Big runs, tiny crowds in Montana
Vail, CO ColoradoLONE MOUNTAIN, Mont. – When American skiers start talking about really big resorts, the conversation generally turns to huge mountain meccas such as Vail, where the yawning back bowls offer endless powder; or Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly, where some runs are so long they start in Nevada and finish in California; or those paired areas in Utah, Alta/Snowbird and Solitude/Brighton, where a single ticket gives you access to every lift on two connected ski hills.But this winter, the biggest single ski site in the United States will be found far from those famous destinations, in a secluded corner of Montana barely a snowball’s throw from Yellowstone National Park.Two resorts operating on opposite faces of 11,166-foot Lone Mountain – the well-established Big Sky Resort and its perky young neighbor, Moonlight Basin – are offering a combined lift ticket that provides access to 5,512 acres, with 23 lifts serving about 220 distinct runs.That makes the Lone Mountain combination the nation’s largest ski area, edging out Vail’s 5,289 acres (although Canada’s Whistler/Blackcomb combo still holds the title of biggest resort in North America, with 8,000 lift-served acres.)All those Montana acres tend to be uncrowded as well. Big Sky and Moonlight Basin are so remote from the more familiar skiing centers of the Rocky Mountain West and so far from population centers (the nearest city, Bozeman, is a pleasant university town but nobody’s idea of a metropolis) that they draw relatively few skiers.Vail reports about 1.5 million skier visits each season; the Montana twins total about 350,000. Big Sky, which has lift capacity of 32,000 skiers per hour, averages just 2,000 skiers per day.The result is that lift lines are unusual at the Lone Mountain resorts, and untracked powder is easy to find.
When I ski on a powder day at Vail or Aspen or Park City, I try to board the lift as early as possible to get first tracks on the new snow before it is overrun with other skiers. At Big Sky/Moonlight Basin, there’s no need to hurry.On a snowy morning during my visit last spring, we awoke to nine inches of fresh powder. “Let’s get out there before everybody else does,” I demanded. But my local hosts insisted on a leisurely breakfast in the lodge at Moonlight before we hit the slopes.The locals knew what they were doing. When we finally headed to the lifts at 10:30 a.m. – way too late at most ski areas – the runs were still largely untracked. We kept finding virgin trails of untouched snow well into the afternoon on both faces of the mountain. For that matter, we found a big stash of virgin powder the next day on steep but pretty Big Sky run through the trees called Tango.Because the two resorts are on private property, they don’t have to deal with the U.S. Forest Service restrictions that limit development at most Western ski areas. One noticeable result is that both areas offer wonderful tree skiing through lovely glades of spruce and pine, areas that you would expect to be off-limits at other resorts.But it’s a good thing that there’s so much skiing to do at the Big Sky/Moonlight Basin complex, because the two areas have little to offer other than their massive ski hill.Big Sky has shopping, restaurants and night life options at the base, but it’s a shadow of what you would find at Vail or Park City or the major resorts at Lake Tahoe. The base area of Moonlight Basin is essentially one big lodge surrounded by a series of log homes you can rent for a night or a week.
The Lone Mountain connection is something of a May-December marriage.Big Sky, the older and bigger partner, dates to the 1960s, when NBC News anchor Chet Huntley corralled a group of investors to finance his dream, a resort in the cowboy country north of Yellowstone.
Eventually, the original team sold Big Sky to the Kircher family, the operators of Michigan’s Boyne Mountain and several other ski areas. With professional management, the place prospered and grew.In the 1990s, a group of local ranchers bought property for a real estate development, Moonlight Basin Ranch, on the north face of Lone Mountain. Realizing that they had the terrain for a wonderful ski resort of their own, the ranchers put in some lifts and began promoting Moonlight for skiing four years ago. It was the first new destination ski resort to open in the United States in two decades.At first, Big Sky tried to bury the upstart operation on the other side of the hill. There was hostility. There was legal action. But faced with intense demand from skiers who wanted access to the whole mountain, the two areas finally got their act together, a decision that benefited both sides.In the 2005-06 season, they started offering the joint Lone Peak Pass, providing unlimited access to all runs and lifts at both resorts. It’s the most skiing you can do on a single lift ticket anywhere in the country.As befits the nation’s biggest skiing complex, the Lone Mountain twins provide a complete range of terrain, from easy cruisers to some of the hairiest cliff-face runs you’ll ever find.
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