Lost Trail: Montana's Old School Powder Guarantee

Dec 7 2020
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Written by Natalie Akers

Imagine a mountain that guarantees a powder day. Every Thursday.

That's not a stretch for locals at Lost Trail Ski Area, even in the 20-21 season when almost nothing is predictable. I'd been hearing about their legendary tradition since I crossed the South Dakota border. Everyone from industry pros at Red Lodge Mountain to patrons of the Butte County Library seemed to be enamored with the hidden gem, which boasts 325 annual inches of snowfall and 1800 skiable acres. So, I planned my entire Montana road trip around hitting Lost Trail on "Powder Thursday."

For the last 80 years of operation, skiers and riders have made the same pilgrimage. Lost Trail closes Monday-Wednesday (no AT poachers allowed), designating Thursday the day to earn fresh tracks on early-week accumulation. Translation: three days and four nights worth of snowfall, every week.

My route to Lost Trail wove through one of America's largest contiguous wilderness regions. The mountain is nestled deep in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, 50 miles south of Hamilton, Montana; 45 miles from Salmon, Idaho; and atop the Continental Divide. This Bitterroot Valley, a 2,400 sq. mile expanse, has an average of 7 housing units per sq. mile (2010 census). It feels wild.

To ease my conscience on the backroads, I made a mental map of each home I crept past from Anaconda to Wisdom, MT. 25 miles; 5 houses; 1 moose. I was relieved to finally reach the well-plowed intersection of 44 and Montana's Powder Highway 93. This "X" marks the spot for Lost Trail Powder Mountain. I parked by 10:30am, set back a bit by my wildlife sightings, and still managed to claim a spot within 5 rows of the lodge.

New snowfall since closing Sunday: 15 inches. Lift tickets for any adult buddy without an Indy Pass? $49.

Despite its relative proximity to Missoula and Butte (under 2 hrs from both), the resort is literally off the grid. That didn't intimidate the late Bill Grasser from purchasing the mountain in 1967 with the vision of building a family-oriented mountain with world class snow.

Today, his son and daughter -- Scott and Judy Grasser -- rely on a system of generators to power the mountain's 5 Double Chairs & 3 Ropes tows. They've continued in their father's footsteps providing safe and fun access to locals on both sides of the Idaho-Montana border. "We're not an out-of-state destination resort," Scott told the Missoulian in an interview honoring his father who passed away in 2015. "What we would love to be in the future and what Dad always wanted us to be was a local, family destination."

I asked Marketing Director, RJ Higgins, how they maintain what he described as a "mom and pop low key feeling," where "skiing is just skiing." Our conversation with contributions from the modest, Judy, seemed to boil down to Bill Grasser's philosophy: to lead with community first, and to protect the mountain's freakishly deep snow. There's no snowmaking here. As Higgins notes, "if it snows, we groom less."

"Our feature product is the snow from Mother Nature. That's all we have [...] We are fulfilling dreams of floating on a cloud in blissful untouched powder, with endless face shots." (losttrail.com, 2020)

The Skiing
The view from Lost Trail's lodge is Chair #1 and the wide-cut expert trail, "South Face." Chair #1 is the original double that serves skiers up to the lower of Lost Trail's two peaks. It also offers exclusive views of Lost Trail lifties' impressive snow sculptures: a magical field of mini golf figurines. Did I mention kids under 5 ski free?

I stayed skier's right and through an inviting patch of trees between Thunder and Meadow Run (the easiest way down). This was my first taste of tree skiing at Lost Trail. I found a meadow every so often for three fresh turns in snow still untouched by the wind. The fall line enticed me into "The Gully." Unlike other resorts, this gully is actually a named glade with a cut cat track out to the base of Chair #2 (thank you, Lost Trail).

Famous chair #4 is closed today, so folks are concentrated on the Idaho-side of the mountain. In a typical year, one skier or rider would be expected to raise a pole and admit one's loner status before hogging an old-school barless chair. But in the 20-21 season, the mountain has adopted a "drive together, ride together" policy. Singles, you're in for a day of lonely lift rides. Don't worry, you can still access the Chili Bread Bowl and Chili Cheese Fries...best enjoyed around the lodge's famous circular indoor fireplace.

I could have skied the lower glades off of Chair #2 all day, but I'd heard legends of Femur Ridge. Femur is the location of Lost Trail's annual Cold Smoke Freeride. The decade-old spring event is an all-mountain skills freeride drawing skiers and riders of all ages to play off "cliffs, powder, kickers, and tree lines." Higgins and his park team rope the course off for weeks prior to insure shoulder-deep powder for the competition.

You don't have to be a cliff hound to enjoy Lost Trail or get fresh tracks. In '99, Bill realized his dream of opening additional acreage for skiers and riders. First, Chair #3 brought new beginner and intermediate groomers to the fold. Four years later, the Grasser family and their team completed Chair #4, reaching Lost Trail's Montana peak (elevation 8,200 ft., 1,800 ft. vertical). This opened up some of the state's best skiing: the avalanche-controlled bowl known as "The White House" and a series of intermediate trails that weave through the National Forest. Higgins says Lost Trail has plans to keep working on the area they've dubbed, "Sacjac Trees." But that's for the summer. And, as Higgins puts it, in the summer "we shut down and go fishing."

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