Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to ski resorts, size offers distinct advantages, from variety of terrain to off-the-beaten-path runs. For years, Vail Mountain has reigned as the nation’s largest ski area, but last fall Big Sky Resort, the understated ski area in southwestern Montana, leapfrogged its better-known competitor with the addition of acreage on a series of adjacent mountains, giving Big Sky boosters new talking points: empty runs.
“We don’t talk about being the biggest ski area — anyone can buy more land tomorrow,” said a resort spokeswoman, Sheila Chapman. “We talk about being the biggest skiing, offering more elbow room to every skier.”
Operated by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, Big Sky grew last July when it acquired a private ski area on Spirit Mountain, and mushroomed again in October with the acquisition of the adjacent Moonlight Basin ski resort, which had declared bankruptcy in 2008 and was picked up by its creditor, Lehman Bros. Now, the ski area comprises 5,750 acres, just edging out Vail at 5,289 acres.
If size isn’t its trump card, density — or lack of it — is. Over the Christmas-to-New Year’s holiday week, peak season, the biggest skier day drew 7,500 people, a relatively light total. Last year the resort tallied 370,000 skiers, versus Vail, which regularly gets 1.7 million skiers per season. Spread over three mountains, Big Sky’s runs range over 4,350 vertical feet, with 40 percent rated beginner and intermediate and the rest advanced and expert.
“A five-minute line is a wait for us,” said Dave Stergar, a middle school science teacher from Helena who owns a condo at Big Sky and skies 60 days each year. “We don’t have a popular city 40 to 50 minutes away with 2 million people who flood the resort. We’re a destination.”
The beginnings of Big Sky delineate its challenges. Unlike popular Western resorts such as Aspen and Vail, Colo., and Park City, Utah, Big Sky isn’t based in a lively ski town offering a range of entertainment options. Television newscaster and Montana native Chet Huntley, who died just days before the slopes officially opened, conceptualized the resort, about 44 miles south of Bozeman, in the late 1960s, and the first lifts opened in 1973. Tucked under the 1,166-foot-elevation Lone Peak, its modest mountain village is a compact collection of two peak-roofed, midsize hotels, a few chalet-inspired condo buildings and a smattering of A-frame cabins; an activity center where non-Alpine sports like tubing, zip-lining and snowshoeing are offered; and a series of bars and restaurants in two wood-clad, hivelike buildings.
Depending on your point of view, Big Sky’s location is a detriment or a gift. Travelers can expect to pay more to fly to the smaller Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport than a major hub like Denver. But the wilderness location offers one more appealing facet: proximity to Yellowstone National Park, 50 miles south. Outfitters shuttle Big Sky guests to West Yellowstone and back for park tours by snow coach that offer opportunities to spot bison, elk and coyote and to cross-country ski around geysers where steam clouds are amplified by the freezing temperatures.