Whitefish in Winter

Skiing Big Mountain, Montana
  |  Gorp.com
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One of my favorite things about Whitefish, Montana, is the Big Mountain ghosts. They show up only in winter, and they're the prettiest things I've ever seen. I was introduced to them riding the lift up to the summit of Big Mountain, just outside of Whitefish. It was the first run of the day after an all-night storm, and the sun had returned, as if on cue. Not a hint of green was left showing. The tall pines had been smothered in snow that clumped like mashed potatoes and clung to every branch—leaving the forest looking not unlike an army of Michelin Men.

"Snow ghosts," as they're called, are a Big Mountain specialty. They add personality to a mountain already loaded with it and make people happy. They surely have every reason to be: The skiing is first-rate, the people are friendly, and the atmosphere is unpretentious. That's one of the best things about Big Mountain: Despite its superlative name, there aren't a lot of big egos here. You won't find $1,000 ski outfits or a resort town lined with overpriced shops. What you will find is lots of snow—335 inches of it every winter—people who are extremely loyal to their mountain, and a winter landscape that's hard to beat.

Big Mountain serves up 3,000 acres of skier-friendly terrain, including Hellroaring Basin and the newly opened North Side. Even on the busiest weekends of the year I spend only a few minutes waiting in a line for a lift. It's not that many people don't ski here—quite the opposite. In the 1999-2000 season, 285,000 people skied Big Mountain (compare that to the 1.3 million that skied Vail in 1999-2000), but with 78 runs and 3,000 acres of skier-friendly terrain, everyone should have enough elbow room. From the 7,000-foot summit, curving runs cut a wide swath through the trees like ribbons draped on a Christmas present. One afternoon I stop to take a few pictures halfway down Russ's Street near the ski boundary, and I hear something rare for a ski slope: silence. No birds, no wind, no voices, nothing. I can make out the muffled whir of a chairlift, but other than that, it's just me and the trees. I take one last deep breath and push off, enjoying the soft swoosh my skis make in the silence of newfallen snow.

But Big Mountain is only a small part of winter recreation around Whitefish, the mountain town about 15 minutes from its base. Whitefish is also the gateway to one-million-acre Glacier National Park—a haven for cross-country skiers and snowshoers—just 25 miles to the northeast. Even better, winter in the entire Flathead Valley, where Whitefish is centered, is surprisingly mild, offering balmy midwinter temperatures of 27 degrees Fahrenheit. The snow falls dry and powdery with an occasional surge of moisture—conditions ideal for skiers and ghosts alike.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 8 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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