There are many great ways to get outside in winter, from building snowpeople in your backyard to skinning up a mountain for some backcountry skiing. For a family-friendly and relatively inexpensive way to explore wintry landscapes, cross-country skiing is a great option, and western Montana has many wonderful places for both classic and skate skiing. Here are a few of our favorites:
Chief Joseph: Though a two-hour drive from Missoula (south on Highway 93, just across the highway from Lost Trail Ski Area), it has some of the most reliable snowfall in the area, and is generally skiable from December 1st through April 15th. With 13+ miles of groomed skate and classic ski trails ranging from easy to difficult, well-marked junctions and trail maps, and a cozy warming hut with a generous supply of hot cocoa, it’s absolutely worth the drive. Find snow reports and grooming info at bitterrootxcclub.net.
For the following ski areas, visit missoulanordic.org for snow reports and grooming info.
Lolo Pass: Another ski area with very reliable snow, Lolo Pass is only an hour from Missoula, west of Lolo on Highway 12. It has eight miles of groomed ski trails, as well as many more miles of multi-use trails maintained by the Missoula Snowgoers snowmobile club. The three-mile groomed loop is great for beginners, while more experienced skiers can explore the six-mile loop. Skiers of all abilities will enjoy the warmth (and hot beverages!) at the Lolo Pass Visitor Center. Parking is $5 per vehicle.
Lubrecht: Just 30 miles east of Missoula on Highway 200, Lubrecht Experimental Forest has 12+ miles of groomed trails ranging from beginner to intermediate. Snow conditions vary and grooming is intermittent, but usually happens prior to weekends. Lubrecht is one of the few groomed ski areas that allows dogs.
Pattee Canyon: When conditions are good, the trails in the Pattee Canyon Recreation Area, just a few miles east of Missoula, are a great place to ski. There are six miles of groomed classic and skate ski trails; ski the north side for flatter trails, or challenge yourself with the hillier loops on the south side. You can also explore the ungroomed trails in Crazy Canyon or the gated roads off of Deer Creek Road.
Rattlesnake Recreation Area: Perhaps the most popular local cross-country ski spot when snow falls in the valley, the main Rattlesnake Trail is just six miles north of downtown Missoula. The trail is multi-use, for winter bikers and hikers as well as skiers, and offers five miles of groomed snow for classic skiing (the trail is not wide enough for skate skiing). With its gently sloping trail, this is a great spot for beginners.
Seeley Lake: With a little more snowfall than the neighboring valleys, Seeley Lake’s 11 miles of groomed skate and classic trails are a wonderful wintry destination, just an hour from Missoula. The trails are well signed and include easy, intermediate, and difficult skiing opportunities, and most are groomed daily. In addition, there are 200+ miles of multi-use trails in the area, maintained by the local snowmobile club.
Interested in traveling a little farther afield? Check out Homestake Lodge near Butte (22+ miles of classic/skate), Mount Haggin near Anaconda (17 miles of classic/6 miles of skate), Blacktail Mountain near Lakeside (15 miles of classic/skate), Echo Lake adjacent to Discovery Ski Area (8+ miles of classic/skate), Moulton Reservoir near Butte (9 miles of classic), and the Rendezvous Ski Trails near West Yellowstone (20+ miles of classic/skate).
Need to rent skis? Rentals for boots, skis, and poles average about $15. In Missoula, check out the Trail Head, Open Road Bicycles and Nordic, or UM Campus Recreation.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of Montana Naturalist magazine, and may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written consent of the Montana Natural History Center. ©2017 The Montana Natural History Center.
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