Winter is Big in the Flathead

Winter sports are big in the Flathead. And why not? Winter is big in the Flathead. Snow generally comes to the high country—the snow that lays all winter—in late October. And it still hangs on the north slopes and in some of the high passes into late May. Snow in the main valleys is different though.

Oh sure, snow flurries will come earlier than October. And it’s not at all unusual to have late flurries into April. But winter seldom gets really serious—even in the high country—before the end of October. Nor does it hang on in the main valleys much past late March—that’s when the ground begins to thaw.

Still, you can expect to experience five or six months of winter every year. Despite occasional “Chinook” winds from the Pacific, bringing warming, melting periods to the lower valleys, deep snow and freezing temperatures in the mountains ensure great winter recreation opportunities everywhere.

Most serious Montana skiers know the Big Mountain—located just north of Whitefish—is one of the most popular ski areas in the entire Treasure State. With more than 33 miles of ski terrain in 41 different runs; with 2,170 vertical feet above the 4,600-foot base area; with an uphill lift capacity of 8,430 skiers per hour - it’s no wonder the Big Mountain is head and shoulders in popularity above many other Montana ski resorts.

But the real reason is SNOW. It’s deep fine powder, usually blanketing the mountain beginning in October. Always open by Christmas, sometimes opening by Thanksgiving— depending on snowpack—Big Mountain’s average snow is four to seven feet at base, seven to 10 feet at the summit. And skiing usually lasts through April.

If sliding madly downhill on a couple of flat boards scares the socks off you, then take up cross country skiing as I did. Certainly one of the fastest growing outdoor recreational pursuits in Montana, there’s unlimited opportunity in National Forests, state lands, and Glacier Park. The sport’s burgeoning popularity has led to several sporadically groomed-trail ski areas throughout the Flathead.

For those who seek solitude, that can be found virtually anywhere on the millions of acres of public lands in the Flathead. All you need is enough snow and enough willpower to seek out a suitable place. Snowshoes would help, too.

Yet another popular wintertime sport in the Flathead is snowmobiling. The expense of the sport has resulted in some decline over the last decade, but there are still substantial advocates around the valley.

Most snowmobiling is conducted in the Whitefish Range, north of Columbia Falls, the Swan Valley-Seeley Lake area, the Tally Lake country west of Whitefish, southeast of Eureka, the Flathead’s South Fork above Hungry Horse Dam, and the Skyland Road area near Marias Pass.

Ice fishing is a wintertime activity pursued by many Flathead visitors and residents alike. Though to some folks, the sport would play better in August while they’re bucking hay bales during the dog days of mid-summer, others like nothing better than to perch on an ice-covered lake, jigging for grandpa trout, through a six-inch hole— weather be damned!

Opportunities are plentiful for winter recreation; especially follow those folks who can’t abide propping their feet up by the fire and sipping hot-buttered rums for an entire frigid season.

Roland Cheek has lived the better part of fifty years living in Columbia Falls in the heart of the Flathead area. A good many of those years he spent as an outfitter. Most of the rest of that he’s spent observing the area and its wildlife and writing about bears, elk, and the great outdoors surrounding him. His “Trails to Outdoor Adventure” has been syndicated in print and radio. He is the author of six books and countless outdoor articles. Find out more about him at www.rolandcheek.com.

by: Roland Cheek