The Air That Angels Breathe

“Sitting islanded on some gray peak above the encompassing wood, the soul is lifted up to sing the Iliad of the pines.  They have no voice but the wind, and no sound of them rises up to the high places.”

— Mary Austen

The sport of skiing is one of those things that started its life as a passion sport and, over the years, steadily grafted onto itself an element of status and prestige.  With the grafting of that element, the sport itself gave way to the trimmings – the hotels, timeshares, mansions, golf courses, shopping, dining, and cultural activities began to grow in prominence, and before long ski towns came to be judged by the quality of their creature comforts rather than those elements tied to the skiing experience itself.  As such, places like Park City, Aspen, and Vail flutter to the top of the “Best of” lists, drawing legions of pleasure seekers to their (often lackluster) slopes who seek to pair champagne with their (tracked-out) powder.

And that’s alright with me.  The beauty of a market economy is the virtue of choice to meet every taste and desire.  And that includes ski resorts.  My tastes are just a bit more… singular.

A Boundary Broken

Mammoth Lakes and its constituent resorts – Mammoth and June Mountain – is my mountain home, just as it is for many millions of Southern Californians. For years my family made a summertime pilgrimage to the verdant mountain valley for a week’s getaway of hiking and biking, fishing and playing amongst the lakes, streams, and peaks of its backcountry.  About a decade ago my family’s decision to purchase a property on which to build a second home encouraged us to expand our horizons, and before I knew it I was strapping plastic sticks to my feet and sliding across snow for the first time in my life.

The problem with building a second home, however, is that your horizons are suddenly bounded by practicality – why would we ski anywhere else when we have lodging already provided for?  Visits to other resorts become less frequent, and for the most part my fate was sealed when I began purchasing season passes for Mammoth.

As fate would have it, during the past year the bounds that practicality imposed on my experiential horizon have become loosened – much as would be expected in the process of growing up.  The Golden State of my childhood – where so much contentment and happiness was to be found – suddenly found itself wed to another place, 800 highway miles from my Mammoth doorstep. It was not on purpose – the act of falling in love seldom is.  And yet that act facilitated a waterfall of hundreds of other new discoveries that came with fostering and deepening that love.  As fate would have it, one of those discoveries was to visit a place that, curiously enough, provided the architectural inspiration for my Mammoth home; a place so very different yet so very much like my home mountain.

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The Madison Range in Summer from Beehive Basin.  The Sphinx is the mountain in the distant center, and Lone Peak rises in the mid-ground at right.

It comes a surprise to many that fully 40% of California is comprised of mountainous terrain – the same percentage claimed by a state that derives its very name from that adjective.  California and Montana probably make a strange juxtaposition – one is the most populous state in the union, the other has a smaller population than the City of San Diego; one is a bastion of social experimentation, the other is profoundly individualistic.  And yet both share a common frontier heritage – the difference is one has grown disillusioned with that heritage, seeking to bury it as politically incorrect and naive detritus, while the other wholeheartedly embraces it.  In a way, Montana represents California in its adolescence: a place where anything is possible if a man only puts his mind (and money) toward making it a reality… even in the face of local backlash, property rights reign supreme, and the project will commence.  There’s something refreshing in that validation.

The Spanish Peaks

Big Sky is a place that could have happened in California 60 years ago but could never happen today.  Before the words “ski area” or “development” could escape the lips of a businessman, hordes of crowing environmentalists, angry neighbors, and parasitic governments would descend to either mire the proposal in endless and costly CEQA litigation or to snatch up the property and place it in the “public trust” (as happened with the Mammoth Mountain expansion plans, which are now forever estopped by the Sierra Club’s lobbying for the strategically placed Owens River Headwater Wilderness).  The California Dreamer, thus, would find his dream curtailed or modified to the point of nonrecognition.

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Chet Huntley – the “face” of Big Sky, in a 1970s promotional photo

The story of how Big Sky came to be is now layered under heaps of slick real estate marketing talking points that create a Walt Disney-esque story of “one man’s dream to build a ski mountain.”  The truth of the matter is, however, that keynote NBC journalist and Montana native Chet Huntley never lived to see a single chairlift spin, and the place was (and remains) unpopular with a contingent of Montanans who delight in keeping the place to themselves (not that I blame them… who wants Californians to come in and ruin the neighborhood the way they’ve ruined their homeland?)  In spite of impressions to the contrary left by eponymous slopeside fondue bars and conference facilities, he wasn’t even a downhill skier, and the project wasn’t even his idea.  Instead, his assistance was sought by Big Sky Inc. (the interested parties hiding behind corporate names like Chrysler and the BNSF Railroad) to serve as a pitch-man in lobbying efforts to convince the US Forest Service, the State of Montana, and Madison and Gallatin Counties to give their blessing to land trade deals that would permit the developers to build condominium projects, golf courses, and shopping centers in what was, previously, a hodge podge of private ranches and National Forest lands.  It worked – the project got all the land it wanted and then some.  Huntley, meanwhile, eventually succumbed to complications brought on by surgery three days before the resort’s opening in 1974 – the darling of the out of state visitor, the antichrist destroyer of Eden to many a local, defeated by a routine surgery.

An outsider, such as myself, who reads the local newspapers and op-eds penned between 1972 and the present comes away with a feeling that the Gallatin River, the Spanish Peaks, and the entire region now known as Big Sky have been forever destroyed – decimated wraiths and shadows of their former glory without redeeming characteristics.  Over time, however, it seems many locals have grown to accept Big Sky as a sort of concentration camp for undesirable Southlanders – a place where such people may find all the creature comforts they need such that they won’t need to pollute the rest of the Treasure State with their yuppie tendencies.  But Big Sky is much more than that.  As a student of land use law, the fact that it has been built out in a semi-thoughtful manner – with commercial cores, high density housing, and low density housing properly clustered – without the oversight of a city planner – is a delightful validation of the free enterprise system’s ability to (mostly) function without big brother.  As an outdoor enthusiast, the gentle topography that rises in broad, hilly arcs into the Madison Range with forever views exploding out of every forest clearing is a revelation of a sublime wildness that man may permanently make a home for himself within.  Beehive Basin, the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, the lakes cradled at the feet of the Spanish Peaks, the watery highway of the Gallatin River and its many forks pouring through the area – all of these things come together to create a mountain paradise that, if it were in Tahoe or Park City or Aspen, would be riddled with tens of thousands of people.  But because it’s in Montana, it belongs to a few.

An Aside on Trip Planning: A General Orientation

The Southwestern corner of the State of Montana is a mountain ribbed region of soaring peaks and spacious valleys – each range and river valley cradling in its embrace special treasures unique to them alone.  North of Yellowstone National Park, where the granitic Madison and marbled Gallatin Ranges collide, and the Gallatin River finds its western headwaters, a convergence of topography creates a unique (to the Rocky Mountains) Sierra Nevada-like region where a mountain plateau slowly rises from a gash in a typically rugged Rocky Mountain canyon wall ever higher to 8,000 feet, from where 11,000 foot peaks finally rise to create dramatic pinnacles.  While their western slopes drop precipitously to the Madison Valley, this eastern shoulder is a gentle wilderness with rolling forests, meadows, and lakes. The Spanish Peaks, the Sphinx, and Fan Mountain create a stone wall that gradually lowers its ramparts to meet this plateau, which comes to a sudden conclusion at its western end with the pyramidal glacial horn of Lone Peak – a mountain that stands forward from the crest of the range with an eponymously thoughtful attitude of its own.  It is this peak that is circumscribed by a 5,800 acre ski area – one of the largest in the United States; a member of an exclusive club of mountains whose very character is more than just a name and instead tied to an iconic mountain itself.

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Community map outlining major regions and subdivisons – by James Niehues

From a human-centered point of view, the Big Sky plateau comprises three, largely self-contained regions, each one enjoying its own character and appointed season where it stands center stage.  The Canyon, with its guest ranches, private homesteads, schools, and small businesses strung along the snaking pathways of the Gallatin River, is the first region encountered when driving toward Big Sky from either direction on US-191.  This is the land of the summer visitor, where big river blue-ribbon fishing and white water rafting, along with classic “dude ranch” style accommodations at Buck’s T-4 Lodge, cater to guests while the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center and Ophir School remind visitors that Big Sky is a fledgling year-round community.

