RED LODGE — A sure-fire sign that winter is on the way, volunteers took over Lion's Park in Red Lodge on Saturday to put up the boards for an outdoor ice rink.
“We’ve been getting bigger and bigger crowds every year. We have kids' programs. We have kids' programs from Billings come down and use it one weekend. We have a pond hockey tournament every year that draws people from Bozeman and Billings. It’s become a big hit," said Andy Simpson, Red Lodge Ice president.
Since about the turn of the new millennium, volunteers with the nonprofit Red Lodge Ice have made sure the town has a place for the public to ice skate.
The crew set out a large rink, and a smaller rink for kids on Saturday while the temperatures were around the 40s to 50s Fahrenheit. They'll wait until it gets cold to pour water on the rinks.
The high-elevation Red Lodge air only keeps the rink frozen for about six to eight weeks. But during that time, it’s quite the popular attraction.
“It’s just really fun. We get to eat marshmallows. We get to go into the hut if we need to get warm, because it is really warm in there. We get to ice skate and we get to play games with the older people when they are playing. Yeah, it’s really fun," said Peri Erickson, 8, of Red Lodge.
While not used by hockey leagues, the ice rink is free and open to the public. Lights around the rink allow people to skate into the evening hours free of charge until the rink closes at 10 p.m. each night.
While skiing, both alpine and cross country, draw visitors to Red Lodge in the winter, the ice rink is also a draw too, said Al Bloomer, Red Lodge Boys and Girls Club youth hockey director.
“We get a lot of winter visitors that come here for the skiing, and cross country skiing. They come to the rink for recreation. We get kids in our youth program from Bridger, Columbus and Laurel and even we’ve had one or two from Billings," Bloomer said.
Tourist traffic in Red Lodge sees its peak during the summer months, while the Beartooth Pass allows people access to Cooke City, Cody, Wyoming, and Yellowstone National Park. Things fall off a bit once the pass is closed, and everyone is waiting for the snow to fly and the tourists to come.
Judy Christensen owns Cafe Regis, a restaurant two blocks off the main drag in Red Lodge. She and her husband used to own Bogarts on the main street in town.
“The ski area, for us when we had Bogarts, the ski area, we were pretty busy at night with families. Then here, the people, they want to get to the powder in the morning. So our business doesn’t quite pick up like Bogart’s business did, but it still picks up," Christensen said.
While the breakfast and lunch spot at Regis doesn't get as much traffic from skiers, Christensen said locals make some pretty steady traffic in the winter time. She said comparing sales in 2021 to 2019, there's been a 25 to 30 percent increase.
“We have so many good restaurants. Really good restaurants for this tiny little town. Someone can pick and choose and always have a good meal here," Christensen said.