A trip to Whitefish, Mont., can be likened to a Choose Your Own Adventure storybook, with each trip allowing for a different experience. I’ve skied several times at the mountain affectionately known as “The Big” by locals. Each time has afforded a very unique experience with my most recent trip being no different. Last January, in an effort to escape a warm storm hitting locally, I headed east for my birthday celebration. My preferred method of getting to this quintessential ski town is by automobile, as I always find the journey a big part of the adventure. Less than 300 miles from downtown Spokane, Whitefish has several driving routes via interstate and state highways, and with hot springs and quaint Montana towns along the way to add to the experience.
While I have not had the opportunity to travel by Amtrak’s Empire Builder line, travelers from both east and west choose this options regularly. Riley Polumbus, public relations manager for Whitefish Mountain Resort, says between 15 percent and 20 percent of resort visitors arrive by train. Polumbus explains: “Traveling by train for a ski vacation has a very romantic feeling to it, capturing an essence from back in the day. A lot of western ski resorts were developed by the railway and Whitefish is no different.”
Spokane offers daily departures at 1:30 am with an arrival into downtown Whitefish by 7:30 am, allowing for a little breakfast before making it to first chair. Coming back is just as easy, with a westbound train departing at 9:16 pm, getting you back to Spokane at a little before 2 am. Once in Whitefish, getting around is made easy by the SNOW bus, a free transportation system with a full schedule from early morning to later in the evening. The route goes from the heart of downtown to the mountain on a regular basis.
There are, what seems to be, an infinite amount of lodging options between slope side condos at Whitefish Mountain Resort and hotel options in downtown. I opted to stay at the Lodge at Whitefish Lake, as they offered a very reasonable winter rate. The lodge is plush, with outdoor hot tubs overlooking Whitefish Lake, well-appointed rooms and The Boat Club restaurant and bar, with one of the best ski town bartenders I have come in contact with. He goes by Chappy and has been a fixture at the lodge since it opened its doors and is an unofficial ambassador for the mountain. Without too much effort, he was offering up local knowledge and insider information about the mountain as I eagerly made mental notes. Since I had skied the mountain before, I had a general idea of what he was describing. Take it all in because it’s almost guaranteed he has skied that day and will tomorrow. In fact, Polumbus reports that Chappy is always up on the mountain, logging vertical daily, and is always one of the top contenders at the end of the year for the most amount of vertical feet of skiing over the season.
The lodge is located between downtown and the mountain road on the shores of pristine Whitefish Lake. While the lodge is busiest during the summer months, it offers a full lineup of live music and nightly specials during the winter months, keeping visitors and locals entertained.
Being and Skiing There
I awoke on my special day to the sound of rain falling outside my window and had a brief moment of disappointment. Reason kicked in. I pulled up one of the many ski report apps on my smartphone, compared snowfall totals, temperatures and came up with a conclusion of 14 inches of fresh snow. This total was on top of an additional 40-plus inches that had fallen over the previous week. Once outside, I was able to see a very definite snowline, well below the village elevation. It had all of the ingredients that make a great day.
Needless to say, I was feeling uber lucky to be skiing light, fresh and deep snow on my special day — one of the best birthday gifts ever! I made my way up the mountain, booted up and got ready to meet up with Riley Polumbus, my tour guide for the day, for a reintroduction to the mountain.
Unlike previous trips, I had to forego the expansive vistas of surrounding mountains, lakes, Glacier National Park and monstrous snow ghosts against blue skies, but that was something I was willing to give up in exchange for incessant snowfall. The mountain offers terrain for everyone, with steeps, glades, groomers and powder stashes, if you happen to lucky enough to be shown them or adventurous enough to find them yourself. Whitefish boasts three sides to its mountain, with 3,000 acres of skiable terrain.
After following Polumbus around the mountain for the better part of the day, it was time to enjoy some of the après skiing activities that Whitefish Mountain Resort is famous for. Traveling to ski resorts mid-week typically gives a little more local flair than weekend travel. At Whitefish Mountain Resort, Wednesday is a good day to be there to take in the long-standing tradition of the Frabert Awards at the historic watering hole, the Bierstube. The place was packed, standing room only, with faces full of smiles from a great day — more like a great week — of powder skiing. Frabert is a three-foot-tall monkey and is awarded to the “Clod of the Week,” the individual who publically messes up the biggest. And while this is a 50-year-old local tradition, the award goes to visitors and locals alike. No one is immune to the dubious honor.
After a big day on the mountain, it was time to head back to the hotel to prepare for Day 2, and it was shaping up to be same result as Day 1: another eight inches of dry, white, fluffy stuff fell over night, a regular occurrence for Whitefish due to its fortunate location near the Continental Divide. Since it seemed like there was plenty of good stuff to go around on the first day, I opted for a leisurely morning, grabbed a coffee and brekkie at a local favorite, Montana Coffee Traders, in the heart of downtown. By the hustle and bustle, I would have guessed a holiday weekend, instead it was full with local energy. The town’s residents embrace their community and their mountain. Andy Feury, the ex-mayor of Whitefish, said once, as was told to me by Polumbus, “Whitefish isn’t a ski town, it’s a town of skiers.” The solid sense of community is evident even to visitors and the locals’ pride for their town is radiant.
The snow was still falling as I finished my coffee. Before I knew it, I was done with my breakfast in record time and heading back up to explore the mountain solo. Although I had a late arrival, there were still plenty of fresh lines to be had. Chatting on chairlift rides with the smiling locals filled the time between endless deep powder turns and more exploring. And after back-to-back days of skiing deep powder, my legs were shot and my face was sore from smiling. And, reluctantly, it was time to start the adventure back home. After my two-day adventure at Whitefish Mountain Resort, I was able to chalk up another unique adventure and start dreaming of the next visit.