By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor
Spend three days at Whitefish Mountain Resort, and you may wish English had as many words to describe different snow types as Inuit. Luckily, we do have the words “creamy powder.”
A refreshing getaway from our own magnificent, east-of-the-divide hills, Whitefish – formerly known as Big Mountain Resort – has 12 lifts accessing 2,353 feet of consistent vertical, and 300 inches of snow annually blanketing its 3,000-plus acres.
Most of that terrain is skiable with this year’s 85-plus-inch base, and it’s only a 7½-minute ride from the base to the summit on Chair 1, one of three high-speed quads. From there, you can drop 360 degrees off all sides of the mountain. On a sunny day, there are views into Glacier and Waterton national parks, the Cabinet, Swan and Mission mountains, as well as over Whitefish and Flathead lakes.
“I’ve always said the mountain has a soul,” said Montana native Mark Williams, who’s had a house in the nearby town of Whitefish, population 6,500, for 20 years. “You can find powder 2-3 days after a storm, it has long, consistent pitches, and undulating terrain – everything [a skier could] ask for.”
“You can find good snow any day of the year,” Williams said. “You just have to know where to look.”
Another longtime local, Lisa Jones, has a bead on the goods.
There are always new places to explore in Whitefish’s subalpine bowls and open trees, says Jones (pictured at right), who manages public relations for the town’s convention and visitor’s bureau. “I’ve skied here 25 years, and I still find new lines.”
As for the mountain’s notorious fog, Jones says that’s actually a good thing, pointing out that it’s actually low-lying clouds. Because much of the terrain is south facing, the “f-word,” as Jones called it, preserves the snow quality. It also causes the trees to disappear under feet of rime, creating the “snow ghosts” for which Whitefish is known.
Just 7 ½ miles from downtown Whitefish, the area has a long tradition of skiing.
Locals began skiing on the 6,817-foot Big Mountain in the 1930s, hiking from town to the meadows and open treed slopes created by the fire of 1910. In 1947, a group of these skiers persuaded the community to build a ski resort, with local businesses trading products and services for stock in the company.
But the venture ran out of money before opening day, so in one infamous incident, then-president of the Chamber of Commerce Brad Seeley called a meeting and locked the door until the townspeople had pledged enough funds. The area’s skiing tradition has since burgeoned, with passenger railcars coming daily from Minneapolis, Chicago and Seattle.
In 2007, several years after a reverse stock split left the resort in the hands of a smaller group of investors, including Fidelity National Financial Corp. founder Bill Foley, the mountain leadership announced the name change to Whitefish Mountain Resort. It was partly an effort to align itself with the town, and partly to differentiate it from Big Sky Resort, according to resort spokeswoman Riley Polumbus.
The charming downtown has a wealth of shopping and dining, as well as access to Glacier National Park, only 30 minutes away.
“What sets us apart is our connection to the town,” Polumbus said. “We haven’t lost our heritage.” That’s something visitors see embodied in the annual Winter Carnival, now in its 55th year.
Occurring the second weekend in February every year, the festival includes an old fashioned Grand Parade down Main Street that draws a crowd of 7,000, a penguin plunge into Whitefish Lake to raise money for the Special Olympics, a hockey tournament, a disco party and a chance to win free beer for a year from Great Northern Brewing Co.
360 Degrees of Skiing
Hellroaring Basin (west)
Black: Find “magic snow” in Slingshot to the Picture Chute Apron, and then ride back up the Hellroaring Chair.
Blue: Wind 3.3 miles through the forest on Hell Fire.
Beta: Ride the Hellroaring Chair back out before patrol sweeps the area, and milk it for one last run.
Green: Perfect for beginners, Caribou has a northerly aspect and consistently good snow.
Blue/Black: The Flower Point area added six new trails to the area this winter, and 200 acres of gladed trees. Check in next season for the new chairlift.
Black: The Nose to Whitey’s – pow, pow and more pow
Resort ambassadors offer free tours daily at 10 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Groups meet at the top and bottom of the Big Mountain Express Chair (Chair 1) and split up according to abilities. Need gear? Visit Village Equipment Rentals in the upper base area.
A tree well is a void or depression that forms around the base of a tree and can contain a mix of loose snow and air. Evergreen trees like those at Whitefish can form large, deep tree wells, often hidden from view by low hanging branches.
A tree well/snow immersion suffocation accident can happen when a skier or snowboarder falls – usually headfirst – into a tree well or deep loose snow and becomes immobilized and trapped under the snow and suffocates.
