The Schweitzer Mountain Resort is truly a hidden gem of skiing in the US. Located near the town of Sandpoint, Idaho on the banks of Lake Pend Orielle, Schweitzer offers an amazing experience for both skiers and non-skiers and doesn't have the high prices and crowds associated with more famous ski resorts in other parts of the Rockies.
There are nine ski lifts along Schweitzer Mountain and several black, blue, and green courses. People of all levels and tastes can obviously find something to like about Schweitzer, but the resort's real fame likes in it's tree-skiing routes. Tree-skiing (as you can imagine) involves skiing down a wooded slope along a semi-marked trail. It's definitely not for beginners, but if you're a good skier and you'd like to try your hand at tree skiing, then Schweitzer is the place.
In town, there are also plenty of activities of kids and non-skiers. They have everything from zip lines to climbing walls to guided excursions to see wildflowers or pick huckleberries. Along with the typical ski resort restaurants and shops, there are also a couple of hotels in town offering apartment-style lodging for small groups and families.
Lookout Pass is a historic ski area straddling the Idaho-Montana border home to a handful of creaky chairlifts and a whole lot of snow. Though relatively small, the area offers three faces of skiing and a mix of gentle first-timers' runs, wide open cruisers, and fun tree and steep shots. Mostly what you'll notice, however, is the snow -- by the time you exit Interstate 90 (that's right -- the ski area is just yards from the freeway) the snow will likely be piled higher than your car's windows, and a lot of that snow hangs around long into the spring and summer. Base depths -- not cumulative snow, but how much snow is actually on the ground -- regularly exceed 10 feet. The ski area has a fun and cheap cafeteria and offers great packages for beginners. It also sells one-ride tickets for trips into the backcountry. This is another ski area with big expansion plans which are in the process of approval -- the new skiing would be largely on the Montana side of the mountain and dramatically expand the terrain. If you are coming up from Montana, note that the area operates on Pacific time -- one hour later that Mountain time.
Silver Mountain is now one of Idaho’s slicker four-season resorts, so it’s a little hard to believe that when this place was founded it was called “Jackass”. “Jackass” referred to a donkey that was used in nearby mines. The area opened in 1968 and was renamed Silverhorn when it changed hands in 1973. Eventually the city of Kellogg took over and used grant money, gifts, and a new tax to solve the ski area’s chief problem – it’s steep and dangerous access road. The problem-solver was a 3.1-mile long gondola which starts just steps from Interstate 90 and ends 3,400 vertical feet later at the ski area. Since opening the gondola, more chairlifts have been added and what is now known as Silver Mountain sprawls across two mountains. The base area, meanwhile, now sprouts condos, restaurants, and one of Idaho’s largest indoor water parks. A little-known insider’s tip about Silver Mountain is that once the main season is finished the resort runs its chairlifts until the snow is mostly gone – usually well into May.
The Crystal Theater is one of the most popular backcountry destinations for skiers in west-central Montana. Crystal Theater is a compact drainage just north of Lolo Pass and on the west side of U.S. 12. (The main trailhead is the plow lot on the west side of the road at the sign stating ‘Visitors Center 1 mile’.) From the trailhead, a short climb through thinned timber leads to a semi-open slope which gives an overview of the terrain. To the further west is the Pillow Line, while directly to the north is Cock Rock. Smaller and somewhat steeper runs can be found further up the drainage, mostly on the south and east faces. Lolo Pass receives tremendous amounts of snow, and Crystal Theater typically has excellent conditions, especially on the sheltered north facing lines. While avalanche danger is typically lower here, slides have occurred on the steeper open runs.
Here’s a ski area few people have heard of. Bald Mountain is a high-point in the remote Clearwater Mountains of northern Idaho. It’s run by a ski club and offers affordable fun on land leased from Potlach, a lumber company. Established in 1959, the area has a t-bar with about 600 vertical feet, and a beginner rope tow. There are more than a dozen runs, some of which are wide open and others of which are narrow old-style turners. This gem is open weekends only. A rustic lodge and the parking lot are located mid-mountain. Since this is a low-key area, make sure you call ahead before planning a trip -- (208) 435-4782. Better yet, they update their Facebook page weekly.
