I’d hazard a guess that you haven’t heard of McCall, in which case, listen up if the following list appeals: Deep, fluffy powder. Immense backcountry. Immaculately groomed pistes. Zero lift queues. Great beer.
You’ll find all this – and more – within easy reach of McCall, an attractive small town of 3200 people beautifully located on the shores of Payette Lake in central Idaho, and situated between two very modestly sized ski hills, Brundage Mountain to the north and Tamarack to the south.
Brundage dates back to 1961 and came about as an offshoot of the even older ‘Little Ski Hill’, which dates back to 1937, and where a single T-bar still operates, and the local kids still learn to ski for free. Brundage was ‘designed’ by legendary US skier Corey Engen and financed by money from the company that invented that culinary delight frozen French fries.
Meanwhile, 30-minutes south of McCall is Tamarack. Oh dear, oh dear…Tamarack was developed in the early 2000s and was opened just before the global financial crisis in 2008, which led to it closing in 2009, to be reopened a year later after property owners in the resort took over the running of it themselves. This has left the place with a peculiar mix of luxury condos and unfinished buildings, giving something of an Eastern European feeling to the village. The skiing, however, as at Brundage, is superb.
I first stumbled across McCall almost twenty years ago whilst working on the Rough Guide to the Rocky Mountains. My most recent visit was last February was with my mate James Cove (planetski.eu) on a road trip through Idaho. We checked into the cosy Hotel McCall on the shore of the lake and unpacked for our three-night stay.
Next morning the sky was a clear, dazzling blue, there was a dusting of featherlight powder and the temperature was minus 26C. This is one reason the snow is so good here; the other, as Spencer LaMarche, our guide from Brundage, told us later in the day, is that the McCall area sits in the line of storms tracking across from both the north-west and the south-east, so snowfall is frequent and plentiful – the annual average at Brundage, where we were heading after breakfast, is 300-350 inches (to put that into perspective that’s around the same as La Plagne had last season, which was a record breaker for that particular resort as opposed to an ‘average’ at Brundage).
It was April Whitney’s job to sell the place to us, and despite the fact that this girl sure can talk she really didn’t have much selling to do. We headed up the Bluebird Express quad up to the resort’s high point of 7,640-feet. From here you can see the real Wild West in all its glory. In all directions lay ridge after ridge of incredibly remote mountains with entrancing names such as the Sawtooths, Gospel Hump, Seven Devils and Wallowa Mountains – these are places with more bear, wolves, cougars and elk than humans.
It’s little wonder that neither Brundage nor Tamarack ever get busy – hardly anyone lives here, and the nearest city of any size, Boise (population 243,000) is three hours away. If you’re looking to escape the madding crowds this is the place to come.
We blasted around immaculately groomed runs with April all morning and in the afternoon things got even better. We hook up with Spencer LaMarche to explore some of Brundage Mountain’s sublime backcountry – short hikes to skier’s right from the top of the Bluebird Express chair at 7,640-foot take us into the Hidden Valley, where Spencer leads us through deep powder and trees that Mother Nature, who clearly likes Idaho a lot, has serendipitously spaced to allow for maximum skier enjoyment and minimal arboreal arguments.
Lap after lap follows before we call it a day, grab a beer and spend time in Smoky’s Bar. We drive away with faces glowing from the sun, the cold and the beer I wonder how Tamarack will compare tomorrow with what has just confirmed itself as my favourite American ski hill.
Tamarack puts up a good fight. For a place that almost died before its first season was out Tamarack has come back all guns blazing; Two linked four-person quads – the resorts only ‘real’ lifts – take you to the high point of 7,700-foot Tamarack Summit from where 3,000-feet of vertical encompasses everything from open powder fields to perfectly-spaced trees and the inevitably deserted groomers.
We were there during the busiest week of the US ski season and yet we did lap after lap when we saw no more than the occasional skier or snowboarder, and no one at all once we ventured into the trees; and Tamarack seemed to be home to a peculiar phenomenon I’ve never really experienced anywhere else – despite the fact that it snowed on and off all day, sometimes heavily, visibility was never an issue even away from the trees.
Like all the other resorts we visited Tamarack is tiny by European standards with just 1020 acres of terrain, but there’s masses of hike-to terrain and by using McCall as a base you could easily ski here and at Brundage for a week or more and never get bored – and never stand in a lift queue either.
Sure, it’s a bit of a schlep to get there, but for a taste of real, hometown America and superb, crowd-free skiing, I’d say it’s worth it.