Close

Member Login

Logging In
Invalid username or password.
Incorrect Login. Please try again.

not a member? sign-up now!

Signing up could earn you gear and it helps to keep offensive content off of our site.

PRINT DIGITAL

Big Secret, Big Skiing

Big Secret, Big Skiing

Montana tourism at its best.
By Jay Cowan
posted: 10/24/2002

Montana, led by signature resorts Big Sky and Big Mountain, may be America's last holdout of skiing's golden age of no lines, no attitude and the pure, no-frills thrill of making turns. But get here fast. Before the crowds do. If, for some hare-brained reason, you ever decide to ski all 16 areas in Montana in one trip, you're in for a long drive. I know because I attempted it once. It took two weeks on 1,500 miles of icy roads. To reach a similar number of ski areas in Colorado, you could just drive four hours from Denver to Aspen, stopping at resorts along the way. On my epic Montana journey, I drove more hours than I skied, caught a mean cold in one of the dozen dive motels where I stayed, wore out a knee brace and wrecked a Suburban. It was all worth it.
Montana still has skiing the way it was meant to be: big, friendly, wild and invigorating. It combines elements of brute grandeur with an old-time ski-club atmosphere and a pervasive sense of delight that reminds you this isn't a job, folks, it's a holiday in the mountains.
IIn a state where a fair number of skiers and boarders wear Carhartt coveralls because they were feeding cattle before they hit the slopes, you'll find little of the pretentiousness that mars mainstream mountains these days.

There are about 14,000 acres of inbounds skiing in Montana. That's about the same as Vail and Whistler combined. The whole state of Montana, however, racks up only about 1.2 million skier visits a year. Whistler does double that in a good season. What Montana does have in spades is space. Miles and miles of it.

The state's Big Sky motto says as much about the land as what's above it. It's Big Sky Country because there isn't much development blocking your view of the heavens. Adding to the wilderness feeling is Montana's sparse population. There are so few people living in Montana that you could give the whole population a ride on the state's 65 ski lifts in about 13 hours.

You just need to travel about 375 miles between the two resorts that bookend the Montana Rockies, from south to north, Big Sky to Big Mountain. This Montana duo will give you a full picture of the state's skiing, some of America's best and most unspoiled.

The legally intoxicating views from the top of Lone Peak span three states and endless wild mountains. Stepping into my skis, I'm immediately up to my knees in 20 inches of untracked snow, from the top of Lenin down the Dictator Chutes, all the way through deserted Dude Park to the runout at the Shedhorn lift. I'm in the company of skiers who know the area well and consider 20 minutes a long lunch. Mike Mannelin is an easygoing 26-year-old ripper from Minnesota who has adopted Big Sky and makes its sickest lines look easy. And Katie Ferris, 24, is a patroller who moved here from Sun Valley, Idaho, last year. "I like the attitude," she says. "I call Sun Valley the home of the tragically hip, and there's none of that here."

Though Big Sky is Montana's most sophisticated resort on several levels (lifts, lodging, development), it still has a laid-back atmosphere. Mannelin and Ferris typify the young, strong skiers gravitating to the resort. "Just look at this lift on a big powder day," Mannelin tells me as we ride up the Challenger. "Most of the chairs are empty, and I know most of the people on the rest of them. There's so much good terrain here, and it's all ours."Indeed. If you're standing in line anywhere except the tram, you're doing something wrong. With 3,600 acres and 4,350 vertical feet (second longest in the U.S.), Big Skyers are fond of telling you that even on a big day there's one person for every acre.

All the way from Graceland and Nashville Bowl, across the wide lower slopes of Lone Mountain, up Andesite Mountain and on east to Flat Iron Mountain, the story is the same.

A vast smorgasbord of world-class skiing goes largely unattended because there is just so much of it.

Double-black drops like the legendary Big Couloir are getting tracked, but other prime stashes, in the new glades on Bear Lair and Wounded Knee or the rollicking Flat Iron slopes, will still be fresh days later. Some of the family ramblers, such as Elk Park Ridge and Morningstar,lways have skiers, while the equally plush cruisers of Lobo, Silver Knife and Hangman's remain untrafficked and ripe for high-speed plundering.

Big Sky hosts about 300,000 skier visits annually, comparable to the likes of Jackson Hole and Telluride, so it isn't that nobody's here. It just seems that way because the resort has been relentless about its slope and lift expansions over the years. "We've always spent our money on the skiing first," CEO Taylor Middleton tells me as we're exploring the fruits of this policy. "And it has worked well for us."

