

Editor’s note: the Rustic Scale is out of five, with five being the most rustic—lacking certain luxuries at the ski hill, the nearest town, or both.

Skiable Area: 2,200 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,388 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,158 feet
Annual Snowfall: 215 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 2 hours
Day-Pass Price: $70
Rustic Scale: **

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Situated between Philipsburg and Anaconda, on the southwestern side of the Flint Creek Range, Discovery is a great day-tripper from Bozeman. A straightforward two-hour drive west on I-90 to takes you through Butte and Anaconda, with scenic mountain views along the way. And the ski terrain ain’t bad, either. “Disco” provides a healthy variety of slopes, with eight lifts and 67 runs. Beginners and intermediates can spend the day on the front side, cruising rolling groomers with a variety of pitch—including some surprisingly steep screamers—while more advanced skiers explore Disco’s legendary backside, with everything from open slopes to tree skiing and steep chutes. Choose your own adventure. Most of the lifts take you to a high ridge, where you’ll enjoy awesome views of the Anaconda and Sapphire ranges, along with expansive valley vistas. Discovery, at its heart, is a local’s resort, and much of the lift hardware reflects this culture. Skiers can expect rickety two-seaters and “Caution: Watch Your Head” signs as lifts carry you up the mountain to your next run.

Once you’ve skied your heart out, you’ve got plenty of après options. If you want beer with your ski boots on, the Tap ’Er Lite Bar at the base area accommodates skiers fresh off the mountain, ready to exchange tales of yard sales and epics of the day. Keen on exploring the local area? Hop in the car and head to Philipsburg, where small-town charm is accompanied by a wider variety of food and drink spots. You’ll also find plenty of lodging, from traditional inns to private vacation rentals. If rooms are booked or restaurants are busy in Philipsburg, head into Anaconda or continue on to Fairmont Hot Springs, where you can soak your frozen bones, fill your empty belly, and rest your weary head, all in one place.

Maverick Mountain
Skiable Area: 350 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,020 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,520 feet
Annual Snowfall: 160 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 2.5 hours
Day-Pass Price: $45
Rustic Scale: ****

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In the warmer months, Dillon is a fly-fishing hub. But once the snow starts to fly, the bounty of the area doesn’t disappear. About 45 minutes outside of town, just off the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway in Polaris, lies Maverick Mountain. As you drive to the base, you’ll wind your way below the southern edge of the Pioneers. Tucked away in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Maverick is a true Montana classic, with uncrowded slopes, an old-school chairlift, and a relaxed vibe that’s long been forgotten at many other ski areas. It’s a decent drive from Bozeman, but the scenery makes it feel shorter. Maverick is only open to the public Thursdays through Sundays, so soft goods from the early part of the week often await. Or, if you can rally enough of your closest friends, you can book the mountain for a private, secluded day of skiing Monday through Wednesday. The ski hill itself is small, with only two lifts—a double chair and a short rope tow for the young ’uns—that serve 24 runs, and a vertical drop of just over 2,000 feet. However, whatever the place may lack in size, it makes up for in character. Enhanced by the ’70s-era shag carpet in the lodge, Maverick’s down-home vibe cultivates pleasant parking-lot gatherings, chairlift conversations, and a local crowd that truly loves skiing—often in Wranglers and cowboy hats.

Go back in time, to places that still appreciate the simplicity of a good day on the slopes, minus all the distracting accoutrements.

Once you’ve thoroughly explored the mountain’s offerings, head to the base area for a post-ski PBR in the quaint and cozy lodge. Or, drive back to Dillon for dinner and lodging. You’ll have plenty of choices there, from upscale hotel rooms to affordable inns, along with a fair selection of restaurants and bars. The Andrus Hotel is a Montana staple and will have you feeling right at home.


