When the snow flies, it’s time to get out the skis or snowshoes and crank up the snowmobile, because southwestern Montana offers a paradise of breath-taking vistas, glorious solitude, and pure challenge.
Downhill skiers will find two ski areas in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest: Discovery Basin, just west of Anaconda, and Maverick Mountain, northwest of Dillon. Both are independently owned and operated, so contact the ski area for season and rate information.
For cross-country skiers, the Forest offers both untracked powder for you to pioneer and groomed trails for you to follow. At Chief Joseph Pass in the Bitterroot Mountains, 25 miles west of Wisdom on Highway 43, there’s a 41-kilometer system of groomed trails. Volunteers from the Bitterroot Cross-Country Ski Club regularly groom the trails through the season. Cross-country skiing in the Pioneer Mountains includes 22 kilometers of tracked trails at Elkhorn Hot Springs, and a five-kilometer marked loop trail at Birch Creek. North of Butte, 14 kilometers of ski trails are available at Moulton Reservoir, groomed and maintained by Mile High Nordic Ski Education Foundation. Near Anaconda and Wise River, on state land, are approximately 30 kilometers of cross-country ski trails on the Mt Haggin Wildlife Management Area, also groomed and maintained by the Mile High Nordic Ski Education Foundation. In the Gravelly Range, 40 miles south of Ennis, cross-country skiing is available at Wade and Cliff Lakes, in association with Wade Lake Cabins.
At Georgetown Lake, you’ll find a 14-kilometer groomed network of cross-country ski trails. Parking and a new warming hut is available at the Midway Trailhead on the Discovery Ski Road. The trails are groomed and maintained by Echo Lake Trails Association.
Georgetown Lake also offers nearly 100 miles of marked and groomed snowmobile trails in the mountains around the lake. The trails are groomed and maintained by Anaconda Snowmobile Club. Check in with the Pintler Ranger District for information on groomed routes for 2017/2018 as some routes may be restricted or closed for timber harvest activities. Maps of this trail system are available at Forest Service offices and on the AVENZA phone app.
The Pioneer Mountains offers several snowmobile trails, including the Pioneer National Recreation Snowmobile Trail which runs from Wise River to Elkhorn Hot Springs. A map of all the trails is available at Forest Service offices and online. Grooming is provided by the Beaverhead Sno-Riders, Jackpine Savages, and Big Hole Snowmobile Club. Before beginning your journey, check the transmitting of your beacon at the beacon check near the gate at the Elkhorn Hot Springs turnoff.
You can also enjoy high-altitude snowmobiling in the Gravelly Range, south of Ennis, with over 50 miles of trail and views that sweep on forever. Trails include Antelope Basin Snowmobile Trail (ungroomed), Black Butte – Lobo Mesa Snowmobile Loop (partially groomed), and the Alder Gulch – Call Road trail (groomed, occasionally groomed to Clover Meadows along the Gravelly Range Road). Trail grooming is provided by the Vigilante Snowmobilers. In the Tobacco Root Mountains you can ride the North Meadow Creek (Twin Lakes) Snowmobile Trail, partially groomed by the Vigilante Snowmobilers.
Right off of Interstate 15, at either the Elk Park, Bernice, or Basin exits, snowmobilers can find 117 miles of marked and groomed trails in the upper Boulder River, Lowlands, and Cottonwood Creek areas of Jefferson and Deer Lodge Counties. This same set of trails can also be reached from the Deer Lodge exit on I-90. The trails are groomed and maintained by Mining City Trail Riders. Maps of this trail system are available at Forest Service offices and on the AVENZA phone app. During the 2018 season, snowmobile trails in the Spring Emery and Middle Fork of Cottonwood, east of Deer Lodge, will not be groomed due to timber harvest activities and plowed roads.
Across the Forest, many mountain roads are primarily traveled by snowmobile during the winter. The Forest Service, in conjunction with Jefferson County, officially closes several roads in the mountains north of Butte to road vehicles, ATVs, and trailbikes from December 15 to April 1. The intent there is to preserve the snowpack on the roads for use by snowmobiles. These roads include Lowland Road #442, Boulder River Road #82, Hail Columbia #9485, and American Gulch #674. Visitors are reminded that closures are still in effect even when snow levels are low.
As you make your plans for this winter, remember the Forest Service offers places to stay when you want to get away. You can rent backcountry cabins in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, some of which can be reached only by ski or snowmobile. For a complete list of cabins, visit the forest’s website at www.fs.usda/bdnf/recreation. All cabins have basic amenities: beds, tables, chairs, and wood stoves. You must usually bring your own drinking water, bedding, towels, and food. Plan ahead, as many cabins get booked quickly for winter weekends. Rental rates are generally between $20 and $40 per night. To make reservations and to find out more information, call 1-877-444-6777 or go to www.recreation.gov.
Pick up a map for the part of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest that interests you, and to find out which areas and routes are open to snowmobiles. Three maps cover the entire 3.3-million-acre National Forest and are available at local Forest Service offices and merchants, or you can order maps online at www.nationalforeststore.com. Maps can also be purchased and downloaded to your mobile device through the Avenza PDF Maps App, which is available as a free download from iTunes and the Android Play Store. The Forest Service expects to soon release new free “over snow” maps that show what areas and roads of the Beaverhead Deerlodge National Forest are open to winter motorized recreation.
Winters in southwest Montana can be both fun and dangerous. Before heading out to enjoy your favorite recreation activity, check both the local weather forecast and the current avalanche conditions. Be prepared for the worst and be sure both you and your equipment is in top form. Information on winter weather safety can be found at www.nws.noaa.gov/om/winter. Daily updates on avalanche conditions can be found at the Gallatin National Forest (Bozeman) Avalanche Center website at hwww.mtavalanche.com, or the West Central Montana (Missoula) Avalanche Center website at www.missoulaavalanche.org.
For more information on winter recreation opportunities, contact any of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge offices in Dillon, Butte, Wisdom, Ennis, or Philipsburg.