With the growth of skiing into the 20th century, small ski hills used to dot the land, providing great accessibility and affordability for beginners looking to access downhill winter sports. Today, these “town” ski areas are a rarity with only a smattering left nationwide.
Antelope Butte Ski Area in northern Wyoming is bucking that trend. After shutting down its lifts in 2004, the hill near Shell, Wy. is reopening this winter thanks to the work of the nonprofit Antelope Butte Foundation which has raised around $2 million through various fundraisers and campaigns since 2011.
“I can’t wait to be turning that lift and having the public riding that lift,” Jeff Grant, an Antelope Butte Foundation board member said.
After the U.S. Forest Service announced it was contemplating tearing down the lifts and old mountain infrastructure, the Antelope Butte Foundation was able to pony up $275,000 in 2015 to preserve the future of the ski area.
“Antelope Butte would have been dead forever, that would have been a death-knell,” Grant said. “It’s been an interesting journey.”
This fall the foundation decided it finally ready to fire up the lifts and on Dec. 28 'the Butte' was reborn in conjunction with an Ullr Festival which featured fat biking, sled dog races, cross country skiing and skijoring demonstrations.
With numerous children's programs and partnerships already in the works with local surrounding school districts and primarily beginner trails across the ski area, Antelope Butte will take a youth focus, because after all, said Grant, kids are the mountain’s future.
“You get kids involved with recreation, whether its mountains or recreation at an early age, they become someone who later in life is involved in outdoors and recreation and end up leading healthier lives,” Grant said.
Since no ski area currently exists within a less than 90 minute drive from the region surrounding Antelope Butte, the mountain is providing a well to a winter recreation desert.
“These small community areas are important too for the ski industry because they create more skiers that come excited about the sport and say, ‘I want to see what it’s like to go to Big Sky,’” Grant said. “Most people don’t start at those places.”
Though the Butte will take a strong youth focus for the time being, the mountain is far from lacking in quality terrain, with a handful of advanced runs dotting down from the 9400 ft. peak and expansions already on the table for upcoming seasons.
But make no bones about it, the mountain will be low-frills in its first comeback season. Since the base lodge is still being renovated, an impromptu “warming hut” has been crafted out of a remodeled historic log garage that will house rentals, ticket sales and ski patrol offices. Also, there will be no running water and the only bathrooms on-site are porta potties.
“It’s kind of like retro,” Grant said with a gleeful chuckle. “We’re kind of like going back to the early days of the mountain.”
Lift tickets will come at retro pricing as well, with no daily pass costing more than $30 and season passes running $240 for adults.
Grant said the mountain will operate on weekends through the end of March.
“It’s a north facing mountain so when the snow is there you can ski well into spring,” Grant said.
Many of the mountain’s former ski patrollers, who grew up on the slopes of the 500-acre ski area are returning for service this winter. Mark Weitz, a founding Antelope Butte Foundation board member, has the mountain to thank for jumpstarting his professional career.
“This guy asked what I was doing and said he was running a company that had some similar needs and by the time I got off the chairlift I had a job offer,” Weitz said.
In addition, the Antelope Butte Summer Festival and Bighorn Mountain Brewfest are already on the books for next summer, signaling a full rebirth to a local’s mountain that has never quite left the heart’s and minds of those who grew up on its slopes.
“I kind of liken it to the rise of local breweries, the craft beer movement,” Weitz said. “People are wanting to be a bit more in tune with their community and the whole vibe of the local scene.”