There is no disputing that Colorado’s Vail Mountain is a spectacular spot to ski. The jewel in the Vail Resorts portfolio boasts expansive terrain with seven Back Bowls, meaning you can ski for days without repeating a run. The sophisticated eateries, swanky hotels, luxurious spas and shopping make for a memorable and sumptuous getaway. But, between the cost of lift tickets ($161), lessons (private, $1,029) and lodging (Vail Marriott $610, Four Seasons $980—average about $600 at this season) even a basic vacation there can set you back thousands. Additionally, the popularity of Epic Pass (which allows skiers unrestricted access to 69 participating resorts around the world, including Vail,) has increased congestion on and off the mountain. If you must go, pick the first two weeks in December or the beginning of March before spring break or the very end of the season (mountain closes April 21).
For a worthy alternative, head to Whitefish Ski Resort in northwestern Montana. Its glitz-free but charm-filled namesake town mixes the auras of bohemian wild West and plucky ski village, think mom and pop shops thriving alongside groovy boutiques, restaurants, breweries and a sprinkling of coffee shops.
Getting here is an effort. You’ll need to change planes in Denver and fly to Kalispell. But, off-the-grid geography means day trippers are scarce and tourist hordes nonexistent. The result: No lift lines. Easy-to-snag dinner reservations. And prices half of what you’ll pay in Vail. One of the lone independent ski resorts in America, Whitefish revels in its anti-corporate vibe. For starters, parking at the base lodge, is complimentary. Once inside, grabbing your lift ticket ($81/day) and rentals ($37/day) takes approximately 10 minutes: and renters can stow skis overnight free of charge. A private lesson, a good idea because 50 percent of the runs are black and double-black, will cost $495 for a full day.
The biggest payoff is the skiing: 3,000 acres of terrain featuring an impressive beginner area, plenty of groomed intermediate runs and steeper terrain throughout the North Bowl Face/East Rim and Hellroaring Basin. The alpine fairy dust is dry, fresh powder atop a packed base, the result of consistent snow dumps (up to 300 inches annually). While doing laps, you’ll feel more energetic than at Vail, because the elevation is lower. As you weave in and out of “snow ghosts,” ethereal-looking trees coated in ice, you’ll admire vistas of nearby Glacier National Park.
For affordable lodging, you can stay downtown at cozy boutique hotel The Firebrand (starting at $119), then drive (or take a public S.N.O.W bus) 10 minutes up to the mountain base. The apres scene is lively, with options in town (craft cocktails at Spotted Bear Spirits and house-brewed. lagers and ales at Great Northern Brewing Company) and on the mountain at historic The Bierstube. Most restaurants are casual and affordable. Try hearty, small plates at Last Chair and cherry-wood-smoked meats at Piggyback BBQ. To fuel up for skiing (or, the flight home), have breakfast at Swift Creek CafeOf course, there are more upscale options: staying slope-side in a luxury treehouse ( tricked out with heated mattresses and private hot tub), at Snow Bear Chalet, or bringing fine dining to your residence by booking Cafe Kandahar chef Andy Blanton, a James Beard nominee, to cook a multi-course meal with wine pairings; this is a ski resort, after all.
Either way, you’ll leave with an appreciation for bison-it’s ubiquitous-and laid- back, made-in Montana gusto.
This post originally appeared on The Washington Post