Cooke City is one of America’s best ski secrets—but not for long

By Emily Stifler Explorebigsky.com Managing Editor

COOKE CITY— If snow is money,
Cooke City is one of the richest places
on Earth.

Tucked in a narrow mountain valley
near Yellowstone National Park’s
northeast entrance, the town of 80 is,
in winter, the end of the road. Snow
banks bury cars and single-story buildings,
and off-trail snowmobilers make
pilgrimages there from around the
continent.
In the past few years, backcountry ski
and snowboard tourism in and around
Cooke has grown. There’s long been
a small but hearty ski touring community
based out of nearby Silvergate,
and the spring Sweet Corn Festival has
brought skiers and snowboarders to
town in droves for nearly 20 years.

Following a decade of visits by ski
and snowboard film companies like
Teton Gravity Research and Poor Boyz
Productions, the town is picking up on
the vibe.

The chamber of commerce this winter
started a small regional advertising
campaign, and locals have taken
note of increased skier traffic. With
one brand new business shuttling
people into the mountains via snow
coach and another building backcountry
yurts, the trend is bound to
continue.

__________

Cal Arnold first read about Cooke
City in Powder magazine when he
was 15, living in Minnesota and skiing
at tiny DM Mountain. Now, 15
years later, the Bozeman resident and
business owner drives the four hours
to Cooke several times a year to ski.

“It’s unbelievable,” he says. “If
you’re willing to hike you can access
anything.”

His crew of 11 came to town for a
long weekend at the end of March
and spent a couple days doing snowmobile
accessed skiing on 10,000-foot peaks five miles out of town. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, as far
as terrain is concerned. Cooke is surrounded
by Forest Service land and
the 943,648-acre Absaroka-Beartooth
Wilderness.

“The difference between Cooke and
areas like B.C. and Colorado is that
those guys are riding for 15 miles to get
where they need to go, whereas we go
two to five miles,” Arnold said. “It’s
easy access.”

And this year—one that’s been tough
for many backcountry skiers and riders
around the region because of low snow
and high avalanche danger—has been
decent for Cooke. In fact, the Snotel
site at 9,100 feet in Fischer Creek reads
the same as it did last year at this time,
according to beartoothpowder.com, and
the snowpack there is relatively safe.

Locals estimate an average weekend
saw at least 20 skiers and snowboarders,
with more early in the winter,
when Cooke had some of the best
snow, and later, when the ski areas were
closed.

Arnold’s crew rode powerful new
snowmobiles, something he says has
helped skiers access amazing lines.
The development of modern alpine
touring and split board technology,
too, has caused a surge of backcountry
use in mountain towns across the
West.

Photo by Beau Fredlund (cropped from original), The Fin on Mount Republic, right above Cooke City

Early 19th century mail carriers may
have been some of the earliest skiers
near Cooke City. According to Exploring
the Yellowstone High Country: a
History of the Cooke City Area
, during
that time a man on skis or snowshoes
carried mail from Nye City, up the
Stillwater River area to a cabin near
Lake Abundance. There, he met a
man who’d skied from Cooke over
Daisy Pass to pick it up.

Although Indians lived in the surrounding
area, miners founded the
town of Cooke and it followed a
classic boom and bust storyline.
As mining began to fade, tourism
came in with cars in 1915, saving it
from becoming a ghost town. Cooke
partied through the Roaring ‘20s,
maintaining the colorful ‘Wild West’
reputation it continues today.
But skiing remained a side note.

In the mid ‘50s, postmaster Gene
Wade ran a rope tow on the north side
of town for his kids to ski. A couple
years later, in 1959, Betty Sommers
moved to town after graduating high
school in Belfry. At that time, tourism
in Cooke pretty much shut down
after Labor Day, she said.

“As soon as it started snowing we
started skiing and snowshoeing,” said
Betty, who’s still living in Cooke 53
years later. “I lived in a little cabin
with no water, had an outhouse, and
it was far enough that you had to put
on your skis or snowshoes to get to it
but had to take them off to get in it.”

Betty and her husband Bill sidestepped
the ski hill with their
wooden skis once a week, keeping it
packed down so they could ski on it.

“We didn’t have too much else to
do, no place to spend money and no
money to spend, so we skied a lot.”

When snowmobiles came to Cooke City in the early
‘60s, everything changed. Betty hasn’t been on
skis since—except for learning to nordic ski this
year at age 71.

Today, her son Rick and his partner run the
Exxon station that Rick bought in 1987. Their
winter business, which includes a rental fleet
of snowmobiles, depends on the snowmobile
traffic that carries the town’s economy for several
months of the year.

