The Northern Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota waltz from mountains to plains. This is the land of the mom and pop ski hill as well as large destination resorts, and the ski clubs across this snow belt are just as varied.

Many of the region's ski clubs started in the 1930s at the time when cross-country and alpine skiing were the same. Clubs, big on camaraderie, built cabins and ran their own rope tows powered by tractor engines. But some ski clubs shifted their emphasis from social skiing to ski race training and education over the years while others sprouted up new.

One of the oldest ski clubs in the region sits smack in the middle of Montana. The Great Falls Ski Club is unique among the region's ski clubs, as it combines two missions together: ski camaraderie and education.

The Great Falls Ski Club was founded in 1938 by the original owners of Kings Hill-Montana's oldest ski area. Many of the original club members helped build the ski area now called Showdown, located 65 miles outside of Great Falls. The club today sees its annual membership waffle between 150 and 250, including some from across the state. Most members fall in the 20- to 50-year-old bracket, although several older skiers also have lifetime memberships, including George Willett, the owner for over 30 years of Showdown ski area who took up telemark skiing after two hip replacements.

Great Falls Ski Club divides its time between promoting ski education and travel. Annual fundraising events include a ski swap and a Snowball dance to support the all-volunteer Great Falls Ski Patrol at Showdown, local ski racing team, and Eagle Mount - a program to get physically- and mentally-challenged people from Great Falls out on the slopes. The club also promotes ski education through the Great Falls Middle Schools by sponsoring students to learn to ski or snowboard.

The club organizes two ski trips per year-one in Montana and one out-of-state-and an international trip every other year. Their trip to Valle Nevado in Chile was a sellout in September, and their winter trip heads to Grand Targhee.

A few younger ski clubs have broadened into year round recreation and social clubs. Two South Dakota clubs added hiking, biking, and pub crawls to their calendars. Siouxland Ski and Social Club, based in Sioux Falls in arm's reach of several Midwest resorts, plans to cart off to four different ski areas this winter: Great Bear, Mt. Kato, Welch Village, and Terry Peak. Black Hills Ski Club plans an annual trip heading to a large regional destination resort. The group hit Moonlight Basin and Big Sky last year in January for six days of skiing, snowmobiling, Nordic skiing, and snowshoeing.

Many of the region's ski clubs catapulted ski education to the top of their mission list to provide affordable lessons as the cost of skiing climbed. Big Mountain Ski Club and Kalispell Ski Club - both located in the Flathead Valley of Western Montana - are two such clubs. Both sponsor multi-week free Saturday ski lesson programs for kids-beginners through advanced-at Whitefish Mountain Resort. A $20-40 membership in the club is required to take advantage of the free lesson programs. Both clubs also organize fall ski swaps for parents to sell old gear and rustle up new gear for growing kids.

Ski racing used to be a school sport across much of the Northern Rocky Mountains well into the 1970s. But local clubs picked up the slack when schools dropped the sport. Twleve clubs today comprise Northern Division's junior racing program under USSA Northern Division. A slice of Wyoming races in Northern Division while Jackson Hole Ski Club and Grand Targhee Ski Team compete under Intermountain Division.

Ski clubs are an integral part of the Northern Rockies ski fabric, but varied in a way to fill niches.