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The Meadow and its Arnold Palmer-designed golf course in summer.  Lone Peak rises at right.

A mere two miles west on Montana Highway 64, The Meadow, with its Arnold Palmer Golf Course, shopping centers, and gated communities, possesses a spacious, airy, forested character, with not-too-distant views upward into the Madison Range and Spanish Peaks.  Streams and lakes nestled here-and-there provide excellent fishing opportunities, and long summer days, combined with its relatively low 6,200 foot elevation, make the Meadow a relaxed year-round hideaway and an ideal locale for cross country skiing come wintertime.  Here guests find the local movie theater, the famed Lone Mountain Ranch (with its groomed cross country trails), parks, two commercial centers (Big Sky Town Center and Westfork Village) and a songful cascade known as Ousel Falls.

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The Mountain in Summer, Lake Levinsky and Surrounding Developments

Lying a further four miles up Highway 64, at the summit of a snaking climb, visitors reach The Mountain.  Resting at 7,500 feet, it is the hub of winter life.  Here, condominiums and mansions proliferate on the lower slopes of Lone Mountain, many communities possessing their own ski trail and lift linkages to the main ski area.  The Mountain Village – with its hotels, restaurants, and shopping – is the center of commercial development, while the triumvirate of private clubs – Moonlight, Spanish Peaks, and Yellowstone Club – spill in radial spokes from this village core, bringing with them country-club living, summertime golf courses, resplendent clubhouses of their own and semi-private (or fully private in the case of Yellowstone Club) ski runs.  The headwaters of the Gallatin spill from lakes and rock glaciers chiseled into the shoulders of Lone Mountain – from whose apex at 11,156 feet three states and two national parks may be glimpsed. Short term visitors may find a range of amenities stretching from four-star luxury to crash pads, while longer term visitors may consider renting condominiums or private homes.  During the summertime, The Mountain becomes the point of embarkation for a network of trails stretching in all directions, many of them climbing into the Lee Metcalf Wilderness’ twin tracts, others offering a gentler stroll along lakeshores.

Each of the four seasons brings to each of the three neighborhoods a unique sense of adventure and new discoveries – there is a lifetime of exploration here in a place that a mere 2,000 year round residents call home and, on a busy weekend, a paltry 4,000 guests visit.

A First Visit

For all its variety, Big Sky is perhaps one of the most difficult destination resorts to orient oneself to understand.  While a central chamber of commerce does exist, the publications they offer are ill-suited for true orientation.  Indeed, the above rambling discourse for orientation is as encapsulated and relevant a discussion as you will find of what lies where… I couldn’t find one, so I made it myself.  Complicating matters, the destination skier will find that, like Mammoth Lakes, Big Sky lacks true “full service” hotels – most accommodations, including The Summit and Village Center, are condominium complexes that do double duty as hotels when their regular owners aren’t using them.  And to even further complicate matters no single resource provides an exhaustive vacation planner that makes decision making easy (I requested such a publication from the Chamber of Commerce on three occasions… never received it).  As such, Big Sky vacation planning is much like Montana life itself – one must be self-sufficient, intelligent, and tenacious.  Only then will you discover the myriad rewards that a visit here – to the last great undiscovered American ski destination – provides.

In the coming years I plan to orient myself with much of what Big Sky has to offer and fashion a review much like my notoriously detailed Mammoth Mountain review.  In the interests of maintaining variety, however, this review functions as a trip report, and where relevant I will incorporate the considerations, nuances and tricks I learned from planning and executing my first trip.

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Montana Spring – Beaverhead County

My first visit to Big Sky fell over the course of a three-day weekend near the end of its ski season.  The mountain, like many big-mountain corporate resorts, sets an annoyingly arbitrary drop-dead closing date in mid April (in 2016 this was April 17) even if a six foot base remains on the mountain slopes, and because Montana weather is subject to the polar vortex more often than not the idea of visiting during the first full week of April – a time when the mountain was still 100% open, the crowds nonexistent, and the weather fair – was particularly tempting.

After stripping away the layers of marketing fluff and pre-trip excitement, Big Sky emerged as a destination that offers a Mammoth Mountain style skier’s mountain experience grafted onto a massive real estate venture –haphazardly serving the short term destination ski visitor, reaching peaks of greatness (pun intended) while falling flat on other notes.  Overall, the experience was more than satisfactory, and those areas where things can be improved are hardly systemic.  In totality, the experience was unable to wrest Mammoth and June Mountain from their lofty perch in my heart, but easily bested my Colorado and Tahoe experiences.

Arrival

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‘Nuff Said

It was a breezy, bright day in Ennis, Montana – a tiny fishing and ranching town resting along the verdant banks of the Madison River, commanding tremendous vistas of the lofty Madison and Tobacco Root Ranges.  The town was my first taste of Montana fourteen months ago, and remains one of my favorite “unknown” places that I have had the pleasure of discovering – an idyllic small town complete with an old time soda fountain, single screen cinema, and friendly locals.  But that’s a subject for another time.  Although lying a mere seven miles from Big Sky as the crow flies, necessity dictates that a much longer route be undertaken to reach the resort by road – traveling 45 minutes west to Bozeman and then another 45 minutes southward along the eastern flank of the Madison Range.  Late that morning the journey began, a two lane strip of tarmac climbing mountain grades, threading through rocky canyons once charted by Meriwether Lewis, and across a grassy plain, piercing Montana’s fastest-growing city serving as our guide.  Every mile, every hill, every turn opened up new vistas and an ever growing sensation of freedom and excitement.  Such is the thrill of exploring this northern countryside.

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The Gallatin River flowing north alongside US-191

Upon making the right-turn onto US-191, tightly hugging the banks of the Gallatin River and reaching the forest’s edge, Montana’s typically vast open spaces yielded to a dramatic, confined and gloomy gorge cut through dark bedrock.  Pinnacles and cliff-faces drop precipitously to the riverside, and US-191 hugs the riverbank with a tight embrace.  At intervals the placid, gravelly waters awake into a dramatic whitewater plunge, while elsewhere forest clearings yield shelter for a fisherman’s summer home or Yellowstone National Park bound campers.  The deep gash of the Gallatin Canyon is a classically Rocky Mountain feature – vast vistas are few and far between, most views intimate and humbling in their intensity.

But soon the Canyon’s western wall gave way to rolling hills bounded by deeply forested slopes.  The right turn onto Highway 64 presented itself, and suddenly a more familiar-feeling kingdom appeared – the ubiquitous Montana spaciousness and openness returned, cradling a far green country leading to the feet of Lone Peak above, resting in a notch as the valley’s centerpiece.  Gently the road wound its way into a meadow – a landscape garden set with an emerald golf course in its center, circumnavigated by condominiums and shopping centers.  The aesthetic here, influenced by several different decade’s impressions of what mountain architecture should look like, feels like Mammoth Lakes with the blessing of space – 60 square miles instead of 4, a pleasant sense of an organic community built by many hands over many years rather than a single dictator of a company like Vail.  Although spring was young, the snows had retreated to the northern slopes and forested dells, and the sun was bright and intense in the clear, mountain air.  Soon, the Big Sky Town Center was reached – a growing assemblage of homes and buildings filling a gravel bar reaching toward the valley’s southern slopes. With no need to stop evident, the road crossed the West Fork of the Gallatin River, and began its serpentine climb upward.

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The Big Sky Town Center and Meadow

Highway 64, tightly hugging a hillside that rises ever higher above the Gallatin River below, is arrassed on both sides with lodge-pole pines, broken here and there by a side road leading to Lone Mountain Ranch and the trailheads nestled at feet of the Spanish Peaks.  Within two miles, however, the dusted slopes of Andesite Peak – Big Sky Resort’s lesser summit – come into view, its frosted ski runs plunging dramatically into the river canyon to the south. And moments later the road comes to a grand intersection at the foot of a frozen lake, a vast array of condominiums and homes stretching out from its shores upward to the focal point that necessarily commands all attention – Lone Peak itself.  So does the journey conclude, and Big Sky proves that its foremost asset is its scenery and natural heritage: a landscape so large that even forty years of development have yet to overcome the vista.  A left turn (along a distressingly narrow side road that crosses Lake Levinsky’s outlet without so much as a barrier keeping your vehicle from either plunging into the lake or into the Gallatin canyon below – I’d hate to drive that thing when its icy) and a right turn along the lakeshore led upward to the Huntley Lodge’s portico, and the moment when Big Sky would finally be forced to prove itself.

