Why Montana is the hottest ski and outdoor resort this winter

Why Montana is the hottest ski and outdoor resort this winter

For years, the ski industry’s mantra has been “bigger is better.” More terrain, more lifts, more hotels. But that strategy is not working so well this year, and some of the major resorts are understaffed and unable to cope with the crowds, which in turn are driven by pent-up pandemic demand for travel after lost ski seasons. Resorts and major ski destinations have been hit by a double whiff of being short-staffed and the rise of the omicron variant, which decimates the range of the few workers they have. The general shortage of labor is affecting many industries, but it is even worse for ski resorts, which typically rely on a lot of seasonal visa workers from other countries, especially in the southern hemisphere, a situation hampered by travel restrictions in the pandemic. As a result, some services have been suspended, operations have been cut, even elevators have stood still without anyone to staff them. I spoke to a skier today who has just returned from one of the largest and most visited resorts in North America, who reported that operations were running at about a third of normal, but without a corresponding reduction in crowds.

Less crowded ski and snowboard resorts are better able to function and remain flexible, even with reduced staff. But even if things were normal and not pandemic, “uncrowded” and “off the beaten path” would still be hot ski trips this year. Travel agents and ski specialists I spoke to on the way into the season told me that what all of their clients are suddenly asking for are resorts that have not been overwhelmed with owners of the two major national ski pass programs, Epic and Ikon Passes, both of which are great deals for skiers, but has also given rise to complaints last season when a massive number of short-term owners came to resorts like Vail and Jackson Hole. For this season, skiers have become less interested in places with wall-to-wall ski-in / ski-out hotels along the base areas and slopes, looking for a more intimate experience. I recently wrote a travel feature here on Forbes about 5 major American resorts with short lift lines. But as the hardships of the winter holidays increase, Montana is increasingly emerging as a top choice – whether you ski or not. This is not just an empty conjecture – I’m going there myself next month and want alpine skiing, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and more.

It’s not that Montana was spared staffing issues or omicron, it’s just that for various reasons it’s better placed to deal with them. First, the state is generally a less crowded destination, having tons of downhill skiing and snowboarding as well as all the other major winter sports activities, from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to snowmobiling and ice fishing, along with a surprising number of warm springs. It has fantastic off-season access to some of the world’s most coveted national parks – which have been crammed outside the winter and start again in the spring. Montana also has a surprising amount of top-class luxury accommodations, but it’s on a smaller, more private, more outdoor scale. For example, it is home to a couple of the world’s most luxurious dude ranches, with much lower off-season occupancy, tons of outdoor activities (including downhill skiing) and top-shelf accommodation and cuisine that you will find in any ski town or resort . Montana has something for every winter taste – oh, and there’s plenty of snow.

Montana’s largest ski resort, Big Sky, is huge in terms of terrain, the second largest in the entire nation, but averages more than one acre per acre. skier, thanks to not being near a major city that has fewer hotels than any other. of the second extra large mountain, and has in recent years greatly updated its lift system to be one of the most efficient, fastest and highest capacities in the industry. According to Zrankings here at Forbes, it gets less than a quarter of the volume of skiers Vail sees – and it’s bigger. But for many visitors, Big Sky is the only destination resort here they know, and by Montana standards it is likely to be extremely popular, especially with a brand new luxury resort on the Montage side that sold out quickly and was the hottest ticket in luxury. ski accommodation across the nation this year – all the people who usually stay at other luxury ski-in / out hotels at more crowded resorts wanted to get away. But Montana has a lot more skiing, and when you first move beyond the Big Sky, you’re talking about some still very large ski areas where you would be hard pressed to find a lift line.

Instead of “bigger is better”, the ski travel mantra for this season should be “big enough is better”, because if there is enough terrain to keep you busy for more days with fewer crowds and fewer lifts, the mountain will be much easier for its owners to operate. So maybe you go instead to the country’s biggest mountain to the eleventh biggest. It would be Montana’s Ski Whitefish (tied with Snowbasin UT), lesser known than the ten above it, but still boasting 3,000 acres, over 100 trails and 15 lifts (statistics according to extensive ski site Powderhounds.com). It even offers night skiing. In short, plenty big enough, with almost five times as much terrain you find at Aspen (NOTE: while some rankings go by the total combined length of trails when it comes to comparing the size of resorts, the number that makes the most sense is acres of skiing, for it’s literally how much terrain you can ski or ride, including bowls, clearings and off-piste at the boundaries beyond groomers, so that’s what I use).