The resort was founded in 1973 by the late NBC newsman Chet Huntley and was purchased by Boyne Resorts in 1976. Growth was slow, but today some sprawl is occurring along Highway 191 where you turn off to Big Sky and up around the Mountain Village, which sits at 7,500 feet on a saddle between Lone and Andesite mountains. Big Sky may be one of the nation's leading practitioners of "partnering," a symbiotic system whereby it will run a lift almost anywhere to service a new development as long as the developers pay for it. So buyers get their ski-in/ski-out locations, while Big Sky adds terrain and only has to pay to cut the runs and manage the lift. This is how it works with the Lone Moose Meadows, Pony Express and Iron Horse triple chairs.

Iron Horse serves Moonlight Basin, where I have a fine slopeside lunch at the new stone-and-timber Moonlight Lodge and ogle its extravagant, three-story rock fireplace, replete with attached mountain goats. Moonlight Lodge is part of a long-awaited upscaling at the resort, exemplified by the big new Summit hotel, a 10-story, chateau-style property, completed in 2001, that anchors the expanding Mountain Village. The Summit's sumptuous slopeside suites, health club, restaurant and bar have been sorely needed at Big Sky.

"Our biggest priority now is building a real village," Brian Wheeler, Big Sky's director of real estate and development, tells me. The plan calls for more than 100 shops and restaurants, plus more lodging over the next 10 years. "Tremblant is a good example for us," says Wheeler, who envisions about 500,000 annual skier visits here eventually. "But we won't become Tremblant because we don't have the population base nearby."

Half a million visits won't happen here soon, and that's good news to most locals and visitors who aren't anxious to see Montana morph into Colorado. Still, it's inevitable that Big Sky's rough edges are finally being smoothed off.

There has been good dining around the resort for a while, but some of the best is 10 to 20 minutes away, including the fusion cuisine at the Rainbow Ranch and famously friendly Buck's T-4 restaurant, a Big Sky tradition. Now there are two good new restaurants on-premises, Peaks at the Summit and Timbers at Moonlight Lodge, with more to follow. The art will be in coalescing the development around Big Sky into a community of real substance and soul.

For years, this hasn't been a priority because Big Sky has always had Bozeman, 45 miles to the north and one of America's great ski towns. Bozeman has more good skiing only 20 minutes north at Bridger Bowl and is the home of Montana State University, with fine restaurants and bars, big-name music, a hot springs and the Museum of the Rockies. I take in a show on the flamboyant Western romantic tradition before heading to Big Mountain in Whitefish.

Big Mountain benefits from snowy regional weather patterns as well as locally generated moisture from 150 nearby lakes, including Whitefish and oceanic Flathead. This also means some clouds and fog, but fans of Montana skiing will trade sun for powder any day. Just ask."We like the weather and the snow here," Christian Burris from Atlanta tells me on the lift. He and his father, Wilton, usually go to Whistler. "But we came here because we hate crowds. We like Big Mountain so much we bought a condo."

I'm skiing with the resort's president and CEO, Michael Collins, a high-school classmate of mine from Colorado. The only drawback is that when Collins goes out, he spends half his time talking to people. He just met the Burris family and we're taking some runs with them-and every other person on the slopes who wants to share their latest Big Mountain experience with Mike. A little old-fashioned, but it's the essence of what they do here, welcoming you into the family. "That's how you and I grew up skiing," Mike says. "The slopes were always a friendly, happy place to be. We don't want to lose that."

Definitely not. It's a big part of the resort's appeal, along with 3,000 acres of phenomenal skiing. From the 7,000-foot summit you can select slopes off every point of the compass and saturate yourself with views of the Great White North. I always stand on top and gawk for a while, down at the huge lakes mirrored with ice, east at the rugged peaks of Glacier National Park, north to the vastness of Canada. But with the standard 8 inches of fresh and a wide-open mountain awaiting, I don't linger.We rummage around Mike's pet lines. We take in the Great Northern trees, Good Medicine and some new glades called Woodlot before working into the North Bowl and East Rim sections, with occasional forays onto the zoomers of Toni Matt, the Big Ravine and MoeMentum (yes, Tommy Moe learned to ski here).

In the afternoon, we move into the glades and gullies of Hellroaring Basin, just east of the main mountain. "We close this early every spring because there are protected grizzly bear dens here," Mike explains, "and we don't want people skiing when the bears are coming out of hibernation." I'm glad it's still early March.

