Mon. Nov 28th, 2022

Skiing and snowboarding have surged in popularity in recent years, and the pandemic added fuel to the fire with a general increase in outdoor pursuits and active travel that further boosted the industry. Skiing’s season passes are cheaper than ever, family and multigenerational travel has also boomed, and the new work from home normal have all helped make ski towns much more popular winter destinations. But this has come with major downsides – record crowds, limited lodging availability, lift lines so long they become viral social media fodder, and lots of locals complaining about being overrun.

But not at Montana’s Big Sky.

Despite a wealth of good press and continuous coverage as “the next big thing” in skiing, the resort has managed to remain ahead of the curve on the ills that plague many competitors for two main reasons. One is part of its name, and part of its next big thing status, “big,” with so much skiing that it just never gets crowded. But other large resorts have struggled, and the second part of the equation is a massive long-term improvement and reinvestment plan by family-owned Boyne Resorts, one of the biggest players in the ski industry, which has owned Big Sky since 1976. Its biggest competitor is publicly traded, but Boyne has never been pressured for short term results or cost cutting, and has historically taken a longer term “better is better” approach with constant reinvestment across its ski and golf properties throughout North America, with the core belief that a quality customer experience will keep people coming back.

Big Sky is Boyne’s flagship, and the current wave of improvements are part of Vision 2025, a decade long redevelopment launched almost eight years ago that includes some of the best and most efficient lifts in the world, new and renovated hotels, a reborn base village, another new mountain village, a massive high-speed multi-station tram project, and much more to come in the next few years, directly and immensely improving the quality of the visitor experience.

I just finished reading the original edition of the iconic travel classic 1,000 Places To See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List, a New York Times Number One bestseller that launched a sea of sequels, spin-offs and imitators. The book covers worldwide Bucket List spots like Machu Picchu and the Great Pyramids, but also found the Big Sky ski resort worthy of an entry, and while it has grown in size and lift technology, surprisingly little has changed in its fundamental character during the 19 years since author Patricia Schultz wrote: “uniformly excellent conditions, vaulting Rockies views, and an average of only two skiers per acre – meaning lift lines are pretty much unheard of. Much of the annual 400-inch snowfall is the bone-dry talc that local skiers reverently call ‘cold smoke…’”

Big Sky is the nation’s second largest ski mountain at nearly 6,000-acres, with a towering 4,350 feet of vertical, and like the biggest, Park City Mountain Resort, this vastness has been achieved by combining two adjacent existing resorts into one. But Park City’s peaks are non-continuous for skiing, linked by just a single lift, while Big Sky is so fully interconnected as to no longer feel like it has two halves. It also has a smaller drive market and gateway airport, is not near a major city, and as a result, averages more than an acre of terrain per skier, a very luxurious number. According to Zrankings here at Forbes, it gets less than a quarter of the skier volume that the nation’s most popular resort, Vail, gets, yet it is significantly larger.

Big Sky’s mountain stats speak to the uncrowded experience – there are 300 trails, six terrain parks, and three dozen lifts, with a way above U.S. average annual snowfall of over 400 inches. The uncrowded aspect is further enhanced by the new very high-speed lifts, three-year-old 8-passenger Ramcharger and one year old Swift Current, the nation’s fastest 6-person chair. For an extra dose of luxury, both are heated and covered with bubbles – two of four bubble chairs at the resort – and have already increased uphill capacity from the base by 50%. All of that is before the opening of the upcoming new state-of-the-art tram.

The signature of the ski resort has long been Lone Peak, an expert mountain atop the resort that is iconic in skiing and known as ‘America’s Matterhorn’ because of the visually dramatic way in which it is set as its own intimidating jagged peak. America’s most famous and winningest ski racer, Bode Miller, recently moved to the area and told me that it is one of his favorite spots in all of skiing. Previously, Lone Peak could only be accessed by a small old tram with 15-passenger “bucket” cars that made it hard to access and generated the only sizeable lines at all of Big Sky’s three dozen lifts. This will be replaced with the new and much larger two-stage tram, first stopping at a new mid-mountain food and beverage complex with two additional restaurants and then continuing up to the summit, which accesses some of the most infamous expert terrain in American skiing.

