Big Sky, Big Adventures

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Posted by Jean Arthur on Nov. 2, 2018, 6 a.m.

At 11,166 feet elevation, we had several choices.

We could see eight mountain ranges poking the sky on a crisp winter afternoon. We contemplated a double-black-diamond chute. We considered skiing the south-facing, 300-plus-turn Liberty Bowl. Or should we turn around and take the next tram back to intermediate territory?

On top of Lone Peak at Montana’s Big Sky Resort, so many choices exist that it would take days to ski all 300 named runs on the 5,850 skiable acres aboard three mountains.

Big Sky Resort
Big Sky Resort
Getty Images

My son Bridge and I schussed Liberty Bowl, the wide apron along the peak’s south flank. Each luxurious turn sent light powder snow fluffing over shoulders. All told, we skied six miles from the summit to the base area, happy and thirsty and glowing from winter’s shine near the 45th parallel.

"One more tram ride, Mom," Bridge insisted, after we grabbed appetizers and refreshing mountain water in the Montana Jack eatery.

Big Sky's nearly non-existent lift lines, massive terrain and enduring dry snows attract beginners to experts to the southwest Montana resort. And, much to my happiness, the Powder Seeker lift provides heated seats and weather-proof bubbles for speedy rides over bowls, groomers, tree routes and mountain lodges.

We rode the six-pack chairlift up to the only lift line we encountered: The Lone Peak Tram, where a jolly herd of skiers and boarders eager for views, powder and steeps waited for the next tram.

"Big Sky Resort is committed to making the skiing experience even more memorable than it already is," said Stacie Mesuda, the resort’s public relations manager. "That's why we're investing in our future through our vision: Big Sky 2025.

"The hallmark of Big Sky 2025 is a $150 million capital investment in on-mountain and village improvements. This season, the chairlift upgrades on Ramcharger 8 and Shedhorn lift demonstrate our commitment to delivering the most technologically advanced chairlift network in North America."

In 2016, the resort upgraded Powder Seeker six-pack and Challenger Chair, and refreshed Everett's 8800, an elegant log lodge restaurant atop Andesite Mountain at 8,800 feet elevation. The North Face, Burton, and The Board Room shops opened in the Village too, joining Paparazzi's furriers, gift stores, gear outlets and guide services among hotels and condos. New this year is a Pendleton shop.

Lone Mountain Ranch cross-country ski trails
Lone Mountain Ranch cross-country ski trails
Courtesy of Lone Mountain Ranch

After another luxurious ski off the summit, we caught a free shuttle down-mountain to the historic Lone Mountain Ranch, best known for its 85 kilometers of cross-country ski trails.

My husband Lynn and daughter Gretchen had spent the day exploring the ranch’s perfectly groomed cross-country ski trails that wend among 25 guest cabins and homes, willows and aspen groves. The four of us met for après-ski and live music by the fire in the Saloon at Horn and Cantle restaurant, along with other friendly guests.

"Last night, we walked out of our cabin to get a cup of tea,"" said Pat Marlette, visiting from the Midwest with her husband. "And we saw 50 elk in the corral!"

Indeed, Big Sky is home to numerous wildlife species from moose to eagles, wolves and deer. Chittering chipmunks that tossed pinecones at our cabin, a tastefully updated century-old log home, kept us entertained.

The Big Sky community is known for elegant dining and lodging options dedicated to families and groups seeking cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, zip lines and much more, including winter fun in Yellowstone National Park, just 45 minutes away.

The most memorable activity of our trip just may have been the Lone Mountain Ranch Sleigh Ride dinner (reservations required). Six sleighs, pulled by a dozen draft horses, ferried guests away from the daily grind of the modern world through tall Douglas firs to the rustic backcountry North Fork Cabin.

Lone Mountain Ranch sleigh ride
Lone Mountain Ranch sleigh Ride
Courtesy of Lone Mountain Ranch

"Meet Howdy and Jerry," said the wrangler of our sleigh’s matched Belgium steeds. He tucked heavy wool blankets around our seats and told us cowpoke jokes. "Why do cowboys ride horses?"

"Because they're too heavy to carry!" shouted a guest, who confessed that he recalled the punch line from last year's sleigh ride.

The party laughed and sang holiday tunes on the 20-minute ride until we were silenced in awe of the moonless sky.

"Whoa," said a New Jersey snowboarder, "I’ve never seen so many stars."

Family-style dining in the North Fork Cabin encouraged guests to make new friends as we ate prime rib roasted in a century old wood cook stove. During the meal, comedian-musician Bruce Anfinson entertained the group with his cowboy antics.

The sleigh ride dinner ($145-$185 per person) is included in Ranch Discovery Package, which includes meals, lodging, cross-country ski gear rentals and trail passes, as well as the Ski and Stay Packages that add alpine ski tickets to the lodging and meals. Ranch guides also offer Yellowstone National Park ski tours and lessons.

Other eateries in Big Sky include the iconic Bucks T4 steakhouse and the upscale Rainbow Ranch in the lower village, and Big Sky Resort properties' Andiamo Italian Grille, Carabiner Lounge and Shedhorn Grill, serving elk brats and incredible views.

Of course, pizza, sushi and burgers are regular fare at other diners like The Corral, which is known for bison steak and giant burgers. There’s also Lone Peak Brewery & Taphouse and Beehive Basin Brewery for local suds.

While plenty of activities entice visitors, skiing and snowboarding remain the winter draw. With 30 lifts accessing powder traps, tree shots, big bowls and beginner slopes, Big Sky has the variety for groups with various ski and board ability. There's even expert terrain made famous in several ski films. Eighteen percent of the mountain, more than 1,000 acres, is reserved for the professional-level alpinists working with gravity on runs like Big Couloir and the Dictator Chutes.  

If visitors experience any discomfort adjusting to the region’s lofty terrain, relief is readily available at Big Sky Resort’s Solace Spa & Salon.

"We have just the treatment for altitude discomfort," said spa manager and massage therapist Rob Patterson. "It’s our 'Adjusting to Altitude' treatment. Our customers find that after this cranial and neuromuscular blend of massage, they feel great."

The 25-minute treatment increases circulation in the head, reducing tension and headaches from altitude. Guests find relief from both the treatment and from hydrating with the Solace’s carafe of drinking water, a uniquely refreshing blend of mountain-pure water with sage and red bell peppers.

Foot and hand massage
Foot and hand massage
Getty Images

Patterson noted that another popular treatment is the "Gentleman’s Facial," combined with a "Hand and Foot Massage" add-on.

"We wrap hands and feet with hot towels and earthy essences, which the men appreciate, while we utilize acupressure, reflexology and heat therapy," Patterson said.

"After the treatments, we send them to Big Sky Sports in the Big Sky Mall for professional boot fitting. The guests tell us that after a facial, and hand and foot massage plus properly fitting ski boots, they experience a remarkable improvement in their skiing and snowboarding day."

For my family, the slopes and Nordic trails lure us back each year, yet the fireplace friendships and Big Sky hospitality have become the memorable rara avis for us.