By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006
When American skiers start talking about really big resorts, the conversation generally turns to huge mountain meccas such as Colorado's 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 largest ski area in the country, 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. But 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 elegant 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 a steep but pretty Big Sky run through the trees called Tango.One Plus One Equals Fun
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. The operation was an artistic success -- the rustic, laid-back atmosphere of Huntley's original vision survives to this day in Chet's Bar at the Big Sky base -- but a commercial disaster.
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.
No matter what level skier or boarder you may be, it is pleasant and helpful to start the day -- particularly on the first day of your ski vacation -- with a long, unchallenging run on a beginner slope, just to get the rhythm going.
On the Moonlight Basin side of the mountain, the place to do that is a seemingly endless run called Horseshoe that starts at the top of Lone Tree lift and winds (and winds and winds) some three miles down to the bottom of the mountain. Horseshoe is rated as a "more difficult" run, but this designation shouldn't scare off beginning skiers. It's a bunny slope most of the way; that intermediate rating stems from three steep but short sections that just about anybody can handle with aplomb. When I took Horseshoe, on a typically uncrowded Moonlight weekday, I went so long without seeing another skier that I began to worry I had somehow strayed off the ski area and into the adjoining Lee Metcalf Wilderness.
Big Sky has lots of easy, first-run-of-the-week terrain. There's a good collection of gentle hills surrounding the Southern Comfort high-speed lift. But the nicest beginner run we found is Mr. K, a pretty slope that curves down from the top of Gondola One, offering majestic views of Lone Mountain's pyramid peak behind you and the rugged ridge of the Spanish Peaks ahead.
Once you've got your ski legs, it's fun to step up the level of challenge. And on this mountain, the challenge quickly becomes extreme. On the steep, rocky cliffs plunging down from the mountain's highest ridge, you can ski or ride some of the rowdiest double-black-diamond runs in the United States.
On the Big Sky side, the 15-passenger Lone Peak Tram will get you to a series of chutes called the Gullies, so rocky and severe that one run may be enough for even hardy extreme skiers. From the top of the tram you also can ski down the Moonlight Basin face of the mountain on an equally demanding double-diamond bowl called the North Summit Snowfield.
The Gullies and the North Summit are tough in any conditions. But the local experts offered a useful piece of advice: If you look up from the bottom tram station and can't see the top, because of fog or cloud, don't ride up; you'll be coming down in a total whiteout. That turns out to be more frightening than fun on slopes this steep. The better part of valor in this situation is to ski away and come back to the tram when the skies clear.
If the tram is lost in the fog, you can get to another steep, rugged bowl on the Moonlight side called Headwaters. This is reachable either from Big Sky's Challenger lift or Moonlight Basin's short Headwaters chair. This, too, is serious-expert terrain, but it's fun to ski. And you feel great when you get to the bottom and look back up at the imposing cliff you just mastered.
Expert skiers don't have to go up to those high cliffs, though, to find a challenge on Lone Mountain.
Since 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.
We had enormous fun snowboarding through the trees on runs like the aforementioned Tango and Bacon Rind at Big Sky, and Ulery's Trace and Ram's Glade at Moonlight. To me, zipping through a white-blanketed forest, with a bright winter sun casting dappled shadows through the branches and big pillows of snow dropping from the boughs, is the distilled essence of what skiing ought to be.You're on Your Own
It's a good thing that there's so much skiing to do at the Big Sky/Moonlight Basin complex, because the two areas don't have a lot to offer other than their massive ski hill.
Big Sky has shopping, restaurants and nightlife 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.
At the base of Big Sky, you owe it to yourself to stop at Chet's Bar to get a feel for the resort's beginnings (or to play a few hands of poker). There's a Montana beef restaurant, the Peaks, and an Asian bistro if you crave after-ski Chinese, plus a few smaller bars and cafes. Big Sky also has free movie nights and fireworks shows to keep the kids entertained.
The base area of Moonlight Basin is essentially one big lodge surrounded by a series of attractive log homes you can rent for a night or a week. With the possible exception of a couple of super-deluxe resorts in Japan, Moonlight Lodge is the most attractive ski-area base lodge I've ever seen. It looks like the lobby of a five-star resort hotel, with a huge stone fireplace rising to a tall, wood-beamed ceiling. Big, sun-filled windows overlook the slopes. And yet it's open to everybody, and makes a lovely place to hang out before, during and after the ski day.
The Moonlight Lodge has a terrific upscale restaurant, the Timbers, a deli for lunch or breakfast, and a rustic bar featuring an excellent selection of Montana microbrews. It has a spa facility with an indoor-outdoor heated pool.
And that's about it. Unless you're up for the 70-minute drive to Bozeman and its collection of cowboy bars, there's simply not much to do after a day on the slopes.
If you're going to Lone Mountain for the week, it would make sense to take a day off skiing and head an hour south to the west gate of Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone in winter -- with elk, bison and eagle abundant and those furious geysers gushing white steam into the winter air -- is even more fantastic than Yellowstone in summer. My personal advice would be to avoid the snowmobile tour, which is without doubt the noisiest, coldest and smelliest way to see the park. Cross-country skiing or snowshoeing is vastly better. Or you can take one of the "snowcoaches" -- basically, a bus mounted on tank treads -- that glide slowly and silently across the rolling dunes of snow.
If you spend a week skiing the two-peak Lone Mountain pass, you're probably going to need that day off on the snowcoach. When you get back to the resorts, there will still be countless runs left to explore on the biggest single-ticket expanse of ski terrain this country has to offer.
T.R. Reid, The Post's Rocky Mountain bureau chief and author of "Ski Japan," has ridden his skis and snowboard at the biggest resorts on three continents.