Montana’s Wildest Winter Resorts
By Sonja Stark
Moonlight Basin, Big Sky, Bridger Bowl and Red Lodge, in that order I braved the elements and skied my way through Montana’s wildest winter resorts, restaurants and races. My video camera did the lion’s share of the work capturing the charm and big-hearted spirit of some of the nicest people west of the Mississippi.
Fighting Fear at Moonlight Basin
Ascending my way into the spires of Montana’s highest, the skier to my right is wearing an avalanche beacon/receiver on her upper arm and the patrol team ahead of us is escorting a search and rescue dog to the top.
All around me are expert ski trails with names like ‘Hellroaring’, ‘Firehole’, ‘Dead Goat’ and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’. The safety of the Madison Lodge, with it’s massive warm stone fireplace and Moonlight spa are a far cry from the ominous skies looming overhead and the cold wind lashing my face.
What am I doing? Montana is no place for an intermediate skier from the backwoods of the Adirondacks.
Icy terrain and double diamonds are no problem but glades, bowls and moguls in Yellowstone Country… Who am I kidding? I’ve never been Out West and know only what I do from death-defying Warren Miller films.
A loud boom shakes the lift and my escorts, married couple Pat and Terry, legendary skiers in these parts, calm me by explaining the precautionary measures taken at every ski resort.
Avalanches are common in these parts and to prevent a catastrophe, percussion guns and artillery fire are used to produce controlled avalanches. The vibrations trigger smaller snowfalls that keep steep angles clear of dangerous amounts of snow. I listen carefully, biting my lower chapped lip and ponder my Last Will and Testament.
Our high-speed six-seater lift dumps us at the top of Moonlight Basin — too soon for my liking — and then I’m told to pick my poison.
I opt for a blue intermediate and push off. I’m scraping for air but this is an otherworldly snow, a light dry powder that keeps my spirits high and fears suppressed. In minutes my worries dissipate and I’m carving up trails and hurdling between vertical drops and rugged bowls. What was I afraid of?
My first run down a Montana mountain lasts over 15 minutes; that’s 14 minutes longer than back home in the Northeast. Of course Pat and Terry are keeping me safe from the true feats that other journalists attempt without me.
There’s plenty of time later for crazy antics and catapulting from high cliffs. Pixie dust is falling, a light and airy snow, practically injury-proof during my crashes. I bomb down the mountain on my own terms, overjoyed to discover the quintessential place for winter enthusiasts like me.
Wild Haute Cuisine
The Timbers Restaurant at Moonlight Basin introduces me to a Montana favorite; Moose Drool, a punchy beer that takes the sting away from my overworked hamstrings. It reminds me of the Grizzly Wheat Ale I drank the night before in a restaurant called Boodles in Bozeman. I washed down a juicy four-ounce piece of elk tenderloin with a cashew-crusted baked brie appetizer served with grilled apples and strawberry sauce. Delicious.
If your first impression of the landscape Out West doesn’t take your breath away, Montana’s specialty beers and exotic wild haute cuisine surely will. In a few days I’ll be biting into bison ribs and sharing bar shots with a wooly local. After a day of surviving unspoiled habitat it’s fitting to treat yourself to Montana’s best culinary delights.
Mother Nature’s Fury at Big Sky
Moonlight Basin shares an intimidating precipice called Lone Mountain with another spectacular Northern Rockies ski resort – Big Sky. A couple of years ago the two fiercely defended their bragging rights, but now that they’ve combined resources, they’ve developed 5,300 acres with 23 lifts, 220 runs and 4,350 feet of vertical drop – the largest interconnected trail network in North America.
Big Sky is consistently recognized in national ski magazines for its short lift lines and ungroomed reputation. It’s by far the most sought-out and high-profile resort in Montana and the number of runs that you can accomplish on a Saturday makes it feel like a weekday. I enjoy four hours of blissful descents with plenty of elbow room on 80 inches of semi-packed powder. But, the next day Mother Nature’s fury ambushes me.