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Huntley Lodge Lobby

Upon arriving at the porte cochere, and finding myself un-greeted by a bellhop or valet, I dashed inside The Huntley to seek out some help.  A young man dressed in a Johnny Cash style outfit, complete with black cowboy hat, was at the concierge desk – extremely friendly and genteel in his demeanor.  As it would turn out, he would prove to be the most amicable Big Sky employee I’d run into on the trip – his cheerful enthusiasm and welcoming habits would not be shared by the majority of his colleagues.  It was from him that I learned that valet service is not available in the spring (and he apologized for it with sympathy – and as such I could only fault management for this strange cost-cutting measure) but that bell service would be available after I parked my car, and that I was to check in at the Village Center lobby itself rather than the Huntley desk (and he apologized again – said he really wished that Boyne Resorts would update their check-in map, which he instinctively knew I was relying on.)  After offering to guide me to where we needed to be and to help me with our bags, which I declined, he gave me a Boyne Rewards card and a pile of maps (which I didn’t request, though I would grow to appreciate them over the course of the trip), wished us a pleasant stay, and invited us to seek him out should we need any advice or assistance on anything at all.  I would never see him again.

From there I returned to the car and parked it where the dark cowboy told me to park (around the shoulder of the Shoshone Condominium building) and began the process of unloading and finding the Village Center.  And it was at this moment that I became acquainted with the notion that Big Sky Resort is a bit haphazard in its ability to service the short term guest… in the form of an unplowed walkway.  Although a mere hundred yards from the front door of the Village Center, the walk from the parking area to the front door was a treacherous journey – warmer-than-normal spring temperatures had caused meltwater to collect and slush to slide off the ski mountain to cover about 2/3 of the length of the path, and because neither of us were wearing boots our feet and shoes got soaked on the journey from the car to the room. My girlfriend, Kaylee, was not amused, and I was a little perturbed.  Eventually, by the time we reached the Village Center itself, the path was clear, but the slushy, wet walk quickly made me regret my decision to carry our luggage and skis myself.

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Village Center Lobby

Once inside the front door of the Village Center, however, things improved.  The lobby was warm and pleasant, complete with a wood-burning fire place and a baronial living room, along with lemon and lime infused spa water and cookies.  It was a cute, well-decorated space, and a small desk, with a private concierge for check-in, rested to the side.  Our front desk clerk, Audrey, was a bit terser than the nameless concierge cowboy at the Huntley – forthcoming with answers, though often greeting with a bored demeanor frequently lacking enthusiasm.  Soon we were provided with our room keys and granted early check-in, and within moments whisked into an elevator, walking down a crimson hallway lined with pine cone sconces and iron chandeliers, and finally to our mountain shelter.

An Aside on Trip Planning: Selecting Accommodations

As my allusion to Big Sky’s massive real estate venture suggests, the short-term (less than five day) visitor to Big Sky is limited in his accommodation options – condos, “condotels,” and guest ranches are truly the only options available, with most private homes in the Meadow, Spanish Peaks, Moonlight and other Mountain Village subdivisions requiring a five night minimum stay (some go as low as three for a significantly higher rate).  As a result, the short term guest either resorts to a more far flung condominium (Lone Moose, Stillwater, etc) or guest ranch (Lone Mountain, Buck’s T-4), the motel-like Lodge at Big Sky, or the mountain-operated Shoshone Condominium, Huntley Lodge, Summit, or Village Center, which are all tightly clustered condominiums within the slopeside Mountain Village itself.  Because my visit was short-term, I forewent my usual ski-town practice of harnessing VRBO and selected from the mountain-operated Mountain Village accommodations, which necessitated doing some homework, the findings of which I now present below:

A Village Primer

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Big Sky’s Mountain Village, when compared to Whistler, Northstar at Tahoe, or even Mammoth, is an eclectic hodge podge of decades colliding against one another.  Unlike most faux village ski base areas, there are few establishments accessible from the plaza itself – only in the newer Village Center building and ground floor of the Snowcrest Lodge are there restaurants and shops that open onto the main outdoor pedestrian mall.  Instead, most shops and restaurants are clustered inside buildings of various origin and character.

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The Summit at Big Sky – Exterior

Rising on the Village’s southern edge, The Summit, built in 2000 and, at the time, Montana’s tallest building, was an obvious candidate – a AAA Four-Diamond property dressed in an aesthetic that blends grey-brown Westin Hotel color schemes with montane leather furniture, chap-clad bellhops and antler chandeliers to remind guests that the generically appointed structure they’re checking into is not in Chicago as they might assume by its appearance.  A ski valet, massive hot-tub pool, and pair of restaurants round out the amenities, and rooms are mostly studio apartments with murphy beds and fireplaces with a smattering of classic double-queen hotel rooms and luxury penthouses for good measure.  Guests are literally 100 feet from the Ramcharger and Swift Current ski lifts, and the hotel’s sophisticated and urbane Carabiner Lounge is only a few steps away from the slope.  Starting at roughly $240 a night for late season lodging, and being rather plain in character, The Summit comes highly recommended – recommendations I ignored in favor of something newer and more stereotypically “Montanan” in a Disneyish way.  The Summit seemed too urban for a Montana vacation.

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The Huntley Lodge – Exterior

Anchoring the north side of the Village, in a snaking beehive of a building, is the Huntley Lodge, which may as well be wearing bell-bottoms.  All guests of mountain-operated accommodations – whether hotel, house, or condominium – who are not staying at The Summit check-in here at a lobby lorded over by a massive bronze bear.  Built during Big Sky’s 1970s gestation, the low-lying monstrosity, sided with clapboard and tons of glass in an arrangement that reminds me of school cubby-holes, is the budget oriented accommodation starting at about $130 a night, with classic condotel-style rooms decorated in a generic aesthetic complete with drywall and blonde furniture, many with a loft.  A complex of hot tubs and pools is also available for guest use.  Although close to the Explorer lift, the wandering layout and zig-zagging hallways render slope access a little more of a hike here than at The Summit.  Of interest to guests staying elsewhere in The Mountain Village, the Huntley Lodge houses three restaurants – The Huntley Dining Room (where daily breakfast is served, described below), Chet’s Bar and Grill, and the “Fondue Stube” – all clustered in a cubist addition on the west end of the building’s lobby. Because of its age and disjointedness – and too many bad reviews – The Huntley was not even considered.

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Shoshone Condominium Hotel – Exterior

Grafted onto the Huntley Lodge in a chateau-like structure is the Shoshone Condominium Hotel.  Built in the late 90s, these condominium residences, rented to visitors when owners are not using them, offer a middling accommodation for a curious premium over The Summit.  The rooms are indeed larger than The Huntley or The Summit, but their bland aesthetic differs little from the Brady Bunch Huntley – hardly worth the $400 asking rate for those seeking a hermetic experience.  Of interest to guests staying elsewhere in The Village (or indeed the entire community) is the Solace Spa located on the first floor, just off the shared Huntley lobby.

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Yellowstone Conference Center – Exterior

Further contorting the Huntley Complex, a modern wing stretching toward the East – the Yellowstone Conference Center – grafts a stucco-hip-roof post-and-beam lodge theme onto the already impossibly disjointed Huntley Beehive.  It is here, in a stadium-style room filled with comfortable arm chairs, that the resort screens movies each evening – a pleasant (and complimentary) diversion.

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Mountain Mall – Entrance

In between Montana’s tallest building and the ever-expanding low-lying cabinet are an additional three structures.  First, a mere fifteen yards from The Summit, the Mountain Mall represents another manifestation of Big Sky’s 1970s gestation.  This low-lying building, its interiors sided with tongue-and-groove, darkly stained wood panels, is the central shopping and dining facility of the Mountain Village.  The interior hallway houses a fur shop, a jewelry store, an art gallery, a (surprise surprise) real estate office, The Hungry Moose Market, Montana Jack’s (a burger and beer restaurant), Lone Peak Café (ski cafeteria), Lone Peak Sports, Lone Peak Logo, and a central stand where skiers may buy action shots taken by resident photographers over the course of their ski day.  It is a lively place – possessing a funky and exciting ski-bum vibe.

