“We’ve hit every trail now, so which ones do you want to do again?” Tony asked. It was quiet on the mountain, only an occasional other skier in sight, the creak of the lift chair being the only sound besides a breeze rustling the evergreen trees.
This was the seventh Idaho ski resort the two of us had experienced and it was a fitting end to a week and a half of mostly empty slopes, no lift lines, and no pretention. That's exactly what I had been looking for. I wanted to see if there was a part of America left where normal people still went skiing from apartments they could actually afford, an area where every other lift ride wouldn’t involve a conversation with a hedge fund manager, surgeon, or corporate attorney.
Daily lift ticket prices to ski or snowboard have passed the $200 mark at famous corporate resorts like Vail and Deer Valley, and are more than $150 at many others from California to Colorado to Vermont. Add the cost of equipment and proper clothing before you even get there and skiing in much of the USA has become a sport for the elite, the upper 2%.
Sure, the little ski hills of the Midwest and South are still reasonable. I learned at a Virginia spot called Massanutten—one that experienced skiers called “Mass-o-nuthin”—where the mid-week walk-up price is still relatively easy to swallow at $55. I wanted to find big gnarly mountains that were still reasonably priced though, places where it took so long to get to the bottom that my thighs would be aching by the end of it. I wanted to find serious ski areas where the people on the lifts had normal jobs, where skiers and snowboarders were wearing coats that they bought five years ago. Were there places where a family of four could go skiing for a few days without spending the equivalent of a month’s mortgage and two car payments?
Yes, it turns out that this is still possible. You can jump in a time machine just by landing in Idaho and heading to the slopes.
Idaho's largest and best-known ski resort is Sun Valley. That's the one where the doctors and Silicon Valley venture capitalists head to when seeking status and a place to show off their new $800 Arc'teryx down jackets. At any of the other ski mountains in the state, however, it’s a land of uncrowded slopes, two-digit lift ticket rates, and plenty of non-millionaires enjoying a day of fun outdoors.
We started off at Tamarack Resort, our most expensive stop in a state where that’s a relative term: single-day lift tickets of $85 provide access to 7 lifts and around 50 trails. The sun was shining and the snow was powdery as we pounded the trails for hours, took a break for lunch, and then took a few more long cruising runs that went on for miles. When there’s nobody in line for the lifts at the bottom, the number of runs that can be crammed into a day is only limited by the amount of energy left in the legs.
Thankfully I had kept a little in reserve though, because before the day was over we were on bikes, riding through the base village. We rode bicycles through packed snow, which would normally be treacherous, but we had big fat tires that were a match for the conditions and it was surprisingly easy to pedal them along through the white stuff.
After such a heavy workout on our first day, I was happy to change clothes and head to the pub for a hearty dinner and some local beer. My trip to Idaho had started out right when the Inn at 500 Capitol in Boise offered me a hoppy craft beer as a welcome drink, a nice intro to the local brewing scene. On this night I took a look at the menu and let the most appropriate name win: a “Powder Junkie Amber” from Idaho’s Crooked Fence Brewing. Idaho leads the USA in barley production and is second in hops, so naturally there’s a robust brewing scene. I made sure we had some future brewpub stops mapped out on our itinerary.
I slept like a rock after in the Lodge at Osprey Meadows on the grounds and was ready for the skis again the next day, when we would split the day between two ski areas. We explored more of Tamarack’s lengthy runs until our legs started screaming, alternating between some challenging black diamonds and some cruising trails where we could take it easy and enjoy the scenery. Most of the time it was possible to just daydream and soak up the solitude since the groomed slopes didn’t have crowds and we could go straight onto the lifts to do it all again.
We toured the town of McCall, had a beer and lunch at Salmon River Brewery, and checked into our cool B&B for the night. The Hartland Inn's main building dates back to 1911 and has more than a few antiques from the previous owners, but the younger couple running it now has a turntable playing vinyl, taps with local brews, and vintage snowboards on the walls of the bar.
It was just a quick refresh before our night skiing stop though: Little Ski Hill nearby, in business for 80 years now. There are not many runs to choose from at this little mountain, but the prices certainly make up for it. I felt like I had stepped into a time machine at the ticket window. Walk-up lift tickets are $20, or $15 for youths. A season pass here costs less than one day at most resorts: $97 for a whole winter season.
After taking the T-bar up and quickly skiing down multiple times, we stepped into the combination locker room, dining room, lounge, and snack bar to change back into regular shoes. The hand-written menu on a whiteboard was nothing like what you see in the corporate resorts that are maximizing their margins: cheeseburger and fries $10, quesadilla $4, coffee $1.50. I handed the cashier $3 for a beer and got back change.
