You mean to tell me it’s not called Whitefish? I was baffled. For years I’ve heard tales of this grand and mysterious ski resort south of the border, supposedly dubbed Whitefish, where there is powder aplenty, long open runs, friendly locals and no line ups!
I’ve longed for that feeling of discovering and exploring a new mountain for too long. So when the call came to visit a friend of my fiancée in Montana for the weekend, I literally leapt at the opportunity. Road trip!
I checked out the website (bigmtn.com) to get a taste of what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at what I found. With 93 marked runs spread out over a sizeable 3 000 acres, there was far more than I could hope to explore in a single day.
Upon arrival I discovered that Whitefish is the name of a sleepy little town of just under 7 000 people about two hours south of the BC border. The infamous ski resort is in fact named Big Mountain and sits just five minutes outside of town.
After an uneventful border crossing at Roosville we ran right into the middle of the town’s annual February Winter Carnival. Our progress was hampered somewhat by the Grand Parade of floats, dancers and animals slowly winding its festive way down the town’s main street. In spite of the short delay, this gave us the opportunity to observe the subtle but distinct differences of being in a different place. It helped round out our trip and added to that feeling of discovery we were seeking.
After the drive and being held up by the parade we arrived later than anticipated. As we passed the third “parking lot full” sign I began to groan at the prospect of being parked half a mile away from the ticket booths. But, to my surprise and delight, there was a ticket booth and a chairlift just a snowball’s throw away from our lot. Even with the exchange rate on the dollar, the tickets are a steal at only $52 USD for adults and $36 for juniors.
Although you can never seem to get to the top fast enough on your first ride up the chair, the high speed Glacier Chaser zips you up from the village to the summit in record time. From the summit, all areas of the mountain are accessible and your choices of where to drop your 717 metres of vertical are limited only by the amount of time you have.
The terrain is a good mix of wide-open bowls and groomed cruisers with plenty of glorious glades and some sickly steeps as well. There’s something here for all skill levels, from the first-time skier or rider to the veteran powder hound or park and pipe junkie. And with 11 chairs including two high-speed quads, there are rarely any lift lines to slow you down.
Big Mountain’s three sides offer up a variety of terrain and also an assortment of weather conditions. So depending on the weather that day, you are likely to find something that suits your taste. With the last snowfall being several days earlier, followed by a recent temperature increase, we mostly avoided the crusty front side of the mountain and found our hidden stashes of pow pow among the trees on the back side.
We also dropped into some great runs in Hellroaring Basin, so named after the creek that runs through the bottom of it. With more time, I would have explored this beautifully gladed area for days.
The lodge at the top of the mountain was the ideal spot to stop for lunch. The food at the Summit House Restaurant was superb and surprisingly cheap with nothing over $9. You can also quench your thirst at the Summit Bar or visit the open cafeteria area for a quick food fix. There were plenty of tables for the noon-time crowd and we even met a couple friendly Whitefish residents who gave away a few choice run suggestions.
The view from the top is spectacular. Although surrounded by the treeless, snow-painted peaks of the Rocky Mountains, the resort hearkens more to the rounded off, gladed mountains of BC’s Interior. The friendly locals were quick to inform us that our dazzling sunny day was not always the norm. However, it’s on days of thick cloud and reduced visibility that the skies let fly with the healthy dose of fluffy white stuff that gives Whitefish its yearly accumulation of over 6.5 metres. The vast gladed areas are the perfect places to lay down some lines during these spells.
Since a journey out to northwest Montana requires considerable travel (roughly 500 km from Calgary; 800 km from Edmonton) do yourself a favour and spend a few nights on the hill. There is a decent range of slope-side accommodations priced to match any budget. Check out the ski and stay packages on their website. There is also a good variety of restaurants and bars located in the village.
Like most quality resorts there is an assortment of other activities offered at Big Mountain. You can enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or a snowmobiling tour to the summit. Or try something new like dog sledding. Or you can let a snowcat adventure introduce you to the bliss of the backcountry on gentle, gladed slopes. If your legs need a break from all that activity, spoil yourself with a visit to the Remedies Day Spa conveniently located right on the hill.
Big Mountain is fast becoming a popular summer destination as well. The vast network of alpine trails is a hiker’s paradise and mountain biking single-track is a favourite local pastime. One of the high-speed quad chairs is converted into a gondola for the summer season and rides are available to the summit. From there, you can enjoy the impressive vista of the Rocky Mountains and rock out at one of the free Summit Fridays concerts at the top. For a more relaxed day, you can walk through the treetops along a canopy boardwalk suspended over 20 metres above the forest floor. Golfers can take in a round at one of the nine championship golf courses all just a short drive away from Big Mountain.
As we left the resort we were both content and worn out from a fantastic day exploring the slopes. The stories I’d heard for so long were true and all my expectations were exceeded. With the appeal of this year-round recreational playground, Big Mountain is sure to garner more interest in the future as informed folks continue to discover this gem. Oh, and one more thing: be sure to remember your passport! V