Between Montana Snowbowl and Lost Trail, ski areas near Missoula offer elevation, an old-school ski-jumping competition and plenty of mom-and-pop charm.
MISSOULA — As I walked onto the ski hill at Montana Snowbowl, I felt as if I’d stepped into a “Twilight Zone” time warp. The base area felt delightfully old-school.
After riding the ancient Grizzly Chair, I stood on top, not a soul in sight, and stared down uncertainly at the West Ridge run. What lay ahead? I soon found out: It was scary-steep, rough — and a blast.
A day later at Lost Trail Powder Mountain, I found myself in the midst of an epic Bitterroot Range blizzard. The Lewis and Clark Expedition got lost in these mountains during a similar blizzard in 1805 (hence the “Lost Trail” name). I, too, was lost — but in the best way.
The powder was cold and deep, with only a handful of friendly Montanans around to share the untracked turns.
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Welcome to two of Western Montana’s best small ski areas with big terrain.
“If you can ski Snowbowl, you can ski anywhere”
Just 13 miles from downtown Missoula, Montana Snowbowl boasts steep runs and a 2,600-foot vertical rise. The Grizzly Chair ascends 2,000 feet from the base area and the midmountain LaVelle Creek Chair tops out even higher, at 7,600 feet.
“When we first opened in 1962, we promoted it as having the most vertical in the Pacific Northwest,” said Stan Cohen, the author of a recently published history of Snowbowl, “From TV Mountain/Snow Park to Missoula/Montana Snowbowl.”
“The old saying is that if you can ski Snowbowl, you can ski anywhere,” he said.
Most of the runs off the Grizzly Chair are advanced and cut for tree-skiing. The LaVelle Creek side is primarily intermediate, with many groomed cruisers that attract families and beginning skiers.
At Snowbowl’s base, you’ll find an ancient A-frame lodge and après ski hangout The Last Run Inn. It’s a lively place, and locals will tell you it has Montana’s best Bloody Mary.
But perhaps what most sets Snowbowl apart from other ski areas is its annual Gelande Championship, a European-style ski-jumping competition performed with fixed-heel alpine equipment, in which contestants soar up to 200 feet toward a festive crowd gathered at the base area. This season, it’s scheduled for Feb. 23 and 24.
The event has a colorful past. In 1974, local skier Bob Wimett went off the jump naked, save for a pair of goggles and long johns wrapped around his head, Cohen writes in his book.
Next season, the 950-acre Snowbowl will have a major expansion. A new chairlift will serve TV Mountain, adjacent to the current lift area, doubling the size of the resort and adding more beginning and intermediate runs, said owner Brad Morris.
A “mom-and-pop” mountain
Regulars swear by the powder that falls at Lost Trail, at the crest of the Bitterroot Range on the Idaho-Montana border.
“It gets dumped on,” said Kyle Rholl, who lives in Missoula and skis regularly at the resort. “It seems to be nestled in the perfect spot.”
The ski area is closed Monday through Wednesday, so with three days for the snow to stack up, “Powder Thursdays” (as locals call them) offer great conditions.
“I’ve been up to my waist in fresh snow many times on a Thursday,” said Alec McNeil, another Lost Trail fan from the Missoula area.
In addition to snow quality, Lost Trail offers expansive terrain, with 1,800 acres served by five chairlifts. Some of the best runs are off Chair 4, with access to double-diamond cliffy drops on top, and gladed tree skiing underneath. The mountain tops out at 8,200 feet, delivering 1,800 feet of vertical gain.
Like Snowbowl, Lost Trail has a timeless quality that Rholl loves.
“It’s a mom-and-pop type mountain,” he said. “I like the fact that you run into the same people all the time and get to know them.”
What’s your game plan if you want to ski both Snowbowl and Lost Trail?
Here’s McNeil’s advice: “I would wait to find a real good weather system and do a least a day at Lost Trail and then follow with a day at Snowbowl.”
Après-ski craft beers
You’re bound to work up a thirst skiing at Montana Snowbowl and Lost Trail. Thankfully, Missoula has a thriving craft-beer scene.
The city has 12 breweries, making it No. 2 in the nation for craft breweries per capita.
“It’s an impressive collection for a ‘metro area’ of 100,000 people,” said Alan McCormick, a Missoula attorney and beer writer.
For a variety of beer, try the happening Rhinoceros bar, which has a robust selection on its 50 rotating taps.
But if you’re only going to try one Missoula beer, it should be Cold Smoke, KettleHouse’s signature scotch ale, McCormick said. “But I wouldn’t miss out on Imagine Nation’s ever-changing selection of New England-style IPAs,” he added.
If you go
Adult passes are $50 at Snowbowl and $46 at Lost Trail. Both resorts offer rustic on-mountain lodging. At Snowbowl, you’ll find Gelandesprung Lodge. At Lost Trail, the Ridgeline Yurts provide lodging for groups of six or more near the resort. The small Montana towns of Sula and Darby are nearby, and Missoula, with ample options for overnight accommodations, is about two hours away.