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Basecamp at Center, Snowcrest at left background, Village Center at right background

Second, right outside the Mountain Mall, next to the large mountain map sign, is the modern Basecamp building, which serves as an orientation center for Yellowstone Park-bound guests.  During peak season, a stand is set up that offers the delicious Uncle Dan’s Cookie to passersby.  A climbing wall is also placed right outside.  Third, against the ski run, in a lodge built with the same grey-brown Summit-style post-and-beam aesthetic of the Yellowstone Conference Center, is the Snowcrest Lodge.  Here, tickets are sold and skis are rented, while nestled in a corner is the single best hot dog stand in the history of hot dog stands (more on that below).

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Village Center – Slopeside Exiterior

Lastly on the west end of the skier plaza lies a four-story Whistler Village transplant – the Village Center.  The newest of the Village structures, and presumably the harbringer of the future Big Sky aesthetic, the Village Center offers the most modern Big Sky short-term accommodation offering.  Its collection of “ski suites” (studios possessing a larger and more opulent version of The Summit’s murphy bed and kitchenette accommodation) and penthouses are decorated in deep red tones and alder wood appliques, with leather and suede furnishings, fireplaces, and large quartzite bathrooms with walk-in showers.  The ground floor of the center comprises the Andiamo Italian Grille (which serves up a great pizza – more on that below), a snowboard shop, the “Wellness Studio” (where yoga classes are held) and the “Kid’s Club” childcare center… presumably for when mom and dad wish to go out “on the town.”  A ski valet, a door dumping out right onto the Chet’s Knob ski run, and a pool and spa round out the offerings.  Averaging $210 a night, the accommodations themselves handily best The Summit in comfort, ski-in/ski-out access, space, and aesthetic.  It is unable to wrest the “premier accommodation” laurel from The Summit, however, due to the fact that, as alluded to above, you can’t drive to it – its guests are required to check in at the Huntley and park vehicles at the end of an 1/8 mile long pathway that is (sometimes) unplowed, and the complimentary breakfast is served in the Huntley Lodge rather than in a private dining room.  Bell service is available to minimize the schlep.

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Big Sky Village Plaza – Snowcrest at left, Basecamp at right, and Village Center at Background

The remainder of the Village comprises brick-paved plazas, stages, and trees – a generally pleasing and sun-drenched park-like space that weaves together the disjointed buildings in a pleasing manner.  As ski villages go, it is tiny, and those who seek an apres-ski scene reminiscent of a frat party will be disappointed.  The lack of a master plan decades ago has manifested in the assemblage of eclectic buildings, but rather than offend, the overall aesthetic is very charming and organic.  On the whole, it would prove a pleasant locale at which to spend a few spring days, and a convenient one as well – the Village is central to everything Big Sky’s Mountain zone has to offer.

The Village Center

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Village Center Ski Suite – Living Room

Upon entering our Village Center ski suite, access to which is granted through an oversized knotty alder door, we were greeted by an impressively residential-scale apartment trimmed with copper and aged bronze fixtures, hardwood cabinets, a compact kitchenette complete with dishwasher, utensils, refrigerator, and microwave, a small bar seating area, and a cute living area consisting of a twiggy sled coffee table, stacked rock fireplace, and a sofa that looked exactly like the kind of thing my dad would buy for our Mammoth cabin.  A calfskin and leather appliques provided wall décor, and a sliding glass door opened upon an outdoor deck punctuated by a perfectly framed view of Lone Peak’s pyramidal summit.

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Village Center Ski Suite – Living Room

Canvas artwork more reminiscent of a Californio than a Montana rancher served as a focal point above the fireplace, while a large alder cabinet folded down to reveal a queen-sized bed, which was comfortable, although airing on the firm side.  Sheets were disappointingly thin, but the duvets were incredibly luxurious.  Curiously arranged alcoves on either side of the fold-down bed  revealed themselves to be nightstands when the bed was lowered, and a media center cabinet (curiously lacking a blu-ray or DVD player) pulled out and pivoted for both bedtime and living room use.  The living area’s sofa likewise folds out into a sleeper.  At about 800 square feet, the room is quite spacious, its warm, earthy colors lending a cozy air.

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Village Center Ski Suite – Bathroom

The bathroom, set aside to the left as one enters, was similarly well-appointed.  With a wagon-wheel coat rack and generous shelving, large emerald and crimson-toned slate floors, spacious sink counter, and glass-enclosed walk-in shower, it was a residentially scaled feature – the largest standard hotel bathroom I’ve ever seen.  Outfitted with the expected complimentary toiletries (which here are VERY nice and of premium quality – a pleasant citrus aroma conjuring up images of home with great ease) and (for once) PLENTY of towels, it was evident that so far as the room itself was concerned, Big Sky had done something right and that I had made the right choice of room. All the room truly lacked was an oven and stove – which was a curious oversight given the completeness of the remainder of the fixtures and design.  The room was, far and away, the best slopeside ski accommodation I have had the pleasure of enjoying.

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Village Center Ski Suite – Bed

After fully exploring the room, it was my duty as a member of the uglier sex to return to the car to obtain the remaining luggage.  I used the moment as an opportunity to explore the remainder of the Village Center – discovering a small workout room complete with elliptical and exercise bikes, the hidden slopeside Jacuzzi and pool area, and a set of automatic doors that led to a ski valet attendant waiting slopeside for guests and residents to return (who was a bit gruff – the service element at Big Sky was slowly revealing itself to be lacking). I also found a “secret lobby” next door to the Andiamo restaurant on the building’s plaza level and explored the remainder of the Village complex, discovering much of what I described about the Village’s character above.

I also hoped to find a less treacherous route back to my car… and failed miserably, discovering an exit in the Shoshone Condominium building that, in theory, dropped me off close to the car, but instead dropped me into a 50 yard stretch of six foot deep snow with no way to get back into the building, requiring me to posthole/crawl my way to the car.  And thus leads me to my first negative rant on the trip: Big Sky needs to clear its walkways better.  The ice and snow is a MAJOR impediment in the event of an emergency – I don’t see children escaping the Shoshone over that stuff given my 5 foot 10 inch frame sunk up to my waist.  This isn’t a yuppie need – it’s a common sense policy.  And given Big Sky’s notorious history of fire maybe it’d be best to keep the walkways clear.  Just a suggestion, Boyne Resorts…

But I digress.  Finally returning to the car and sloshing back over the aforementioned 1/8 mile long slush pond to the Village Center once again, after placing my shoes, along with my girlfriend’s, before the fireplace to dry (which they did with great ease – that fireplace is a wonderful thing), it finally sank in that I was in Big Sky.  And what an adventure it was to get to this place before the fire, where a clear blue sky and brilliant sun ensconce a Paramount Pictures logo of a peak that I could not tire of marveling at.  Watching skiers go by – to the tune of a pair or so every four or five minutes – reminded me how far from the eponymous lift lines of Mammoth I have come.

The Yeti Dog

Thawing from the afternoon’s slog and schlep, hunger struck at an odd time, necessarily entailing my first Big Sky culinary experience.  Second in difficulty only to accommodation planning is planning where to eat – Big Sky offers a conga line of sit-down options and, for the most part, whether a restaurant is located on-mountain or in the Meadow, it comes extensively lauded… albeit expensive. However, while waiter service is easy to find, there is little in the way of quick service dining to be had.

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The Yeti Dog – Interior

Enter The Yeti Dog.  Housed in the northern end of the Snowcrest Lodge, at the base of the stairs leading up to the ski slope, this hole-in-the wall establishment has the distinction of being the only independently owned and operated restaurant in the Mountain Village itself (The Cabin and M.R. Hummers are located outside the main pedestrian plaza, just down the road leading to the resort entrance, and thus do not count).  The tiny storefront, largely a one-woman-show, is the turkey leg of Big Sky – the junk food item no visitor can pass up, and oh-so-satisfying in all the ways vacation food should be.

The abominable snowman of a mascot stands outside, hoisting a sign with the daily special scratched into it with chalk.  It’s a simple concept – one readily embraced with enthusiasm by regulars who plaster snowboards, bumpers, and ski lift towers with the beady countenance of this hungry Asian cousin of Sasquatch (who I swear I saw on the drive in… Kaylee says he’s not real but I’m confident he is…) Inside, a small counter and a corrugated metal wall plastered with stickers from across the country runs the length of the hallway-like room.  We were served by a lady who appeared to be running the place on her own, taking orders and filling them as quickly as she could.  As such, although there was only one person in front of us, we ended up waiting a few moments.  But she was a friendly sort – one of the last truly friendly people we would meet on the mountain – and excited that we were first timers.  My girlfriend picked the regular dog – which she topped with all her usual loves – and I went for the house special: The Yeti.

