A few things differentiate Bridger Bowl Ski Area in southwest Montana from its glitzier neighbor, Big Sky Resort. Like the fact that there are more pickup trucks than condos at its base – and more haystacks than people in the valley. The ski hill itself is set 17 miles northeast of Bozeman, Montana, in the heart of the Bridger Mountains – a 45-mile rockbound ridge set on the eastern flanks of the Continental Divide. Bridger is one of the few nonprofit, community-owned ski areas left in the country, which is evidenced by the amount of denim in the lift line and the $49 lift tickets. (Big Sky is $99 a day.) The fact that Scott Schmidt, Doug Coombs, and Tom Jungst cut their teeth on the near-vertical powder runs here when they were students at Montana State University, adds to its cachet as a local stash.
There are no accommodations at Bridger, so most holiday guests head to the Western Heritage Inn of Bozeman (from $64 a night) or the more upscale Hilton Garden Inn (from $180 a night). One of the half-dozen historic bed-and-breakfasts, like the Lehrkind Mansion, make a cozy home base downtown. Jimmy B's Bar & Grill at the ski area is a local favorite to start après-ski. Montana Ale Works in Bozeman is the best place to finish it – with Parmesan fries and a cold Bitterroot Nut Brown Ale brewed nearby in Hamilton, Montana. The Bacchus Pub and Ted's Montana Grill, set in the 1929 Baxter Hotel in downtown Bozeman, represent all things chic in cowpoke country and are your best bet to start New Year's Eve. The Rocking R Bar just down the street embodies everything else Montanan – namely strong drinks and lots of cowboy boots on the dance floor – and is the wildest saloon to ring in the New Year.
If you get up before noon on January 1, head straight for Schlasman's chairlift at Bridger. Schlasman's was Alta's Peruvian lift before Bridger recycled it. It now accesses 300 acres of steeps and bowls like Bitter End and Mundy's Bowls, which drop 1,700 vertical feet back to the base. With a total of 2,600 vertical feet at the ski area and 350 inches of snow a year, the whole mountain holds fresh powder for weeks. To end the day, hike the boot pack above the Bridger Chair – where the area's famous "ridge hippies" hold vigil every powder morning – and pick from dozens of lines along the ridge. Odds are you'll be alone wherever you drop in.