For years the mantra of the ski industry has been “bigger is better.” More terrain, more lifts, more hotels. But that strategy is not working out so well this year and some of the largest resorts are understaffed and unable to handle the crowds, which in turn are fueled by pent-up pandemic demand for travel after missed ski seasons. Resorts and major ski destinations have been hit with a double whammy of being short staffed and the omicron variant surge, which is decimating the ranks of what few workers they do have. The general labor shortage is afflicting many industries, but it’s even worse for ski resorts that typically rely on a lot of seasonal visa workers from other countries, especially in the Southern hemisphere, a situation hampered by travel restrictions in the pandemic. As a result, some services have been suspended, operations cut back, even lifts left idle with no one to staff them. I spoke to a skier today just back from one of the largest and most visited resorts in North America who reported operations running at about a third of normal, but with no commensurate reduction in crowds.
Less crowded ski and snowboard resorts are better able to operate and stay flexible, even with reduced staff. But even if things were normal and not pandemic, “uncrowded” and “off the beaten path” were going to be hot ski travel commodities this year anyway. Travel agents and ski travel specialists I spoke with heading into the season told me that what all their clients are suddenly asking for is resorts that have not been overwhelmed with holders of the two big national ski pass programs, Epic and Ikon Passes, both of which are great bargains for ski travelers, but also fueled complaints last season as massive numbers of pass owners descended on marquee resorts such as Vail and Jackson Hole. For this season ski travelers have become less interested in spots with wall-to-wall ski-in/ski/-out hotels lining the base areas and slopes and are looking for a more intimate experience. I recently wrote a travel feature here at Forbes about 5 Great U.S. Resorts With Short Lift Lines. But as winter vacation difficulties mount, Montana is increasingly standing out as a top choice – whether you ski or not. This is not just idle conjecture – I’m heading there next month myself and will downhill ski, cross country ski, snowshoe and much more.
It’s not that Montana was spared staffing woes or omicron, it’s just that for a variety of reasons, it is better positioned to handle them. For one thing, the state in general is a less crowded destination that has tons of alpine skiing and snowboarding as well as every other major winter sports pursuit, from cross country skiing and snowshoeing to snowmobiling and ice fishing, along with a surprising number of hot springs. It has gorgeous off-season access to some of the world’s most desirable National Parks – which have been jam packed outside of winter and will be again starting this spring. Montana also has a surprising amount of top tier luxury lodging, but it is on a smaller, more private, more outdoorsy scale. For instance, it is home to a couple of the world’s most luxurious dude ranches, with much lower off-season occupancy, tons of outdoor activities (including downhill skiing), and as top shelf accommodations and cuisine as you will find at any ski town or resort. Montana has something for every winter taste – oh, and it gets plenty of snow.
Montana’s largest ski resort, Big Sky, is huge in terms of terrain, the second biggest in the entire nation, but averages more than an acre per skier, thanks to not being near a major city, having less in the way of hotels than any of the other extra-large mountain, and having greatly updated its lift system in recent years to be one of the most efficient, fastest and highest capacity in the industry. According to Zrankings here at Forbes, it gets less than a quarter of the skier volume Vail sees – and it is bigger. But for many visitors, Big Sky is the only destination resort here they know, and by Montana standards, it will likely be extremely popular, especially with a brand-new Montage slope side luxury resort that sold out quickly and was the hottest ticket in luxury ski lodging in the entire nation this year – all the people who usually stay at other luxury ski-in/out hotels at more crowded resorts wanted to get away. But Montana has a lot more skiing, and once you move beyond Big Sky, you are talking some still very large ski areas where you would be hard pressed to find a lift line.
Instead of “bigger is better,” the ski travel mantra for this season should be “big enough is better,” because if there is enough terrain to keep you busy for multiple days with less crowds and less lifts, the mountain is going to be a lot easier for its owners to operate. So maybe instead of the biggest mountain the country you go to the eleventh biggest. That would be Montana’s Ski Whitefish (tied with Snowbasin UT), less well known than the ten above it, but still boasting 3000-acres, over 100 trails, and 15 lifts (stats according to comprehensive ski data site Powderhounds.com). It even offers night skiing. In short, plenty big enough, with nearly five times the amount of terrain you’ll find at Aspen (NOTE: while some ranking go by total combined length of trails, when it comes to comparing the size of resorts, the number that makes the most sense is skiable acres, because that is literally how much terrain you can ski or ride, including bowls, glades, and in bounds off-piste in addition to groomers, so it’s what I use).
