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Bridger Bowl, Mont.

The Baxter Hotel in downtown Bozeman, Mont., with its 1920s brick exterior, is an eye-catcher, butthat isn't why it draws so much attention from locals.During the winter, there's a blue light on the hotel'sroof that flashes whenever Bridger Bowl gets morethan two inches of snow.

Two inches does not a powder day make, but the blue light is a symbol of justhow passionate a ski town Bozeman is, and how much it considers its local hill a partof the community. Bridger, set in the mountains 16 miles from town, is a uniqueplace—a nonprofit, community-owned ski area that, despite its small size, claimssome of the best expert terrain in the country. About 30 percent is rated black ordouble-black, including the legendaryRidge, a two-mile-long hike-to summitof ultra-steep cliffs and chutes on whichmany extreme skiers have cut their teeth(including the late Doug Coombs,who was a student at Montana StateUniversity in Bozeman). The resortcould have installed lifts to the summitlong ago, but wanted the hike to remaina part of the traditional ski experience—and to deter unskilled skiers fromattempting the difficult, knife-edgedRidge, where shovels and transceiversare required equipment. (Guided threehourridge tours are $140; $60 for eachadditional skier.)

Bridger is a purist resort that likes tobreak its own trail, ignoring ski industrytrends. In other words, you won't findany luxury condos, glittery shops orfancy restaurants at the bottom of the hill.In fact, the resort doesn't really have abase village, just a few simple lodges.One is the recently built, family-orientedSaddle Peak Lodge, which provides along-needed cafeteria, lockers and daycarefacility. But the resort is in no rushto ramp up construction: In 2004, theForest Service approved a major terrainexpansion, but Bridger has yet toannounce plans for new lifts or trails.This season, Bridger will open the newlypermitted area to hike-to skiing—supplyingmore expert terrain to a resort whosetrail map already boasts a veritable blackdiamondbounty.

The Town
In just 20 years, Bozeman has evolvedfrom a bucolic cow town into one ofMontana's most vibrant and sophisticatedcities. Thanks in part to MontanaState University, the historic downtownbuzzes with youthful energy, and MainStreet is lined with hip gear and clothingshops, art galleries, lively cafes, bars andbrewpubs, along with a number of hotels.(With little lodging at the ski area, mostskiers stay in Bozeman.) And over thepast few years, the city has quietly turnedinto a skiing hub: There's Bridger Bowl,and Big Sky and Moonlight Basin are a45-minute drive south.[pagebreak]Where to Stay
>Howlers Inn Bed and Breakfast
About 15 minutes from Bridger Bowl,this small log-cabin B&B has an indoorhot tub and Finnish sauna. It's also awolf sanctuary, with eight wolves keptin a three-acre area on the grounds.$95—$180; 888-469-5377; howlersinn.com

>Best Western City Center
With the advantages of a Main Street location,the family-friendly Best Western offersan indoor pool, hot tub and high-speedInternet. From $104; 406-587-3158;bestwestern.com

>Fairfield Inn
Located between themountain and Bozeman, the comfyFairfield has a pool and hot tub andoffers a free continental breakfast everymorning. From $90; 800-223-9609;fairfield.com

Where to Eat
>John Bozeman's Bistro
Historicphotos adorn the walls and an eclecticmenu features everything fromsesame-soy ahi with soba noodles togrilled elk tenderloin. 406-587-4100;johnbozemansbistro.com

>Looie's Down Under
This cafe isn'tAustralian—the name comes from itslocation in a roomy cellar on Main Street.Look for a sushi bar and wide-rangingContinental menu. 406-522-8814

>The Emerson Grill
Set amid thesprawling art and photography galleriesinside the Emerson Center for the Artsand Culture, the grill serves Italianspecialities such as osso buco and risottowith mushrooms and roasted redpeppers alongside a lengthy wine list.4406-586-5247; theemerson.org

Where to Play
>The Montana Ale Works
A localfavorite with its big horseshoe bar andmicrobrews, including Crankshaft Stoutand Blue Collar E.S.B., the pub alsooffers a full menu, including bisonburgers and blackened salmon. 406-587-7700; montanaaleworks.com

>The Museum of the Rockies
Hometo one of the nation's largest collectionsof dinosaur artifacts, including thelargest T-Rex skull ever found, themuseum is a fun diversion with the kids.406-994-3466; montana.edu/wwwmor

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