Lone Peak Tram
The popular Lone Peak Tram at Big Sky, celebrating its tenth year, whisks 15 people at a time to the craggy distant summit. I’m told that the aerial views from the couloirs on the East face are spellbinding. I’m carting a backpack full of heavy and awkward video equipment for documenting. The pale windswept sky is dissipating and I’m hopeful that the mountains will appear, on cue, just like the buffalo, bald eagle and big horn sheep did driving up from Bozeman.
It takes a quad and a triple to get to the base of where the Lone Peak Tram begins. There’s a line of 20 experts looking like they’re training for the US Ski Team, double knotting up their hoods and adjusting their face masks. It’s much colder here than the cruiser paradise below and the tram operator lets me suit up my gear inside his balmy booth. Loud grinding gears and a giant cable wheel pull the pros up the last switchback.
Oh, curse this extreme wind! I need the proverbial blue sky and sunshine for award-winning video. Through the booth window clouds are forming thicker than my wool socks. A two-way radio sitting on the sill advises everyone that the tram might be shutting down early due to the blinding conditions. The news propels me into the cold and onto the last tram.
This is my first, last and only shot at capturing video from 11,000 feet. My company of hotshot riders look tense and numb as we climb to dizzying heights. The tram rocks back and forth and my stomach flips like a fish on dry land.
This part of Big Sky is strictly expert, and Terry and my new favorite writer from Emagazine, snowboarder Brian Howard, are braving the beast. Thankfully, I’m only documenting it.
The tram doors swing open and we scatter like stars toward the steep mountainside edge. I can’t see much past the swirling eddies that suspend thick flakes in midair before landing on the ground. I need my fingers free to rotate my camera lens but I have to act quickly before frostbite sets in. I struggle to find clarity amidst the low clouds and howling winds.
On a temperate day it must feel so liberating to watch the shadows of the distant Tetons of Wyoming melt into darkness. Today is not one of those days. The tram operators are getting anxious because Big Sky just officially halted all lifts and closed the entire mountain two hours early. I pitch myself back into the tram with skiers who decide wisely against the last run.
Back at the base of Peak Tram I try to contact Pat waiting at the lodge by walkie-talkie. It’s useless. She has no way of helping me with my gear so my only recourse is to fly solo the rest of the way down.
A tailwind is blowing so hard in my direction that I have to fight to keep from losing control. Before I know it I’ve skied between a rock and a hard place. Retracing my steps is not an option so I duck under the ‘Do Not Enter’ sign.
It’s rough going at first but a thousand beads of sweat later I’m back on a trail. I flag down a snowmobiler but he’s in a hurry to help an injured skier so I carry on without him.
Finally! A sign for Mr.K, a beginner run that takes me straight to Mountain Village. As I near the bottom the clouds break up and it’s sunny and bright and completely empty. It just took me nearly an hour traversing what normally takes five minutes to descend. I’ve earned myself a 20-minute respite in the Summit Lodge outdoor soaking pool followed by a delicious three-course meal.
Big Appetites at Lone Mountain Ranch
Skiers build up a voracious appetite plunging down the face of a mountain. Why else would they use nicknames like pizza wedge, eggbeater, hot dogging, corn snow and mashed potato to describe techniques and conditions? I’m ready to indulge in all those and a warm dessert at the Lone Mountain Ranch, seven miles down the road from Big Sky and Moonlight Basin.
Besides being North America’s number one nordic ski resort, the ranch offers year-around activities like fly fishing, wildlife viewing and horseback riding. I dine in a cozy log cabin with huge elk antler chandeliers illuminating a dish of pan-seared Halibut and baby bok choy topped with strawberry kiwi salsa. Had I arrived here sooner I would have had my choice of a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the deep woods with dinner and cowboy poetry after.
Cold Smoke Lingo at Bridger Bowl
My third day in Montana’s cold smoke powder and I’m skiing the wide open terrain of Bridger Bowl Ski Resort. It’s flanked by two large cirques or bowl-shaped mountains sculpted by a glacier to the north and south. I’m feeling maverick and follow my fearless press pack down long slopes, glades, chutes and gullies.
