The sun reflecting off the snow was so bright that the idea of sunscreen crossed my mind for the first time in about five months.
I shouldn’t have worried. In less than a half hour the blue sky had disappeared, replaced by a full-on whiteout blizzard. The wind was blowing so hard the powerline near where we parked was playing a mournful, ghostly tune.
Such are the swift shifts encountered on a Montana road trip in early March. You never know what will happen with the weather. There are some years I have been mowing my lawn by now. This year, winter is hanging on with a bony-fingered death grip and a toothy grin.
There were other warning signs to not trust the weather forecast. Driving west down Highway 12 a brown cloud hung over the Martinsdale area — some farmers’ topsoil blowing away. The wind calmed as the road sought shelter in the wake of the Castle Mountains. Several ice anglers were unphased as they strung out along Bair Reservoir.
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After we had turned onto Highway 89, traveling into the Little Belt Mountains toward Showdown Montana ski area, the landscape began looking more wintery. In places, the deep snow bordering the pavement had been sharply carved with a snowplow’s blower. Furrows were even cut in the borrow pit to try and keep the snow from drifting back in.
On Thursdays, Showdown offers what may be the best deal for downhill skiing and snowboarding in the state – $30 lift tickets. The normal adult ticket price is $60. Even though the parking lot seemed full, and several school buses had disgorged hordes of students, many of the ski runs were downright desolate.
Showdown has gathered 70 inches of snow at its 8,192-foot summit this winter, 51 inches at the base. Its 39 trails are accessible from four lifts. For the school skiers, a magic carpet was the popular spot with youngsters backed up like a rush-hour traffic jam.
It’s a three-hour trek to reach the ski area from Billings, which is why the mountain is more popular with folks from Great Falls (one hour, 19 minutes and 70 miles) and Helena (two hours, 107 miles). Surprisingly, the outdoor hub of Bozeman is about the same distance and time from Showdown as Helena.
One of the benefits of skiing Showdown is the ability to take an aprés soak in the hot waters of the Spa Hot Springs Motel in White Sulphur Springs, about 30 miles to the southwest. Pool fees are $10 for adults, a buck or two less for everyone else.
The main pool boasts a temperature of about 98 degrees, a good place to cool off after hitting the 103-degree outdoor pool or the 105-degree inside plunge. While soaking, visitors can scan the colorful murals recently repainted by Gary Larson. See if you can find the hidden images, like the Viking ships, cobra or high-rise buildings climbing from the mountain scenery.
The hot springs also offers hotel rooms or cabins ranging from $109 to $159 a night for those looking to stay.
Within short walking distance from the pool is the Stockman Steakhouse & Bar. It's a good place for a juicy steak or burger (locally sourced beef) and a cocktail or beer, which can also be locally sourced as 2 Bassett Brewery is just across the street. We chose the Branding Iron Café, also within walking distance from the hot springs, for breakfast. They have a chicken fried steak with white gravy that practically fills the plate.
After a stop at the Forest Service office to check on possible side trips on the way home for cross-country skiing, we decided to motor down the Shields River Valley toward the booming Bozeman bedroom burgs of Wilsall and Clyde Park. That’s where we drove into a bowl of blue sky and sunshine. It was like the Bridger Mountains were slowing down the clouds just long enough for the sun to break out.
I was hoping we could get close to Ibex Mountain and the Forest Service cabin that is available to rent there, but after 9 miles of travel down curving Upper Cottonwood Creek Road we hit the end of the county’s plowing zone. From there it’s another 5.3 miles to the cabin, so winter travelers have to haul their gear a ways for an overnight stay.
The structure, built in 1939, rents for $65 a night and sleeps up to four on bunk beds. There’s no electricity at the cabin, so cooking is via a propane stove and heat comes from the woodstove. Luckily in the winter the cabin is stocked with firewood, but not in the summer.
Weekends are usually booked in advance, and the cabin is closed during April and May. By June, it can be hard to find a free date that hasn’t been reserved on the Recreation.gov website. So if you want to visit and spend the night, plan as far in advance as possible.
Cross-country skiing down Upper Cottonwood Creek Road was idyllic. We had it all to ourselves, except for two snowmobilers and a snowbiker who blazed ahead. In their wake there was nothing but silence and broad white fields. Snow nearly buried some of the fence posts. The 360-degree views from the roadway took in 7,300-foot-high Ibex Mountain and its spiny cliffs, the Crazy, Bridger and Absaroka mountain ranges.
It wasn’t until we turned back that the weather quickly transformed, striking as quick and sharp as a mad rattlesnake. Snow carried by the wind felt like spikes as it peppered our freezing faces. The once vibrant mountains disappeared under the cloak of clouds. It seemed to take a lot longer to reach the windbreak of the truck than it should have. Thinking back to those who trekked across this country years ago without roads and snowplows, it’s easy to imagine getting lost or buried by such a storm.
We debated whether to wait the blizzard out or to get the heck out of there before we were snowed in. Since I was driving, the call was to slowly motor down the country road rather than risk being snowbound.
There was a 7-foot berm of snow on my side of the road that seemed like an easy route-finding tool. But since the snow pile was white, and the snow blowing was white, even that huge berm only feet away vanished. I rolled down my window in hopes that would help, but the wind was curling back off the berm like river water striking a boulder. Snow flew inside the truck cab in large, flaky gulps.
Failing to negotiate one of the road’s 90-degree turns was what I feared most, but as we slowly lost elevation the wind and blowing snow lessened. By the time we hit the highway the view was clear again. It was hard to believe we’d been enveloped in a whiteout only minutes earlier, and even harder to believe I had briefly contemplated rubbing on some sunscreen.