Montana's Underrated Ski Slopes

Montana's Underrated Ski Slopes

Rob Howard A man hikes to access the vertiginous Headwaters at Montana's newly opened Moonlight Basin ski resort.
Rob Howard A man hikes to access the vertiginous Headwaters at Montana's newly opened Moonlight Basin ski resort.
Colorado may get all the attention, but with major improvements and a new resort, Montana and its underrated ski areas deserve a second look.

Montana used to be called the Last Best Place—before Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid moved in and landed it on the gossip pages. But the nickname still applies to the state's ski country. With challenging runs seasonally blanketed in hip-deep powder and set against Rocky Mountain panoramas, not to mention high-tech lifts and flawless snow grooming, Montana's resorts are beginning to rival those of Colorado and Utah. In fact, Montana skiing has one advantage that the others lack: elbow room. Even the best-known areas draw only a fraction of the skiers that Vail and Breckenridge do, thanks in part to the remoteness of Big Sky Country. (The closest metropolitan areas, Seattle and Salt Lake City, are each more than 300 miles away—and have their own major resorts close by; direct flights to Bozeman during ski season arrive from those two and only a handful of other cities.) There's also an inherent lack of pretentiousness: smiling lift operators who don't scoff if you're not sliding on Salomons or decked out in Bogner; and lift tickets, dining, and lodging that won't eat into your retirement savings—as they can do in Colorado. The acres of new runs, upgraded lifts, and increasingly luxurious slopeside lodging that have been added in the past decade may not be getting a lot of attention, but that lack of hype only keeps the runs crowd-free. Until the rest of the country catches on, skiing in Montana will still mean carving your own path in virgin snow and never having to search for a seat in the base-village restaurant. Here, Montana's best spots for terrain, lodging, and all the activities you can squeeze in after the lifts shut down.

Big Sky Resort

BEST FOR Skiers and boarders with kids
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert

THE BACKSTORY When NBC news anchor Chet Huntley founded the Big Sky Resort, 45 minutes south of Bozeman, in the 1970's, its broad ski boulevards on wide-open Andesite Mountain excited intermediates but left advanced skiers feeling unchallenged. That changed in 1995 with the unveiling of the Lone Peak Tram. The gut-wrenching ride now climbs to the Big Couloir at the summit of Lone Mountain (11,166 feet), adding to Montana's reputation as a downhill destination.

THE TERRAIN The resort's 150 trails are spread across more than 3,600 acres, ranking it among the nation's 10 largest ski areas. A natural half-pipe and a park have been set aside for freestyle skiers and snowboarders. Lift lines are rare and slopes are easy to navigate. 800/548-4486;; lift tickets $61.

WHERE TO STAY The newest lodge is the Summit (1 Lone Mountain Rd.; 800/548-4486; doubles from $230), a 10-story condominium hotel at the mountain's base. Its 213 rooms put a European spin on contemporary Western design, which translates into clean lines, earth tones, and acres of natural stone and Douglas fir.

APRÈS SKI Traditional massages or algae wraps are expertly administered in the Solace Spa (406/995-5803; treatments from $45). Once their searing thighs have been soothed, in-the-know skiers hit Buck's T-4 (Hwy. 191; 406/995-4111;; dinner for two $60), one of Montana's most renowned restaurants. Be forewarned: it's in the unlikeliest of settings—a roadside Best Western motel in the tiny town of Big Sky. Modest locale notwithstanding, the menu showcases inventive game dishes, such as bison-red deer-wild boar-elk meat loaf.

Moonlight Basin

BEST FOR Anyone who wants to say he was here first
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert

THE BACKSTORY The year-old Moonlight Basin is a rare species—the first new destination ski resort to open in the United States in more than 20 years (the last was Utah's Deer Valley, in 1981). Straddling the western flank of Lone Mountain (Big Sky is on the east side), Moonlight Basin is luring skiers and snowboarders searching for new trails in a relaxed, upscale setting. Unfortunately, a planned partnership between Moonlight and Big Sky broke down (the two resorts share 300 acres of slopes); to gain full access to both areas, you now need two separate lift tickets.