The fresh deep snow sprays out from under my skis and it’s like falling through clouds. Minutes into my euphoria I gain too much momentum, loose my balance and pull a yard sale. Poles go flying, skis crisscross and in slow motion I barrel headfirst into a feather bed. The only thing bruised is my ego, that is until I spy two other journalist jocks buried up to their necks not far from my sitzmark. Sitzmark – that’s skier lip for the hole left in the snow after falling in it.
As the day wears on, conditions get tough on the knees and rough on the arms but the atmosphere at Bridger Bowl is as comfortable to me as a worn-out pair of shoes. It’s welcoming, unpretentious and because it’s a not-for-profit resort, it’s affordable for big families.
Nobody’s bothered by neophytes wearing jeans and ’70’s straight edges and they don’t care that you haven’t had your 15 minutes of fame yet. I enjoy the purity of this sport a little longer and then when the light is just perfect I capture the sun-kissed conditions of Deer Park Chalet.
In the evening we’re off to enjoy a hearty dinner and a one-night stay in a small agricultural town called Big Timber. Terry wheels the SUV onto Route 10 which eventually meets up with a stretch of highway that Massachusetts drivers refer to as the Mass Pike.
I’m surprised to learn that I-90 extends from coast to coast. The scenery is beautiful, even in the dead of winter, changing from towering mountains to broad valleys to native grasslands. Staring out at 83 miles of relatively untouched tracts of land gives me hope that this is a state that values pristine wilderness and wild open spaces. Pat assures me that strict regulations are in place to control suburban sprawl. Snow capped mountains on the horizon nicknamed The Crazies offer more dynamic footage of rugged terrain.
Nancy’s own Homestead B&B
Inspired by a local woman wanting to recapture the rich decadence of the Old West, Ms. Nancy purchased the 1903 single-family home and reworked the second floor bedrooms with inspiration from her nieces and nephews.
She renamed the historical structure “The Homestead” and opened it as a bed & breakfast that accommodates up to 10 guests. Coffered ceilings, oak bookcases, French doors and fireplaces make up the parlor, music room and library.
Ms. Nancy dresses up the guest rooms with creative names like the Branding Iron, Prairie Schooner and Purple Sage Room. But it’s the special favors she includes; homegrown scented soaps and lotions, fast WiFi connection, and an delicious breakfast strudel by 7 am that keeps her loyal guests returning.
Terry and I agree to flip a coin for the room with the four-poster cherry bed and soaking tub, but as soon as I drop my luggage he scurries up the winding staircase and proclaims victory. No matter, the Northern Lights Room at the back of the house contains a relaxing hot steam shower and a beautiful Victorian marble vanity.
Big Timber NightLife
Clearly, Big Timber caters to fewer than 2000 people. As in my neck of the woods, Ballston Spa, New York, parts of the “The Horse Whisperer” were filmed here because of its scenery and remote beauty. There’s only one traffic light in town and even that doesn’t appear to be necessary.
I’m introduced to a large table of guests in an 1890’s restaurant/saloon called the Grand Hotel. The saloon has a remarkable collection of wild game trophy heads mounted on the walls and nearly as many patrons lined up at the bar.
After enjoying a spectacular dish of cashew and coconut crusted chicken breast I save just enough room for a local tap. Brian and I duck into an establishment across the street with the only neon marquee in town: The Timber Bar.
A few Bozeman U. students are shooting pool in the corner and the bartender requests I.D.’s upon ordering. I’m flattered, but I stopped carrying proof years ago and who would think the police would conduct raids in a tiny town like this?
“You’d be surprised,” she warns, and it’s back to the B&B I go. When I return with my driver’s license she treats me to an ale on the house.
Befriending the Barometer at Red Lodge
Sunburns and blisters are setting in as I squeeze my way into another set of rentals. This is the last ski location, Red Lodge Mountain Resort and the weekend’s Winter Carnival is in full swing, a cause for venting cabin fever.
