Amidst the clear-cuts of the Camas Prairie in north-central Idaho, where Lewis and Clark staved off starvation and loggers hauled away millions of acres of straight-backed white pine, cries of the demise of small ski hills go ignored.
Bald Mountain Ski Area
At the end of pavement and not on the way to anything, Pierce, Idaho, population 508, seems an unlikely ski town. But at Bald Mountain Ski Area, lift tickets are still 20 bucks, coffee a dollar. The lodge has the feel of a church basement: moms tying up birthday balloons, octogenarians rolling Yahtzee (“too much snow to ski today”), timbermen in chambray work shirts and suspenders. Gloves and helmets exhale steam next to an old wood stove while, outside, kids tumble off the tow rope. It’s hard to say whether this is even the way skiing used to be, but it’s at least the way we dream it was, a ‘60s-era retro ski sign come to life.
Bald Mountain is one of three small ski areas on the Camas Prairie, a vast plateau bounded by the Clearwater, Snake, and Salmon Rivers. Situated in the Clearwater Mountains, on the outskirts of the Bitterroots, Bald receives about one hundred inches of snowfall a year—around double that of its Camas Prairie neighbors. Snow stacks up on the 14 named runs here; four-wheel drive is a necessity to reach the low-slung base lodge.
If Bald Mountain has the feel of a backwoodsman’s cabin, Snowhaven—near Grangeville— feels like a municipal park. In fact, it’s operated by the city as a self-sustaining enterprise. Considering day passes are only $19, that’s no small feat.
Snowhaven itself is small, though. You can stand on one edge of the ski area and see the entirety of the 40-acre tenure. A single T-bar deposits skiers at the top of a half-dozen immaculately groomed runs, which are a mix of greens and confidence-bolstering blues. Near the small base lodge, a tubing hill sees nearly as much traffic as the T-bar. The crowd skews toward the school aged; many parents stay in the lodge, surrounded by backpacks and sack lunches, able to watch their groms from the window.
If Cottonwood Butte, 15 miles northwest of Grangeville, seems an unlikely spot for skiing, consider this: the road to the base area passes a convent and a prison. A ski hill fits as well as anything else. And locals have a good sense of humor about the arrangement. The prison inspired the ski hill’s “Escape to Cottonwood Butte” logo and the “Wanted” board inside the lodge, where visitors can get their mug shot taken, complete with prison uniform.
The ski area receives about four feet of snow in a good year; although at a similar elevation to Mount Spokane, Cottonwood Butte gets warmed by the weather of Hells Canyon just to the west. Fortunately, the grassy Douglas-fir parkland comprising the butte can get by with relatively little coverage, and there are powder stashes to be had off-piste amongst the glades and surprisingly steep rock gardens
Volunteers run the hill. A member of the ski hill’s board might run the T-bar one day and the grill the next; for insurance purposes, the local Lion’s Club covers a rental shop employee’s salary. “If someone bought this ski hill and tried to run it like a business, it would fail,” says board member Loretta Riener. It’s only open weekends, sometimes not at all if the weather doesn’t cooperate. But it’s the sort of place where locals can drop their kids off with lunch money in their ski jacket on the way to a weekend work shift, and students from WSU come down to try on skis for the first time. You might get a free ski wax or snowboard lesson; a staff member will definitely know your name by the end of the day.
Little ski hills like those on the Camas Prairie may lack the allure of big-mountain resorts. But for locals, they are a community institution, a place for families and first-timers to learn to ski without being priced out of the sport. For everyone else, they are a glimpse into skiing’s past—and, if the busloads of schoolkids arriving for ski lessons are any indication, maybe its future too. //
Aaron Theisen is the author of “Day Hiking Glacier National Park and Western Montana.” He wrote about Wallace, Idaho, for the January/February issue.
CAMAS PRAIRIE ACCOMMODATIONS
Food: Pioneer Inn
Lodging: The Outback
Food: Oscar’s Restaurant and Lounge
Lodging: Super 8 Grangeville
Food: Trestle Brewing Company
Lodging: Inn at St. Gertrude