There are always these gems that only the locals know about. Which brings up the two ski hills outside McCall, Idaho. You undoubtedly know about Sun Valley and probably about Schweitzer. But smack in the middle of the state are Brundage and Tamarack, powder treasures with an amazing array of killer intermediate terrain.
Let’s get something straight from the start … people always talk about expert terrain, cornices, walls with waist deep powder, breathtaking swaths of tree skiing in crowded forests.
And yet, the vast majority of us are intermediate to advanced skiers. We like a few bumps, maybe a glade or two, but our hearts are on the cruisers … the steep ones when our legs are fresh, the more gentle ones towards the end of a full day.
The granite hills here are old, meaning round and relatively gentle. The snow is light and deep. The nearest town, McCall, about 100 miles north of Idaho’s capital city of Boise, started with timber, but slowly, thanks to Payette Lake and those mountains, turned to outdoor recreation.
Low-Key, Ski Cruiser Heaven
I was in the Brundage Mountain lodge cafe when this chap walked by in the exact same ski pants I’ve had in my closet … for 20 years. No $1,000 Bogner outfits here. And no Starbucks, either. McCall sort of prides itself in the fact that the nearest one is 100 miles away.
Brundage, which dates back to 1961, is a low key, low-pressure ski hill. There are five lifts serving 1,500 skiable acres with a 1,800 foot vertical drop. But those figures don’t begin to describe what is, in essence, an intermediate skier’s paradise.
Yes, there is hairy terrain with forests and steep, ungroomed powder, along with 18,000 acres of guided backcountry terrain. But at its heart, Brundage is cruiser heaven. Even many glades are aimed at less-than-experts, with widely spaced trees and less intimidating pitches. Part of this is due, sadly, to the global warming-spurred die-off of white bark pine. The trees stand as gnarled gray ghosts and once their lower branches were trimmed, they became the perfect intermediate tree slopes.
Uncharacteristically when I visited, the area hadn’t gotten any fresh powder in nearly a month (and of course, feet arrived three days after I left). So I “settled” for bombing Brundage’s steeper cruisers, especially the 45th Parallel and, on the backside, Dropline and Kickback, both of which softened in the afternoon, turning into creamy hero snow.
Back in town, things were gearing up for the annual Winter Carnival, when the town’s nearly 3,000 people swell to 45,000. Snow sculptures sat everywhere … Ice bars. A ski jump. Stacks of snow pancakes. There was a shipwreck with a shark on its deck (which ultimately won best of show), a jukebox with changing color lights, and even a Darth Vader with an illuminated red light saber.
Opening night, I strolled by a few sculptures, then retreated to the heated rock pools of the Forbes-rated (that means nicely upscale) Shore Lodge, where a day pass got me entry to their spa. And I emerged onto the hotel’s beach just in time to watch the carnival-opening fireworks, then headed to Narrows Grill for killer ribs (with a mac & cheese side), which could have easily fed two for only $18. Prices here when compared to the “Big Boy” resorts can be somewhat unbelievable (more about that soon).
Tamarack Resort: Affordable, No Crowds
Which brings us to Tamarack Resort, some 40 minutes down the road.
Tamarack started a decade ago as, well, a sort of Yellowstone Club Jr., a private resort with seriously well-heeled owners, but also open to the public. And then the recession hit and the place went bankrupt. One of their chair lifts was even repossessed and the resort slammed shut.
Last year, the resort emerged from foreclosure and now has new backing, along with (beginning last ski season) full time operation instead of the four-day-a-week schedule it’s had for a few years.
The new company spent $2.6 million to improve snow making, buy new groomers and paint lift towers, among other things.
But new money and owners don’t exactly mean the place is crowded. On a Friday before Winter Carnival, I was still finding groomer tracks on main runs at the end of the day. Talk about having a resort practically to yourself.
And prices here are downright startling … in a good way. Senior one-day lift passes ran $15 last season (regular adult passes were $52.). And, yow, lodge/lift packages included a “ski free Wednesday” deal where you got three days of lifts and lodging for the price of two. Early bird and twilight private lessons, meanwhile, were going for a truly stunning $30. And by February, there were mid-week “Ski & Stay” packages that also included a $5 food voucher for as low as $85 per person, double occupancy.
Oh yes, and then there are the cottages, two-level small homes, actually. One I visited had been selling for $1.2 million in 2007. When I was there, it was selling for $330,000. I live in the Seattle area and there are homes in distressed neighborhoods going for more than that.
Like Brundage, this place is, above all, an intermediate/advanced treasure with cruising runs that take a continuous but never boring line down the mountain’s entire 2,800 vertical drop. The mountain has four lifts serving 900 acres with a 300 foot yearly average snowfall.
The place is, however, also still a work-in-progress. Tamarack is actually run by four entities that separately control the mountain, the main hotel, the golf course and the … um … ghost village.
Sitting behind the yurt-like temporary dome structures housing the resort’s sport center and two restaurants is the still unfinished village core. The buildings look nearly done but at this point, no one really knows when or if they will be finished.
“We have to show viability before it will go forward,” one Tamarack representative said.
And that includes the 13,000 square foot mid mountain lodge that stands as a tease partway up the slopes.
However, daily skier visits have climbed back to pre-crash years and the skier crowd is growing steadily.
Dinner in a Yurt
During my trip, I enjoyed Blue Moon Outfitter’s yurt dinner. I’ve done a few yurt dinners, but this one, well, was quite special.
Normally folks cross country ski the one mile trip, but since it hadn’t snowed in a while and the track was more than a little icy, I opted for snowshoes. They were hardly bigger than my boots and gripped the slick surface almost like crampons. So, off I went through the towering pines of Ponderosa State Park.
The yurt sat within sight of Payette Lake. It was cozy, warm and filled with people.
“You must mingle,” co-owner Lisa Whisnant said.
And so we did, over her famous appetizers … sesame marinated asparagus spears, bell peppers stuffed with brie and, the star of the pre dishes, slices of grilled duck breast with cinnamon cabernet sauce and fried wontons atop a bed of shredded cilantro and cabbage.
Ah, but there was more … a salad followed by grilled salmon with lemongrass and lime coconut sauce plus black forbidden rice cooked with orange blossom water. And finally, a poached pear dessert.
ALL of this done on the spot over a portable propane stove. Now that’s impressive.
The trip back was through crisp, frosty air with stars twinkling between the ancient pines.
Of course I intend to go back to McCall. I’ve got a friend building a house there. And I plan to time my visit when the powder is deep. — –by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
Ski season in the McCall area generally runs mid-November through April or mid May. Winter Carnival in 2016 will be Jan 29-Feb. 7. Hotel rooms and rental units are usually all booked three months earlier.