Red Lodge Mountain
Skiable Area: 1,635 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,400 feet
Summit Elevation: 9,416 feet
Annual Snowfall: 250 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 2.5 hours
Day-Pass Price: $79
Rustic Scale: *

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If you’re looking to spend a wintry day in the foothills of the Beartooths, look no further than Red Lodge Mountain. A two-and-a-half-hour tour though the prairies east of Bozeman presents visitors with sweeping views of the commanding mountains and close proximity to the charming town of Red Lodge. With 100 years of skiing history, Red Lodge has maintained its legacy as a town that loves to ski. Your lift ticket grants access to 2,400 feet of vertical drop, with 70 runs served by six different lifts. Whether you like ripping corduroy, slashing bumps, bombing chutes, or cascading through trees, there’s terrain for every inclination and ability. The Cole Creek Lift brings skiers to 9,390 feet, topping out on Nichols Peak, where you’ll enjoy breathtaking panoramas of the Beartooths, one of the most impressive mountain ranges in America. Cole Creek also deposits you above some surprisingly steep and challenging terrain. Red Lodge’s location often brings sizeable storms and lower temperatures, with an average annual snowfall of 250 inches. So, if it’s not snowing in Bozeman, check the weather report—it might be dumping in Red Lodge.

After a day of skiing, head into town—known as the “Basecamp of the Beartooths”—for a variety of food and drink options. Like its namesake mountain, Red Lodge has an ambience of simplicity and small-town personality that permeates the streets. But don’t let that fool you—of all Montana’s small ski towns, Red Lodge hast the most advanced après. Craft-beer pubs, Old West saloons, and quiet lounges all coexist here, as do a wide variety of restaurants—hungry skiers should pay a visit to the Carbon County Steakhouse. The Cowboy Coffee Ribeye is a staple dish, and the 40oz Delmonico is a showstopper. If you're staying over, check out the Pollard Hotel, which offers newly-renovated rooms and modern-day amenities, while maintaining its historic charm. In the morning, fuel up at the hotel's restaurant with house-made rosemary biscuits and fresh-squeezed orange juice before round two on the slopes.

Lost Trail
Skiable Area: 1,800 acres
Vertical Drop: 1,800 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,200 feet
Annual Snowfall: 325 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 3 hours
Day-Pass Price: $58
Rustic Scale: *****

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Follow in William Clark’s footsteps and head to the Montana-Idaho border. Three hours due west of Bozeman, Lost Trail sits atop the Continental Divide, tucked into the convergence of the Anaconda, Beaverhead, and Bitteroot ranges. Known for its family-friendly and affordable roots, Lost Trail’s remote location keeps crowds at bay while captivating visitors with views of majestic mountains all around. With an impressive annual snowfall of 325 inches—one of the largest in Montana—the hill is open Thursday through Sunday. Lost Trail may be off the beaten path, but with a vertical drop of 1,800 feet, 60 runs, and eight lifts, it’s ripe for a long weekend of exploration. Moderate, difficult, and expert runs make up the majority of the terrain, ranging from well-spaced trees to wispy mountain bowls and black-diamond bumps that’ll get your quads pumped. If it’s powder you’re after, consider an early-morning run from Bozeman on Thursday. If you leave at six and the roads are good, you might just get first chair—and a chance to share your excitement with the Lost Trail lifties, who are notoriously exuberant and fun-loving, especially on a powder day.

Before leaving for Lost Trail, be sure to plan ahead—the nearest town is Sula, 13 miles up the Bitterroot Valley, which is basically just a gas station and general store. If you want to stick close to the hill after skiing, pack for a tailgate—the parking lot is a do-it-yourself après oasis, with car- and truck-campers by the dozen cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner, toasting good skiing in good company. But, if it’s a blizzard (which is common here) and your toes could use warming, load up the car and drive a half-hour—either east to Wisdom or north to Darby—for classic small-town food and drink options. A little farther, but with more variety, is Hamilton, with our favorite spot in the valley: Bitter Root Brewery. If you plan to spend the night, there’s a host of vacation rentals nearby—we recommend the cozy cabins at A Lil’ Bit of Heaven in Sula. Or, for hot-springs connoisseurs, soak and stay at one of the two nearby options: Lost Trail Hot Springs, just north of the ski hill, or Jackson Hot Springs, in the Big Hole Valley south of Wisdom.

