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Race past busy, pricey Vail to catch the season’s end at affordable, crowd-free Whitefish

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Vail’s spectacular skiing comes at a high cost and with a lot of company

There is no disputing that Colorado’s Vail Ski Resort is spectacular. The jewel in the Vail Resorts portfolio boasts expansive terrain with seven back bowls, meaning you can ski for days without repeating a run. The sophisticated eateries, swanky hotels, luxurious spas and internationally renowned shopping make for a memorable and sumptuous getaway.

But between the cost of lift tickets ($161), lessons (private, $1,029 a day) and lodging (rooms averaged around $600 on a search at press time), even a basic vacation there can set you back thousands. Additionally, the popularity of Epic Pass (which allows skiers unrestricted access to 69 participating resorts around the world, including Vail) has increased congestion on and off the mountain.

If only Vail will do, consider going the first two weeks in December, in March before spring break and at the very end of the season. (The mountain closes April 21.)

Location: Vail, Colo., is about two hours west of Denver.

Whitefish’s prices are a fraction of Vail’s, and the slopes are splendid

For an alternative just as lovely but more relaxed, head to Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwestern Montana. Its glitz-free and charm-filled namesake town mixes the auras of bohemian wild West and plucky ski village. Think mom-and-pop shops thriving alongside groovy boutiques, restaurants, breweries and a sprinkling of coffee shops.

Getting here is an effort. If you fly, you’ll need to change planes in Denver and take another flight to Kalispell. But off-the-grid geography means day trippers are scarce and tourist hordes nonexistent. The result: no lift lines, easy-to-snag dinner reservations and prices half of what you’ll pay in Vail.

As one of the lone independent ski resorts in America, Whitefish revels in its anti-corporate vibe. Parking at the base lodge is complimentary, and grabbing your lift ticket ($81 per day) and rentals ($37 per day) takes approximately 10 minutes. A private day lesson — a good idea because so many runs are black and double-black — will cost $495.

The biggest payoff is the skiing: 3,000 acres of terrain featuring an impressive beginner area, plenty of groomed intermediate runs and steeper slopes throughout the North Bowl Face and East Rim, as well as Hellroaring Basin. The alpine fairy dust is dry, fresh powder atop a packed base, the result of consistent snow dumps (up to 300 inches annually). As you spy “snow ghosts,” ethereal-looking trees coated in ice, and vistas of nearby Glacier National Park, you’ll feel more energetic than at Vail because the elevation is lower.

Among affordable lodging options in town are cozy boutique hotel the Firebrand (starting at $119); you can drive (or take a public bus) 10 minutes up to the mountain base. The après scene is lively, with options in town (craft cocktails at Spotted Bear Spirits and house-brewed lagers and ales at Great Northern Brewing Company) and on the mountain at historic Bierstube. Most restaurants are casual. Try hearty, small plates at Last Chair and cherry-wood-smoked meats at Piggyback BBQ. To fuel up for skiing (or, the flight home), have breakfast at Swift Creek Cafe.

Of course, there are more upscale options: staying slope-side in a luxury treehouse at Snow Bear Chalets or booking Cafe Kandahar chef Andy Blanton, a James Beard Award nominee, to cook a multicourse meal at your residence. This is a ski resort, after all. Either way, you’ll leave with an appreciation for Whitefish and its laid-back spirit.

Location: Whitefish, Mont., is about 2.5 hours north of Missoula, Mont.

Koch is a writer based in Chicago. Her website is Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @amytarakoch.

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