Think snowmobiling in Montana and locations like West Yellowstone and Cooke City likely pop into your mind. But the Big Sky state is a little larger than you might think. And on the horizon of that big sky are many other riding hot spots that have all the powder and half the crowds.
Like the Lolo Creek area to the south of Lolo Hot Springs and the big country on the north side. The riding in this area is exceptional to say the least. Deep annual snowfall, open hillsides, tree-littered ridges, steep canyons and the like adorn the mountain ranges along the Idaho-Montana border in this particular stretch.
Back to the geography lesson. Lolo Hot Springs is located about 45 minutes south then southwest of Missoula, MT. Driving from the full-service city up to the natural hot springs lodge requires a scenic drive up the winding Highway 12.
Once you reach the hot springs, you have a choice. Ride some of the 350 miles of groomed trails in the range, or pick a peak and go cross-country. Be aware, riding up here requires lots of. gas and time. Get a room and plan on staying awhile.
When riding a new area, it often helps to have someone show you around. We asked Mike and Steve Cassidy, the guys who build aftermarket suspension components and rolling chassis under the Fabcraft label, to take us on a ride we'd never forget. It's been a year and it's still very vivid in our minds.
We stayed at one of Lolo Hot Springs Resort's newer cabins (more on that later) and met up with the Cassidy brothers early in the resort parking lot. The region's weather had gone on vacation to Palm Beach and the clouds didn't know whether to rain or snow. The week before we arrived, there was a thick layer of the kind of powder you daydream about. But, like we said earlier, the weather was . well, it rained the day before we arrived for our mid-February ride.
Rain down low never bothers us much. It usually indicates white stuff in the higher elevations and that's exactly where we were headed.
Mike led us out of the lot to the south. We crossed to the east side of Highway 12 and followed the trail along the East Fork of Lolo Creek. It wasn't long before Mike was looking for an opening to shoot uphill. The snow was getting better and the sun was poking through the clouds.
We carved our way across a long series of sparsely-treed hill sides, playing in the deep, fluffy snow and doing our best to burn up a tank of fuel while we could.
Our first stop was atop the aptly-named Granite Knob, a rounded high point overlooking Granite Lake, with views of Lolo Peak to the northeast and the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness' Bass and St. Mary Peaks to the east and southeast. If you kicked deep enough into the snow on Granite Knob, you would uncover a slab of stone as smooth as a kitchen countertop. Seeing that solid stone under such a fragile layer of snow brought on one of those moments where you realize bouncing off the wrong bump in the snow could rearrange your front bumper with your rear bumper.
We dropped off-straight off-Granite Knob and clipped the corner of the lake as we continued our journey south. Mike's goal for the day was to get us to Beaver Lake and hopefully atop Beaver Ridge to the lookout tower. But there were plenty of play areas along the way and we spent time marking each and every one of them up as best we could.
One such playground was a couple of clear-cut slopes known by the locals as Bump Hill. It got the name for all of the car-sized granite boulders that are strewn across the hillside. Ancient rocks deposited by receding glaciers, covered in several feet of snow, made the entire area look like a toad's back. And they made for some interesting terrain to negotiate. The rocks created a tube and channel effect and it almost seemed at times like you were trying to climb up a bobsled track.
We stopped here for a little test ride and photo session (the Fabcraft boys brought along two of their custom-built sleds, so we killed two birds with one stone-see the report on Fabcraft's specialty sleds elsewhere in this issue). Since the drainage at the bottom of Bump Hill was down in the lower elevations, we were back in the wet snow. The only place to go from here was up.
And up we went. A long, gradual hillside, marked occasionally by the switchback logging roads, took us back into the dry, fluffy powder that we'd encountered earlier. It was here, too, where the sun made its longest appearance of the day, giving us about 45 minutes of play time in some of the best powder we'd been on in years.
This particular part of the forest had been taken by a couple of forest fires recently. The fire had picked its way up part of the ridges, leaving blackened snags in an otherwise open playground. The combination of sun, deep snow and rolling hills made for a little slice of heaven. The powder was so deep at this elevation that you could lay the sled over to carve a circle and be completely buried by the piling snow. And the scenery that the brief sunshine afforded us was astounding.
We rode the higher reaches of the ridgelines, dropping down to cross drainages and snake through canyons until we reached Beaver Lake. Nestled tightly against a steep pocket of a mountainside, Beaver Lake sits directly below Beaver Ridge. The lake drains north where it eventually runs into Brushy Creek and Spruce Creek before turning west.
Access to the overshadowing Beaver Ridge is best from the east shore of the lake. But, as we quickly discovered, it's by no means easy-especially in the deep snow that had blanketed the area the previous few nights. But, following Steve Cassidy and another rider in our group, we managed to break a path up the technical lines and gain the eastern rim of Beaver Ridge.
For a brief moment, as we sat on top of the lower part of the ridge line, the clouds we had been riding in for the past hour broke and gave a glimpse of the northern flanks of Ranger Peak-an 8,817-foot rocky mountain that sits on the Idaho-Montana border in the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness. In fact, at this point directly above Beaver Lake we were a stone's throw from the boundary of the Wilderness area.
We continued riding the ridgeline to the west, gaining elevation as we picked our lines through the thick trees and deep windrifts. When we reached the lookout tower atop Beaver Ridge, where there are supposedly terrific views into the Wilderness area, we could barely see our ski tips. It was time to head back down, regroup and work our way back to the resort.
On our way out of the toolies, we crossed Brushy Creek, shot up the ridge to the northwest and rode through the Lost Park area and stopped by the Lost Park warming hut, maintained year-round by the local snowmobile club, the Missoula Snowgoers.
As we mentioned earlier, there is enough riding in the Lolo area to keep a group busy for days. The area we rode to the south of Lolo Hot Springs was just a slice of the pie. Riding areas abound to the north and west of the resort and more than 350 miles of groomed trails keep even the busiest of trail riders entertained.
But if you're going to ride the Lolo area, you might as well stay at the Lolo Hot Springs resort-and enjoy all the time you spend off the snowmobile as well.
Lolo Hot Springs resort is built around the famous natural hot springs that Lewis and Clark once encountered 200 years ago. Water from the natural mineral hot springs is cornered into a hot soaking pool, with temperatures in the 103 to 105 degree F range. An outdoor flow-through swimming pool maintains a year-round 86 to 94 degree temperature.
Lodging at the resort is handled through 34 rooms in the lodge, with both double and single-queen rooms, along with four recently-added cabins. The cabins each have two queen beds, a bathroom, kitchenette and television.
The resort features a restaurant (with great prime rib and zesty barbeque ribs) and bar with pool tables and gaming machines. Resort owners Don and Linda Stoen can handle groups of practically any size and even handle getting you from Missoula's airport and back if you choose to fly in. Snowmobile rentals are available, as are horses in the summer, since the lodge is open year-round.
The best part about riding this part of Montana, as opposed to some of the more crowded areas elsewhere in the state?
"When guys come out here," Don Stoen states, "they're not a number. And that's what they like about it."
And that's just what we like about it, too.