But Whitefish, like Big Sky, would still be categorized as a mega-resort. Consider Red Lodge Mountain. It offers more than 70 trails and 1,635 acres of ski terrain for all abilities, including steep slopes, clearings, slides, and groomers. It’s more area than Colorado’s Crested Butte, a “big mountain” by anyone’s standards. But with only six chairs and a surface lift to operate, it does not need a lot of staff to offer a lot of skiing. The mountain is just 6 miles outside the historic Red Lodge, which was just named one of the “coolest little towns of 2022” by Budget Travel magazine. Travelers also love Bozeman, Montana’s gate to mountain adventure, a charming town with a great new Kimpton hotel – and just 46,000 residents. Bozeman is also home to the Bridger Bowl, a unique industrial model as a non-profit ski area with 2,000 acres of ski terrain. It’s bigger than Beaver Creek.

Across the state and near the lovely university town of Missoula is the hidden gem of the Discovery Basin, or “Disco” for the locals. What is it? 2,200 acres – more than Deer Valley, UT or Telluride, CO – of unfilled wooden skis, powder-filled bowls, mogul runs and groomers operated by six lifts. Known for reliable snowfall, the Lost Trail Ski Area crosses the border between Montana and Idaho and enjoys 300 annual inches of snow, more than Vail, with 60 trails. Both of these hidden gems are included in the amenities of two of the world’s great dude ranch properties. Forbes’ 5-star ranch at Rock Creek (one of just two guest ranches to achieve this honor) is partnering with Discovery, while Triple Creek Ranch, a Relais & Chateaux property, is joining Lost Trail. Both are fantastic resorts and include chauffeur transport, tickets, all equipment and even ski meals in their nightly rates. For more on a unique and often overlooked approach to the ski holiday, see my recent story on why all-inclusive ski trips might be for you.

It’s a lot of snow and a lot of crowded terrain, but it’s just skiing and snowboarding. Montana is loved by snowmobile fans and has tons of options. Most famous is West Yellowstone, where you can rent a sleigh right in town and drive it down the street to more than 600 miles of groomed trails. For a truly unique opportunity, you can hire an authorized guide and take a ride in the stunning Yellowstone National Park and its empty winter wonderland. If you do not want to operate a snowmobile but still want to see the United States’ first national park in the winter, there are countless options for guided snowmobile tours (a bus with treadmills) that explore the best places, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. Seeley Lake is another top destination for snowmobiling with 350 miles of groomed trails, rentals and backcountry guides. Cooke City offers 60 miles of groomed trails plus backcountry trails in the Gallatin National Forest. It’s just a quick overview. You can find many more details about snowmobiling, hot springs, all kinds of skiing and other winter activities at the state tourist site here.

If you do not know how to ski or snowboard, but still want to experience winter in the fresh air on your own, it is easy to learn Nordic (cross-country) skiing, and nothing is faster to pick up than snowshoes. Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are jam-packed in the summer, but almost empty in the winter, and both offer ranger-led snowshoe hikes or you can take it alone. The 4.5-mile Canyon Rim Ski Trail in Yellowstone is very manageable with great views of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Beginners can try the easy 3-mile Lower McDonald Creek Trail in Glacier. The park has other mapped snowshoes and cross-country trails for different skill levels, and there are many dedicated Nordic centers with trails, maps, equipment rentals and lessons across the state, including Whitefish, Helena, Bozeman, Big Sky, Red Lodge, and more.

Lone Mountain Ranch is another high-end Montana dude ranch that has been named the No. 1 cross-country ski resort in the entire nation and boasts a network of more than 50 miles of trails, which is simply a staggering amount. It does not include an additional 30 additional miles of dedicated snowshoe trails. Lone Mountain is also just 10 minutes from world-class alpine skiing at Big Sky, with 38 lifts and over 300 pistes.

Montana’s nickname is “The Treasure State”, and when it comes to winter, there are plenty of hidden gems to be found among all the white gold here.


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