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Missoula snowboarder Sam Gratton

Missoula snowboarder Sam Gratton makes his way to the top of a run called Meadow at Blacktail last Saturday. With few visits during the week, a Saturday trip provides access to lots of groomed snow.

Sometimes it is nice to be wrong.

For instance, prior to my trip last weekend to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area outside the small Flathead Valley community of Lakeside, I checked out the mountain’s website and was a little disappointed by the trail map. The place looked tiny after studying trail maps for larger hills in search of safe routes down.

What’s more, the weather had been completely uncooperative — warm, sunny, windy and lacking snow. I was worried that arriving at the ski area early would mean we’d be skiing on ice until the sun could warm up the snow.

Boy was I mistaken.

As it turned out, the ski area had received 8 inches of snow a couple of days earlier — a storm that seemed to miss much of the surrounding area. Also, the overnight temperature hadn’t dipped below freezing, so the snow remained soft. To add more teeth to my wide grin, much of the mountain was meticulously groomed. So we were able to carve turns down fresh corduroy until about 11 a.m. because there were so few other folks on the hill.

It’s not often that I gush about anything, but Blacktail Mountain will be my one exception for this decade.

Ways away

I’d long wanted to ski the hill since it started running its lifts in 1998. It is Montana’s newest ski area. But because it’s located almost 500 miles and eight hours away, that visit had been delayed. Now, I’m sorry I waited so long to find such a mountain jewel.

Spread out over 1,000 acres on two adjoining mountains, Blacktail is the only ski area in Montana where you drive to the top of the mountain. It’s a bolt-rattling 14 miles from Lakeside, which sits on the western shore of Flathead Lake about two hours north of Missoula. But thanks to the climb in elevation, the view of the lake and nearby Swan Mountains is awesome. Even more unusual was the fact that there was no wind for much of the day, making the lake a mirror-flat reflector of the surrounding peaks.

The entire mountain is serviced by only three chairlifts and one tow rope for beginners. The ski hill was laid out by co-founder Steve Spencer, who for 27 years had worked as mountain manager at nearby Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Top spots

Our favorite chair was Thunderhead, to the east, which allowed us to ski some great, rolling lines down runs like Snowblower, Meadow and Damnation. Even the sweeping Lakeside Run, which carves along the area’s eastern boundary, provides a fun giant-slalom descent. In between these runs an open area called Pochelon’s Powder provides open routes for those looking to get off the groomers after a fresh snowfall.

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By descending below the Olympics Triple Chair, skiers and snowboarders can access the other mountain served by the Crystal Double Chair — although double may be a generous description of the narrow seats on this lift. Cabinet View and West Ridge were fun, undulating descents to the west. Down the middle Buck Snort, White River and Tail Dragger were also great routes that in the afternoon sun were like skiing creamy frosting, with each gliding turn spreading the icing on a cake.

The only downside to these last three runs was the road route at the bottom that was so wet and sticky that hitting it with any speed almost sent us catapulting forward out of our boots.

Details

Blacktail Mountain’s summit tops out at 6,676 feet and boasts a vertical drop of 1,440 feet. The longest run measures out at 1.75 miles. Seventy percent of the mountains’ terrain is considered intermediate, perfect for old timers like me.

The hill is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. A full day adult ticket costs $38. And if you arrive early enough, on a slow day like we did, you can park right in front of the lodge for a minimal hike to the lifts. The huge lodge provides three levels for ski rentals (bottom), sack lunch diners (middle) and a bar and restaurant at the top.

After enjoying a great day on the mountain, feeling like you own a private ski area, stop in at Lakeside’s Tamarack Brewing Co. for dinner, or a pile of garlic fries and a home-crafted brew. It won’t disappoint either.

I don’t like exclamation points, and often remove them from other people’s writing when I’m the editor, but when it comes to Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, I feel like this whole story should be one big exclamation! I only wish I had visited sooner.

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