After another foot of snow overnight, Day 2 finds me with powder guide A.J. Coulter on Big Mountain's pure and protected North Side. The Big Creek Express high-speed quad makes for great powder laps on marked runs, as well as some controlled off-piste served by the quad and the new Bigfoot T-bar. We choose Big Mountain's snowcat option and are soon thigh-deep in powder and surrounded by enormous pines, larches and cedars. Pitches range from the intermediate, oversize lanes of Big Timber to the steeper and tighter Cliffs section, where a slot called Flower is sublime. It's all capped by a hike into the steep and almost religiously profound Canyon Creek backcountry area. "It doesn't get any better than this," says Coulter, a descendant of famous mountain man John Coulter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

After the snowcat, still thinking about those grizzlies in Hellroaring Basin, I head off on a cross-country ski trip with Tim Rubbert, Big Mountain's bear expert and resident naturalist. "Drought and development in the region are stressing the wildlife, and we don't want to add to it," says Rubbert, who has been studying bears for 17 years. He gives free weekly slide shows about grizzlies and runs a program about the Big Mountain ecosystem. He also takes groups out for complimentary cross-country and snowshoe trips to study trees and wildlife tracks.

Rubbert is one of the many multitalented and community-minded locals who love it here because it isn't overdeveloped, yet. But they all know it's coming and some worry in particular about the new, full-service Glacier Village being built at the base of Big Mountain. "People are nervous they're going to make it another Aspen here," Rubbert says.

There's already a village of sorts at the mountain, with a number of homes and several charming lodges, bars, restaurants and shops (check out the Purple Pomegranate). But some old landmarks will be razed or moved to make way for new construction. Victims may include the Hellroaring Saloon and Restaurant, a cheerful old ramshackle building full of vintage ski posters and gear, athletic jerseys, Christmas lights and good times. Though the building is a structural mess, many residents and visitors alike want to see it saved as a museum.

Ultimately, most people agree the resort's base facilities neesmate of mine from Colorado. The only drawback is that when Collins goes out, he spends half his time talking to people. He just met the Burris family and we're taking some runs with them-and every other person on the slopes who wants to share their latest Big Mountain experience with Mike. A little old-fashioned, but it's the essence of what they do here, welcoming you into the family. "That's how you and I grew up skiing," Mike says. "The slopes were always a friendly, happy place to be. We don't want to lose that."

Definitely not. It's a big part of the resort's appeal, along with 3,000 acres of phenomenal skiing. From the 7,000-foot summit you can select slopes off every point of the compass and saturate yourself with views of the Great White North. I always stand on top and gawk for a while, down at the huge lakes mirrored with ice, east at the rugged peaks of Glacier National Park, north to the vastness of Canada. But with the standard 8 inches of fresh and a wide-open mountain awaiting, I don't linger.We rummage around Mike's pet lines. We take in the Great Northern trees, Good Medicine and some new glades called Woodlot before working into the North Bowl and East Rim sections, with occasional forays onto the zoomers of Toni Matt, the Big Ravine and MoeMentum (yes, Tommy Moe learned to ski here).

In the afternoon, we move into the glades and gullies of Hellroaring Basin, just east of the main mountain. "We close this early every spring because there are protected grizzly bear dens here," Mike explains, "and we don't want people skiing when the bears are coming out of hibernation." I'm glad it's still early March.

After another foot of snow overnight, Day 2 finds me with powder guide A.J. Coulter on Big Mountain's pure and protected North Side. The Big Creek Express high-speed quad makes for great powder laps on marked runs, as well as some controlled off-piste served by the quad and the new Bigfoot T-bar. We choose Big Mountain's snowcat option and are soon thigh-deep in powder and surrounded by enormous pines, larches and cedars. Pitches range from the intermediate, oversize lanes of Big Timber to the steeper and tighter Cliffs section, where a slot called Flower is sublime. It's all capped by a hike into the steep and almost religiously profound Canyon Creek backcountry area. "It doesn't get any better than this," says Coulter, a descendant of famous mountain man John Coulter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

After the snowcat, still thinking about those grizzlies in Hellroaring Basin, I head off on a cross-country ski trip with Tim Rubbert, Big Mountain's bear expert and resident naturalist. "Drought and development in the region are stressing the wildlife, and we don't want to add to it," says Rubbert, who has been studying bears for 17 years. He gives free weekly slide shows about grizzlies and runs a program about the Big Mountain ecosystem. He also takes groups out for complimentary cross-country and snowshoe trips to study trees and wildlife tracks.

Rubbert is one of the many multitalented and community-minded locals who love it here because it isn't overdeveloped, yet. But they all know it's coming and some worry in particular about the new, full-service Glacier Village being built at the base of Big Mountain. "People are nervous they're going to make it another Aspen here," Rubbert says.

