Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to ski resorts, size offers distinct advantages, from variety of terrain to off-the-beaten-path runs. For years, Vail Mountain has reigned as the nation’s largest ski area, but last fall Big Sky Resort, the understated ski area in southwestern Montana, leapfrogged its better-known competitor with the addition of acreage on a series of adjacent mountains, giving Big Sky boosters new talking points: empty runs.
“We don’t talk about being the biggest ski area — anyone can buy more land tomorrow,” said a resort spokeswoman, Sheila Chapman. “We talk about being the biggest skiing, offering more elbow room to every skier.”
Operated by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, Big Sky grew last July when it acquired a private ski area on Spirit Mountain, and mushroomed again in October with the acquisition of the adjacent Moonlight Basin ski resort, which had declared bankruptcy in 2008 and was picked up by its creditor, Lehman Brothers. Now, the ski area comprises 5,750 acres, just edging out Vail at 5,289 acres.
If size isn’t its trump card, density — or lack of it — is. Over the Christmas-to-New Year’s holiday week, peak season, the biggest skier day drew 7,500 people, a relatively light total. Last year the resort tallied 370,000 skiers, versus Vail, which regularly gets 1.7 million skiers per season. Spread over three mountains, Big Sky’s runs range over 4,350 vertical feet, with 40 percent rated beginner and intermediate and the rest advanced and expert.
“A five-minute line is a wait for us,” said Dave Stergar, a middle school science teacher from Helena who owns a condo at Big Sky and skis 60 days each year. “We don’t have a popular city 40 to 50 minutes away with two million people who flood the resort. We’re a destination.”
The beginnings of Big Sky delineate its challenges. Unlike popular Western resorts such as Aspen and Vail, Colo., and Park City, Utah, Big Sky isn’t based in a lively ski town offering a range of entertainment options. The television newscaster and Montana native Chet Huntley, who died just days before the slopes officially opened, conceptualized the resort, about 44 miles south of Bozeman, in the late 1960s, and the first lifts opened in 1973. Tucked under the 11,166-foot-elevation Lone Peak, its modest mountain village is a compact collection of two peak-roofed, midsize hotels, a few chalet-inspired condo buildings and a smattering of A-frame cabins; an activity center where non-Alpine sports like tubing, zip-lining and snowshoeing are offered; and a series of bars and restaurants in two wood-clad, hivelike buildings. (The Moonlight area adds a full-service lodge and a small base village, which are easy to ski to by day, but hard to reach without a car at night.)
While Big Sky owns the most popular après-ski restaurant, Whiskey Jack’s, where tap brews and bison nachos are the favored pick-me-ups, a smattering of independently owned businesses thrives here, including a favorite bar among the locals, Scissorbills Saloon (Arrowhead Mall; 406-995-4933), and the Cabin Bar & Grill (Arrowhead Mall; 406-995-4244) serving Montana-centric dishes such as trout and elk loin. Resort concierges readily direct guests to unaffiliated restaurants including Buck’s T-4 (46625 Gallatin Road; 406-995-4111) 10 miles away (the restaurant runs a shuttle bus for diners) and the closer Lone Mountain Ranch (750 Lone Mountain Ranch Road; 888-302-5140), which offers sleigh rides that culminate in three-course dinners in a candlelit log cabin.
Depending on your point of view, Big Sky’s remote location is a detriment or a gift. Travelers can expect to pay more to fly to the smaller Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport than a major hub like Denver. But the wilderness location offers one more appealing facet: proximity toYellowstone National Park, 50 miles south. Outfitters shuttle Big Sky guests to West Yellowstone and back for park tours by snow coach that offer opportunities to spot bison, elk and coyote and to cross-country ski around geysers where steam clouds are amplified by the freezing temperatures. The park, too, gets few visitors in winter; of over three million annual tourists, about 3 percent come in winter