An ancient sea gave Red Lodge Mountain ski area its most striking formation.
Skiers and snowboarders know the angular ridge of rocks along the ski area’s northern border as the Palisades.
The word refers to enclosures that are built from burying logs upright to create a fence or stockade. The Latin root of the word, palus, means stake.
Palisades is also the name of one of Red Lodge Mountain’s two high-speed quad chairlifts in the Cole Creek drainage. Last Sunday, in the wake of heavy snowfall earlier in the week, the Palisades lift was drawing an eager crowd. (Not a Vail-like crowd, where people were forced to wait in line for hours a week earlier, but a long line for Red Lodge.)
Mountain manager Jeff Schmidt makes it a point to take people who have never been on the mountain to see the Palisades.
“They love it,” he said.
The skiers and boarders were assembling to make turns on the smooth, blue intermediate runs of Columbine and Palisades, as well as test their skills on the bumps and remnant powder of Flintlock, Winchester and Lobo — more difficult black diamond runs.
Framing the backdrop are the rugged Palisades rock formations. Made of limestone, the Palisades were formed by the deposition of millions of tiny shelled creatures that died and sunk to the bottom of an inland sea. The ancient waterway divided North America 80 million years ago.
About 57 to 65 million years ago in a mountain building period known as the Laramide orogeny, the large slabs of limestone were pushed upright along a fault, leaving them protruding above ground like blunted stone fangs.
An extension of the rocks can be seen to the right while driving up the road to the ski area. They also continue south and north along the Beartooth Front, popping above the surrounding pine green forest as if straining for a view of the Montana prairie stretching to the east.
When the Palisades and Cole Creek lifts were opened to the public in 1996, skiers finally had easy access to the slopes with the scenic pillars. The two chairlifts were the first installment of an ambitious $17 million plan unveiled in 1993 to upgrade the ski area.
Future projects included slope-side lodging near the Miami Beach ski run, and a new restaurant atop the 9,410-foot top of the ski area, Grizzly Peak. Eventually, it was envisioned, a lift would run from the base area straight to the top of the peak, almost a mile-and-a-half long with a vertical climb of 2,000 feet.
Plagued by lack of snow as Montana entered a prolonged drought, the Cole Creek and Palisade lifts saw limited use. In really bad years the lifts never carried a skier.
That’s not the case this season as Red Lodge Mountain received ample early snow before a prolonged dry spell in January. Then February struck with a flurry, luring skiers from around the region with the promise of 4 feet of powder that piled up in one week. As homeowners groused about shoveling out their sidewalks and driveways, powder hounds drove through the town of Red Lodge with wide smiles.
The three-day President’s Day weekend saw about 300 cars parked two miles down the road as holiday skiers and snowboarders from 32 states scrambled to the area to carve turns, according to Schmidt. And there’s no quicker place to rack up vertical on the mountain than the Cole Creek and Palisades lifts, which fly riders uphill at a rate of a thousand feet a minute — the fastest lifts on the mountain.
“Snow makes my life easy, and it makes me look good,” Schmidt said.
Gliding up the slopes last Sunday a fellow lift rider said he had heard rumor that the high-speed quads had been installed in Cole Creek drainage to create an entirely new base area for Red Lodge Mountain.
Schmidt said the tale likely originated with a 1960s mountain plan, with “Jetson-like drawings,” that was never pursued because of the cost of buying surrounding private land.
Jeff Gildehaus, recreation manager for the Beartooth Ranger District, oversees the ski area’s permit to operate on the Custer Gallatin National Forest. He said he’d heard mention of the possibility of a second entrance at Cole Creek years ago as a possible high-end real-estate development. Gildehaus said the lifts were originally put in the gulch because it was the only place the ski hill could expand, adding about 700 acres of terrain to the mountain.
That extra terrain comes in handy on busy days like President’s Day weekend. Even though about 2,000 skiers and boarders showed up (an amount almost equal to the entire population of the Red Lodge community), they were dispersed so well across the 1,700 acres of terrain that short lines were found at many of the six lifts.
“The mountain can handle all we put on there and more,” Schmidt said, “easily 3,000” skiers and snowboarders. Past holiday weekends have peaked with as many as 2,600 riders.
As long as Cole Creek and Palisades lifts are open, riders are spread across the ski area.
“People love it back there because it’s so beautiful,” Schmidt said. “I’d like to get snowmaking over there so we don’t have to rely on natural snow.”
The next time you visit Red Lodge Mountain, take time to stop and admire the Palisades. Although the view across the prairie to the Crazy, Snowy and Pryor mountains from several points on the ski hill can be jaw dropping on a clear day, there’s something unique about the pointed rock formations porpoising above the foothills. It’s a sight unique to Red Lodge Mountain. An ancient sea bed stands exposed. A beach frozen in time above snowy surroundings. A place where the rocks are stars.