Ski Town Spotlight: Red Lodge, Montana

This off-the-radar destination offers skiing, hiking, scenic drives, and more.

When Cold Is Good

No doubt the most frequently-reported weather story of the season has been the incredibly warm weather blessing the Northeast. While most East Coasters don't miss freezing temperatures and the many forms of precipitation they bring, skiing enthusiasts are less than happy, as more that 30 percent of all ski resorts have been closed this season because of the lack of snow.

Many avid skiers are flocking to the western U.S., where the El Niño weather pattern is causing above-average snowfall. The problem, though, is that popular ski towns like Aspen and Taos are packed with more visitors than usual, causing long lift lines, crowded trails, and other problems you shouldn't have to deal with on vacation.

Luckily, there are many ski towns in the West that offer all the same features as the big ones but are only known to locals. Red Lodge, Montana is one of the best examples, as it boasts short lines, low prices, and laid-back people (in addition to great powder, of course).  Red Lodge is an hour's drive from Billings, Montana's largest city.

On the Slopes

The main place to ski in Red Lodge is Red Lodge Mountain, a convenient 15-minute drive from the downtown. The mountain, which has a summit height of 9,416 feet, is home to no less than 71 trails. In addition, there are two terrain parks where snowboarders can practice tricks. You can be sure that you'll almost always be able to try all the trails, as 31 percent of them are completely covered with snow and the rest are helped by the largest-capacity snowmaking machine in the Northern Rockies. 

The mountain is like a world unto itself, providing everything you need, from lessons to multiple dining options to gear rentals—they even have a gear shop on-site. The mountain also hosts multiple weekly events, which include races, concerts, and parties

Round the Town

Nestled among the Beartooth Mountains and the Custer National Forest, Red Lodge is no stranger to gorgeous scenery. A great way to experience it is to take one of the area's many hikes. If you're not an experienced hiker or are traveling with kids, try Lake Fork Trail, a mostly flat path that winds around a number of crystal-clear streams and lakes. The full trail stretches for 19 miles, but there are multiple turn-around points, allowing you to customize your experience. More skilled hikers will enjoy the Basin Creek Lakes Trail, a 7.8-mile route that goes up almost the entire way.

You'll get some serious exercise and experience incredible views.

Red Lodge is known for its history in addition to its natural beauty. The downtown is home to the Carbon County Historical Society, which features exhibits highlighting the history of the town and the surrounding area. Red Lodge has come to be known as a sort of cultural oasis in Montana in part because of its many galleries. One of the best ones is the Carbon County Arts Guild & Depot Gallery, which is located inside a refurbished train depot and features paintings, sculptures, photographs and jewelry by local artists.

Red Lodge even adds its own special touch to the movies. The town's one cinema, the Roman Theater, shows the same movies as most others, but instead of sitting in regular chairs you'll get to watch the show from cozy couches. You'll feel like you're watching a movie at home, albeit on a much larger screen.

In the Area

Since Red Lodge is located in one of the most unspoiled parts of the country, it's no surprise that it is surrounded by other visitor attractions. The most famous one is Yellowstone National Park, home to some of the most beautiful scenery and unique wildlife in the U.S., not to mention the famous geyser Old Faithful. On your way from Red Lodge to Yellowstone, make sure to take the Beartooth Highway, a 68-mile road that climbs up to 12,000 feet in elevation and winds through 20 mountains. While driving it is not for the faint of heart, you won't regret it when you see the views from the many lookout points.