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).
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.
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.