Postcard from Big Sky Montana: A Firsthand Report 5
By JC, Cub Reporter
Looking up a wide area on Wounded Knee.

Flying Northwest Airlines, I arrived at Bozeman’s airport on Saturday, March 17, 2005 to 30 degrees and light snow. Less than an hour’s bus ride via Karst Stage Company (not including the stop at Albertsons for provisions) brought us to Big Sky’s Mountain Village.

I stayed in the Big Horn Condos, offering 2 and 3 bedrooms with separate baths. (Units with their own hot tubs are also available - a nice thing, since the closest common hot tub is at the village base.) The location was good: a short poma lift dropping us into the main base was only a few hundred feet from our door, and we could ski back to a location that was even closer. For apres-ski activities, a five minute walk took us to the base area.

Our first evening at Big Sky included a big bang: every Saturday at 8:00 they put on a fireworks display. It’s good, but short (so don’t be late), and best viewed from the terrace of the Summit Hotel (which is open to all).

For the pedestrian, all of the dining and shopping options are in a tight clutch of buildings at the base. They offer quite a few restaurants, sporting good stores, t-shirt shops, etc. Some transportation to other locations is available, but was much less frequent than most ski resorts, and I didn’t take advantage of it.

Our first dining experience (and the best) was The Cabin Bar & Grill, located in the Arrowhead Mall. While the fare was pricey ($20-$30), the food and service were excellent. (In contrast, The Peaks restaurant in the Summit Lodge was just as expensive, but had lousy service, even when uncrowded.) The Cabin is smokefree.

One of my major gripes was that many restaurants included bars, and in Montana that meant cigarette and cigar smoke.

On to skiing….

Big Sky offers a skiable vertical of 4,350 feet, with the base area at 7,500, the summit at 11,166, and a lower area at 6,800. More than 150 runs are served by 12 lifts.

Each lift ticket comes with a retractable cord, and it is needed: checking for tickets is done entirely by turnstiles, which is very efficient, but would be really annoying without the retractable cord. Actually, the machines are great and appear to be faster than human checkers armed with scanners.

Big Sky is a refreshingly quiet place: there was often nobody in sight, sometimes for an entire run. I never encountered a significant wait at a lift, with the exception of the 4-person gondola at the bottom. Even there, the wait was no more than a few minutes and was on the weekend, when one would expect the worst.

The conditions when we arrived could have been better. Many runs were groomed, but quite a few of those had slick scraped areas with occasional thin cover. The ungroomed areas had up to 2 inches of dust on very hard crust. 5% of the runs were closed. Under these conditions, my favorite run was Lobo (a blue).

Low Bench with a half-foot of powder.

The next morning added 4 or 5 inches of powder, and life was good. For the remainder of the trip, it snowed off and on every day (except the last) and every night, with a total accumulation during the week of 2 to 4 feet. Hard to argue with that! (A few pitches remained closed due to lack of cover; some of the more vertical ones were probably best left alone. And I have several souvenirs on the bottom of my skis.) Daily highs at the base ranged from the mid twenties to 34. It often felt colder with the falling snow being blown into one’s face on the lifts.

Lobo remained a favorite, but I added Tippy’s Tumble, Silver Knife, and Calamity Jane to favorite blue cruisers. Because of the steady supply of fresh powder, many of the green runs stayed attractive throughout the week, even for intermediate and advanced skiers, as it was always fun to float through the snow. In particular, Lower Morning Star and Deep South had little traffic and powder could always be found there.

Amazing powder could be found off the Shedhorn lift, but the lower pitches there were closed.

The mountain is plenty big, with a wide range of terrain, hidden areas, open bowls, and offerings for every level of skier.

I didn’t find as much glade skiing as I would like. Most of the glades were properly labeled black runs with significant pitch and moguls. A few blue-level areas existed, but they were smaller than I would have preferred. Look for some opportunities off of Swifty Lift Line. Of the black glades, I tried Wounded Knee (see picture), War Dance, and Colter’s Hell. They were challenging.

Friday opened to clear skies and the promise of one last powder day. I joined the powder hounds in the bowl where we reveled in the sun and tore down the pristine Low Bench and South Wall (see pictures). It was great while it lasted!

Most of the runs are long, rather than the chopped up designs that can be found elsewhere. This is quite pleasant: you spend more time skiing and less fooling with lifts. Another result is that you are at the bottom frequently, which would be a problem if lift lines there were long, but they are not. One side benefit was that I kept meeting up with friends at the lifts, without planning to do so.

Eating is done almost exclusively at the base. (The one restaurant on the slopes burned down last month and has been replaced by two yurts.) But the design of the mountain makes it easy to reach the base quickly. My favorite lunch stop was the Sun Dog Cafe, located in the lower floor of the building that houses the ski school and lift ticket windows. Sun Dog offers an array of deli sandwiches, burgers, wraps, soups, chili, breakfast items, drinks, cookies, and brownies - all very good. Like mountain eating everywhere, expect to spend about 10 bucks.

South Wall covered with powder hounds.

A summary: I found everyone in Montana to be genuinely friendly and helpful from the checkers at the grocery store to the bus operator to the mountain employees. The mountain is plenty big for a week’s entertainment for every skier level. Big Sky is low key, which means less apres-ski opportunities but crowd-free skiing and long-lasting powder. The mountain is intelligently designed and has a good mix of terrain for all. In short, I had a great week, and you will too.

A view of the Mountain Village and Lone Mountain from Silver Knife.
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Reader Comments

JimK
March 23, 2005
Good, concise report JC. Never been to Big Sky, but the part of your piece that really caught my attn was, "Big Sky is a refreshingly quiet place: there was often nobody in sight, sometimes for an entire run." I'd trade nightlife for a ski experience like that on a big mtn anytime.
John Sherwood
March 23, 2005
The cards that Big Sky are using are first-generation machine readable lift tickets. The new cards used at many places in Europe are similar to Metro's Smart Trip cards--they use a chip and do have to come into direct contact with turnstyle to open it. You can put them in your pocket and just get near the turnstyle and it will open.
John Sherwood
March 23, 2005
The beauty of chip cards is that they allow a resort to study where and how people ski, and plan future lift expansion to alleviate the worst bottlenecks.
KevR
March 23, 2005
Any attempts at BIG COULOIR? How 'bout a trip down the top of the tram? Last yr when I was there I'd missed it by a week -- with warmish temps and fairly heavy snow. I guess ya never know!!! But Big sky has many other reasons to fall for it!
frontrange
March 25, 2005
I spent one day at Big Sky last week (2 more at Moonlight Basin and 1 at Bridger Bowl). Coverage during my day was 100% but I did hit a couple of rocks in deeper snow on Liberty Bowl. With sun you could tell a lot of the south facing slopes would go quick. I found Liberty Bowl to be a challenge in deep windslab snow- although my kids on snowboards had no problems at all. It snowed all 4 days we were in Montana- best snow was found at Moonlight Basin which is just on the other side of the mountain from Big Sky - less expensive, less crowded, and smaller. Big Sky was a big crowded- probably because of 6" of pow plus spring break. The pow was skiied off pretty quickly but excellent while it lasted. Challenger was, well, a Challenge. Very steep, deep windpack the one time I tried it. Overall- fantastic skiing for spring!

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