Some towns have parks, some have playgrounds and ballfields, and others have community centers and concert halls. Grangeville, Idaho has a city-run ski hill. Snowhaven sits above the town in a gentle bowl and operates mostly on weekend days and nights and some holidays. Prices are dirt cheap ($17 for an all day adult ticket) and the area is compact and fun. Don’t come here looking for the gnar, but do come looking for a fun friendly time. Ages 6 and below ski free, and the beginner’s rope tow is free as well. I skied here one frosty night and before I was even on the t-bar I had made friends with the mountain manager and two locals. It’s that kind of palace!
Cottonwood’s motto is “Escape to Cottonwood”. That sounds kinda corny until you drive up to this throwback locals-only hill: you actually drive through a section of North Idaho Correctional Institution to get here – and by that I mean you drive directly by prison buildings. Locals take that with a bit of pride, and it’s not uncommon to see them ski in prison get-up. Cottonwood Butte is located at the edge of the Camas Prarie with surprising views of rolling fields and distant peaks. A local told me that the area was created when property owners on the butte pieced parcels together on the shady north side. A t-bar serves a respectable 845 vertical feet, and there is a gentle beginner rope tow. A small lodge serves simple meals, and if you are skiing here and not from the immediate area you will be a topic of curiosity – it’s all good, however. Anyway, everyone is here for the skiing and fun. Tickets are dirt cheap but the area does not get a ton of snow – make sure to call ahead for conditions, or check out their Facebook page.
Bogus Basin is one of the best and, at only 20 miles from Boise, most convenient skiing and nature areas in Idaho. It's usually open for skiing from November until March-April (depending on snowfall) and it's one of the more accessible, family-friendly ski resorts in Idaho. The main slopes, Deer Point and Doe Point, aren't the biggest or most challenging slopes in the state but they make for a fun day out, especially if you're not an expert skier or just want to have some fun with the family. One thing I'd especially recommend is tubing down the mountain. It's a great option if you're on vacation and just want to have a fun day-trip to the mountain rather than strap on your boots and do some serious skiing.
Also, one of the best parts about a trip to Bogus Basin is the drive up there. The road to Bogus Basis winds through the mountain and offers great views of Treasure Valley and Boise, not to mention the simply beautiful mountain scenery. There are a couple paid parking lots throughout the area and luckily they don't murder you with the prices. Speaking of which, Bogus Basin is, in general, a very reasonably prices (if not downright cheap) ski resort. Again, it's not big or fancy, but rental and access fees are doable for a family of four and they have great deal on classes for the kids.
All and all, I'd say that Bogus Basin isn't the best place if you're looking to spend an entire week skiing challenging slopes. But, if you're looking to spend a few days with your family enjoying the mountains and doing some fun slopes without going broke or jut want to have a great day-trip from Boise, Bogus Basin is the best place around.
Sun Valley Resort is perhaps the premier winter sports and ski resort in Idaho, but it's also full of fun outdoor and family-friendly activities if you're visiting Idaho in the summertime. The ski resort has a variety of blue, green, and black runs so everyone can have some fun on the slopes, regardless of level. I'd suggest taking the Challenger and Christmas lifts as they each offer a blue, green, and black options. The snowfall isn't the best in the United States but they supplement the ample natural snowfall with artificial snow so you're bound to have great conditions. Nordic and cross-country skiing are also especially popular in Sun Valley and they even have annual festivals to celebrate the sport.
In summer, travelers have a variety of hiking, fishing, ice skating, and golf options to choose from. Honestly, Sun Valley has done a wonderful job of tailoring their activities to a year-round crowd and there's always something to do no matter the time of year.The summer trails, especially those on Bald Mountain, make for superb hiking and mountain biking and the views are just spectacular. After you're done, head down the Sun Valley Club for a refreshing drink in the sunshine.
If you're a fan of skiing or great outdoors in general, I'd happily recommend giving Idaho's Sun Valley Resort a try. It's an especially appropriate place to go if you have kids or are traveling in a group where no everyone's an avid skier. Enjoy!