Long before they were covered in luxury condos, boutique outdoor clothing stores and latte-spinning coffee shops, good ski hills needed two things: a lift and a lodge.
While many of those simple ski areas have either grown up or closed down, Turner Mountain, a one-lift hill nestled into the northwest corner of Montana, continues to offer skiing the way it was 30 or 40 years ago, when a weekend ski trip for a family of four wouldn’t break the bank.
“I hear it from people all the time,” says Bruce Zwang, president of Kootenai Mountain Sports, the nonprofit that operates the ski area. “They tell me that this is just like the hill they skied on as a kid.”
But Turner Mountain isn’t just some ramshackle ski area off in the boondocks. The mountain has been featured in numerous magazines; Ski Magazine even declared it might have “the best lift-assisted powder skiing in the U.S.” It also appeared in “Here, There & Everywhere,” a movie by Warren Miller, the ski bum-turned-filmmaker whose features have helped skiers and snowboarders map out their dream vacations for a generation.
Getting to Turner isn’t easy. The mountain is at least two hours from the closest airport and requires driving down an old snow-packed logging road deep in the Kootenai National Forest. However, those adventurous souls who do make the trek to Turner will undoubtedly be rewarded with some of the best skiing in their life – and so much more.
“I don’t think there’s another ski area quite like this in the world,” says Jake Jeresek, who volunteers at the mountain.
Wildfire cleared slopeTurner is located 22 miles north of Libby, Montana, a onetime mining and logging town trying to reinvent itself as an outdoor recreation destination. Libby has always worked hard and played harder. In the 1930s, local skiers set up a tow rope and started barreling down a slope at the edge of town.
By the 1950s, they were ready for something a little steeper, so they set out to find an actual mountain. That search brought them to a recently burned peak in the heart of the Purcell Mountains. Since the wildfire had already cleared most of the slope, all the skiers needed to do was strike a deal with the local forest ranger.
In 1960, skiers strung up a short tow rope and Turner Mountain was officially open for business. The summer after the inaugural season, the tow rope was replaced with a milelong T-bar that had the distinction of being one of the longest such lifts in North America. Locals often joked that at Turner, the real workout was going up the mountain rather than skiing down it.
By the late 1990s, the T-bar had reached the end of its useful life, so the mountain’s operator started raising money for a replacement with pint nights at the local bar and other fundraisers. In 2001, the group purchased an old chairlift and had it installed that summer.
In recent years, nonprofit ski areas have popped up across the country as changing economics and a changing climate make it harder to stay open. According to the National Ski Areas Association, about 30% of its more than 300 resorts across the country are nonprofit entities. Among them is Bogus Basin Recreation Area near Boise, Idaho. Brad Wilson, general manager of the mountain, says he believes independent ski areas that focus on keeping prices low are critical to the long-term survival of the sport.
“No one is going to pay $200 for a lift ticket for something that they have never done before,” he says. “It’s up to the small, independent ski areas to create new skiers.”
Zwang agrees with Wilson’s assessment and says keeping prices low, especially for locals, is Turner’s primary mission. “So many people are getting priced out of this sport,” Zwang says. “But we have the cheapest tickets in the state.” A day pass at Turner is $38 for an adult, $26 for teens ages 13 to 18, and $21 for kids (children 6 and younger ski free).
An adult lift ticket at Whitefish Mountain Resort, about two hours east of Libby, will set you back $83. That’s still a bargain compared with other places, including Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort, which in 2019 was charging between $160 and $200 for a day on the slopes.
Volunteers crucialTurner can keep prices low because it has just four employees who run the lift and do maintenance; a few others are hired by a contractor that runs the rental shop and the lunch counter in the base lodge. Otherwise, most of the work at Turner is done by volunteers, who get to work each season long before the snow flies.
Volunteers at Turner clear brush on ski runs, break down and clean the chairlift, and make improvements in preparation for the upcoming season. A few years ago, they built a new groomer shed weeks after the old one burned down. Every volunteer gets a season pass, but Jeresek, who helps organize groomer operations, says everyone would still be there pitching in even if they didn’t get to ski free.
“Everyone is up here volunteering because they really care about the place,” Jeresek says.
Jake’s dad, Jon, agrees. Jon Jeresek has been skiing at Turner since the 1970s, when he moved to northwest Montana for a job with the U.S. Forest Service. He has been on the board of directors for 17 years.
“This is really a family mountain,” he says.
The elder Jeresek is also one of two mountain managers who put in long days to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. On days the mountain is open, the manager gets there around dawn to help coordinate grooming and opens the lodge before the lift starts spinning at 9:30 a.m. Not long before the two-seat chairlift starts to roll, the first skiers pull into the parking lot, conveniently located just feet from the lift line.
From Turner’s one lift, skiers and riders can access 400 acres of terrain with two dozen named runs. Most of the runs are for intermediate or advanced skiers, although there are also a few beginner runs. One of the runs is named for Jon to mark the site where he skied into a tree, breaking a rib and dislocating his shoulder. “Jeresek Park” is the mountain’s only double black diamond (it’s also probably the least intimidating double black diamond run in all of America).
On most days, it’s not unusual for a skier to have Jeresek Park or any other run all to themselves. That’s because the mountain usually only gets about 100 skiers a day, or 6,000 annually (Vail regularly welcomes 1.6 million annually). Much of the snow at Turner is also likely to be untouched because the mountain is only open to the public three days a week, Friday through Sunday. At some ski areas, it’s likely that every stash of powder will be gone within an hour or two of opening; but at Turner, which averages 200 inches of snow a year, it’s possible to find virgin snow two or three days after a storm has passed.
“There are no crowds here, no lift lines,” Zwang says. “Even on our busiest days, it feels like you have the whole mountain to yourself.”
Renting the mountainAnd if you really want to make sure you don’t run into anybody, you can rent the entire mountain on non-operating days for $3,750. Jeresek says the rental program helps keep the ski area’s books balanced and is popular with Canadians who will come south by the busload for a day of skiing on their own private mountain.
“We never want to be some mega resort,” Zwang says. “We want to maintain that hometown feeling where everyone knows your name.”