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The Eponymous Yeti Itself

The Yeti is crack in hot dog form.  The beef dog and yeasty bun are delicious all on their own, but when combined with sauerkraut (freshly grilled and nasally pungent – the first time I honestly liked the stuff), chopped onions, and the fabled yeti sauce (a hot mustard and mayonnaise concoction from what I can tell, which lent a pleasant heat and sweetness to the dog) it was something that after first bite I fell so hard for that I couldn’t help inhaling the rest.  This thing was the best hot dog I have ever had.  Period.  Better than the rising Los Angeles Dog Haus chain by leaps and bounds.  The trip was almost worth it for this hot dog alone, which set a high bar for food for the rest of the trip.

Black Tie

Returning to our stead, content with the delicious foil wrapped goodness we had consumed, we arrived in time for fitting my lady with ski boots and skis for the next day.  Those who are familiar with visiting Mammoth Lakes, Whistler, Vail, Park City, and Jackson Hole might be well-acquainted with the concierge rental service known as Black Tie Ski Rentals.  For a few dollars more per day than the on-mountain rental shop, a ski valet will come to your home or room and outfit you with equipment perfectly tuned for your size and shape.  I had secured a good deal ($38) on single day rentals from Liftopia – a highly recommended resource for those seeking ticket and rental deals.

Fitting

Austin arrived at our room with a sling full of skis, boots, helmets and poles, and a lively personality.  The gentleman was obviously a consummate skier himself, logging five days a week on the mountain this season before his knee required some attention.  With a flourish and enthusiasm he explained precisely how a boot should cradle the ankle and feel against the toes, almost by magic selecting the right boot on his first try.  Within moments my girlfriend had a helmet, a decidedly feminine pair of skis, and all the trimmings she needed resting in the hall closet beside my own pile of masculine ski crap, and Austin was providing us with a list of trails perfect for the beginner-intermediate ski day we would necessarily observe the next morning.  He also provided a whole list of great dining and diversions – many of them local businesses not controlled by the almighty Boyne Resorts.  This was only my second time using Black Tie, and I am very impressed by their professionalism, skill, and the ease of service, as well as their commitment to the local economy.  Indeed, to return the gear, all we needed to do was to leave the gear at our hotel front desk – and Black Tie would take care of the rest.  It is hardly a cheap service (you could probably find rentals for half as much at Sport Chalet) but the ease and seamlessness the service offers is a beautiful thing, and when the on-mountain ski rental option is $36, a few extra bucks for room service becomes downright palatable.

A Night In

With the morning’s ski equipment secured and a sense of calm settling in (and a Law and Order marathon discovered) Kaylee decided that she would rather forego our original plan of returning to The Meadow for dinner and a movie at Lone Peak Cinema and instead stay in and order room service.  I was not aware of such a luxury being a part of the Big Sky Resort amenity list, and upon further investigation it was revealed that The Village Center offers a full gourmet Italian menu of room service offerings from Boyne’s flagship Andiamo restaurant downstairs.  With steaks, osso bucco, and pasta dishes galore, all of them highly praised by local Yelpers, it was difficult to pick.  This menu, however, dueled for affection with a separate pamphlet entitled “Pizza Works” – same restaurant, but their pizza menu.  At first glance, the aforementioned osso bucco had me by the throat, but someone with better taste than me pointed to a specialty pizza on the Pizza pamphlet: The Canyon.

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The Canyon

20 minutes later a no-nonsense lady from downstairs, bearing pizza ensconced in a heat pack, arrived with something that smelled delicious.  Lacking a bit in friendliness and in a hurry, she told us to enjoy and was soon out the door.  A bit doubting that she deserved the tip, we opened the box to behold a sight that, perhaps, bested even the Yeti Dog.  The Canyon – with its roasted garlic and olive oil sauce’s aroma, secret cheese blend, carmelized onions, mushrooms, fresh bazil and… tri tip steak… was something entirely new to me.  Good pizza is notoriously hard to come by in Southern California, yet so easy to find in the mountains, and here Andiamo managed to carry on that tradition.  My lady pronounced the pizza unequivocally delicious and worth every penny (all 2000 of them), and I concurred.  The tri tip was tender, the cheeses rich and gooey, the crust crispy and satisfyingly thick (no more flatbread for me) – every bit impressive in person as it sounded on the menu.

After a quick chocolate run to the Hungry Moose Market at the Mountain Mall (which has a lot more than you’d expect – it makes for an impressively complete general store for so small a space) an early bedtime was a necessity – the next day would be our ski day.  And it was indeed a peaceful night with a warm fire and the stillness of a spring evening, broken only by the occasional purr of a snow cat trundling up and grooming the slopes outside.

Huntley Dining Room

The next morning found awakening difficult for one member of our adventuring team.  As such, I ventured alone outside to see what the Village Center’s “complimentary” breakfast entailed.  Walking into the brisk morning air, I realized that the mountain had FINALLY cleared the 1/8 mile walk to my car.  After cursing whoever forgot to do it the day before I worked my way through a serpentine route into the Huntley Beehive, past its wood burning fireplace, and down a dark passageway, which opened onto a large window-encrusted cube-shaped dining room decorated with mounted game heads from far flung continents and local national forests.  This room – The Huntley Dining Room – serves as the central breakfast facility for the Village Center, the Huntley Lodge, and Shoshone Condominium Hotel (The Summit serves its own breakfast at Peak’s).  The center of the lofty annex comprises a long table filled with scrambled eggs (made from egg beaters), bacon, sausage, oatmeal, pancakes and potatoes, while a separate table provides waffles and coffee, and attendants stand at the ready to make custom ordered omelets and scrambled eggs for those who so desire them.  Off to the side, obscured by drapes, a separate, more rustic seating area serves as Chet’s Bar and Grill in the evening hours, and is purportedly an actively popular apres ski destination.

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Huntley Dining Room at Breakfast – Buffet in background center

A man with a handlebar mustache straight out of 1000 Ways to Die in the West seated me all by my lonesome at a table in front of a wall of windows facing Lone Peak, which I enjoyed while waiting for a young lady to peel herself away from a bracingly bubbly conversation with another guest about how glorious the backcountry skiing opportunities of Jackson Hole are compared to here (the grass is always greener to Boyne employees).  After six or seven minutes she finally turned to my table with an entirely dismissive and terse mood, and returned shortly with my long awaited orange juice.  I then proceeded to load up a plate with scrambled eggs (which were the same sort of springy “delight” Disney is fond of serving guests), waffles, pancakes, and sausage.  These final three were all quite satisfactory – a molasses flavor present in the waffle, while the sausage was spicy, bespeaking something more sophisticated than Jimmy Dean.

The next morning Kaylee would join me for breakfast, which she pronounced as simply “okay” when she indulged on the same pancakes I sampled the day before.  Overall, the breakfast is satisfactory for being “complimentary” – something guests should take advantage of but shouldn’t bother paying for if they are staying at a facility that does not include breakfast with the daily rate.  Whatever the case, however, it provided satisfactory fuel – if slow and disinterested service (the waitress could probably tell I was from California and treated me accordingly).

The Ski Experience

Returning full and at least a bit satisfied it was time to hit the slopes.  Being young and lucky enough to still be students, we escaped Boyne Resort’s tendency to screw over guests with $106 lift tickets, instead being recipients of a sizeable student discount.  After waiting in a short line – the only line we would have to deal with during the trip – the lift ticket lady was characteristically cold and disinterested, impatiently asking for order numbers quicker than my phone could find service to find the number in the first place.  Tickets issued are the old-school bar code sticker folded over a zipper pull – cute and pretty, so simple after dealing with the RFID gates of the Mountain Collective resorts.  Returning to the room to pick up the gear, we were quickly on the slopes, using the Village Center’s back door to reach the run and schussh over to the location where we would begin our adventure on one of America’s biggest mountains.

