Lately I've become a fan of skiing solo. Not only do I get to pick my own lines and do my own thing, but I also experience a novel social experience with every lift ride. Over the course of a morning, the soul of Bozeman reveals itself. My first chair of the day is with a breathlessly excited engineering student who arranged his class schedule to have mornings off three days a week. Then I queue up with a powder-loving, self-employed woodworker who balances his long summertime work hours by making skiing his winter priority. Next up, a wildlife biologist who sneaks in ski lessons during the week so she can keep up with her kids for a little while longer. In each case, we share thoughts on the weather and snow and then slip into a familiar conversation: all the things we love about Bozeman. Sure, it's a ski town, but more than that, we're a well-rounded community. Bozeman has a major university, a real airport (Eight gates! So metropolitan!), a full-scale hospital, and an economy that's more diverse than your typical tourist hub. We ski our brains out, of course, but we've got depth, dammit.
Bozeman is blessed with two ski areas, each with killer terrain and distinctly different personalities. Ski them both to make the most of your Bozeman experience.
Bridger Bowl is known for serious terrain, slow lifts, few amenities, and not a Bogner suit to be seen. Oh, and a smallish parking lot. Do not be late on a powder day. Seriously, is Instagramming your latte art more important than getting a properly early start? Better yet, take the free weekend bus and get dropped off lodge-side for a no-hassle start to your day. Bridger's terrain rewards expert skiers, and fit ones at that. But it takes some careful sussing thanks to minimal signage and a refreshing mindset that it's up to you to take care of yourself. The Pierre's Knob and Bridger lifts both offer a range of bumps, bowls and pow, along with cruxy technical bits that are short but inspiring. In flat light, head for tree skiing off Pierre's Knob or the mellow-pitched Alpine lift. When you're ready to step it up a notch, Bridger's Ridge terrain can be accessed from three locations: the top of the Bridger and Pierre's Knob lifts, and the top of the Schlashman's Lift. Oh, you did bring your beacon, right?
Start with the Fingers, a 15-minute bootpack above Pierre's Knob lift. It's impossible to make a wrong turn and you can pretty much see all the terrain you're going to ski. Beyond that, the Schlashman's lift offers up a backcountry-like experience with the awesome convenience of a lift. Note that a beacon is required to ride the lift, no exceptions (don't be like this guy). Pay attention on the ride up, because the terrain is entirely unmarked and there are cliffy dead-ends. Stick close to the liftline the first run or two, and don't venture down anything you're not certain about. These same rules apply on the Ridge, but much more so. The Ridge terrain is difficult to figure out sight-unseen, and following tracks is no guarantee of good judgment. A crowd will gather to watch, photograph, and mock cliffed-out hucksters while they are rescued by ski patrol. If in doubt, book a half-day Ridge Guide for savvy access to the conditions du jour without worry of getting lost (or mocked).
Bridger Bowl has zero slopeside lodging and limited choices for après, but Jimmy B's has a friendly atmosphere and irresistible French fries, while the fire pit in front of the Grizzly Ridge offers a decidedly local vibe. You'll find lots of options in downtown Bozeman, with establishments ranging from upscale to dirtbag. Mid-level favorites include Montana Ale Works, Sweet Chili's, and Blackbird Kitchen. For inspired, funky accommodations check out the Lark with a taco bus on one side, a ski shop on the other, and a distillery across the street.
Bridger's hometown simplicity is complimented by Big Sky's bustling resort atmosphere. Fast lifts, trendy outfits, and a downright huge expanse of terrain await. Take some warm up laps on the long, rolling groomers off Swiftcurrent, followed by fun but mellow bumps and trees on Africa and Ambush Glades. Then head to the Bowl for a sampling of the above-treeline weather and snow conditions. If that checks out OK, the tram will likely be good too. The tram accesses spectacular terrain and you won't be the only one waiting to sample it, so go early to avoid a big liftline. At the top, Liberty Bowl offers the most straightforward descent, but its south aspect is a mixed blessing. Snow, wind, and sun create variability on all the tram runs so local beta is key.
If the tram line is small because the visibility and weather are poor, take the cue. I have watched people fall over while standing still in Lone Peak's low-viz void. Instead, ski the protected lines off the Challenger lift. This lift is long and slow, so don't ride with someone who lacks conversation skills. In the absence of good company, the ultra-rutted bumps directly underneath the lift make excellent spectating opportunities.
Wrap up your day with PBRs and live music on the Plaza, or lively drinks and dinner at Whiskey Jacks. If you crave quinoa or a quieter atmosphere, head over to the Summit Hotel. For lodging, it's hard to beat the slopeside ease of the Huntley Lodge, which includes a ginormous gorge-fest breakfast spread. Given the scale of Big Sky's terrain, you'll need all the calories you can get.
While Bozeman offers a substantial list of "must-do's," don't forget to slow down, relax, and grab a chair ride with a friendly local. The lift might be slow but the conversation will be worthwhile.
Marquee image: Steve Lowry neck deep after a 27 inch storm at Bridger Bowl. PHOTO: Ryan Krueger