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Montana's Underrated Ski Slopes

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
ANNUAL SNOWFALL 400 inches

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; www.bigskyresort.com; 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; www.buckst4dining.com; 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
ANNUAL SNOWFALL 400 inches

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; www.moonlightbasin.com; lift tickets $40.

WHERE TO STAY The Moonlight Lodge (1 Mountain Loop Rd.; 800/845-4428; www.eastwestbigsky.com; 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; www.eastwestbigsky.com; 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; www.moonlightbasin.com/timbers; 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.

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