The next day we stayed around McCall and enjoyed Brundage Mountain Resort. This one made me feel warm, fuzzy, and nostalgic inside. It was filled with mountain life families enjoying the day together and ski bums who worked the local restaurants and bars at night. Once again, there was no such thing as a line at the 6 lifts serving 51 trails.
While most big American ski resorts seem to be scaring off new participants to the sport with eye-popping prices, Brundage has gone the opposite direction. There's one dedicated lift and wide beginners’ slope that is completely free. Families can just park their car nearby, put on boots and skis, and try out the experience without peeling off Ben Franklins. When they're ready to graduate to the steeper trails, kids 6 and under can still ski free, it’s $33 up to age 11, and $50 from there up through age 17.
Brundage Resort averages 320 inches of snow a year and usually stays open until mid-April, so it was at peak snow when we swooshed down the trails in February. We ate colorful fresh food at the restaurant and soaked up the sunshine on the outdoor deck.
We drove back to Boise after leaving Brundage in the afternoon and eventually checked into The Modern Hotel, a retrofitted former motel that’s now funky and inviting, with a nice courtyard outside and rooms that have a custom TV channel showing independent short films. After reviewing more than 1,000 hotels in my career as a travel writer, this is the first one I've been to that had a turntable and 45s in the public bathrooms. Visitors can pick their perfect tune for doing their business.
We left Boise in the morning and gained altitude quickly to arrive at Bogus Basin. Boise won't win any awards for America's most beautiful city, but the people who live there know it's one that's blessed with a great ski resort they can get to before their coffee they made at home gets cold. With 82 runs on 2,600 skiable acres, it's a real adventure dream. When we got done skiing, we hopped on a mini roller coaster on site that runs completely on gravity and physics—no fossil fuel required.
The views from the top of Bogus Basin look back at Boise from one side, but faces 100 miles of mountains in the other direction. Thanks to the layout over several ridges, with trails branching off in multiple directions, it’s easy to find enough variety to keep exploring for days. This one really gave my legs a workout as we whipped down the many black diamond slopes coming off the traverse trail along the top of the ridge. We would coast along admiring the scenery and worrying about sunburn, then go over a lip in the trail and be zipping along as the wind whistled past our ears and the evergreens passed in a blur.
Bogus is a large and serious ski resort that can compete with the big boys, but it is run as a cooperative, which keeps the bean-counters at bay. For 75 years it has been run as a self-funded non-profit 503(c) company governed by a volunteer board. Lift tickets top out at $69 for adults any day of the week, with night skiing ones available for $34.
Up to this point there had been four of us skiing together, but two flew out after Bogus Basin and Tony and I continued on to the next round. Along the way, we had been getting news of some strange virus that had spread from Asia to Europe and was infecting people at an unusually rapid rate. The subject came up at lunch at Bogus Basin as a “Have you heard about…?” item, but we took it as just some oddity headline that would soon be replaced by something else since most of the European deaths seemed to be in two provinces in northern Italy.
As I headed toward Twin Falls the next day though, my phone kept buzzing and our conversations in the car kept getting interrupted. Texts were arriving from my news junkie wife thousands of miles away, with links and exclamation points after dire warnings in all caps. I had a trip planned to Italy in a month and it was clear that she wasn’t feeling very positive about that, giving me the blow-by-blow on every new development.
I sent quick replies basically saying, “We’ll figure it out later,” and went back to trying to catch up on my notes. When the sixth text string in 15 minutes arrived though, we were getting close to the parking lot and had someone to meet in the ski rentals area. “Gotta go, let’s chat later,” I replied.
As we walked toward the lodge, I noticed that my phone had no service, so problem solved. “Frantic” and “Idaho” seldom share the same sentence.
The next few days were an even further throwback to simpler times, back to my youth when we went skiing with nothing in our pockets but Chapstick and a wallet, when nobody could reach you all day unless you had a meeting place set up in person. The prices amplified the feeling, especially when we got to Magic Mountain, where $36 provides access to one chairlift, a magic carpet for beginners, and surprisingly challenging terrain of 11 trails—one of them a mile long.
I can't say this was an easy day of skiing. The wild trails were sometimes chunky and rough, a mix of grooming here, crust there. Trail markers were basically suggestions and vague pointers. There's no green circle escape from the summit for beginners. Skiing like it used to be, take it or leave it, when visitors didn’t expect every trail to look like the surface of corduroy pants.
At one point my ski tip caught on a protruding snowbank where the lift picked up passengers and I actually took a dive off the chair. I imagine that in Colorado or Vermont that would result in a crowd of furrowed-browed staffers making sure I was okay while simultaneously texting the legal team for advice. Here the chilled-out lift operator just stopped the motor and asked, “You okay there pardner?” I gave him a thumbs-up after standing and the lift started up again. Three couples got on, then it was my turn again. No harm, no foul.