Skiable Area: 640 acres
Vertical Drop: 1,400 feet
Summit Elevation: 8,200 feet
Annual Snowfall: 250 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 2 hours
Day-Pass Price: $60
Rustic Scale: ***

If you’ve spent enough time in Bozeman, you’ve likely seen Showdown stickers on car bumpers or beer-cooler windows. North of White Sulphur Springs, Showdown is a two-hour hop, skip, and jump northeast of the Bozone. Typically, it’s closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, with the majority of visitors rolling in on weekends. The mountain is modest, with four lifts, 36 runs, and a vertical drop of 1,400 feet. But the ambience more than compensates, as the hill’s laid-back atmosphere matches its location in the subdued but sprawling Little Belt Mountains. Don’t expect dramatic mountain views or white-knuckle descents here, but rather a welcome and much-needed dose of Old Montana charm. Slow lifts and rolling terrain remind skiers to slow down and smell the roses—or rather, the pungent pine and clean alpine air. That’s not to say there’s no fun to be had at Showdown—secret powder stashes and short, steep drops can be found by those willing to explore. Regardless, at Showdown you’ll forget all about the fast-paced extreme-skiing vibe you’re used to seeing around Bozeman. Instead, you’ll cruise around, chat with your lift companions, and share a beer with the locals, letting your body relax and your spirit glide free and easy among the gentle slopes and wide-open terrain.

Food and drink options are available to skiers right on the mountain, including post-ski adult beverages. For supper, you’ll need to head into White Sulphur for a hefty handful of choices, from pizza to bar food to sit-down dining. If the snow’s good and the mountain’s character invites you stay another day, there are numerous lodging options in White Sulphur, as well.

Great Divide
Skiable Area: 1,500 acres
Vertical Drop: 1,500 feet
Summit Elevation: 7,330 feet
Annual Snowfall: 150 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 2 hours
Day-Pass Price: $64
Rustic Scale: ***

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Great Divide is another great local hill just northwest of Helena near the Continental Divide, hence the name. Great Divide cultivates a community atmosphere with an affordable price tag. The typical skier here hails from Helena, and the mountain is one of Montana’s sunniest ski areas. Whether you’re a groomer guru, bowl bomber, park rat, or glade skier, you’ll find what you’re after on the hill’s 100 runs. Great Divide has even become “Montana’s Terrain Park Place,” with six different parks scattered across the mountain. The lifts spin Wednesday through Sunday (and any other day that school’s not in session), with night skiing and live music on Fridays. Due to its low elevation, Great Divide’s snow can be spotty. But if you’re willing to part with reliable powder for a true old-fashioned Montana experience, Great Divide is the place to be, especially if you want to bring the young ’uns along. Check the weather report or just head out—remember, small-town skiing ain’t about face-shots and epic air. It’s about a fine day just a-slidin’ around the slopes, and that’s exactly what Great Divide offers, every day of the season.

When the day is done and you’re ready for a beer, you have plenty of options. If you brought the cooler and grill, a tailgate celebration is warmly welcomed—just bring supplies to share. If parking-lot kickbacks aren’t your thing, there’s food and drink at the lodge. Seeking a soft bed to rest your weary head? Helena is close by and has abundant lodging, from classic old-timey hotels to Best Western types. Plus, if you opt to stay in Helena, there’s a vast assortment of restaurants and bars around with warm food, strong drink, and good company—our favorite being Lewis & Clark Brewing, which has live music several nights a week.