Skiers are celebrating the festivities dressed up in Mardi Gras beads and fantastic costumes. Competition is fierce at the Cardboard Classic, a race of makeshift floats that go screaming down ‘Show off Alley’ with thousands of spectators cheering from the sidelines. The floats are designed strictly with duct tape, cardboard, glue and creative imagination.
At the starting line, the gun fires and the race takes off down the slippery slope. Pirate Voodoo, The Hurricane and a voluptuous set of pink bosoms come careening towards my camera. I pull away moments before they bounce off each other and crash into an orange boundary fence.
The makeshift Brothel Building doesn’t fare well either. It splinters into several hundred pieces yards before the finish line. These friendly folks have mastered the art of befriending the barometer with wacky outdoor activities and this is the most unadulterated fun I’ve had in a long time.
Following the float frenzy, a live band plays on the Bierstube deck for a jalapeno eating contest and a pinata bust for the kids.
At night volunteers on skies and snowboards parade down the face of Red Lodge balancing long torch lights in their arms. From below it looks like running hot lava flowing down the mountain. At 8 pm, a ten-minute fireworks show lights up the skies leaving everyone gasping for more.
Infamous Guest List
And indeed I find much more spending the night at the famous (or infamous) Pollard Hotel. This used to be a historical gathering place for gunslingers like Buffalo Bill Cody, Calamity Jane and John “Liver-Eatin'” Johnston, a man who rode horseback for 20 years to avenge his wife’s murder.
The cornerstone hotel faces the heart of downtown Red Lodge, a hyper frontier town with tales of bank robberies, shoot-outs and mining booms. The main street showcases art galleries, antique shops and a mouthwatering 1950s candy store called the Candy Emporium.
Ask the owner about the photo of John Wayne on the wall facing the register and you’ll learn all about the town’s reckless days of moonshine and prohibition.
The warm-hearted owners of the Pollard Hotel, George and Reena, dote on my every fancy – a room with a jacuzzi tub, a balcony overlooking the fireplace and a wholesome bowl of fresh fruit. After indulging me with stories of ghost sightings and odd behavior at the Hotel, we head over to the Bull and Bear Casino across the street.
A young and vibrant reggae punk band from Bozeman called “illsauce” attracts dozens to cram the dance floor. They play three consecutive sets and I’m struggling to keep up with their energy. Half past midnight I retire to my king size bed.
Early the next morning, I creep down the Pollard’s carpeted hallways, past vintage painted prints and gaslight-style wall sconces hoping for a glimpse of a shadowy figure. Nothing stirs but the bell hop preparing dozens of puff pastries for my early flight home.
Yellowstone’s Fabulous Four
Driving from Moonlight Basin and Big Sky to Bridger Bowl and then onto Red Lodge forms an ill-shaped ellipse on the southwestern border of Montana. Distances between resorts range from 45 to 200 miles or one to three hours depending on the route taken and the road conditions.
All four resorts maintain lifts until April 16 with Moonlight Basin offering free skiing after March 18 if a season’s pass is purchased for the following year. For pricing on lodging, lift passes and rentals check out the following links:
1020 Highway 64 P.O. Box 160040
Big Sky, MT 59716
Big Sky Ski Resort
P.O. Box 160001
Big Sky, MT 59716
1-800-548-4486 – Slopes
1-800-548-4486 – Lodging
Bridger Bowl Ski Area
15795 Bridger Canyon Road
Bozeman, MT 59715
1-800-223-9609 – reservations
Red Lodge Mountain Ski Resort
305 Ski Run Road, Box 750
Red Lodge, MT 59068
1-800-444-8977 – reservations
WILD HAUTE CUISINE:
216 E. Main
Bozeman, MT 59715
Peaks Restaurant @ The Summit
406-995-5000 Press 1 for Peaks
The Homestead B&B
614 McLeod Street
Big Timber, MT 59011
The Grand Hotel
P.O. Box 1242
Big Timber, MT 59011
The Pollard (ask for George)
2 N. Broadway
P.O. Box 650
Red Lodge, MT 59068
Lone Mountain Ranch
PO Box 160069
Big Sky, MT 59716
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