Falling into a tree well or areas of deep snow can be prevented and is all-important because the odds of surviving deep snow immersion are low. Always ski with a partner and keep them in view.
Find tips for tree-well rescue at deepsnowsafety.org.
Grouse Mountain Lodge
Located on the south 18 holes of the Whitefish Lake Golf Course, this 145-room resort is only one mile from downtown and eight miles from Whitefish Mountain Resort. A fire is always roaring, and mounts of native elk, moose, bears and pheasants decorate the lobby, kindling an air of western character and flair.
The pet-friendly hotel offers a free shuttle service until 2 a.m. daily and is home to an indoor pool, dry sauna, two outdoor hot tubs, fitness room, restaurant and bar. Grouse Mountain Lodge is a great middle of the road option for those wanting to experience western luxury and hospitality without breaking the bank. grousemountainlodge.com
Eat, ski, sleep and repeat at this ski in/out mountaintop lodge. Deemed a great value by guests, this is the spot to be if you want first chair. This old school ski lodge is a great option for couples, families or groups on a budget, since lift tickets, lodging and a homemade breakfast are all included. What Hibernation House lacks in luxury, it makes up for in convenience, functionality and uber nice people. skiwhitefish.com
Private Downtown Suites
If you’re going all out, reserve the Haywood Downtown Flat. With nearly 2,000 square feet, this hidden gem is located in the heart of downtown Whitefish, directly above Wasabi Sushi Bar. The flat has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full kitchen and living room and can accommodate up to 10 people. With a Jacuzzi, 50” plasma TV and all the modern amenities, this upscale space is perfect for parties of up to 50 people or some serious R&R after a day on the hill. thedowntownflat.com
BREAKFAST: Montana Coffee Traders
Wake up with a cup of freshly roasted coffee and a delectable bran muffin at the Whitefish Coffeehouse, located on Central Ave., before heading up the mountain. The Roastery was founded in 1981, in an old farmhouse along Highway 93, and still sits there today. Roasting tours are offered at 10 a.m., Monday – Friday.
LUNCH: Amazing Crepes & Catering
This quick spot is a great refuel station after a day of shredding. Hearty crepes are made with fresh ingredients and are a great option for lunch, dessert or an afternoon snack.
Wasabi Sushi Bar
One of Whitefish’s most popular restaurants, the Wasabi Sushi Bar is voted a favorite by locals year after year. Fish is shipped fresh daily from Seattle and owner Paula Greenstein, a former Californian, and her staff make it their business to know who comes in. “Once we see you in here once or twice, we treat you like a local,” Greenstein said. “We try to remember what you drink and eat so you keep coming back.”
Pescado Blanco serves fresh, organic “Mountain Mexican” cuisine, fusing culinary traditions ranging from Southern Mexico to Northern Montana. The bison enchiladas are a must have, but if you’re looking for lighter fare, the fish tacos (Pescado Blanco) or any of the salads are good options. A festive atmosphere and large menu makes this a good spot for groups with varying appetites.
The Bierstube (on mountain)
Walking into the Bierstube is love at first sight. Located in the mountain’s Upper Village, this watering hole paradise is a big part of the resort’s heritage. A stuffed monkey named Frabert has been living behind the bar since the early 1960s, and every Wednesday he helps ski patrol give out free beer and determine who is worthy of the Frabert award. And don’t forget to ask the bartender for a Bierstube ring while you’re there—they don’t just give them out.
The Great Northern Bar & Grill (downtown)
If you’re looking to quench your thirst at a less rowdy spot, head down the mountain for happy hour and football at the Northern. A casual atmosphere with shuffleboard, ping pong and pool, and a wide selection of American food lends itself to the whole family.
This sexy cocktail lounge is a sophisticated upstairs bar featuring live music and a large selection of wine and premium cocktails. Grab drinks before dinner or a nightcap at the Crush for a classy end to your evening.
A great spot for grooving and boozing, the Craggy Range hosts live music every Friday and Saturday night. Late night happy hour includes $2 PBR drafts, a $5 PBR tallboy and well shot, or a $4 vodka Red Bull. If you’re looking for some rousing entertainment, this might be your spot. Luckily, there are free shuttles to get you home safely.
The Palace is a dive bar featuring cheap, stiff drinks, rad locals and billiards. Need we say more?
Maria Wyllie also contributed to this story.