At Soldier Mountain, between Boise and Twin Falls, we found another great value, a sub-$50 resort that has two chairlifts serving around 30 trails and a summit of 7,177 feet. When there's lots of fresh powder, they take small groups into the backcountry for Snow Cat skiing on an adjoining mountain that tops 10,000 feet. We had a surprisingly good lunch in the gorgeous lodge between runs and hit every open trail since we never had to wait at the bottom.
In between the days spent on the snow, we explored a bit of southern Idaho around Twin Falls. First there are the falls themselves, which were a trickle one time we visited and a cascade another thanks to the release schedule from the dam providing hydroelectric power. The view in the other direction was just as impressive though, a deep canyon carved out by the river flowing through over millions of years.
I wanted to get a sense of the local brewpub scene, so we sat down at two in Twin Falls. We had dinner and drinks at Koto Brewing company, where I skipped the Love Handle “doughnut ale” and went for an Idaho-appropriate American Agenda pale ale. The local agenda was clear by the sign in the bathroom advertising a weekly fly-tying night for making fishing lures.
At Milner's Gate Craft Brewery on another stop, I got a flight of five samples to get a proper rundown of what was on offer, My Fall Down Brown, Dunkel Buck, and others came in a big wooden platter in the shape of the state of Idaho. The downtown Twin Falls location is gorgeous, with a big cut-out in the floor offering a view to the 10 brewing tanks below.
We pushed our expanding leg muscles into ski pants one last time and headed to Pomerelle, near Albion, which was a fitting place to end. It epitomized the joy of skiing in Idaho and helped me finish on a high note. No lines, no crowds, sub-$50 lift tickets, and sunshine warming our faces as we went up on the lifts over and over. Pomerelle is at a high elevation (the lodge is at 8,000 feet) in a zone that gets plenty of snow each year, so we had great conditions as we explored every one of their 24 trails.
On the way back to Boise we stopped off in Buhl, a town of around 4,000 that nevertheless has its own brewpub: Magic Valley Brewing. They use mostly local ingredients and smoke their own barbeque in addition to making beer. I ordered a flight, including two homages to the fishing streams nearby: a Black Trout IPA and a Golden Trout Pale Ale. My favorite though was the El Diablo Corral JPA—the “J” being for jalapeno. Paired up with some bacon mac & cheese, after a day of non-stop skiing, it was heavenly.
Nearly every TV series and movie that involves paranoid anti-government preppers with lots of guns has scenes set in Idaho. The state has gotten plenty of press about this fringe element, including stories on people who consider Atlas Shrugged their bible, ones who have been building their own secret societies in well-defended bunker enclaves. Most of that movement seems to center near the Coeur d’Alene area seven hours north of Boise though, so there were few signs of radicalism where we were.
I expected to be deluged with conspiracy theories and white supremacy symbols, but the overall atmosphere was mostly benign, on the surface anyway. The only uncomfortable part of my tour was when one remote hotel we stayed in had a proprietor in a MAGA hat who was talking to the always-on anger news channel on the lobby TV like the show host was his buddy. “You got that right!” I'd hear him shout between muffin bites at breakfast.
My send-off from the Boise International Airport was more of what I had expected. There on the front door was a sign reminding passengers that they couldn’t just walk onto a plane with a gun: “Say ‘goodbye’ to your little friend,” a cute cartoon pistol with legs reminded passengers entering the terminal.
I left Idaho feeling quite positive about the place though, especially since Boise was a college town cool enough to host a sold-out Cirque de Soleil show and had a great ski resort run like a socialist enterprise for the recreational good of locals, not for profit. I left feeling like I just had the best ski experience anyone could wish in an area where we never drove more than a few hours and lift tickets were $20 to $85.
The world would soon turn upside-down and I did indeed have to cancel that trip to Italy. And every trip after that. The ski hills ended up closing early for the season, thanks to lockdowns and indoor gathering restrictions. I felt blessed to feel the true freedom of swishing down these empty slopes and carving fresh tracks in the morning, hardly seeing another soul around—before isolation from others became a mandatory safety precaution instead of a perk.
If You Go:
With COVID-19 still active, all resorts have mask mandates in place indoors, distancing precautions, and limited lodge interaction, but are open. The best one-stop resource for all of the ski areas in the state is the Ski Idaho site here. It links out to the websites for each resort and provides a good sense of locations and amenities.
For breweries, most are linked from the pages of the state tourism site or Idaho Brewers United. Note that most of the ski hills don’t have lodging on site, so see the hotels linked from the article or search the closest ones to your location here.
Editor Tim Leffel is an award-winning writer and blogger. He is author of several books, including The World's Cheapest Destinations, Travel Writing 2.0, and A Better Life for Half the Price. See his long-running bargain travel blog here.
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