Here's a real Montana ski town with a landmark hotel and wide-open skies for your authentic winter family adventure.
It’s no secret that the American West is expansive—in both environment and in its historical cast of characters. For example, there was the multi-talented man who toured the United States and Europe with his Wild West show—Buffalo Bill Cody. Then there was the woman who dared to wear pants and shoot and holler like a man—Calamity Jane. Then there was “Liver Eatin’” Johnston, and it wasn’t exactly pate that he was eating. These people were the stuff of old dime novels, but they were also real human beings, and each of them passed through Red Lodge, Montana, and spent time at what is now the Pollard Hotel.
Nowadays, the Pollard seasons its hospitality with genuine western flavor, while the surrounding town of Red Lodge combines a fascinating blend of characteristics: small, safe, laid back, eclectic, and of course, a little bit cowboy. Visiting families need not worry about the gunfights and dramatic bank robberies of years past (apparently, hotel guests once watched the Sundance Kid hold up the bank across the street), but you will enjoy learning the legends of this town and window shopping on its pedestrian-friendly streets.
Red Lodge Mountain, the area’s ski resort, boasts proudly of its “real Montana town,” as opposed to a specially-built village, where out-of-town skiers can support independent businesses, enjoy the surprisingly active nightlife, and mingle with the locals. Right in the heart of this real Montana town of 2,278 residents, you’ll find a large sign with an elegant moose logo—you’ve just reached the Pollard, and met Pierre, the hotel’s iconic mascot.
A Home Base with Comfort and Space
Dubbed “one of the nicest hotels in the West” by Frommers, this historic property uses a simple, but effective, recipe: comfortable, spacious accommodations, gourmet-style dining, and many little extras in the quality of service. With only 39 rooms and suites, these ideals are well within reach for every guest, even on the busiest of high season weekends. In addition, new managers have brought both expertise and fresh ideas to the property, including a revamped restaurant menu and special events like the “Murder Mystery Weekend.”
The Dining Room at the Pollard serves breakfast and dinner; breakfast is included in the room rate, and children are always welcome. The sumptuous dinner menu includes the likes of escargot burgundy style and filet mignon wrapped in bacon, though since you’re in Montana, you might have to go with the Angus rib eye steak. In the basement, there’s a fitness center with exercise equipment, 2 racquetball courts, saunas, and a hot tub. Complimentary ski lockers, wireless Internet, and evening turndown are additional conveniences. An especially fun perk is the video lending library at the front desk, where guests can check out movies for free to play in their rooms. There are plenty of kid-friendly selections, but again, you’re in Montana, so you might want to try “The Horse Whisperer” after a long day outdoors.
The biggest draw for families at the Pollard are the guestrooms and suites themselves. Most rooms have one or two queen beds, while spacious suites include a king bed, a separate living area with a sofa bed, and a jacuzzi tub. There’s plenty of living space to navigate and collect the random stuff that inevitably builds up on vacation. Many rooms overlook the hotel’s lovely central atrium, which features a player piano and fireplace but is mainly quiet at night. This is another key gathering place, especially since delicious homemade cookies appear with the coffee and tea in the afternoon.
The Mountain, the Town, the Lifestyle
Nearby Red Lodge Mountain draws tourists and area skiers alike, amidst a western culture where time spent outdoors is so cherished. Many weekend warriors drive in from Billings, the nearest and largest city in the state. Like the Pollard, the mountain is simple but beautiful. Not a far drive from downtown Red Lodge and uncrowded compared to some of the larger resorts in the Rockies, this location offers great downhill skiing without the bother.
Red Lodge Mountain is part of the Beartooth range, one of the most scenic in the country and known for its breathtaking drives in the warmer months. The Beartooth Pass climbs above the town of Red Lodge to connect it with the Beartooth Highway, which Charles Kuralt once called “the most beautiful roadway in America.” (You can take the Beartooth Highway even further to Yellowstone National Park.) The Beartooths also generally guarantee that natural snow will be plentiful for skiing right into the spring months.
A combination of simplicity and family-friendly amenities is great for kids, and the number of kids swishing down the mountain like they were born on skis is a testament to this. A variety of ski and snowboard lessons are available for different age groups, while very little ones aged 6 months to 4 years may stay at the Kid Corral Day Care (keep in mind that you’ll need immunization records in addition to reservations). Typical adult group and private clinics are available as well, and reasonably priced lesson/rental/lift ticket packages for ages 13 and older are conveniently divided into “Green Square,” “Blue Circle,” and “Black Diamond.” A terrain park, a full-service restaurant, and two cafeteria-style dining venues round out the experience.
Skiing isn’t the only winter sport that happens around Red Lodge—if you visit in March, you might catch the weekend of the National Ski-Joring Championships, which the area proudly hosts. If you’re wondering what exactly ski-joring is, picture a course of ski jumps on flat ground, and a skier tethered to a horse and rider. The adrenaline rush from this unusual activity is sure to fuel a lot of energy in town. A February Winter Carnival also features offbeat snow activities, including the “Cardboard Classic.”
For children who aren’t interested in all-day, every day snowsports, try the nearby Beartooth Nature Center. Like many like it around the country, this center cares for injured animals from the surrounding area that cannot be returned to the wild. Interpretive displays help visitors to learn about the elk, fox, black bears, wolves, mountain lions, bison, antelope, eagles, and coyote that live here. Seeing many of these animals in the wild is not particularly rare in Montana, but the safe, close range makes the center a valuable learning experience.
If all else fails, take a walk around town. Since the Pollard has such a central location, many interesting shops and restaurants are just footsteps away, so you can divide the family between nappers and explorers. The Montana Candy Emporium, with its old-fashioned penny-candy selections and nostalgic gifts and dÃ©cor, is a great stop almost right across the street. Plenty of fudge and chocolate treats are available, too (try splurging on a Flathead cherry truffle). Red Lodge Books has a collection of special-interest titles relating to local history and the American West. The Kevin Red Star Gallery features the paintings of the internationally acclaimed Crow artist. For a quick bite, try the Red Lodge CafÃ© or the Red Lodge Pizza Company, both right on the (refreshingly two-laned) main drag.
And don’t forget to grab a cookie in the Pollard’s lobby—you’ll need extra calories for all of that outdoor fun.
How exactly do you get to Red Lodge, Montana? The fact that you’ll need to drive seems pretty obvious, but luckily, the city of Billings and its international airport (served by Northwest and United from points east) are an hour and fifteen minutes away. Flying in and renting a vehicle is easy, but check up on the weather conditions, since highly elevated Red Lodge may be snowing while Billings isn’t.
The Polllard Hotel offers a variety of packages throughout the year, and room rates range from $75 to $295/N, depending on season and room type. For more information or reservations, call 800/THE-POLLARD or visit www.thepollard.net.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.