BEST FOR Purists, thrill seekers, and bargain hunters
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Intermediate to expert
ANNUAL SNOWFALL 350 inches
THE BACKSTORY At the 50-year-old Bridger Bowl, a cooperative ski area 16 miles outside of Bozeman, skiing isn't a sport, it's a way of life. Powder hounds in Bozeman are so dedicated that any time Bridger Bowl gets more than two inches of snow, a blue light above the old Baxter Hotel downtown is turned on immediately to signal the news. Just don't expect to find trendy boutiques or restaurants at the resort—there's no ski village to speak of—or high-speed quads and luxury lodging.
THE TERRAIN Extreme athletes flock to the Ridge, a 1 3/4-mile stretch of steep chutes and faces at the resort's 8,700-foot summit, which is intentionally left accessible only to those able to make the difficult 400-foot climb. 800/223-9609; www.bridgerbowl.com; lift tickets $37.
WHERE TO STAY For a high-end hotel with a concierge and spa, look elsewhere. The best lodge in nearby Bozeman is the Howlers Inn Bed & Breakfast (3185 Jackson Creek Rd.; 888/469-5377; www.howlersinn.com; doubles from $95), where you'll find comfortable log-frame beds and oversized tubs, plus the resident pack of seven wolves (secured inside a three-acre pen) that gives the laid-back property its name.
APRÈS SKI Consider Bozeman as Bridger Bowl's base village. Bozeman was a cow town not so long ago, but Main Street is now flooded with hipsters in vintage denim flocking to art galleries, the country's only Pacifica Spa (538 E. Main St.; 406/586-0611), dozens of clothing outfitters, and edgy gear shops. When the stores close, locals hit John Bozeman's Bistro (125 W. Main St.; 406/587-4100; dinner for two $60), where a quirky mix of Asian and Continental dishes are presented in a 1905 red-brick building.
BEST FOR Experts, bunny-slope gliders, and their families
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert
ANNUAL SNOWFALL 330 inches
THE BACKSTORY Big Mountain was a great ski destination when it first opened in 1947; in 1995, it became even better when it incorporated the previously out-of-bounds Hellroaring Basin: 500 acres of ultralong intermediate and bracing expert runs. The resort, near Glacier National Park and the Canadian border, has often vied with Big Sky for the title of Montana's best ski area; these days, it wins for terrain but comes in second for lodging. What really keeps the resort from being mobbed, however, is its remote location and infamous weather. Storm systems that sit on the mountaintop can cut visibility to an arm's length, and ice rimes trees into "snow ghosts" so often that the spooky treeline has become the resort's signature look.
THE TERRAIN Big Mountain has miles of uncrowded, easy slopes and some of the most exciting tree skiing in the West. Intermediate skiers can practice endurance by taking lifts to the top and sliding down runs more than three miles long, such as Inspiration and Hellfire. Experts also love the place: 30 percent of the ski area is advanced terrain, including legendary double-blacks like Haskill Slide and the Picture Chutes. During whiteout days, capable skiers head for the trees, which act as helpful markers. 800/858-4157; www.bigmtn.com; lift tickets $49.
WHERE TO STAY The recently renovated slopeside Kandahar Lodge (3824 Big Mountain Rd., Whitefish; 800/862-6094; www.kandaharlodge.com; doubles from $219, including breakfast) at the base village has 50 rooms for rent; they're all done up in knotty pine, with leather armchairs and bathrooms that have deep soaking tubs.
APRÈS SKI Whitefish, a former railroad town eight miles from Big Mountain, still has a few rough edges. With the opening of the Cajun-style Tupelo Grille (17 Central Ave.; 406/862-6136; dinner for two $67), however, its food scene has been ratcheted up a notch. In a pleasant ocher-tinted room, you can sample pan-fried Creole chicken and low-country shrimp with garlic cheddar grit cakes and tasso cream. The Wasabi Sushi Bar (419 E. Second St.; 406/863-9283; dinner for two $50) flies most of its fresh seafood in from Seattle. The grilled tandoori salmon with a tomato-and-almond chutney and the Montana rolls (smoked rainbow trout with mountain whitefish caviar) are not to be missed. Cap the night off at the Great Northern Bar & Grill (27 Central Ave.; 406/862-2816), where the walls are covered with brightly colored signs from beloved local businesses that have closed down, and the brew list includes Montana's own Moose Drool Ale.
BEST FOR Skiers who like to blaze through the trees
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert
ANNUAL SNOWFALL 250 inches
THE BACKSTORY Before the mid nineties, Red Lodge Mountain (72 miles south of Billings) was so limited in size and runs that it drew mainly locals. Red Lodge solved that problem by expanding; in 1996 it added 700 acres to the property, including a range of double-black runs that significantly upgrade its challenge. Now Red Lodge is a destination resort that pulls in the occasional visitor from Europe, although it remains a solidly family-oriented ski area. 800/444-8977; www.redlodgemountain.com; lift tickets $40.
THE TERRAIN Unlike many Montana resorts, Red Lodge has no wide-open trails; all the runs are cut through a dense forest. A mix of moderate to steep runs plunge from the top of 9,416-foot Grizzly Peak, including some long intermediates like Lazy M. Experts can head into the expanded area to ski chutes and trees; a lower-mountain park has jumps and rails for freestylers and snowboarders.
WHERE TO STAY Built in 1893, the historic Pollard Hotel (2 N. Broadway; 800/765-5273; www.pollardhotel.com; doubles from $120) in Red Lodge was recently renovated. Some of the 39 rooms and suites are outfitted with oversized Jacuzzi tubs and balconies that face an interior atrium.
APRÈS SKI One good reason for skiing the mountain is the chance to visit the town of Red Lodge, six miles away. Established in 1884, the red-brick enclave is rich in Western lore: Harry A. Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid, robbed the bank that sits across from the Pollard Hotel—which was once a haunt of Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane's. Nearby streets are lined with a 19th-century railroad station, an opera house, Victorian residences, and a 1920's vaudeville theater—and most of these have been restored since the 1990's. It's a glimpse of Montana just as it was three generations ago.
MARTIN FORSTENZER is a regular contributor to Ski Magazine and author of Mammoth: The Sierra Legend.