Up Highway 14, high above Shell and Greybull but not quite to the top of the Big Horn Mountains, long, white, vertical lines shine through the dark forest.
Their meaning is unmistakable. They make up what was once the Antelope Butte Ski Area, a mom-and-pop hill started in the 1960s and closed in 2004. They’re a remnant of times past when most mountain towns had a lodge with a lift or two.
And this winter, they’re coming back to life.
The Antelope Butte Foundation, a group of local residents, has been working since 2011 to restart the resort as a nonprofit. It’s been a long road full of fundraising, U.S. Forest Service permits, water damage and broken machinery. And while it’s far from over, there’s hope.
The foundation has a new executive director, Casper native John Kirlin, a Forest Service permit allowing work to be done and more than $1.6 million raised to their goal of $4 million.
The resort also has snow.
“Here, everywhere you’re looking at is something spectacular,” Kirlin said. “To really truly understand what it could do people need to go up there and see it.”
Running a small-town resort at a time when skier numbers have plateaued and winters are shorter is a tall order. But it’s not an impossible one.
Antelope Butte had been owned and operated by a Wyoming corporation called Fun Valley Inc. They ran the lifts for skiers and snowboarders for about four decades before abruptly shutting down in the spring of 2004 because of personal issues, Kirlin said.
The lodge, lifts and runs then languished, ravaged by hard, cold winters, hot summers and wind. The Forest Service tried selling the lodge and leasing the land, without success.
After a few years, the Forest Service was ready to tear down the structures. Then a coalition of community members from the surrounding area stepped in to form the Antelope Butte Foundation.
They hoped to raise enough money — $3 million at the time – to bring the area back to life. But first they needed a permit. In March 2016, the Forest Service agreed to allow the group to make renovations to the lodge and work on the ski hill.
“It’s a nonprofit and it will always operate as a nonprofit,” Kirlin said. “Grants and private dollars are then used to help better the community.”
If potential donors in the Sheridan area were waiting for progress on the hill before giving, Kirlin is ready. He fixed the 41-year-old Sno-Cat affectionately named Bertha and has been plowing the 1-mile long dirt road from the highway to the hill.
He’s working on acquiring equipment to groom the 6 miles of Nordic ski trails that snake around the resort and is even hosting a dog sled race this winter. Renovations are underway on the historic lodge.
The fundraising goal is $4 million now — $3.6 million to finish the lodge, update the lifts and buy grooming machines and another $400,000 to begin an endowment. With $1.63 million raised, and a plan in place, Kirlin doesn’t worry about raising the remaining money.
Neither does Jordan LeDuc, owner of Sheridan Bicycles in Sheridan.
“It will make the quality of life better for Sheridan and the community,” LeDuc said. “We moved to town when it was closing, and it was a big blow to the surrounding counties. It took some winter fun away.”
LeDuc skis, but doesn’t sell ski equipment. He’s looking forward to a re-opened Antelope Butte largely because of summer options.
The Antelope Butte Foundation board got permission from the Forest Service to run the resort year-round. That means they can target not only skiers and snowboarders interested in a community resort with 500 acres of skiable terrain and 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but also bring in summer tourists.
“I want it to be a fun escape no matter what time of year you’re around,” Kirlin said. “It will be an easy thing for families to offer for their kids. A place where kids and parents alike can explore and learn new things and can do that for the rest of their lives.”
It’s a strategy many resorts are turning to in order to make ends meet.
While long-time Jackson Hole Mountain Resort president Jerry Blann said recently that summer activities won’t ever replace revenue gained in winter, it can help. And Kirlin said it will likely make an even larger difference in area run as a nonprofit.
“As we move forward, our summer will end up subsidizing our winters when we have nine months of dry season and we can have mountain bike rentals and clinics and maybe zip lines and hiking and climbing opportunities there in Shell Canyon,” he said. “The summer potential will outweigh winter.”
Kirlin won’t speculate on when the resort may or may not open lift lines and send new skiers and snowboarders down those long slices through the trees. He would love to say next winter, but it depends on fundraising.
What Kirlin does know is that the area has snow, the Sno-Cat is up and running and he and the board are ready.