Whitefish Mountain
Skiable Area: 3,000 acres
Vertical Drop: 2,353 feet
Summit Elevation: 6,817 feet
Annual Snowfall: 300 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 6 hours
Day-Pass Price: $87
Rustic Scale: *

Skier at Whitefish Mountain

When Whitefish first opened a single T-bar in 1947, tickets cost $2 apiece, hamburgers cost a quarter, and beer a few nickels. Nowadays, lift tickets are around $90, burgers over $15, and beers the typical $7 or so a pint. On the rustic scale, Whitefish slides in around one star—with mountain-side dining, scenic lift rides, a summer bike park, and close access to the not-so-sleepy town of Whitefish. Not to mention four high-speed chairs and a handful of other speedy quads and triples. But what Whitefish lacks in rustic feel, it makes up for in skiing. With nearly 300 inches of snow in the average year, and 2,300 vertical feet of skiable terrain, the mountain is top-notch by Montana standards. You’ll also notice the snow has a different feel up there. It’s generally wetter and denser than the coldsmoke powder of southwest Montana. Some folks love it, some folks don’t—you’ll just have to see for yourself. But when you finally do make it that direction, it’s worth spending a few days. At over six hours from Bozeman, Whitefish isn’t realistically within the day-trip realm. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to stay in the town of Whitefish, and other local activities to stay busy with when your legs are shot after a day or two of epic powder skiing. Trust us, the trip is worth is.

Bear Paw Ski Bowl
Skiable Area: 80 acres
Vertical Drop: 900 feet
Summit Elevation: 5,900 feet
Annual Snowfall: 140 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 5 hours
Day-Pass Price: $25
Rustic Scale: *****

Bear Paw Ski Bowl

Bear Paw might be the smallest ski hill in Montana, but size doesn’t matter for this steep-and-deep resort. People come from all over to get a taste for how skiing used to be in the state of Montana—familiar faces and affordable lift tickets. Located 29 miles south of Havre on the Rocky Boy Reservation, the ski hill is only open Saturdays and Sundays, January through March—conditions permitting. The Dance Ski Association, a volunteer nonprofit, is responsible for operation of the ski hill, and they do a dang good job of it. A rope-tow for beginners allows access to ample easy terrain, and a double chair runs more advanced skiers all the way to the top (with a midway off ramp for intermediate skiers). The slopes below the midway ramp are groomed, while those above are not. Regardless of ability level, there’s enough terrain to make a full day of it. And when you’ve had all of the skiing you can handle, swing by the warming hut to get out of the weather or enjoy a bite to eat from their BBQ. Afterward, enjoy the alpenglow on Baldy Mountain, whether in the parking lot or in the warming hut with the locals. For more accommodations, Havre is close by. There’s a handful of fun bars to check out, too, before heading back home to Bozeman.

Blacktail Mountain
Skiable Area: 1,000+ acres
Vertical Drop: 1,440 feet
Summit Elevation: 6,780 feet
Annual Snowfall: 250 inches
Distance from Bozeman: 5 hours
Day-Pass Price: $70 (large discounts on certain days)
Rustic Scale: ***

Situated just a few miles from the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, Blacktail Mountain sports big northwest-Montana scenery with a small-town ski area feel. You’ll have stunning views of the lake, of course, along with the Mission, Whitefish, and Cabinet ranges. You can even see as far as the towering peaks of Glacier National Park on a clear day.

Blacktail is a great mountain for fun with family and friends, with a plethora of beginner and intermediate terrain alongside options for advanced skiers. In fact, the mountain is uniquely accessed from the top rather than the bottom, providing views from the summit to every skier. There are three chairlifts and one rope-tow, and you shouldn’t expect many lift lines.

There are several nearby towns with accommodations on the shores of Flathead Lake, with Lakeside being the closest, followed by Somers and Bigfork. Winter is a great time to visit Flathead, as you won’t have to contend with the hordes of tourists that come during the summer.  The lakeside accommodations at Somers Bay Cabins offer a cozy place to rest your head. So point the car north for a weekend this winter, and check out Blacktail Mountain.