An Aside on Trip Planning: A Mountain Orientation

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Big Sky Resort touts itself as the “Biggest Skiing in America.”  And until Vail bought up certain Utah resorts, it indeed was.  At 5800 acres, translating to 2 acres per skier on its busiest days, and 34 lifts (although 7 of these are for private access to real estate developments and don’t serve any terrain worth mentioning… an example of Boyne’s misguided focus on real estate sales rather than the skier’s experience), 4,366 vertical feet (3,766 of which are accessible from a single run) of drop, and 300 trails over 4 “mountains,” it possesses impressive numbers.  With copious beginner terrain alongside tremendous expert opportunities – so dangerous that you have to check in with ski patrol and wear an avi-lung – Big Sky is one of the few American resorts that can embrace an identity that appeals to skiers of every sort and skill level.  Even when glossy marketing speak is stripped away, the numbers remain impressive.

Generally, as mentioned previously, Big Sky is much like Mammoth in that it is primarily a skier’s mountain.  At such a mountain, the experiential emphasis leans heavily toward providing the skier with a plethora of runs of all types.  Such mountains tend to invest in on-mountain improvements like snow-making, terrain park design, and grooming equipment at the expense of on-mountain creature comforts like spas and dining.  However, unlike Mammoth, Big Sky also incorporates a good deal of real estate ventures into its boundaries.  As a result, there are two major prongs to the Big Sky experience – the normal guest experience, which is old-school and skier focused, and the “club” experience, which is far more opulent and analogous to the Beaver Creek experience.  The divergent experiences are necessarily tied to the different base areas, with certain base areas accessible to all, while others provide limited access to all, and others are closed to all but a certain few. In recent years, Boyne Resorts has shifted it’s focus toward real estate development so heavily that the mountain experience itself is reportedly suffering. This is a disconcerting trend across the industry, and should it take root too deeply here I fear that Big Sky will struggle to survive – being so far away from a population center of magnitude, it must attract destination skiers intent to ski an undiscovered mountain. Only then will real estate sell. Selling real estate in the middle of nowhere for a far higher premium than similar areas of the state because it rests at the base of a underdeveloped ski area does little to engender buyer enthusiasm, and only causes reviews like mine to be less glowing than they otherwise would be, discouraging some possible would-be buyers from purchasing there and instead look elsewhere. Boyne has always been known as the poorest quality ski conglomerate – their ownership of the Big Sky asset is indeed Big Sky’s biggest liability and drawback.

That said, things are still fun here. The mountain comprises a network of five base areas, three of which are public and two of which serve private subdivisions.  Each area has its own character and is largely a self-contained universe, with leaving one to reach another requiring several chairlift rides.  And this leads me to mentioning one of Big Sky’s drawbacks – getting around the resort takes a long time because of the lack of an interconnected lift system; one cannot reach Lone Peak from Spirit Mountain via fewer than two lift rides, and vice versa.  Indeed, reaching the Madison base area from Lone Moose or Spanish Peaks takes no fewer than four lift rides.

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The Private Spanish Peaks Clubhouse and Ski Lodge

Furthest east, serving the most forgettable terrain, the least interesting views (golf course and homes), and the most private of the subdivisions, is Spanish Peaks.  Rising from a parking area accessible only to homeowners and Spanish Peaks guests (and, in the future, guests of a hotel to be built at the base), the Lewis and Clark High Speed Quad ferries skiers to the top of a 500 foot tall knob known as “Spirit Mountain.”  This area’s 280 acres of terrain – an unremarkable assemblage of windingly easy greens and short, stubby intermediate blues – was once a private ski area accessible only to Spanish Peaks Mountain Club members.  Today, anyone with a ski ticket to Big Sky can ski its trails and ride its public lifts – Sacajawea and Lewis and Clark – while only members and guests of members may start their day here.  Additionally, a luxurious slope-side clubhouse lies at the bottom of Lucky Pierre.  This clubhouse is the exclusive gathering place of Spanish Peaks Mountain Club members and home renters, and although it offers spa services, ski lessons, and plated dinners to such people, it does not offer any services to casual guests.  Annual dues, for those who are so inclined, are low for the market – about $4000 a year for a golf membership, less for social (a good deal when you consider that an annual pass to this mountain is already $1019 a person) – but are tied to ownership of property within the subdivision, which you should be aware is fraught with difficulties – Spirit Mountain is prone to landslides.  Perhaps that explains why lots are so cheap and houses are slow to sell… I’m considering renting a home and checking it out sometime.

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Lone Moose Meadows Base Area – The Lone Moose Triple Chair lies in the background

Lying in the Gallatin Canyon below Highway 64, at the end of a winding descent just east of the Mountain Village, is Lone Moose Meadows.  The lowest point on the mountain and often closed by late season, Lone Moose Meadows is a semi-public ski base area that offers no services save for a public parking lot and two chairlifts that scale Flatiron Mountain and Andesite Mountain.  A small condominium complex nearby claims ski-in/ski-out access from this point.  Flatiron Mountain – again, not so much of a mountain than it is a “knob” of Andesite Mountain – rises 1,292 feet above the base area, offering two easy greens (one of which is a scary cat track) and three advanced glades.  Also accessible from here is the Thunder Wolf High Speed Quad, which carries Lone Moose skiers to the summit of Andesite Mountain – the first true “mountain” encountered when crossing the mountain from east to west – and serves the numerous advanced glades and “freeway” blues of the east face of Andesite.

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Andesite Mountain – The Mountain Village is visible at middle-left

In the center of the Big Sky collection of base areas is the Mountain Village, described in detail previously.  Its three chairlifts serve Andesite and Lone Peak, with Andesite rising to the east, its densely forested slopes cradling a large selection of Vail-like runs (or, in Mammoth-local-speak, a massive number of Broadways).  Its summit is home to Everett’s 8,500 – a log cabin housing one of Big Sky’s many luxury dining experiences (a four course dinner set at $125 per person).  Slipping off from here, along its southeastern slope, are a large number of green and blue runs, while the face overlooking the Mountain Village comprises hundreds of acres of expert glades and intermediate cruisers, with two cattracks (Safari and Pacifier) providing thick-skinned beginners with a descent back to the Mountain Village.  Views from Andesite are heavily forested, with certain runs, including El Dorado, peering deep into the emerald meadows guests climb from to reach the mountain.

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Lone Peak as viewed from Andesite Mountain

Rising to the west of the Village, and visible from nearly all of the Spirit Mountain and Andesite Mountain ski runs, is the iconic pinnacle of Lone Peak, with nearly 360 degrees of ski slopes of its own.  The South Face and The Bowl, lying above treeline, are an expert’s paradise, while the forested slopes descending from these lofty perches are a wonderland of blue and green cruisers, mostly accessible from the Swift Current High Speed Quad.  Experts will need to ride Swift Current and hop onto Challenger, Lone Peak, or Tram to seek out the big stuff – before the tram went in, Big Sky was once known as Big Blue.  As such, those who are more timid or conservative will find nary a black run on Lone Peak’s lower reaches.  Two “shacks” serving up burritos and soup are nestled into the slopes of Lone Peak at the top of Swift Current, while a yurt on the south face grills burgers.

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Moonlight Gate House

Even further to the west, carved into the northern slope of Lone Peak, is the former Moonlight Ski Resort, now swallowed by its gargantuan neighbor.  Reached via a monumental gatehouse (open to all – no guard is posted), the collection of cabins set amid winding ski runs on the one hand and remote, undeveloped and peaceful forests on the other cradles a spaghetti of wandering runs for all abilities.  The first base area encountered – at Moonlight Lodge – is a semi-private area.  The parking area is closed to the skier guest, open only to members and guests renting homes in the Moonlight area.  The luxurious and impressive base lodge here, however, is indeed open to all, housing The Moonlight Tavern restaurant and bar which serves members and guests alike a continental menu influenced heavily by local ingredients, while a ski school and sport shop round out the public options.  Members and renting guests additionally make use of a private locker room, playroom, and slope-side spa.  Membership in the Moonlight Club runs similarly to Spanish Peaks, and the two clubs provide reciprocal benefits.  Properties, on the whole, tend to be far more expensive here, however.  But then again, the atmosphere and views are far superior, and the mountain isn’t in danger of sliding onto unsuspecting property owners.  Two lifts rise out of the Moonlight Lodge Area, serving as a connector between the Big Sky Mountain Village runs and the Madison Village Base Area runs.

