Snowboarding : Big Sky, Moonlight Basin

Big Sky is a serious skier's mountain near the summit, yet it has excellent cruisers closer to the base. An average of 400 inches of snow means lots of powder days.

If you find yourself at an uncrowded mountain, surrounded by stunning wilderness and polite Argentinians, don't be surprised that you're vacationing at Big Sky in Montana. It seems avid skiers and riders from the Andes have discovered a resort that many of us in North America have never visited. Maybe it's time to put this resort on your must-visit list.

From the moment you land at Bozeman's Gallatin Field, which feels more like a private rancher's massive lodge than an airport, you know you're in for a different kind of vacation. Here you can expect lots of friendly employees in cowboy hats holding open doors for you, a genuine laid-back atmosphere, spectacular scenery and plenty of challenging terrain.

Big Sky, with its impressive Matterhorn-shaped peak scraping the heavens at 11,166 feet, is a serious skier's mountain from the summit, yet it has excellent cruisers closer to the base. Indeed, the intermediate groomers are such a delight that experts who wear themselves out on the tougher terrain still have plenty to grin about as they swoop down the lower trails with friends and family.

An aerial tram with two 15-passenger cars whisks you up to the 11,150-foot mark on Lone Peak that gives you a stomach-in-your-throat close-up of the craggy mountain just before coming in for a landing. If you get to the top and find that the chutes, couloirs and steeps are more than you can handle, no problem—admire the views of the nearby Spanish Peaks Wilderness area and ride back down. Only 15 people per tram, so you'll have a marvelous feeling of privacy as you descend, either in the capsule or while attempting the steeps beneath it.

Big Sky attracts about 300,000 skier visits each season; however, they're all swallowed up by the 3,600-acre terrain. A big daily turnout is 4,000 people, meaning short lines for the lifts and roughly one skier per acre. With about 400 inches of snowfall, powder days are frequent and last much longer than the first run. Most visitors don't consider their vacation complete until they've spent at least a day in Yellowstone, only an hour away (see Other Activities).

The resort's 10-year master plan calls for more than $400 million in development, including a pedestrian-style village with shops, restaurants and conference facilities and more high-speed lifts. Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin, which border each other on Lone Peak, offer the Lone Peak Pass, a joint lift ticket that allows guests access to 5,300 acres and a vertical drop of 4,350 feet. It's a serious thrill to ride Big Sky's tram to the top and ski down the chutes of Moonlight Basin on the other side. The only requirements are that you carry a transceiver and a shovel, and get the ski patrol's permission. Oh, you can't go it alone—you must ski with a buddy.

Moonlight Basin, Big Sky, MT; (406) 995-7600
6 lifts; 1,900 skiable acres; 2,720 vertical feet (lift-served); summit elevation of 11,150 feet

Moonlight Basin is on the north face of Lone Mountain and first opened in December 2003. Since then, it's been adding new lifts, trails and amenities every season. In 2005 the resort installed the Headwater lift to serve steep terrain previously accessed only by hoofing it, and cut another 30 acres of new trails and glades. Skiers and riders will find a vertical descent of 2,720 feet that's lift-served. With the Lone Peak Pass interconnect lift ticket with Big Sky Resort, skiers and riders have access to 5,512 acres—the most in the US with one ticket. Moonlight Basin's first terrain park, the Zero Gravity Park, is located on the Runaway trail and has over 30 features, including boxes, rails, berms, tables, rollers and small hits. The resort offers ski and snowboard lessons. Child care starts at age 6 months.

At build-out, the resort will have 3,000 acres of skiable terrain and up to 12 lifts. Moonlight Basin owns almost 8,000 acres of land (from its original purchase of 25,000 acres) and its development philosophy is "Listen to the Land." In consultation with conservation agencies, Moonlight Basin is developing a master plan to preserve the area's natural character—from protecting elk calving habitat to maintaining overall biodiversity. Currently 15,000 acres are protected in perpetuity, and the goal is to have 22,000 to 23,000 acres of the original purchase in conservation easements, protected corridors and open space.

The resort's base area revolves around the very upscale Moonlight Lodge and Spa, which has four ski-in/ski-out luxury penthouse suites, and is home base to the two- and three-bedroom Saddle Ridge Townhomes and two-bedroom log cabins in Cowboy Heaven. The Timbers is the resort's slopeside restaurant. The food is good and the rustic lodge atmosphere with stuffed mountain goats clambering up the 37-foot stone fireplace is magnificent. Lunch is served here also; on warm days, eat on the large outdoor deck. For apres-ski, Timbers Bar & Lounge has a great outside deck in addition to its beautiful rustic setting inside. The lodge has a full-service spa, shops and an outdoor ice rink too.

Moonlight Basin and Big Sky Resort, which share terrain on Lone Peak, offer the Lone Peak Pass, a joint lift ticket that allows guests access to 5,512 acres and a vertical drop of 4,350 feet.

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."    — Robert A. Heinlein

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