Ski where the snow is fresh, the sky is big

Montana resorts offer miles of trails, few distractions

Destination The West

January 07, 2007|By Chris Erskine | Chris Erskine,Los Angeles Times

BIG SKY, MONT — BIG SKY, MONT. / / You wake up to a fresh handkerchief of snow draped over the mountain, 4 inches deep and as light as linen, atop a 5-foot base. You lug your skis to the lift. "Is it open?" you wonder, since so few fellow skiers are around. It's open. It's Montana. Get used to it.

This is the land where the circus doesn't stop, where skiing is an escape from the crowds and the traffic, where a ski lift doesn't have a line like Starbucks, 20 deep and a little ornery.

Talk about your sugar highs. Look at all that pristine powder, which swirls in the morning air like pixie dust. Big Sky Resort and neighboring Moonlight Basin offer creamy, six-mile runs where skiers and boarders can go 20 minutes without seeing another soul -- on the intermediate runs. On the expert runs, high up the hill, you can go hours.

Add luxe slope-side accommodations, 400 inches of snowfall annually and Yellowstone National Park just down the road and you have the ingredients for one of the country's best-kept skiing secrets, which was the brainchild of a newsman.

A retirement project of NBC anchorman Chet Huntley, Big Sky Resort goes back less than 40 years. Huntley died in 1974, days before the ribbon-cutting. Subsequent growing pains were widespread. Sewerage lagoons leaked. Condos were built and immediately condemned.

Under new owner Boyne USA, Big Sky persevered and now boasts 150 trails on three mountains. A second, adjoining resort, Moonlight, opened in 2003.

The two operations have teamed up to offer a joint pass to 5,512 acres of skiable terrain this year. Ski magazine's readers' survey called the Big Sky area "God's country. A great place to hide away" and described it as "what Colorado was like years ago."

So, it's not just the mountain. It's the elbow room and breathtaking runs where it's just you and the squirrels.

What's the catch? It must be hard to get to, right? Or snooty? Or riddled with rabid elk and rednecks?

Well, they do appear to be selling off this majestic state one log cabin at a time. In Montana, the only thing more ubiquitous than snow is the blizzard of real estate brochures. But this is not a deal-breaker. This is merely the price of paradise. Montana isn't a state; it's a Larry McMurtry novel.

I didn't find any fatal flaws on my trip last winter, only some cautionary flares along the way. And pixie dust galore.

Big Sky country

Bozeman is the drop-in point for the Big Sky area. You may need to stop in Salt Lake City or Denver along the way.

Welcome to southwestern Montana, where the handsome Bozeman airport looks like a ski lodge, cedar stretched across its high ceilings and a couple of fireplaces glowing.

Big Sky is an hour's drive south, along the Gallatin River, renowned for scenes from A River Runs Through It. Fishing lodges and other small motels dot the scenery. Conifers hold their frosting like a cupcake. One right turn, and you're headed up the hill to Big Sky.

This, you soon find, is not Aspen, Colo. The brochures may boast 650 types of lodging, but it seems far less than that. Condo and townhouse options are widespread, but single rooms are harder to find.

The village is less a village than an odd collection of rental stores, assorted eateries and T-shirt shops. If you've come for the apres ski - the lively after-hours scene of clubs and partying - you should have deplaned in Denver.

Don't fret. Instead, you have some fine choices in high-end lodging and one hellacious hill featuring the two resorts, side by side.

Food?

"The worst dining experience may be to walk into a restaurant loaded with nothing but tourists," I told a fellow diner the next night at Bambu Bar, a sushi bistro serving decent spicy hamachi ($14) and offering a good mix of tourists and residents.

"I'd say the worst experience would be for a tourist to walk into a restaurant loaded with nothing but locals," he said.

Of the two, I'd take the second.

After two days of stumbling around Big Sky and Moonlight looking for good grub, fancy or otherwise, I happened on the Huckleberry Cafe a few miles down the road, where the $8 breakfast turned out to be the most memorable meal of the week.

Help may be on the way. Big Sky broke ground last year on the first of several structures that will reshape the restaurant and retail space. It will include more pedestrian areas and slope-side work-play entertainment suites for those industry types who just can't completely get away. Phase One is scheduled to open a year from now.

Until then, turn your full attention to the great thing this place has to offer. It's the snow, dude.

Perfect powder

In Big Sky, the snowflake that just landed on your mitten probably started out as moisture in the Pacific Northwest. Zapped by the cold, dry Montana air, the flurries here land loose and stay loose, creating a champagne powder that makes winter skiing some of the best in the nation.

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