THE TERRAIN When Moonlight started running its lifts last winter there were only four chairs, and they carried skiers to mostly intermediate cruising lanes. Since then, a four-person lift has been added, opening up a broad expanse of pine- and fir-covered bowls and several challenging new runs. The resort plans to increase the number of its lifts by seven and expand Moonlight's boundaries outward, as well as up to the Headwaters, a massive rock wall engraved with steep chutes and couloirs, now reachable only by way of a rugged 30-minute hike. 406/993-6000;; lift tickets $40.

WHERE TO STAY The Moonlight Lodge (1 Mountain Loop Rd.; 800/845-4428;; suites from $1,560) has all the traditional flair you'd expect at a Western lodge: inlaid stone floors, log beams, wrought-iron chandeliers, and a massive 40-foot granite fireplace that dominates the main lobby. To sleep in the company of all those Wild West accoutrements, you have to snag one of the four penthouse suites, each of which has vaulted ceilings and picture windows overlooking the slopes. For far less cash, you can rent one of the ski-in, ski-out two-bedroom log cabins (800/845-4428;; cabins from $385); they have hand-braided rugs, gas-burning stoves, and outdoor hot tubs with great views of the Spanish Peaks.

APRÈS SKI Guests at both Moonlight and Big Sky make late-afternoon visits to the Timbers Restaurant (1 Mountain Loop Rd.; 406/995-7777;; dinner for two $90), which serves locally inspired meals such as buffalo tenderloin with Cumberland sauce and raisin tapenade. Not a lodge to miss out on a growing trend, Moonlight also has its own spa, where Rocky Mountain hot-stone massages ($135) and an antioxidant-rich hydrating facial ($140) help power skiers unwind after a competitive day of powder.

Bridger Bowl

BEST FOR Purists, thrill seekers, and bargain hunters
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Intermediate to expert

THE BACKSTORY At the 50-year-old Bridger Bowl, a cooperative ski area 16 miles outside of Bozeman, skiing isn't a sport, it's a way of life. Powder hounds in Bozeman are so dedicated that any time Bridger Bowl gets more than two inches of snow, a blue light above the old Baxter Hotel downtown is turned on immediately to signal the news. Just don't expect to find trendy boutiques or restaurants at the resort—there's no ski village to speak of—or high-speed quads and luxury lodging.

THE TERRAIN Extreme athletes flock to the Ridge, a 1 3/4-mile stretch of steep chutes and faces at the resort's 8,700-foot summit, which is intentionally left accessible only to those able to make the difficult 400-foot climb. 800/223-9609;; lift tickets $37.

WHERE TO STAY For a high-end hotel with a concierge and spa, look elsewhere. The best lodge in nearby Bozeman is the Howlers Inn Bed & Breakfast (3185 Jackson Creek Rd.; 888/469-5377;; doubles from $95), where you'll find comfortable log-frame beds and oversized tubs, plus the resident pack of seven wolves (secured inside a three-acre pen) that gives the laid-back property its name.

APRÈS SKI Consider Bozeman as Bridger Bowl's base village. Bozeman was a cow town not so long ago, but Main Street is now flooded with hipsters in vintage denim flocking to art galleries, the country's only Pacifica Spa (538 E. Main St.; 406/586-0611), dozens of clothing outfitters, and edgy gear shops. When the stores close, locals hit John Bozeman's Bistro (125 W. Main St.; 406/587-4100; dinner for two $60), where a quirky mix of Asian and Continental dishes are presented in a 1905 red-brick building.

Big Mountain Resort

BEST FOR Experts, bunny-slope gliders, and their families
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert

THE BACKSTORY Big Mountain was a great ski destination when it first opened in 1947; in 1995, it became even better when it incorporated the previously out-of-bounds Hellroaring Basin: 500 acres of ultralong intermediate and bracing expert runs. The resort, near Glacier National Park and the Canadian border, has often vied with Big Sky for the title of Montana's best ski area; these days, it wins for terrain but comes in second for lodging. What really keeps the resort from being mobbed, however, is its remote location and infamous weather. Storm systems that sit on the mountaintop can cut visibility to an arm's length, and ice rimes trees into "snow ghosts" so often that the spooky treeline has become the resort's signature look.

THE TERRAIN Big Mountain has miles of uncrowded, easy slopes and some of the most exciting tree skiing in the West. Intermediate skiers can practice endurance by taking lifts to the top and sliding down runs more than three miles long, such as Inspiration and Hellfire. Experts also love the place: 30 percent of the ski area is advanced terrain, including legendary double-blacks like Haskill Slide and the Picture Chutes. During whiteout days, capable skiers head for the trees, which act as helpful markers. 800/858-4157;; lift tickets $49.