But, Betty says, “it’s good to have more skiers and
snowboarders because
they’re fun.”

Other businesses, too, are
encouraging growth in
that market.

“We’re trying to get the
word out that there’s
great skiing here,” said
Lisa Ohlinger, owner of
the Elkhorn Hotel.

The mentality among local
businesses is changing,
Ohlinger said. “It was all
about snowmobiling, and
now they’re more open to
snowboarders and skiers.”

In the ‘90s, a group of
skiers and artists lived in
a group of old mining cabins
called Ewok Village
on the south end of town.
Since those were torn
down 10 years ago, a lack of affordable housing has
prevented the local ski community from growing
very quickly, according to Chris Warren, owner of
the Lovin’ Cup Café.

But one event in particular has kept ski culture
alive in Cooke City over the years, Warren says.
The Sweet Corn Fest, now in its 19th year, was
founded by Bill Blackford, who used to run a ski and
bike shop where Warren’s coffee shop now sits. That
weekend in late April brings hundreds of skiers to
town and with them, a party atmosphere.

The festival celebrates the skiing lifestyle, and is a great
economic boost during the off-season, Warren says. “Sweet Corn shows us what it could be like here.”

The Miners Saloon and the High Country Motel
this year are co-sponsors of the festival.
The High Country’s new owners, Paige Hood and
Brandon Richardson, are another sign of changing
times. The couple live in Red Lodge, and Richardson
is originally from Jackson, Wyo. They’ve
added a ski/snowboard tuning bench to the hotel,
and have been catering to that crowd, said manager Benji Stone.

“I’m a skier, that’s my life,” Stone said, calling
Cooke the “best kept secret in America, skiing wise.”
“This should be a major ski destination. My
dream is to have this place filled up with skiers
and snowboarders all winter long. We know it’s
going to happen. In the next five years, this place
is going to be a ski mecca.”

But, Stone warned, it’s not for the faint of heart.
“It’s not a ski resort. It can be dangerous, and
you gotta work your ass off to get the good lines.
That’s what turns people away. You gotta be
tough.”

And that’s what makes it all worth it, Stone says.
“While Cooke City never truly boomed as a gold
town, this disappointment turned out to be a
blessing in disguise,” wrote Ralph Gliddens in
Exploring the Yellowstone High Country, referring
to the unspoiled wilderness surrounding the
town on all sides.

“As mining activities slowly came to a halt, the
residents of the small community began to realize
that there was more than gold in those hills.”
The skiers and snowboarders seeking deep pow –
der, dramatic descents and remote locations are
Cooke’s modern day gold miners.

__________

Sweet Corn Festival, April 20-21

A celebration of the skiing lifestyle, the Sweet Corn Fest has grown
from its roots in the Cook City fire station, and now brings hundreds
of skiers to town each year in late April.
The Miners Saloon has hosted it for 15 years, and the bar’s owner,
Raz Schneider, been planning it for 10. Big Sky Brewing has been the
number one event sponsor since day one, and Schneider credits
the Montana beer makers with keeping the festival alive.
With more involvement in recent years from other local businesses,
Cooke City as a whole has begun to really wrap its arms around
Sweet Corn.

“Cooke City is a small town that’s a little bit different than most
places in Montana,” Schneider says. “It’s cool to get people to
come up here and see what it’s like. It’s a pretty cool town.”
“It’s the one weekend where there’s a bunch of skiers in town.
Cooke turns into a ski town.”

Cooke City Adventures

The Alpine Hotel’s new owner this
year invested in two snow coaches.
The big Tucker holds up to 15
passengers, and the smaller Polaris
Ranger holds five.

“We’re landlocked from the east,
so the idea was to bring customers
from Cody and Billings that could
drive to the parking lot and get
them here,” says the Alpine’s manager
Robert Weinstein.

While they’ve done some of
that, Weinstein says more of the
business has come from people
driving into town from Yellowstone
and seeing the Tucker parked out
front. He’s taken photographers
on scenic tours, and dropped
off a few groups of skiers at Daisy
Pass.

“They do some runs and then ski
back to town,” he says. The trip up
takes 35 or 40 minutes, depending
on conditions, and opens up
hundreds of acres of terrain to skiers
and snowboarders who don’t
have a snowmobile.

“I see the need for it,” Weinstein
says, imagining a big market with
college kids and other skiers.
He plans to run the machines
as late in the spring as there’s
enough snow.