Originally from Boise, Idaho, I ventured to Missoula for the University of Montana's School of Journalism. I major in that, and minor in all things… More »
The Alberton Gorge, 35 miles west of Missoula on the Clark Fork River, is the most accessible and best-sustained whitewater in western Montana. Best-sustained in terms of bang-per-mile, with eight named Class II-III rapids (and maybe a high-water Class IV) in a 10-mile stretch of isolated, almost development-free river, and also in terms of seasonal duration: the Gorge is runnable year-round, depending only on your tolerance for cold water and weather.
The default put-in utilized by commercial raft guides, and a good many DIYers, is the Cyr fishing access site at Exit 70 on Interstate 90 headed west. The first notable rapids are called Cliffside I and II, large and confused wavetrains hugging the river-right shore. Kayakers and open-boaters frequently bypass Cliffside by putting in at Sandy Beach (also a popular picnic spot) two miles downstream, and accessible by dirt backroads. Triple Bridges, named for the interstate and railroad overpasses, is just a mile downstream, offering a good warm-up wave that’s surfable at good flows. Split Rock, a relatively minor rapid, is next, followed by perhaps the Gorge’s most fearsome rapid, Tumbleweed, a quick right turn narrowly framed by tumult on river left and a giant hole to the right of the line. At certain flows Tumbleweed is sneakable at far river right.
Tumbleweed is followed by Surfer Joe (another good surf spot), Boat Flipper (which comes in at high water), Boateater, and finally Fang, the Gorge’s second-scariest rapid, which also features a meaty surfing wave for those skilled enough to brave it.
Most raft trips continue to the Tarkio FAS, five miles downstream of Fang, usually battling a wide river and upstream winds to reach the easy-access boat-ramp take-out. Kayakers and canoeists frequently lop off the last four quiet-water miles by taking out at the “Ralph’s” access on river right, a steep 200-yard uphill haul to a dirt parking lot accessed by backroads.
Aside from whitewater, Alberton Gorge is famed for its steep, colorful canyon walls and wildlife. Sightings of beavers, eagles, deer, elk, otters, and osprey are common, and black bears are always a possibility. Swirling flocks of American avocets can captivate the least-observant of birdwatchers. Beware shore-wading yourself, though: most of the Gorge’s shoreline is cluttered with sharp and slippery rocks, and beyond the rocks are some of western Montana’s densest populations of poison ivy.
During the high-summer season, the Gorge also hosts one of western Montana’s densest populations of rafters. Expect plenty of company in the warm months.
In 2005, the Montana Power Company transferred 320 acres of land forming a corridor along the river into public ownership, preserving public access, and scenic values, in perpetuity.
With only two double chairs and an awkward layout, Montana Snowbowl might not impress upon first glance, but its 2,600-foot vertical drop, burly terrain, and satisfying slackcountry options make for a sneaky big and varied resort. The snow doesn't get as deep here as nearby Lost Trail Powder Mountain or Lookout Pass. Coverage can be thin and icy at the base, where warm temperatures can allow unseasonable rain to fall. But if you can ski the whole mountain, there's a lot to like, and when conditions are good, few resorts surpass it.
Located just outside of Missoula on the edge of the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area and Wilderness, Snowbowl includes 1,200 acres of maintained runs, but the dominant feature is the namesake bowl itself, which offers a full day's worth options for adventurous experts. From the top, riders can attack the open parks of East Bowl, the long fall-line of West Ridge, or explore the trees in either direction. Out-of-the-way powder stashes tucked into the folds of the topography await those with the desire and patience to find them.
If you're into racking up vert or maching down groomers, you're better off at Whitefish Mountain or Big Sky. It takes two lift rides and some 45 minutes to complete a lap from the summit of Snowbowl. The two-person Grizzly chairlift carries riders from the base area to a 7,000-foot ridge, where you can choose to either dive back down the front side, or drop off the back toward the LaVelle Creek chair, which reaches to the summit of Big Sky Mountain and serves generally milder, north-facing terrain above 6,500 feet. Beware: Lines can grow up to 10 minutes long at the LaVelle Creek chair on weekends. In that case, you might just want to head to the bar, where the famous Bloody Marys and excellent eats attract patrons with no intention of making turns.
Some novices knock Snowbowl for a lack of beginner and intermediate runs. That should be addressed by a planned expansion on TV Mountain to the northwest, site of the original resort in the 1940s and '50s, where Snowbowl hopes to install two new chair lifts and cut runs adding 1,000 new acres.