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.
Elkhorn provides soakers with three options: an indoor grotto or "wet sauna," and two outdoor pools. All are co-ed, and suits are required.
The grotto, an intimate, rock-lined tub, runs at about 105 degrees. The outdoor options—a large swimming pool and a smaller but hotter pool—range from 95 to 100 degrees. Happily, the water has none of the telltale sulphur odor associated with geothermal springs, but the big pool is entirely covered by a thin layer of unpleasant slime. Many guests test the water, ourselves included, but we don't see anyone linger for more than a few minutes.
The other pool is a stark contrast—toasty, and bobbing with nearly two dozen attractive twenty- and thirty-somethings, with just a few kids here and there. Since there's no bar, Elkhorn soakers bring their own alcohol, and apparently enjoy sharing with new friends. We keep it social for a few more dehydrating hours, then roll, a bit rummy, back to the cabin.
Built nearly a century ago, Elkhorn's historic structures are spacious, well worn and clearly accustomed to partying. We play rowdy drinking games into the morning, then stoke the wood stove—the cabin's sole heat source—and head to bed. "Rustic" finger-sized gaps around the un-lockable door effectively keep the place from getting too stuffy.
The morning dawns brilliant and blue, and golden rays pouring through the un-shaded window roust us early—well, that and a pressing need to return to the daily grind in Missoula. We pack up and hit the resort's complimentary hangover cure: a buffet breakfast of coffee, grits and eggs. If the snow comes, we all happily agree, it's time for another shot at getting Mavericky.
Six days later I'm speeding across the Big Hole thanks to a John Wayne Bobbitt, ski parlance for "six inches on the ground in the morning." Maverick is reporting eight inches of fresh, but a surprise call from Dillon quickly trumped the on-area option. A friend's ex-wife hadn't yet picked up the snowmobiles she'd won in their divorce settlement, and as far as he was concerned, a group of us should use them—or abuse them—as we pleased.
We plan to meet at a trailhead on the snowy eastern flanks of the Beaverhead Range. Tempting options abound for sled-assisted skiers here, but the Dillon crew has drawn a bead on Rock Island Lakes basin, a high subalpine area just south of Homer Youngs Peak. At 10,621 feet, it's the tallest in the range and regularly holds snow well into the summer, offering a brilliant backdrop from nearby lines.
Our borrowed sleds for the day—two mid-80s Ski-Doos—belch blue for a bit when we start them up but are soon idling smoothly. We quickly attach our skis and begin motoring up the deeply worn trail. Nine laborious miles later we break above the tree line and emerge into the spectacular basin. A few other sledding parties are zipping about, but we are the only skiers. We find an untracked but perfectly angled area, park our rides on the frozen lake, and prepare to skin up the ridge to find a few face shots.
Well-protected from wind and sun, the cold snow on the ridge's northeast face is pleasant to ski and comfortingly stable. We take a few mellow laps, lounge in the alpine splendor and dream about three-day weekends. Before we're ready, the sun slips behind the divide and the temperature plummets. We don our parkas, schuss back to the sleds and speed down the now-icy, rutted trail toward our rigs. Then it's time to thank our friends and head back home.
It's been a great day, a great week, really, of exploring the Big Hole. We crest Lost Trail Pass happy and exhausted, but mostly thankful to be surrounded by so many new opportunities for adventure, and so many of them a few hours away.
Now if we could just get control over the snowfall...