“We couldn’t think of a more significant and emblematic series of initiatives to close out the transformation we’re accomplishing with the Big Sky 2025 vision. Coupling a truly world-class tram experience with the most architecturally thoughtful on-mountain food and beverage and Mountain Sports facilities will set a new standard for mountain communities in North America,” said Boyne Resorts CEO and president Stephen Kircher. “This innovative project will kick off an exciting new chapter in transforming the future of tourism in Big Sky and across southwest Montana, and sets the stage for planning Big Sky’s next steps.”

Another unique addition this winter is “Headlamp Night Skiing,” private guided night skiing descents with headlamps, something offered no place else in the nation.

Off the slopes, recent improvements include a totally renewed main base village, with far more in the way of dining and drinking options. The two main existing Boyne-owned base village hotels, the condo-style Summit and the more hotel-like Huntley Lodge were both just so extensively renovated they might as well be new. I first visited Big Sky about 20 years ago, then returned last winter, and the improvements were stunning. While the Huntley is not a true luxury hotel, it has large and very comfortable rooms, a full complement of bars, restaurants and spa, and by far the best location here – both properties are ski-in/ski-out with direct access to the main lifts. Boyne also has two other options, the Village Center hotel and Shoshone Condominium Hotel.

Last winter saw the high-profile opening of Big Sky’s first top tier luxury resort, a new Montage, but frankly, having experienced the excellent Montage Deer Valley, I was a bit underwhelmed. The hotel has a fantastic spa, but is a bit sterile, dining options are limited with the main restaurant so-so, and the location not great. It is ski-in/out but requires a couple of chairlift rides to get to the good terrain, and outside of skiing, requires a drive to get to anything else within the resort, including the cool new pedestrian retail, bar and dining village, Town Center. Big Sky is rapidly growing as a summer destination, thanks to its golf course, world class fly fishing, mountain biking and hiking, and I’d pick the Montage more for summer. Town Center also has its own cool new boutique hotel, The Wilson, which is part of Marriott’s Residence Inn brand but is distinctly non-cookie cutter and feels much more like the company’s hipper indie Autograph Collection, and has a very good restaurant. It is not ski-in/out, but has its own shuttle fleet.

The biggest lodging addition will be the new One & Only, another full-service spa-centric luxury resort which has a better location, opening in 2024 at the currently under-developed Moonlight Basin base area. Boyne also has several more of its own lodging properties on the drawing board, and at least one other major international hotel brand is rumored to be eyeing sites here.

In the meantime, the hidden lodging gem is Lone Mountain Ranch, one of the four top guest ranches in Montana, and the only one in the country located on the access road of a major ski resort. Offering sort of two vacations for the price of one, Lone Mountain has all the dude ranch bells and whistles, including horse drawn sleigh rides, dog sledding, an Orvis-endorsed winter fly fishing program on famed blue-ribbon waters like the Gallatin River, and daily yoga. All the Lone Mountain staff guides are also certified Yellowstone guides, so they can take guests on cross country ski or snowshoe jaunts in America’s oldest National Park, just 18 miles away, which is jammed spring to fall but nearly empty in winter. If you don’t want to leave the property, Lone Mountain Ranch has been named the Number One Cross Country Ski resort in the nation with over 50 miles of trails, which is just a staggering amount – plus 30 additional miles of trails dedicated for snowshoeing. The resort has just 25 one and two-bedroom cabins, all with fireplaces and decks or patios, plus a 4-bedroom home and the luxe contemporary 6-bedroom Ridgetop Lodge with hot tub, multiple decks and fireplaces, billiard room and commercial kitchen.

Lone Mountain is just 10-minutes from the lifts and close to Town Center. Like most dude ranches, rates are all-inclusive with meals, and also include transfers to and from Big Sky’s gateway airport, Bozeman. This in turn is the best served non-hub ski airport in the nation, and the 2021 addition of Southwest brought the total of carriers flying in here to nine, including all the major legacy airlines, with non-stop service from every corner of the nation.

Between the quality and nearly unrivalled amount of diverse terrain and the many lodging and dining options, Big Sky is hard to beat right now, and is just going to get better in coming years. It also accepts the global IKON Pass (Aspen, Jackson Hole, Deer Valley, etc.) so if you have one, you can ski for free on your visit to Montana.

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