From the summit of 9,529-foot Peak 2 overlooking Idaho’s Soldier Mountain Ski Area, the view extends to the sleek resort community of Sun Valley, 30 miles east, and well beyond.
Unlike its world-famous neighbor, Soldier Mountain is not a household name. If they’ve heard of it at all, many Pacific Northwest skiers know Soldier only as the tiny ski area that actor Bruce Willis bankrolled from 1996 to 2012.
Today it’s owned by Matt and Diane McFerran, a young couple from Oregon who relocated to Fairfield, Idaho, in late 2015. They represent a trend toward private local ownership of small ski hills in this Rocky Mountain state, in contrast to corporate ownership of major resorts.
On a recent trip through southern Idaho, we pointed our skis downhill at Soldier Mountain as well as Pebble Creek and Pomerelle, two other small hills without national reputations. We concluded our visit at Bogus Basin, operated by a nonprofit group based in Boise. Each area has full ski rentals, a ski school and a professional ski patrol. Each of these areas has been around since the 1940s, but they remain relatively unknown.
The snow gods haven’t been kind this winter to Soldier, whose lift-served slopes are only 7,177 feet above sea level. (Vertical drop is 1,425 feet.) Thank goodness for backcountry skiing. Thousands of acres of untracked terrain flow from a trio of peaks that rise behind Soldier Mountain to elevations of more than 10,000 feet. They are served by a 12-passenger Sno-Cat.
Our group’s visit was greeted by blue skies but no new powder. Nevertheless, the mountain was skiable: A few inches of dry, wind-blown freshies lay atop a solid crust. We paused at a canvas-sided, mid-mountain yurt for instruction in avalanche awareness, then packed into our Cat to test the conditions.
On our first two runs, we followed a ridgeline into a small glade, then slalomed through alpine junipers to a broad bowl. It was exhilarating to lay down a set of perfect turns, then return to crisscross them in a follow-up figure eight.
On subsequent trips up the mountain, we explored both steeper pitches and long, powdery cruisers. Each time, we carried huge smiles back to the Sno-Cat, which waited at predetermined locations to reload skis and carry its group back up the mountain for more runs.
Matt McFerran, who paid $149,000 for the resort, drove the coach himself. In fact, he’s in charge of all snow operations. Diane handles marketing and runs the lodge with the assistance of the couple’s Aussie shepherd-border collie mix, Skeeter.
Soldier Mountain, as Diane told Outside Online, is “the family-friendly alternative to Sun Valley. There are so many local families with fond memories of growing up at Soldier Mountain: People tell me they learned to ski here, then went on to teach their kids to ski here, too.”
Soldier Mountain is 11 miles north of the village of Fairfield, which is about 100 miles east of Boise and 55 miles southwest of Sun Valley via U.S. Highway 20. Besides Cat skiing, the area has two chair lifts and a novice conveyor belt. The day lodge serves breakfast, lunch and adult beverages during the ski season.
“If you can ski Pebble Creek, you can ski anywhere.” That’s the slogan of this mid-sized resort southeast of Pocatello, just off Interstate 15. The mountain has its own celebrity owner. Internet star Shay Butler, whose YouTube program, “Shaytards,” has nearly 5 million subscribers, bought the resort in September.
It wasn’t a reach. Butler grew up outside of Pocatello and learned to ski at Pebble Creek while he was in elementary school. After moving his family back to his home state from Los Angeles, he set in motion the steps to buy the ski area, which operates on a land-use lease from Caribou National Forest.
“This is the community’s mountain,” Butler told the Idaho State Journal. “We’re just trying to provide access so the local community can enjoy this beautiful landscape.” Several times a week, he arrives unannounced to enjoy a couple of hours of morning turns.
He can get a lot of skiing in that time. With a vertical of 2,200 feet, Pebble Creek has more expert chutes and glades than it has intermediate cruising runs in its 1,100 acres.
For the record, our favorite runs were Outback, which extends into Max Out and Sunshine Ridge, and Stacy’s, which feeds Lower Green Canyon. Broad turns on the former set of slopes carry into the ridge run, which offers an impressive view north toward American Falls Reservoir. Stacy’s is a steep trail, rated blue-black (advanced intermediate), that becomes gentler as it descends.
Except when ski school is in session, Pebble Creek has very short lift lines. The resort has only three chair lifts, but one is dedicated to novice terrain below the day lodge. Most days of the winter season, it’s packed with ski-school students. (Indeed, two days are devoted to lessons for home-schooled children, of whom there are many in this farming region.)
Once known as “Skyline,” Pebble Creek is 19 miles from Pocatello on Green Canyon Road, via the Inkom exit from I-15. It occupies the lower north slope of 9,271-foot Bonneville Peak, highest elevation in the Portneuf Range. The day lodge has a cafeteria-style restaurant, and the Rock Bottom Saloon is especially popular when the lights are on for night skiing.
Established in 1940, Pomerelle is one of the oldest family resorts in the West. It sits at the northern edge of the Albion Range, and although its 1,000-foot vertical doesn’t encourage long runs, its summit — at 8,760 feet — assures snow when other lower areas aren’t getting it.
The views are spectacular. In fact, on a clear day, it’s not hard to pick out both Soldier Mountain, 100 miles northwest, and Pebble Creek, 75 miles east, from the top of the Triple 88 Chair Lift. (It’s one of two chairs, along with a novice “magic carpet” conveyor belt.)
Pomerelle’s runs are shorter and less frightening than those of other Idaho mountains. But I love this little area for the local people who learned to ski here as children, and who continue to work here decades later.
A case in point is ski-school director Barry Whiting, now 72. With no students on the mountain, Whiting was still game to take a few turns. I trailed his rooster-tails down Punchbowl and followed him into Stampede before realizing I was getting stampeded. “It was nice skiing with you,” he said, generously.
Pomerelle is located near the historic village of Albion, 30 miles southeast of Burley and 70 miles east of Twin Falls. The most direct access is via State Highway 77 off Interstate 86, exit 222. There’s night skiing on four runs, and a day lodge with a restaurant.
Twenty years ago, when I lived in Boise, Bogus Basin was my go-to mountain. A solid, mid-sized ski area, it is located just north of the city via a dizzying road that climbs 3,000 feet in just 16 miles. Seven chairs and two novice conveyor belts serve its 2,800 acres of skiable terrain across two mountains.
On my recent visit, I first climbed aboard the Deer Point Express chair (serving beginning and intermediate skiers) and took a warmup run. Then I followed a track around the flank of 7,590-foot Shafer Butte, skied its challenging north face and emerged at the foot of the Pine Creek lift, which offers the largest vertical (1,800 feet) at Bogus.
Next, I turned to the west face and skied Bonanza to the Superior Express. The snow was perfect here, and the gradient was just right to test a mid-level skier.
Bogus has limited night skiing. It also caters to those who are not alpine skiers with a nordic lodge and trails, a tubing hill and a brand-new “mountain coaster,” the Glade Runner. Moving along a track that twists 0.8 mile through a pine forest between the J.R. Simplot Lodge and the Morning Star Chair, two-person carts can reach speeds of 25 miles per hour.
The beautiful Simplot Lodge, named for Boise’s renowned agribusiness leader, has two restaurants and a bar. There’s also food and drink at the mid-mountain Pioneer Lodge.