Red Lodge Mountain, located near the famous town of the same name and the northeast corner of Yellowstone, is Montana’s fourth largest ski area. You wouldn’t know it pulling up to the classic lodge and old school lifts out front. Opened in 1960 as Grizzly Peak, it now skis like two distinct resorts – the original mountain with 1970s-era double chairs and a huge expansion served by dual high speed quads that opened in 1996. Approaching its 60th anniversary, the mountain faces dueling challenges of prolonged drought and competition from the booming Big Sky region.
Grizzly Peak opened with one lift, now called Willow Creek, in 1960. This classic Riblet double has since been shortened to start above the base area and only operates on peak days. In 1970, the resort added two more Riblet doubles that also still operate – a beginner lift dubbed Miami Beach and another to the summit called Grizzly Peak.
In 1977, Red Lodge added a rare Borvig double at a western ski area called Midway Express. It served no new terrain but allowed skiers to return to mid-mountain without having to ski all the way to the base area. With just five towers and a vertical rise of only 400 feet, this lift proved too expensive to operate and was abandoned in 2010. Most of the chairs were auctioned to raise cash and the sheaves, comm-line and haul rope were dropped to the ground and left. The terminals and towers still stand today.
The ski area added a long CTEC triple chair in 1983 to provide more out-of-base capacity and supplement Chair 1. It was only the beginning of major upgrades to the mountain. The company’s 1994 master plan noted, “RLM has experienced flat visitation growth and a declining market share over the last decade. The proposed action is intended to transform RLM into a regional and destination facility.”
Red Lodge embarked on the ambitious $6 million, 800-acre Cole Creek addition with two Garaventa CTEC Stealth high speed quads installed in 1996. Extensive snowmaking was added in 1997 on the older half of the mountain. Cole Creek is a ski area within a ski area, 1,400+ vertical with some of the best steep skiing in Montana. Palisades is an equally large intermediate complex with its own high speed quad below Cole Creek. Unfortunately Palisades and Cole Creek have zero snowmaking and rely completely on natural snow. By 2001, the ski area had fallen behind on its taxes by $117,000 blamed in large part on an extended drought. Some years the mountain sees fewer than 100,000 skiers, a modest number for an 1,800 acre resort with seven lifts.
JMA Ventures of California bought Red Lodge Mountain with other investors for approximately $14 million in 2007. The company also owns Homewood Mountain Resort on the western shores of Lake Tahoe. Despite new ownership, this year marks two decades since a new lift was installed at Red Lodge. A hundred miles away, Big Sky Resort has added eighteen lifts in those same years!
The Cascade Fire threatened the mountain in July of 2010. At the time, Red Lodge’s fire chief noted, “The ski area is a very high priority for everyone involved. It’s a significant economic driver for the community six months out of the year. By keeping the ski area viable, we keep the community viable.” The fire burned to within 1.5 miles of Cole Creek but the mountain was spared thanks to the efforts of more than 700 firefighters and ski area employees, who turned on snow guns and dropped fire retardant on lifts.
In 2010, the company sold 280 acres of the ski area to a nearby livestock operation. This means the resort no longer owns the land under a portion of the Palisades high speed quad but holds a 20-year lease with two ten-year extension options. I would not be at all surprised if at some point the Palisades lift gets removed. Detachable lifts are expensive to maintain and this one only runs a few weeks a season due to its low elevation. In fact, the trail map now calls Palisades a “bonus area” because it so rarely opens. RLM General Manager Jeff Schmidt has said the ski area would like to build a high speed lift out of the base area and re-purposing Palisades would be an economical option.
The Billings Gazette reported in March JMA was seeking new investors and might want out of the ski business. The company and the Forest Service are currently working on a land swap to allow for development at the base of the mountain in exchange for RLM in-holdings in the Custer National Forest. This would pave the way for summer activities, potential real estate development and a sustainable future for a great mountain.