The Flathead Valley
WORDS • DREW PETERSEN
PHOTOS • GABE ROVICK
Editors’ Note: This project was filmed and written in January 2020. If you’re planning a visit to any of these amazing locations in Montana, first read these travel & safety tips.
The trees are completely white, caked in a mix of rime and fresh snow. The trees look like ghosts amidst the fog and are one of the many things for which Whitefish Mountain Resort, just outside of Glacier National Park, is well-known. These magical trees, known locally as snow ghosts, offer a welcoming, wintry beauty, and provide a sense of place in today’s stormy weather. Kyle Taylor’s red jacket is my target and he hooks left, away from the lift and to the edge of the North Ridge.
Kyle, a local friend of mine, stops above a pitch that falls away. Below is a collection of fluted rock ridges and tall pines, also caked in white. He’s showing me and the FREESKIER crew around his home mountain, and he leads the way, delicately placing two turns atop the ridge before letting his skis catch air and run with speed into the open meadow below. Kyle’s skiing is clinical, with perfect, graceful technique in every turn. He’s skied all around the world; racing as an NCAA ski racer at Montana State University in Bozeman, competing on the Freeride World Tour, and, staying true to his Montana roots, winning the Moonlight Basin event of the Freeskiing World Tour three years in a row.
But for Kyle, Whitefish is home. As we ride up Chair 5, a slow-moving double, he tells me, “These are the places we’d ski as kids, learning to hit cliffs out here. It’s still one of my favorite spots because you can always find fresh tracks.”
We’re lucky to have him show us around; he quite literally knows every nook and cranny on the mountain. More than anything, I’m impressed by the steep terrain, perfect for dancing amongst the rocks and trees with a technical flair. It’s one of my favorite styles of skiing, and Whitefish sure does have it going on. It’s storming today in Whitefish and it happens often, when a cloud parks itself on top of the mountain, dropping a froth-worthy average annual snowfall of 320 inches.
All day long, Kyle greets friends and lifties: He grew up here and two years ago he decided to move home to Whitefish, back to the mountain he knows best and the community that his family has helped cultivate. The Taylor family built and opened the Hidden Moose Lodge in 1995 and still owns and operates the quaint, log cabin lodge in between the town of Whitefish and Whitefish Mountain Resort. We stayed at the Hidden Moose while we were in town, which embodies the welcoming nature of the community with its inviting fireplace and cozy couches.
At the end of the ski day, we ski down to the Hell Roaring Saloon at the base of the mountain and order nachos, layered perfectly with all the fixings, and two pitchers of beer to finish the day off. By pure happenstance, at the table next to us sits the mayor of the town of Whitefish, John Muhlfeld, a skier himself.
After doing my best to finish my share of our mountain of nachos, I move out to the deck and have a conversation with Mayor Muhlfeld. Leaning over the railing, we take in the view, as the sunset illuminates the valley below and Whitefish Lake. I ask what made him decide to make this his home. “Well, I skied here for one winter, and after that, I just knew I should stay.”
I think I know what he means. As the sun sinks lower, Muhlfeld and I finish our conversation. Across the way, we can see the ski runs of Blacktail Mountain cutting through the trees, slowly disappearing into the darkness as nighttime falls over Montana.
We head to Blacktail Mountain the next morning. It sits across the Flathead Valley and has a different pace to it, something noticeable right from the beginning. The parking lot and lodge are at the top of the mountain, and to begin the day you click into your skis and take a run before even getting on a chair. Blacktail is where the local community teaches their kids to ski and communal lunches are encouraged. But what hooks visitors, just like the locals, are the views across Flathead Lake into Glacier National Park as well as the impressive Mission Range. While we are not lucky enough to take in the view on the day we visited—thanks to stormy conditions—I find Blacktail refreshing. It’s a place where the soul of skiing is alive and well.
After a day of skiing Blacktail, we stop in the nearby town of Lakeside for a beer at the Tamarack Brewing Company. Naturally, I can’t let the beautiful view of Flathead Lake slip away before leaving town to continue our trip toward Maverick Mountain. I gaze out across the water and let the lakeside breeze hit my face; it’s as refreshing as my experiences in these northwestern Montana ski towns.