“Wisdom, Montana?” a friend snorts, wrinkling her nose when I tell her where we spent New Year’s Eve again. “Isn’t that tiny, remote town always making headlines for being the coldest spot in the nation? Why on earth would you want to spend your holiday there?”
I tell her the isolation and frigid temperatures are precisely what lured us to the town of about 100 souls to begin with — those traits plus Instagram. In 2013 friends Dale and Hannah Sexton, owners of Timber Trails Outdoor Company in Livingston, posted images of a long, frosty weekend they’d spent skiing Lost Trail and Maverick Mountain with their daughters. When we commented on how fun the trip looked, they invited us — and a couple other families who’ve also invested heavily in polar fleece and Patagonia’s capilene — to join them. Four years later, I can’t imagine ringing in the New Year anywhere else.
While the Big Hole Valley is pure heaven during summer months (minus the mosquitoes), it’s even more magical under a blanket of snow. Not only is it exhilarating to be hunkered down in a place where we can ski two of Montana’s finest small ski hills, there’s just something grounding about being in such a quiet, rural place with a tight group of friends so soon after the winter solstice, when full-on dusk hits at 4:30 p.m. and stars twinkle like clear cut diamonds above the nearby Pioneer Mountains.
“It’s one of my favorite trips of the year,” says my husband Dan Vermillion. “It’s more than just skiing; it’s the whole setting. We ski hard all day and then come home to Wisdom and relax in an informal, self-contained environment. Adults can be in one room cooking and interacting while kids migrate in and out of the hot tub and from room to room. It’s really fun.”
We always make sure we leave Livingston early enough to hit Front Street Market in Butte en route for provisions, while still having enough daylight to spot elk on the slick and winding drive along the Big Hole River between Wise River and Wisdom.
Wisdom has it all — no kidding! Great downhill skiing (Lost Trail is only 30 minutes away, and Maverick is less than an hour); Chief Joseph Cross Country Ski Trail is a 25-minute drive; hot springs (Jackson, when it’s open, is just 12 miles from the hotel, and Elkhorn is three minutes from Maverick); comfortable lodging with kitchenettes, a well-stocked grocery store, exceptionally friendly locals and two downtown businesses serving food. What more could several outdoor-loving families with a pack of children 12 and under ask for?
We always stay at the Pioneer Mountain Lodge in Wisdom, a two-story hotel with three rooms that’s been updated and renovated by owners Rachel and Don Walker, who occupy half of the first floor. The comfortable and exceptionally clean accommodations have one unit on the first floor and two upstairs — each with its own bathroom, kitchenette, wall-mounted flat screen TV and high speed wireless internet. There’s also a big hot tub tucked around back, which is where all the kids head as soon as we haul the ski gear in to dry.
When there are more people to invite, we have them rent The Wisdom Cabin, a charming one bedroom guesthouse that sleeps four that’s just two blocks away ($85.60 for double occupancy; $5.35 for each additional person or pet). It has one bedroom with a full bath and a pullout couch in the living room. It is owned by Diane and Dennis Havig, who also own The Crossing Bar and Grill.
While there are two great places to eat in town (The Crossing serves burgers, steaks, homemade pie and always has a special New Year’s Eve dinner, and Antler's Saloon offers delicious, made-from-scratch pizzas), we typically eat-in.
We’ve got our cooking routine dialed in so that every family makes appetizers and dinner one night. With the exception of Dale Sexton’s famous blueberry pancakes, we’re on our own for breakfast and lunch.
We pack a cooler with breakfast and lunch supplies and staples from home (coffee, spices, butter, olive oil, condiments, fruit, salad fixings, cheese … and a big pan of enchiladas we’ve pre-assembled at home). Our coolers also double as extra tabletops and seating for each evening’s progressive dinner party/movable feast; the venue changes each night depending on which family is cooking.
Dan and I always bring our hand-crank Whirley Pop popcorn popper and huge wooden bowl (which everyone also uses for salad) and a couple bags of Midnight Blue Popcorn from Big Sky Grocery near Moore. While the kitchenettes are fully stocked, we also bring a sharp knife, cutting board and paring knife — as well as a sponge, napkins, paper towels and paper plates and bowls for extra quick clean up. We also pack towels for hitting the local hot springs. Our friend Max Hjortsberg usually throws in his metal French press for strong coffee, though each unit is equipped with a coffeemaker.
Down the street, Hook and Horn, a local shop selling outdoor gear, vet supplies, vaccines, regional gifts and jewelry, serves locally roasted Big Creek Coffee Roasters Coffee and Lake Missoula Tea Company teas. (As owner Jane Wigen puts it, “If you lost it, forgot it, broke it or left it behind … we probably have it.”) Wigen also serves homemade lavender-lemon or blueberry-white chocolate scones, cookies and soft biscotti — perfect for the drive to the ski hill.
Sexton usually brings her Crock Pot and concocts a mean turkey chili, while Hjortsberg opts for a pan or two of lasagna or manicotti from Front Street Market in Butte. “It’s a great Italian grocery store and specialty foods market that’s super easy to get to from I-90. Plus they have a great deli and lunch counter, so it’s super easy to grab lunch on the road.” He loves their selection of Italian wines and Prosecco and the house-made raviolis, pastas and pasties.
I always grab a couple bags of their “cocktail pasties” to serve as appetizers. “It’s old-school Butte,” Hjortsberg said. “And their super delicious but not dietetic, world-famous Gorgonzola dip tastes great with sesame bread sticks.”
Our group typically celebrates the New Year with a toast when the ball drops on Dick Clark’s New Year's Rockin’ Eve … Eastern Standard Time. Then it’s off to bed and rise and shine for another great day on the slopes.