I decided to start writing resort reviews. I know what you’re thinking. It’s been done before – by at least a dozen different sites. The “best resorts” roundup is an annual staple for every ski publication. But for me, those pieces rarely inspire great trips. My favorites rarely get top reviews – if they’re included at all. I’ve finally figured out why.
It’s a lot like traveling abroad. Some people visit a foreign country and want the resort experience. It’s a little more expensive, but locals are trained to prioritize Westerner’s comfort and enjoyment. They’ll even sedate some tigers so you can snap a selfie. It’s convenient, feels safer, less stressful, and honestly nice to feel doted on, even if you paid a premium for it. Then there’s the culturally immersive approach, off the beaten path of mass tourism, where you fall in line with the community’s everyday activities and seek to learn about their way of life.
Ski tourism increasingly mimics the former. A resort can’t be great without an extensive list of add-on services. Ski valet. On-mountain lodging. Cat skiing. All-day childcare. Fine dining. An après scene and nightlife. Champagne showers. Fast passes. Members-only exclusivity. Cookie time. A memorable ski vacation needs to be a pageantry of wealth. If you spend enough money, big ski conglomerates will make your enjoyment their number one priority. You won’t find the local community easily (if there is one at all, as resorts turn to J-1 visas and a constant cycle of new college grads looking to ski bum for a season or two and price out anyone looking for more than a dorm room for lodging).
I want the exact opposite. Our sport is far too White to call it cultural immersion, but I want to visit a place with a unique culture and a strong sense of community. I want to experience a new and different side to skiing. At the resorts I love, the cell phone service is touchy. The plumbing is touchy. The fixed doubles are slow. Terrain is on the smaller side. But there’s a je nais se quois that can’t get captured in the typical mountain stats that keeps these hidden gems in business.
So I’m starting with Discovery Ski Area in Phillipsburg, Montana. Here’s a list of its best parts:
- The owners are the best part. Skiing is a family business that spans 3 generations. Publications have profiled 2 generations of owners and the tone is consistent: they want slow growth and to keep skiing affordable to local families. When the elder owner was asked about developing into the full-fledged resort experience, he said, “I’m actually only interested in the ski part of the mountain…Better trails, better grooming, better ski instructors. There are opportunities for it to become a resort, but I’m not really interested in it.”
- 55% of the mountain is advanced or expert terrain, compared to 35% at my local resorts, Stevens & Crystal. There are essentially 4 quadrants, 1 for each major lift: the family-friendly blues and greens, typical resort blue & black groomers, questionably steep groomers, tight chutes & trees. Here’s a shot of that expert, off-piste section of the resort, serviced by the Limelight lift.
- Tickets were $55 the last time I visited (2019), and have increased to $70 for the upcoming season.
- There are no crowds. Like the photo below was taken just before noon and there’s still so much corduroy that hasn’t been skied. It was almost concerning. I spent the morning hurling my body down steep, empty groomers where I weighed the pros and cons of barreling down a run I had all to myself, and the fact that no one was behind me to recover my body if I took a high speed fall. Now, we visited in March, mid-week, during true spring skiing weather. But it was also spring break for both major universities. Overall, it seems like high odds you can find a spot in the lot and plenty of powder stashes to call your own, even when conditions are good.
- They have a secret cookie recipe. They’re fat and soft, almost like a scone or a muffin top. The mom from the owning family put cookies on the menu in the ‘80s and their current baker has been making cookies and guarding the recipe for over a decade. They sell thousands on busy days, and unlike Beaver Creek, Cookie Time lasts all day.
- Food is solid and really affordable. In 2018, a beer, a soda, fries, and one of those beloved cookies came out to $11. For comparison, I think I paid somewhere around $30 for a hot chocolate and schnapps at Heavenly last spring. And as a bonus, everything on the Discovery menu is homemade.
- The bottom floor of the lodge looks like a retro church basement.
- They add a ton of really helpful hints to their trail map page, like the best spots on the mountain if it’s a pow day or spring slush day or challenging windy day on the mountain. How kinds.
- If you’re still not sure where you want to ski, the (expert) Limelight Lift has this cute, ancient little spinner at the top. I have the “what do you want to do?” “I don’t know; what do you want to do?” conversation at least once a day when I’m at the resorts, and I love the idea of leaving it up to the ski gods.
- You get to see some really good skiing from the locals. I mean it shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s easy and affordable to get to the mountain. The resort invests in their ski school and race programs. While I was there, I watched a family with 4 kids (probably all under 11) huck meat off of a jump, one after the other, a few of the little nuggets throwing 360s. I don’t know what I love more: rowdy little kids or old dudes with mesmerizing tele talent. Discovery seems to have no shortage of either.
- They do some rad community programs. Most of the other skiers on the hill that day were from a school program. Some kids were kitted out. Some kids wore Carhartts and skied rentals. Most seemed familiar with the resort and the lodge like they’d been there before. A lot of resorts do some inclusion events for kids in their community, but a lot of them are one-and-done lessons with the minimum number of group attendees to put on a convincing photo opp.
Only downside? There’s no camping at Discovery. The vibes seem like a good match to an RV lot – no frills, no spa, just-the-bare-necessities lodging with great access to the snow. But their first priority is their local crowd, and without staffing or overnight bathroom facilities, they’d put the local experience at risk by allowing overnight parking. I don’t like it, but I get it.
Got any resort recs that are similar? Spots with touchy wifi, touchy plumbing, but great snow and an even better sense of community? Drop a comment below.