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SLEEPING GIANT SKI AREA, Wyo. — Nestled in the high mountains outside Yellowstone National Park sits one of the region's best kept secrets.

But if you're looking for gondola rides and $90 ski passes, the Sleeping Giant Ski Area probably isn't for you.

On a recent day, after a light snowfall, only a dozen cars sit in the parking lot at the base of the mountain. High above, the muffled drone of the lifts plays across the snow as the day's first skiers are carried up the slope.

With 900 vertical feet, two lifts and 184 skiable acres, Sleeping Giant may not be the biggest destination. Yet it offers a variety of terrain and the chance to lay fresh tracks on the edge of the wilderness.

“We have something for everyone, from beginning groomers to expert glades,” says Gen Armstrong, the mountain's service manager, who's punching tickets in the lodge.

“We've got cliffs to drop for those who are interested,” she said. “And we've got two terrain parks; one for the more advanced and one for the kids or adults who want to learn.”

Armstrong goes about the morning with a smile. The radio pinned to her ski bib crackles with activity, as the fire crackles nearby.

The snow gods, she says, have been kind this winter, at least when compared to recent years. They won't set any snowfall records here in the rain shadow of Yellowstone Park, but the conditions aren't bad.

Compared to area resorts such as Jackson, Grand Targahee and Red Lodge, which get around 500 inches of snowfall a year, Sleeping Giant's 300 inches isn't much.

In fact, Armstrong warns of the pesky stumps and bungee sticks still lurking here and there on the slopes. But she's quick to remind visitors of the $29 adult lift prices — a mere pittance compared to the $90 charged at nearby resorts.

“This place is different than other ski areas in the region because it's nonprofit,” she says. “It's community own and run. We take pride in the fact that we're family oriented.”

Beginning skiers ride the carpet tow outside the lodge. It draws them up the bunny slope as a winter storm cloaks the surrounding peaks in a fine, white mist.

When the clouds break, the greater Yellowstone landscape comes into view with its deep draws and soft winter hues.

This, the saying goes, is “where Yellowstone spends winter.” It's remote, the views are splendid and the wildlife is abundant — bighorn sheep, moose, deer, and, on occasion, the howl of distant wolves.

Patrolling the mountain this day is Mike Neff, who's well aware of the local terrain. He dug an avalanche pit the day before and keeps a constant eye on conditions up the mountain, where the cliffs rise against the azure ski.

“We don't have the capability yet for throwing bombs,” Neff says, checking in before he heads out to patrol the slopes. “It's skier compaction and ski cutting. It's an old-school method but it's a bit more effective than bombing.”

Neff hopes to train a new crop of patrollers for the North Absaroka Ski Patrol and get them familiar with Sleeping Giant. He's actively recruiting candidates and says the training will include toboggan work, mountain operations, risk management, hosting and emergency medical training.

While the positions are volunteer, he said, the job itself may be worth the time.

“We may potentially hire a few more pros next year,” he said. “But this is a great way to get first tracks and test the slopes.”

Contact Martin Kidston at mkidston@billingsgazette

.com or 307-527-7250.

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