WHERE TO STAY The recently renovated slopeside Kandahar Lodge (3824 Big Mountain Rd., Whitefish; 800/862-6094;; doubles from $219, including breakfast) at the base village has 50 rooms for rent; they're all done up in knotty pine, with leather armchairs and bathrooms that have deep soaking tubs.

APRÈS SKI Whitefish, a former railroad town eight miles from Big Mountain, still has a few rough edges. With the opening of the Cajun-style Tupelo Grille (17 Central Ave.; 406/862-6136; dinner for two $67), however, its food scene has been ratcheted up a notch. In a pleasant ocher-tinted room, you can sample pan-fried Creole chicken and low-country shrimp with garlic cheddar grit cakes and tasso cream. The Wasabi Sushi Bar (419 E. Second St.; 406/863-9283; dinner for two $50) flies most of its fresh seafood in from Seattle. The grilled tandoori salmon with a tomato-and-almond chutney and the Montana rolls (smoked rainbow trout with mountain whitefish caviar) are not to be missed. Cap the night off at the Great Northern Bar & Grill (27 Central Ave.; 406/862-2816), where the walls are covered with brightly colored signs from beloved local businesses that have closed down, and the brew list includes Montana's own Moose Drool Ale.

Red Lodge Mountain

BEST FOR Skiers who like to blaze through the trees
LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY Beginner to expert

THE BACKSTORY Before the mid nineties, Red Lodge Mountain (72 miles south of Billings) was so limited in size and runs that it drew mainly locals. Red Lodge solved that problem by expanding; in 1996 it added 700 acres to the property, including a range of double-black runs that significantly upgrade its challenge. Now Red Lodge is a destination resort that pulls in the occasional visitor from Europe, although it remains a solidly family-oriented ski area. 800/444-8977;; lift tickets $40.

THE TERRAIN Unlike many Montana resorts, Red Lodge has no wide-open trails; all the runs are cut through a dense forest. A mix of moderate to steep runs plunge from the top of 9,416-foot Grizzly Peak, including some long intermediates like Lazy M. Experts can head into the expanded area to ski chutes and trees; a lower-mountain park has jumps and rails for freestylers and snowboarders.

WHERE TO STAY Built in 1893, the historic Pollard Hotel (2 N. Broadway; 800/765-5273;; doubles from $120) in Red Lodge was recently renovated. Some of the 39 rooms and suites are outfitted with oversized Jacuzzi tubs and balconies that face an interior atrium.

APRÈS SKI One good reason for skiing the mountain is the chance to visit the town of Red Lodge, six miles away. Established in 1884, the red-brick enclave is rich in Western lore: Harry A. Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid, robbed the bank that sits across from the Pollard Hotel—which was once a haunt of Buffalo Bill Cody and Calamity Jane's. Nearby streets are lined with a 19th-century railroad station, an opera house, Victorian residences, and a 1920's vaudeville theater—and most of these have been restored since the 1990's. It's a glimpse of Montana just as it was three generations ago.

MARTIN FORSTENZER is a regular contributor to Ski Magazine and author of Mammoth: The Sierra Legend.

Private ski areas aren't new, but none compares to the Yellowstone Club (888/700-7748;, a lavish resort community just a few miles from Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin. In 2000, the club opened its own members-only 2,200-acre ski resort—larger than Deer Valley or Telluride. The 10 chairlifts are state of the art, the daily snow grooming is impeccable, and there's a run for everyone (almost literally). Throw in a squad of expert ski instructors, three day lodges (a major new base lodge is under construction), and plans to add five more chairlifts and a gondola, and the Yellowstone Club will soon be the equal of most major ski areas available to mere mortals. Of course, access comes at a price. Members must pay a $250,000 deposit and $16,000 in annual dues, and, naturally, they're required to buy a house (starting at $3.5 million) or at least an empty lot (from $1.2 million). For that, in addition to having free rein within the resort, they get admission to a Tom Weiskopf-designed 18-hole golf course and miles of trout streams inaccessible to outsiders. It's a great place to ski if you can afford the terms, but invite a friend so you don't get lonely on the nearly deserted slopes.

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