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The Six Shooter Flying Couch – Madison Base Area

Lastly, furthest to the west, on the north slope of Lone Peak, is the Madison Village Base Area.  A small collection of yurts and cabins, and the location of a large public parking facility, this final base possesses a remote vibe.  With two lifts – one serving a collection of beginner runs and terrain parks (Derringer) and another one – the “flying couch” of Six Shooter Express – serving the intermediate and advanced runs of the Headwater region – the former Moonlight vibe is alive and well.  This part of the mountain, with its northern exposure and unspoiled forests, is reminiscent of a Montana ski area that strives to be a Montana ski area rather than a Montana version of a Colorado resort.  While the real estate venture is indeed present, it takes a back seat to the natural beauty and skier experience – the terrain is on the whole more interesting, the views toward the true Spanish Peaks and Beehive Basin more inspiring, and the pace quieter.  Upon discovering much of what Big Sky has to offer, my biggest regret is not starting and spending my entire day here.  While Andesite and Lone Peak provide lots of fun terrain, it is the old Moonlight Basin ski area that has convinced me to hold Big Sky in high esteem.

In spite of its size and club amenities, Big Sky is noticeably lacking in certain elements that other mountains provide.  The noticeable lack of gondolas (aside from the Lone Mountain Tram) renders winter days brutal and treacherous – especially for those traveling with families or people who easily find themselves getting cold, or merely want to take a scenic ride.  Many of the structures, such as the Shedhorn Yurt and Madison Base Area Yurts, reek of temporary fixes.  And while the lift layout is designed to cover the entire mountain it is not designed to make access easy.

New Big Sky Map

Lastly, and most annoyingly, is the trail map.  Big Sky, being a large mountain, is ill-suited for completely accurate illustration in the form of a single map.  However, the current James Niehues map, although beautiful in its painterly quality, is misleading – especially for beginners.  Runs that appear meandering and gentle turn out to be icy, skinny cattracks ill-suited for the timid, and distances are either exaggerated or truncated in the name of fitting as much as possible on a single page.  The Bowl and South Face, naturally, possess their own detail maps, and are more accurate as such.  On the whole, however, the map serves as a poor introduction to what’s what at Big Sky – asking locals for advice, or having a friend who has skied here before lead you around, is the best way to avoid finding yourself in a tight spot… as we did.

Our Adventure

Upon schlepping across the Mountain Village base to the Ramcharger High Speed Quad, we boarded after being soundly ignored by the lift operators in spite of our attempt to be friendly (Big Sky’s lift operators are standoffish.  My lady remarked that “everyone at Mammoth is so much nicer.”  And she’s a native Montanan… and Montanans are known for being friendly.  Even if most employees aren’t natives, something is clearly amiss in the training regimen here).  She did mention, however, that the chairlifts (as far as the high speed ones are concerned) are very comfortable and well-padded.

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Everett’s 8800 – Top of the Ramcharger Lift

Once atop Andesite Mountain, we rode El Dorado to the base of the Southern Comfort Quad.  This wide green run is misleadingly easy – if it is not flat, it’s dropping like a stone in big, intermediate steps; a good progression run, but not good for a first run.  We then took a ride on Deep South, suggested by our Black Tie ski rental attendant, admiring some lovely Yellowstone Club homes on the way down.  This run was a bit better, though slushy at the bottom for a stretch that soon turned back to ice (apparently because, according to a local we rode back up Southern Comfort with, there is a hot spring poking out under the ski run over there).  After one more green run on Sacajawea (another recommended run – this time by the Huntley’s man in black), and taking one look at the Spirit Mountain runs and deciding there was too much dirt poking up to make them worthwhile, we returned to the top of Andesite and proceeded to descend via Pacifier.

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Working Down the Pacifier Run

This was the big mistake of the day.  Although the run appears to be a gentle forested descent on the map like June Mountain’s Silverado run, the reality was a narrow cattrack that well-nigh scared the dickens out of my girlfriend with its steep canyonside drop-offs.  It took a good long rest and a cookie to help her settle down and want to go back out again.  While the grade is hardly treacherous, the psychological experience of that run is likely to instill a great deal of fear into a neophyte.  And I myself HATE cattracks and avoid them with a passion.

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Returning to the Mountain Village base and escaping to the Lone Peak Café on the second story of the Mountain Mall, where we got our Uncle Dan’s Cookie (which are very, very good by the way – soft and chewy, garnished with a dash of espresso), we worked together to regain composure and then jumped on the Swift Current High Speed Quad, taking a ride down the Mr. K run (yet another Austin-recommended run), discovering that in spite of its length and the low crowd, it was starting to get bumped up and slushed to oblivion thanks to the steadily warming temperatures.  Thus, we re-boarded Swift Current and made for the Moonlight Basin side of the mountain.

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View of Lone Peak from base of the Lone Peak Triple Chair

This is where things got more interesting.  The view from the top of Swift Current is awe inspiring – Lone Peak is indeed MASSIVE.  Never before had I felt so small when traveling on an in-bounds ski run.  This place is big, and the mere thought of someone skiing off the top of Lone Peak nearly made me nauseous.  It is a mountain that is only 50 feet higher than my Mammoth, but my God is it a beastly 50 feet – an entire 2000 vertical feet of mountain I will never EVER ski, to whose shoulders glaciers cling and grind their patient way through the ages.  It was at this moment that Big Sky skiing managed to finally impress me.  Kaylee believes the Mammoth and June Mountain views are still far superior – and I agree – but there is one thing Big Sky has that Mammoth and June do not have… and that is such an awe inspiringly massive view of the inside of their boundaries.

Recovering from my moment of awe, we descended Jaywalk – a (much wider) green cattrack) to the Blue Moon ski run – a wide, arcing intermediate that descends to the Moonlight Lodge in a fluffy bowl of its own.  It was at the base of this run, at the Iron Horse Quad, that we encountered the only friendly lift operator of the day, who managed to squeak out a “hello” to us before we took off.  Getting slightly lost, dropping down the steep Powder River to the Cinnabar green run and proving to my lady that she can do a Montana blue with as much ease as she could do a California blue (a Californian teaching a Montanan to ski… people always say its unexpected), we finally crossed a bridge or two to reach the Madison base area and a late lunch.  Unlike the Lone Peak and Andesite sections, this Moonlight Slope possessed fluffy snow conditions – classic spring corn that was fun and fast, yet forgiving.

Headwaters Grille

Upon reaching the base, which in spite of its rustic and remote chracter was rendered decidedly weird by the presence of funky music and yurt shelters, we elected to seek shelter inside and find some late lunch.  The interior of the Headwaters Grill yurt is spacious, as yurts tend to be, but relatively bizarre.  Tables are haphazardly arranged, and overly brightened photographs of Montana sunsets hang from the ceiling advertising THE RESERVE at Moonlight golf course.  My girlfriend and I were both perturbed by the strange, acid trip-influenced musical choice – so at odds with the surroundings, making no sense to anyone who isn’t high –  as well as by the “in your face” real estate advertisements.  Crossharbor and Boyne need to learn to let the landscape speak for itself – seeing advertisements everywhere simply makes me less likely to inquire for more information and begins to make the place feel mercenary.

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The Eclectic Headwater’s Grille Base Yurt

On the culinary end, Headwaters Grille served the most unremarkable food of the trip.  My “Thai Chicken Wrap” was more of a bland “Asian Chicken Salad Wrap.”  The promised Peanut sauce was bland and flavorless, while the white meat chicken itself was actually quite good – freshly grilled in front of me by a young man who actually managed to seem happy to see a guest (a positive experience soon offset by a cashier who tried to make me pay for some random kid’s Coke when he ran past us while I was paying for my stuff… she wouldn’t take no for an answer until his dad came up to us).

I hurriedly stuffed the wrap – which in spite of its blandness hit the spot – and made ready to ski down to the Six Shooter flying couch and return to the Mountain Village.  Upon passing the Derringer Quad, my lady excitedly recalled how it was at this spot that she spent her first days on skis – an inauspicious day that resulted in her losing an eyebrow in the midst of several crashes, and killed her Olympic dreams before she even considered having one.

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Maverick Park – Madison Base Area

From the top of the Six Shooter (after passing yet another disinterested lifty) we rode down Fast Lane – a run that, on the Moonlight Side, was a pleasant intermediate cruiser along the tree-line that turned into yet another cat track on the Mountain Village side, and hooked up to Chet’s Knob – a short green – to return us to the Village Center just as the snow began to turn into wet slop that is better suited for flippers rather than skis.  Returning through the same door we emerged from early that morning, and finding ourselves at our abode once more, we cleaned up and relaxed, readying ourselves for one more culinary journey.