But Whitefish, like Big Sky, would still be categorized as a mega-resort. Consider Red Lodge Mountain. It features more than 70 trails and 1,635 acres of skiable terrain for all abilities, including steeps, glades, chutes, and groomers gentle cruisers. That’s more acreage than Colorado’s Crested Butte, a “big mountain” by anyone’s standards. But with just six chairs and one surface lift to operate, it does not need a lot of staff to offer a lot of skiing. The mountain sits just just 6 miles outside historic Red Lodge, which was just named one of the “Coolest Small Towns for 2022” by Budget Travel magazine. Travelers also love Bozeman, Montana’s gateway to mountain adventure, a charming city with a great new Kimpton hotel – and just 46,000 residents. Bozeman is also home to Bridger Bowl, a unique industry model as a nonprofit ski area with 2,000 acres of skiable terrain. That is bigger than Beaver Creek.
Across the state and near the delightful college town of Missoula, the hidden gem is Discovery Basin, or “Disco” to locals. What’s there? 2,200 acres – more than Deer Valley, UT or Telluride, CO – of uncrowded tree skiing, powder-filled bowls, mogul runs and groomers served by six lifts. Known for reliable snowfall, Lost Trail Ski Area straddles the Montana-Idaho border and enjoys 300 annual inches of snow, more than Vail, with 60 trails. Both these hidden gems are included amenities of two of the world’s great dude ranch properties. The Forbes 5-Star Ranch at Rock Creek (one of just two guest ranches to earn this honor) partners with Discovery, while Triple Creek Ranch, a Relais & Chateaux property, goes with Lost Trail. Both are awesome resorts and include chauffeured transport, tickets, all gear and even skiing meals in their nightly rates. For more on a unique and often overlooked approach to the ski vacation, see my recent story on Why All-Inclusive Ski Trips Might Be For You.
That’s a lot of snow, and a lot of uncrowded terrain, but that is just skiing and snowboarding. Montana is beloved by snowmobile fans and has tons of options. Most famous is West Yellowstone, where you can rent a sled right in town and ride it down the street to more than 400 miles of groomed trails. For a really unique option you can hire a licensed guide and do a tour of stunning Yellowstone National Park and its empty winter wonderland. If you don’t want to operate a snowmobile but still want to see America’s first National Park in winter, there are myriad options for guided snow-coach tours (a bus with treads) that explore the top spots including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs. Seeley Lake is another top snowmobiling destination with 350 miles of groomed trails, rentals and backcountry guides. Cooke City offers 60 miles of groomed trails plus backcountry trails in the Gallatin National Forest. That’s just a quick overview. You can find a lot more detail on snowmobiling, hot springs, all kinds of skiing and other winter activities at the state tourism site here.
If you don’t know how to ski or snowboard but still want to experience winter in the fresh air under your own power, its easy to learn Nordic (cross country) skiing, and nothing is faster to pick up than snowshoeing. Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks are jammed in summer, but nearly empty in winter, and both offer ranger-led snowshoe treks, or you can go solo. The 4.5-mile Canyon Rim Ski Trail in Yellowstone is very manageable, with stunning views into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. First timers can try easy 3-mile Lower McDonald Creek Trail in Glacier. The park has other mapped snowshoes and cross-country trails for various ability levels, and there are many dedicated Nordic centers with trails, maps, equipment rentals and lessons all over the state, including Whitefish, Helena, Bozeman, Big Sky, Red Lodge, and more.
Lone Mountain Ranch is another high-end Montana dude ranch that has been named the Number One Cross Country Ski Resort in the entire nation and boasts a network of more than 50 miles of trails, which is simply a staggering amount. That does not include another 30 additional miles of dedicated snowshoe trails. Lone Mountain is also just 10 minutes from world-class downhill skiing at Big Sky, with 38 lifts and over 300 runs.
Montana’s nickname is “The Treasure State” and when it comes to winter, there are plenty of hidden gems to be found among all the white gold here.