For any number of reasons, I keep coming back to ski northwestern Montana, and what used to be called Big Mountain.
It has a new name now. Over the summer, it stopped being Big Mountain Resort and started being Whitefish Mountain Resort. It also got $20 million in improvements, a nice way to celebrate its 60th birthday.
By any name, Whitefish and its surrounding Flathead Valley have become the yardstick by which I measure other ski destinations: I know I can get there easily. I know I'll have a great time without spending a fortune. I know I'll be surrounded by spectacular, one-of-a-kind scenery that unfolds as far as the eye can see. I'll be able to ski fast and loose without worrying about running into someone (or vice versa) on crowded slopes.
Best of all, I'll be in a real western community, one filled with genuine, fun-loving people who go about their lives at a reasonable pace.
People who put on their Carhartts one leg at a time. People who may or may not owe their livelihoods to the ski business up the road. People who fervently love the land around them, and worry about protecting it.
When I'm in Whitefish, I find myself breathing in deeply, exhaling slowly and truly relaxing, becoming one with the metaphysical opposite of Aspen. I worry about nothing beyond waking up in time to make first tracks, with the sun glinting off Whitefish Lake thousands of feet below as I descend.
As Rocky Mountain resorts go, Whitefish is not terribly tall, topping out at 6,800 feet. But it has a more than adequate vertical drop of 2,300 feet and more important, an expansive 3,000 acres of marked trails, bowls and tree-skiing terrain. Seventy percent of its marked trails are designated for beginners or intermediates, including plenty of wide, top-to-bottom routes, making Whitefish very family-friendly and a perfect place to try mountain skiing for the first time.
Moreover, the moderate elevation lessens the risk of altitude sickness and makes short work of both lift rides and the drive between the resort and downtown Whitefish, 8 miles distant.
The snow -- 300 inches a year, on average -- has just enough Pacific Northwest salinity in it to produce rime that sticks to the pine trees, creating ethereal shapes that locals call "snow ghosts." That same Pacific air brings its share of fog, too, although it often drapes only the lower elevations, creating a gorgeous carpet of clouds below the resort while skiers and snowboarders bask in brilliant sunlight above.
Other visual treats unique to Whitefish Mountain: its glistening fish-shaped namesake lake on the valley floor southwest of the resort and the peaks of Glacier National Park and beyond to the north. On a clear day, you can stand at the summit and spy gigantic Flathead Lake to the south, huge stands of pine to the east and west, and the Canadian Rockies to the north. Even a drugstore camera will bring back amazing images.
More than $7 million was spent over the summer on the resort's lift system, which now comprises three high-speed four-seaters, two regular-speed quads, four triple chairs and a double chair. Lift lines are almost never a concern.
Lodging options abound at the mountain's base village, from basic bed-n-bunks at the venerable Hibernation House to luxury condo units. Most are either slopeside or require only a short walk to the lifts, and clustered among them is a modest collection of gift shops and bars. (Like I said, this is NOT Aspen.) A similar range of humble-to-holy-cow exists for village dining, everything from a burger at the famously funky Hellroaring Saloon to exquisite fine dining at Cafe Kandahar. For the best view imaginable, eat at Summit House on the mountain, where the Big Mountain Express chairlift unloads.
But the village's shiniest new gem is its $11 million, 35,000-square-foot Base Lodge that as of this season will house previously scattered services such as equipment rentals, ski/snowboard school, lift-ticket sales and an information center. It also has a full-service bar and viewing lounge, presided over by a huge stone fireplace. I toured this building last winter while it was still under construction and it is very handsome and ideally located.
Whitefish, the town, lies at a comfy elevation of 3,000 feet and is home to about 6,700 inhabitants. Its downtown is small enough to explore on foot, and the main drag, Central Avenue, has a nice mix of retail shops, eateries, bars and the like. But don't expect glitz -- the local Ace Hardware store gets as much foot traffic as any other downtown retailer. You'll find local folks in and among most of the establishments, but particularly at the Great Northern Bar and Grill. Good grub of all varieties can be found in downtown Whitefish; I especially like the Tupelo Grille, which specializes in Cajun cuisine.
Oh, and don't miss the R-rated wallpaper in the restrooms of the Bulldog Saloon.
If you'd rather not stay at the ski resort itself, chain-type lodging is plentiful along the 10-mile stretch of Hwy. 93 between downtown Whitefish and Glacier Park International Airport.
By rail or air?
If you have an abundance of travel time, consider riding the storied Empire Builder, which departs St. Paul's Amtrak station daily around 11 p.m. and pulls into Whitefish the following night about 9 p.m. local time (assuming it's on schedule). A coach seat costs $180 each way for adults; seats fold to nearly flat for fairly comfortable slumber. Sleeping berths are available at extra cost. Check www.amtrak.com for particulars.
You'll spend a little more money to fly to Whitefish, but you'll also knock about 20 hours off each one-way trip. Northwest has daily direct flights from Minneapolis-St. Paul International to Glacier Park International south of Kalispell, some of them nonstops (www.nwa.com).
Bill Hammond • 612-673-1730