In the end, the skier experience at Big Sky Resort is one of great potential – there is indeed a smorgasboard of terrain, the mountain is nearly devoid of people, and the operators do a splendid job of maintaining the snow in a skiable state even in the face of warm spring weather.  Returning during a more typical winter day is definitely a priority.  However, certain elements – such as the ubiquitous advertising, poor music choice, bipolar dining offerings (either fine dining or quick service stands – not much in between), and consistently poor employee attitude – took the edge off the experience.  At $106 a day, a smile and a welcoming attitude at the very least would be soundly appreciated.  Montana is a warm and welcoming place to visit, but Big Sky Resort so often feels like something entirely different from that.  Embrace your local culture, turn off the punk music, tear down some real estate signs, and let the mountain work its magic.

Moonlight Tavern

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Moonlight Lodge

As alluded to previously, Big Sky is a resort with a massive array of sit down dining options that are ostensibly incredible – Everett’s 8800’s ski lift ride to a four course plated dinner of alpine fare, Lone Mountain Ranch’s steakhouse being legendary as the state’s finest dinner, Andiamo Italian Grille earning Open Table’s “Best of the Rockies” award.  But being the pretentious snobs that we are, and not possessing an invitation to the Warren Miller Dining Room at the Yellowstone Club, we did the next best thing and chose the Moonlight Tavern at the Moonlight Club.

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Moonlight Lodge Lobby

The three mile drive from the Village Center was beautiful – a sunset wonderland of peaks rising above the treetops as we wound our way through the fortress-like gatehouse of Moonlight and up a mountain shoulder, reaching the rough-hewn porte cochere of the Moonlight Clubhouse.  Upon entering, a great stone arch, populated by mountain goats climbing toward the soaring vaulted ceiling, welcomed us, dividing the “great room” into three portions – the restaurant we would be dining at, a large lounge, and a bar.  While the central portion, with its wood burning fire place and leather furniture, was decidedly clubby in a Montana sort of way, the dining room we found ourselves whisked into was more eclectic – modern greys and silvers and polished stainless steel mingled with pewter water pitchers and rustic furniture.

Main Dining Room Moonlight TAvern
The Moonlight Tavern Dining Room

In the background, a glossy photographic print of an elk stag sticking his tongue out toward the bar lent a whimsical weirdness, and pictures of characters resembling Disneyland’s country bears graced a tiny alcove for two.  My lady, bedecked in semi-formal splendor, believed the quirky eclecticism lost its appeal in the bar area, which she termed as resembling more of a sports bar than the fine club it is supposed to represent.  We felt like the Moonlight Club’s décor was attempting to do too much at once – the setting itself was spectacular, with a stunning view of Lone Peak and the Headwaters Ridge in their sunset glory, while the fusion of modern and rustic touches was fun, but lost its way.

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Moonlight Lounge Booth

Luckily, other things made up for it, and in time the atmosphere began to settle into its own in our hearts.  My girl elected for her go-to filet mignon, dressed with a red-wine demi glace, paired with a twice baked potato, and asparagus.  The sauce – rich and flavorful – bespoke of its cabernet origin in the most addicting way, proving the perfect paring for steak and potato alike… the potatoes being decimated between the two of us with great quickness.  In the name of trying something different, I selected a salmon dish, paired with fingerling potatoes and topped with a white wine sauce delivered in a rustic clay ladle.  My choice was avowedly a good one – the white wine sauce’s fruity bouquet complemented the gentle warmth of the salmon, and the fingerling potatoes were generously seasoned.  Paired with a masterful Moscow Mule, served in a frosty copper cup, it was the best meal we had since the tri tip pizza.  Neither of us are sure which was better… though we are leaning toward this one.  Stuffed, we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the suggestion of a seven layer chocolate cake.  Which again, we inhaled – leaving no trace of the rich dark chocolate decadence that came overlaid with a molten dark chocolate hashmark.

Dessert
Dessert

Open Table reviewers had convinced me that we were in for a long night of slow service and milquetoast cuisine.  In the end, however, the service was very capable and efficient, with slow-to-fill water cups being our sole complaint (but so common everywhere – even in the finest southern Californian restaurants).  Our waitress was kind, taking a bit more interest than we had come to expect from the Big Sky service sector, though she seemed busy and preoccupied at times – although there were only two other parties in the room, one of them was a large family group, so perhaps she had a lot to keep track of.  Overall, leaving well fed and well satisfied, we found the Moonlight Tavern to be a fitting conclusion to our culinary wanderings through Big Sky – and a suitable final adventure.  If only the hodge-podge of décor could find a happy median between rustic and postmodern appointments.

Winding Away

That evening we returned to our room to find that turndown service had swung by when they discovered we weren’t in the room – a lovely attention to detail that I was not aware was offered.  With Montana caramels on the properly fluffed pillow and thoughtfully tucked duvet, it took little effort to find sleep.

The next morning was a lazy one, with a final breakfast at the Huntley and a slow effort to pack and make our way back to the car.  When all was loaded, we returned to the Village Center front desk, where Audrey made sure check-out was quick, albeit as impersonal and bored as usual – what we have come to expect from Big Sky employees.  Our keys surrendered, we returned to the car and fired up the engine, slipping down toward Lake Levinsky and back to Highway 64.

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Moonlight Lodge at Dusk

Driving away, the mixed feelings Big Sky conjured were pondered and discussed.  It was indeed a fun time, and the mountain was impressive, though we would have rather had a guide who was skilled and well versed with everything the mountain has to offer from a terrain perspective.  We agreed that Mammoth and June Mountain in California are the far superior experience – each in terms of service, terrain, views, and food.  The experience was disjointed – Big Sky Resort is being managed as a REIT that happens to operate a ski mountain, and as such is neglecting the skier experience in favor of developing homes. The way I see it, the resort needs to improve itself before it will make a lot of money selling homes… people who are going to dish out $1 million for a property will demand a quality product. Most annoyingly and symptomatic of this to us was bored and listless service, largely uncaring save for a few standouts (Austin at Black Tie, the man in black, and the Yeti Dog lady were each consummately wonderful people), and they dropped the ball on the obvious things (keeping sidewalks clear, plowing side doors, a worthless mobile app, lack of gondolas and on mountain dining that wasn’t either a stand or a fine meal).  But in the end, was it worth the journey?  Undoubtedly.  The mountain itself is a stunning place to behold, and on a day where the snow is of better quality, no doubt will prove a ton of fun.  The food was delicious – three flawless meals is hard to come by even in a culinary mecca like San Diego.  The accommodations were luxurious and adorable – lots of space, comfortable, thoughtful, and a good value.  And, at least for me (my girlfriend is looking beyond the borders of her home state), it is awesome because it is in Montana.

And that Montana awesomeness was made all the better when we made the turn beyond Lone Moose Meadows and spotted… a lone moose.

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The Cow Moose – Photo Taken from a Moving Vehicle

Conclusion

In the end, what is Big Sky?  After experiencing it myself, it is hardly the ultra-luxurious yuppie hideaway that the locals accuse it of being.  Nor is it the wild, unspoiled frontier that comes to mind when one hears the word “Montana.”  But it is one of the great treasures of the Rocky Mountain ski community – the last great undiscovered ski destination.  It is a place that experiences growing pains, and indeed those who buy property here are well advised to perform the proper due diligence (and to sit on their builder and ensure they do a good job).  But it is a place set on the edge of a wilderness, where an eclectic assemblage of country club life, skier’s mountain sensibilities, and destination resort collide and create a slow paced, simple experience.  Those looking to be lavished with attention would best look to the Colorado Front Range.  Those looking to bear witness to something of great potential and solitude should look here.

Mammoth will always be my home mountain, and I will always delight in skiing among the ghosts of the Monache Indians in full view of a serrated ridge overlooking the polished domes and spires of Yosemite.  But in the midst of the California crowd it gives me great comfort to know that somewhere, 800 miles north, lies a similarly spectacular place – where the powder is deep, the pace is slow, and the people… just don’t show up.

Big Sky is grouchy ski valets and delicious hot dogs.  What more do you need to know?

Flowers

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