What’s the biggest ski area in the United States?
It’s none of the familiar places. The area with the most skiable acreage, as of last winter, is Montana’s Big Sky Resort.
That’s good for bragging rights. But I wasn’t going to Montana solely for the downhill skiing. I’m greedy. I like all types of skiing. I want epic downhill, champagne powder, perfect cross-country, pristine backcountry. Add a historic gourmet lodge, and the list of destinations where you can have it all is decidedly short.
I had a hunch that the greater Big Sky area might make that elite list, not just because it has a super-size ski mountain, but because it has what I like to call Big Ski. That is, world-class skiing of every variety.
First, there’s location: Big Sky is perched on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, a 2.2 million acre swathe of wilderness that is home to most of the world’s geysers and is among the most popular national parks. Yellowstone attracts 2 million visitors a year, but few come in winter. Just knowing that I could ski in solitude in Yellowstone was enough to lure me.
Then, there is the singular quality of the ski terrain on Lone Peak, the improbable Matterhorn look-alike that is home to Big Sky Resort. It has a reputation as a big mountain playground, featuring steep bowls, sinewy couloirs, and a 4,350-foot vertical drop. Add that to the glades and intermediate open bowls, and there’s something for every taste.
Finally, there is Lone Mountain Ranch, the gourmet lodge and cross-country ski center in Big Sky that has been voted the number one Nordic ski resort in North America by Cross-Country Skier magazine.
My wife, Sue, and I spent a week at Lone Mountain Ranch earlier this year to experience Big Ski in Big Sky. This winter marks Lone Mountain’s 100th anniversary. Established as a working ranch in 1915, Lone Mountain was operated as a dude ranch for many years. In the early 1970s, the newscaster Chet Huntley bought it, staying there while he and other investors built the nearby Big Sky ski resort. Successive owners have maintained the character of the lodge, where guests stay in cabins and dine together in a main building. A fly fishing mecca in the summer and a gourmet ski lodge in the winter, Lone Mountain Ranch is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Sue and I settled into Bullmoose Cabin, one of the original structures built from huge timbers that were harvested on the property. We sank into a rustic couch beneath a mounted elk head that faced a roaring fireplace. Outside, snow inched higher up the window panes. The Spanish Peaks Wilderness appeared to glow, fringed in the evening’s orange light. We marveled at this dash of comfort, tinged in fire and ice.
That evening, we met other guests at a wine and cheese orientation. There were individuals, couples, and several multigenerational families hailing from Wyoming, Minnesota, California, Vermont, and Canada. Our host reviewed the menu of activities from which we could choose each day. Choices ranged from skiing on groomed cross-country trails from our cabin doors, to downhill skiing at Big Sky Resort, backcountry skiing in Yellowstone, snowshoe hikes with a naturalist, and sleigh ride dinners in the evening.
“When we get to heaven,” I confided to my wife, “I hope the orientation is just like this.”
The next day we donned lightweight cross-country skis to head out for an annual event called “Glide and Gorge,” combining two of my favorite activities. It was a kind of treasure hunt on skis, as we skied around to find food and drink stations that were located throughout the sprawling 90-kilometer network of groomed trails.
To start our day, a shuttle bus transported us high up in the trails. Ski purists might scoff at this mechanical assist, but having just arrived from sea level, I was more than happy to ascend a few thousand feet of elevation at 35 miles per hour.
We worked up a strong appetite as we skied to the summit, the 8,300-foot high point of the Lone Mountain Ranch trail system. The dramatic pyramid profile of Lone Peak grew bigger as we ascended, forming a sparkling backdrop to our tour. At the summit, we stopped to take in the undulating snowscape around us and nibble on chocolate, a reward for our efforts.
After several hours of invigorating gliding through the trails, we arrived at our first food station. Twenty cross-country skiers milled about while sampling a sumptuous spread of salmon with gala apples baked on a wooden plank, shrimp salad, Montana wine, melted brie, and other treats. The table was staffed and restocked by cheery chefs and Lone Mountain ski guides who were decked out in fringed leather finery. After a hearty snack, we reluctantly left to ski onward to the next stops, which included desserts, liqueurs, and a barbecue. Snow began falling as we progressed, and we were quickly coated in fat wet flakes. By the time we skied back to our cabin, we were stuffed, well exercised, and feeling no pain.
The next morning, we were joined by guides from Lone Mountain Ranch for a trip into Yellowstone. In the town of West Yellowstone, we traded our wheeled vehicle for a snow coach — a heated, enclosed bus on treads that rumbles along the park’s snow-covered roads at about 30 miles per hour. Our snow coach would stop periodically for what locals affectionately refer to as “bison jams” — where Yellowstone’s fearless bearded buffalo take over the main thoroughfares and dictate the speed of travel for everyone else. It was one of many humbling indicators that humans are mere guests in this wild place.
After an obligatory but brief stop at Old Faithful — in winter, the world’s most famous geyser is obscured by a thick fog cloud — we donned skis to glide 2 miles alongside the Firehole River to Lone Star Geyser. We emerged from a tunnel of trees into a steamy red-and-brown basin with 10-foot-tall Lone Star Geyser spewing, steaming, and hissing as if it were a restless serpent. My sensation of being just another creature in a primordial landscape was cut short when a fierce wind suddenly lashed our faces and chased us back to civilization.
Dinner at Lone Mountain Ranch beneath the antler chandeliers that evening was the comfortable counterpoint to Yellowstone. After spending the day admiring the majestic buffalo, I couldn’t quite get myself to order the bison ribeye, one of the locally inspired dishes on the menu. Instead, the lemon foam trout with beluga lentils and smoked fennel was a perfect finish.
A major snowstorm raged through the night, but by morning, the sun was shining and the landscape sparkled as if sprinkled with diamonds. This meant one thing: It was a bluebird powder day. Sue and I quickly grabbed our fat telemark skis and jumped on the shuttle bus for the 5-mile trip to Big Sky Resort.
Last year, Big Sky merged with adjoining Moonlight Basin, making one interconnected 5,750-acre ski area over four mountains. Standing at the bottom and peering up at the 11,166 summit of Lone Peak, the ski possibilities seemed limitless. Loud booms echoed around the mountain as the ski patrol did avalanche control work, a reminder that this big mountain was not Disneyland and demanded utmost respect.
Sue and I headed for Stillwater Bowl, an enticing powder field alongside the lift, and dropped in. Snow billowed up around my waist, periodically smacking me in the face and taking my breath away. Sue’s wide smile quickly filled with snow as she was enveloped in cold smoke on each turn.
We barely had time to catch our breath when the news rippled through the liftline: The Lone Peak Tramway to the summit was about to open.
We boarded one of the first trams. From the top, we surveyed where we were. Below us lay all of Montana, buried beneath two feet of fresh powder. We followed our guide off the summit to ski a signature run, the North Summit Snowfields. I felt as if I were falling off the edge of Montana into a bed of soft powder. I continued bounding down the giant peak, waves of snow boiling up around me.
We stood at the bottom, gulped air and admired our tracks. Our quest for Big Ski was emphatically complete.