With stunning Rocky Mountain panoramas that make you gasp for their grandeur, Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwest Montana is worth the trip just for the lift ride to the top. But c’mon, what really lures us skiers and snowboarders here is the abundant and great snow, varied and expansive terrain, and the friendly Montana vibe.
We almost didn’t go today because from Flathead Valley the mountain looked socked in with dark clouds. Good thing we did, though. By the time we arrive after the short drive uphill from the town of Whitefish, the clouds are starting to dissipate and it’s snowing just lightly.
Although it’s March, we’re bundled up for midwinter conditions. This is the northern Rockies after all.
As we near the top of Chair 1/Big Mountain Express, we pass eerie clusters of snow ghosts, trees caked in a hard icy rime.
While snow clouds are still drifting low overhead, the Flathead Valley opens up below as a huge patchwork of blue and white. I feel like we’re in the cockpit of an airplane, ready to fly.
“Let’s start with a blue cruiser run down the front side,” says our local host Allison. And so begins a great day of skiing.
After our first run, snow starts falling again as we head back up Chair 1 and then down the north side. Over here the snow is lighter and fluffier. We ski down the mellow Gray Wolf traverse, but as we skirt past steep drop-offs into untracked snow and trees, I can’t resist.
“Hey, are you guys game?” And then I plunge down into the trees with a big smile.
We’re all game today.
Every run on the north side is wonderful powder or packed powder today, so we work up quite an appetite for lunch. “Lunch at Hellroaring today,” instructs Allison as we follow her down.
Rustic and cozy Hellroaring Saloon is in the original timber lodge built here in the 1940s. Allison tells us that the new resort owners threatened to tear it down, but the locals set them straight. I love these old wood-timbered ski lodges.
We snag some seats at the bar and have a very tasty lunch (green salad, tuna sandwiches, and chili). We also get some good tips on where to ski from our friendly bartender, an Oregon transplant who has been here over 20 years.
With a taste of tree skiing in the morning, we decide to try the longer, steeper Connie’s Coulee glade into Hellroaring Basin next. We pick our way through the trees in the tracks of others until we find a few open glades to carve up.
“Uff da!” I hear Julie cry a few times on the way down. We decide it’s not quite as fun as our morning, but the runout down Glory Hole through the forest is beautiful as the sun finally breaks through for good.
Although I know it’s too early, I can’t help but glance around for signs of grizzly bears as we ski through the basin. In not much more than a month, the slumbering grizzly bears that hibernate in this basin will be starting to wake up and emerge.
For our last run of the day we start down Inspiration on the front side, where it looks like we could just ski jump right off the mountain and land in the valley far below. Off to the east, the dramatic glacier-scoured peaks of Glacier National Park are now visible, making the backdrop even more stunning.
After passing Schmidt’s Chute, we drop down north-facing, black diamond Elephant’s Graveyard, which today is lightly bumped with soft, fresh snow. Very sweet.
“This is so fun!” I find myself shouting to no one, anyone, or maybe just the sky.
Then it’s the long runout along Expressway on the lower mountain back to the base lodge. Us urban dwellers from west of the Cascades are tired after a full day skiing this Big Mountain, but it’s a good tired.
When You Go
If you want to enjoy Big Mountain this season, go right away! The mountain closes April 1 to protect the grizzlies in the Hellroaring area coming out of hibernation. Whitefish is a doable day’s drive from Seattle (9 hours or so), but you can fly into Flathead Valley (direct flights from Seattle, Minneapolis, and a few other spots) or cooler yet, take the train from Portland or Seattle.