Encouraging 6-foot snowbanks line the road as we crest Chief Joseph Pass and drop into the Big Hole, eager for a day of what we hope will be empty slopes. It hadn't been easy to roll past the snow-blanketed Lost Trail Powder Mountain with skis in the rack—the place is a fave. But we've got a new destination to reach, complete with après-ski hot springs around the bend and, should it live up to its reputation, some lift-served untracked deep to sample. If what we've heard is true, Maverick Mountain might just become our new fave.
Pink clouds clog the Big Hole Valley as we descend into the frozen haze, and we see no signs of life—car, moose or otherwise—for the next 40 miles. That's precisely what my friends and I have come for—not just an affordable weekend, but also something that feels a world away from Missoula. The one-two combo of Maverick and neighboring Elkhorn Hot Springs promises to fit the bill.
The morning sun has burnt off most of the low-lying clouds by the time we drive past the bar and post office that qualify as the town of Polaris. An inch of hoarfrost still coats the valley. We navigate the icy access road to Maverick and find the lot full—not with cars, but with dogs. Maybe these are the Maverick Mountain powderhounds we've heard about.
Barely 20 vehicles are here, though, so we're not feeling rushed. There should be plenty of dust-on-crust for everyone.
Maverick Mountain and Elkhorn Hot Springs are two of the few outposts in the Big Hole's Grasshopper Valley, a long, dramatic expanse that cleaves the Pioneer Mountains from north to south. In summer, it's possible to reach the mountain and hot springs by traveling south from Wise River on the popular (and fully paved) Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. But deep snow closes the road to cars from Dec. 1 to May 15, leaving a high-country winter wonderland for intrepid cross-country skiers and snowmobilers.
We're here to ride chairs, however, and the weekend is prime time to do it. Like a number of mom 'n pop ski hills in Montana, Maverick loads skiers only four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. The three-day downtime often allows snow to accumulate, and local ski junkies arrange their schedules to make the most of the trackless deep. On this March day we're not so lucky: Our visit coincides with the back end of a high-pressure system that's kept Western Montana dry for weeks.
And so it's a groomer day, an ass-hauling combo of corduroy cruising interspersed with occasional puffs of crystalline hoar breaking across our boots. Fortunately for the early birds, the mountain's eastern exposure soaks up morning sunshine, softening the hardpack for our ski edges. After a few runs I ask a middle-aged lifty to name his favorite run. He grins and tells me to check out a tree stash right off a double-diamond on the lower mountain called The Belly. "But make sure to bring the grass skis!"
Turns out it's good advice—The Belly is fun and interesting, although plenty of grassy stobs poke through the shallow, frosty snowpack. As I dance from snow patch to snow patch I wonder if the valley's namesake grasshopper refers to a technique required to get down dodgy parts of the mountain.
Maverick's one chair, an older double, covers more than 2,000 vertical feet, but we still make short shrift of every blue, black and double-black run on the mountain. The runs are uncomplicated, mostly wide-open cruisers cut through lodgepole and punctuated with small tree islands. The grooming is clean but unremarkable; aside from the must-avoid zones of grassy scree, the runs become deliciously carve-able as the morning warms. By noon we're getting antsy for a stiffer challenge, so we head off to explore a slack-country area of the mountain I heard about from a friend in Missoula.
"There's killer tree lines just out of bounds to north and northeast of the top," he'd said, pointing at a map. Just follow Thin Air a ways, he'd said, and then duck into the woods. "You can't miss the lines," he'd insisted.
Well, we miss them. No meadows, no openings, no tree shots. Just a shallow snowpack and dog hair lodgepole, closing in on us like a Death Star trash compactor. We traverse left, then right, searching for anything ski-able and yelling encouragingly when we find openings that don't require bushwhacking. Things remain grim until, an hour later, we find ourselves back at the base. We stumble into the mountain bar, completely done skiing and ready for a drink.
Opening the door I'm immediately accosted by four friends up from Dillon for the weekend. They're Maverick regulars, committed believers in the mountain's remote flavor and its lift-served powder stash. They're worried that our first time of "getting Mavericky" has been tainted by poor snow, and go on ad nauseam about how lucky they are to have a mountain almost to themselves.
I could have told them they were wasting their breath—Maverick's potential is obvious. If we'd come on a deep-snow day, the long and lonely straight-down-the-fall-line runs would have given us plenty of time in the white room and everything we came for.
I already know I'll make a return trip. What I don't know is that it'll come sooner rather than later, thanks to a divorce settlement and an unexpected phone call.
But that's in the future. For now, I buy the next round and settle in to watch the rare skier blaze down the mountain and hit a kicker in front of the bar's picture windows.
The microbrews flow, but we don't linger too long. We've got food and hot times ahead at Elkhorn Hot Springs, right up the road.
Unlike the ski area, the Elkhorn parking lot is packed and the place is hopping. We check into a cabin and the six of us, plus our dogs, pile in and spread out. We consider going for a big meal at the resort's restaurant, but an impressive impromptu potluck of cheese, crackers and wine erases the need. Satiated, we stroll the half-mile to the mineral springs.