If the thought of standing all alone looking down at a 4,350-foot vertical drop covered in fresh powder is appealing, it's worth the trek to Big Sky, in the southwest corner of Montana.
At the center of the community is Lone Mountain, an 11,166-foot peak that anchors 5,300 acres of skiable terrain and the modest tally of about 5,500 skiers daily during the peak season: roughly one per acre. It's not unusual to be halfway down the mountain, stop, turn around, and not see another soul.
Big Sky, an unincorporated community straddling Madison and Gallatin counties, sits just off Route 191 about 45 miles from Bozeman's
Gallatin Field Airport. Tucked amid the astonishing natural beauty of half a dozen national forests, 50 miles from the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, the community is likely to get busier in the coming years, but caps on growth make it likely to remain an appealing destination for skiers and snowboarders looking for some elbow room.
"Nobody wants Big Sky overtaken by development," said Marne Hayes, executive director of the
Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. "The people who live here like to see more opportunity come in, but not cost of character of community."
Access will dictate some of that. There are no direct flights to Bozeman from New York or Los Angeles, but activity has picked up in recent years, and Gallatin Field is now served by flights from San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Seattle and Portland, Ore.
The pace of development is largely dictated by the four big developments that dominate the area:
Big Sky Resort (founded by the late newscaster Chet Huntley in the late 1960s) and
Moonlight Basin are the two resort destinations open to the public.
Spanish Peaks is a private community with access to the runs at Big Sky Resort. The
Yellowstone Club has its own 2,200-acre ski area on neighboring Pioneer and Andesite mountains.
There is a variety of hotel accommodations available. Those closest to the slopes are at Big Sky Resort, which has just over 600 hotel rooms (there are none at Moonlight). The rest are at least nine miles further down along Route 191.
At Big Sky, the Huntley Lodge has 200 rooms, and winter rates range from $160 to $390 a night. Rates at the Shoshone, a condominium-style hotel, run from $271 to $800. The resort also offers stay-and-ski packages that include lift tickets. Recent prices quoted for a late-January weekend getaway run from $285 per night for a studio to upwards of $1,100 a night for a three-bedroom condo.
The two public resorts do offer a joint Lone Peak ticket that allows skiers to move back and forth between the two, thereby claiming the most acreage on a single lift ticket in the U.S. Single-day lift tickets at Moonlight are $51 for adults (kids under 11 ski for free) and discounts are available for multi-day passes. A Lone Peak pass runs $89 a day. A single-day ticket at Big Sky Resort is $75, and it, too, offers discounts for multi-day passes and free skiing for kids under 11.
Staying off-mountain is a reasonable -- and affordable -- alternative to the Big Sky Resort, especially if you don't mind driving up to 45 minutes (depending on conditions) to get to the slopes.
Down on 191,
Buck's T4 Lodge has rooms from $119 to $229 through the ski season, and the
320 Guest Ranch has two-bedroom cabins that run from $206 to $269 a night, depending on the time of the season, with fireplaces and kitchens whose size rivals those in many New York apartments.
Montana is well-equipped to fuel you up for all those runs. The portions are big, and meat and game are plentiful on local menus. This is cowboy country, after all.
While the hefty hunk of Wild Temptation Meatloaf (a $16.95 serving of beef, elk and bison in mushroom gravy) at the 320 restaurant was adequate, the $28.85 rack of lamb was far better.
At Buck's, the $26.95, 6 oz. Big Sky Filet was more than enough to satisfy, though if you really need the protein the restaurant offers a 10 oz. version. Better to stick with the meat at Buck's, though, if you can. The goat cheese and morel risotto was a bit heavy on the raw red onions, which overpowered the flavor of the cheese and the sautéed vegetables accompanying it.
Unfortunately, the most interesting fare was largely off-limits at the
Sacajawea Camp at Spanish Peaks, under the direction of Executive Chef Eric Stenberg, a Portland native who has been a fixture in Montana culinary circles since 1994. The good news is that the otherwise members-only restaurant-in-a-yurt is open for parties of six or more once a week.
Aside from the unrelenting beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the 400 inches of annual snowfall in this part of the country and the generous portions at local restaurants, the biggest appeal is the consistent cheeriness of the folks in this part of the country. From the staffs at the lodges and the restaurants (mostly locals) to the ski instructors and the teams manning the equipment rental station (many of whom follow the snow), everyone was pleasant, patient and willing to take steps to accommodate guests.
Jonathan Diamond is editor of Form magazine. A former literary agent and assistant managing editor at the Los Angeles Business Journal, he has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Huffington Post and a number of other Internet sites.