There's already a village of sorts at the mountain, with a number of homes and several charming lodges, bars, restaurants and shops (check out the Purple Pomegranate). But some old landmarks will be razed or moved to make way for new construction. Victims may include the Hellroaring Saloon and Restaurant, a cheerful old ramshackle building full of vintage ski posters and gear, athletic jerseys, Christmas lights and good times. Though the building is a structural mess, many residents and visitors alike want to see it saved as a museum.

Ultimately, most people agree the resort's base facilities need upgrading. With $300 million worth of lodging, townhomes, restaurants, shops and more planned to go up in the next decade, Glacier Village will bring the rest of the resort up to the world-class standards of the slopes. The fervent hope is that developers will take their time, do it right and not overwhelm Big Mountain's much beloved funkiness and down-home atmosphere.

Meanwhile, there will always be Whitefish, only 10 minutes away, one of those classic and endearing small Western towns that can never be accused of being purpose-built. Here since 1904 as a logging, railroad and ranching community, it has always attracted summer tourism because of its two spectacular lakes and Glacier National Park, only 35 miles east. With the opening of Big Mountain in 1947 came year-round tourism that has gradually changed the economic balance of the town. So far it hasn't boutiqued the place to death.

Whitefish remains a little scruffy and full of character: a low-slung, hard-working community of 5,000 arrayed along Whitefish Lake and Whitefish River at 3,300 feet, and still surrounded by big working ranches. It has long been host to some wild Western bars and friendly diners, as well as good theater and an historic depot museum. Now, the stylish Great Northern brew pub and seriously fine restaurants such as Tupelo Grille and Wasabi Sushi are taking their places among the traditional hardware and feed stores.

On my last day, as I stand on top of Big Mountain in another snowstorm, I realize that a big part of Montana's appeal is that you can still find more of the real West here, and more of the soul and spirit of skiing than anywhere else: the high mountains and deep snows, the small towns and big hearts. Log warming huts and crackling fireplaces, brown-bag cafeterias and moose roaming the runs. Enough undeveloped land around a resort to support lonely dirt roads, to still graze cattle and put up hay. People who are glad to see you and happy to be here. There remains a chance here to feel like part of a community, not just part of a lifestyle. There is a genuineness and a magic to this big country that has always made people feel at home. Now, with the word getting out, the real magic will be to preserve it. need upgrading. With $300 million worth of lodging, townhomes, restaurants, shops and more planned to go up in the next decade, Glacier Village will bring the rest of the resort up to the world-class standards of the slopes. The fervent hope is that developers will take their time, do it right and not overwhelm Big Mountain's much beloved funkiness and down-home atmosphere.

Meanwhile, there will always be Whitefish, only 10 minutes away, one of those classic and endearing small Western towns that can never be accused of being purpose-built. Here since 1904 as a logging, railroad and ranching community, it has always attracted summer tourism because of its two spectacular lakes and Glacier National Park, only 35 miles east. With the opening of Big Mountain in 1947 came year-round tourism that has gradually changed the economic balance of the town. So far it hasn't boutiqued the place to death.

Whitefish remains a little scruffy and full of character: a low-slung, hard-working community of 5,000 arrayed along Whitefish Lake and Whitefish River at 3,300 feet, and still surrounded by big working ranches. It has long been host to some wild Western bars and friendly diners, as well as good theater and an historic depot museum. Now, the stylish Great Northern brew pub and seriously fine restaurants such as Tupelo Grille and Wasabi Sushi are taking their places among the traditional hardware and feed stores.

On my last day, as I stand on top of Big Mountain in another snowstorm, I realize that a big part of Montana's appeal is that you can still find more of the real West here, and more of the soul and spirit of skiing than anywhere else: the high mountains and deep snows, the small towns and big hearts. Log warming huts and crackkling fireplaces, brown-bag cafeterias and moose roaming the runs. Enough undeveloped land around a resort to support lonely dirt roads, to still graze cattle and put up hay. People who are glad to see you and happy to be here. There remains a chance here to feel like part of a community, not just part of a lifestyle. There is a genuineness and a magic to this big country that has always made people feel at home. Now, with the word getting out, the real magic will be to preserve it.

reviews of Big Secret, Big Skiing
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • No HTML tags allowed

More information about formatting options

Type the characters you see in this picture. (verify using audio)
Type the characters you see in the picture above; if you can't read them, submit the form and a new image will be generated. Not case sensitive.
All submitted comments are subject to the license terms set forth in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use
Google+