Big Skiing, Small Crowds At Montana’s Big Sky Ski Resort
For the past few years, Montana’s Big Sky Resort has been the buzz of the ski travel industry. New hotels, amenities, dining and retail have been added, flights to the Bozeman gateway have increased and the resort is two years away from wrapping up a massive, decade-long infrastructure improvement plan called Vision 2025. That includes tens of millions of dollars in new very high-speed lifts, and there are four bubble chairs at the resort, more than any place else, including an 8-seater and the nation’s fastest 6-person chair. The final phase is two-segment, top to bottom connection with a new gondola from the base that will connect to an aerial tram reaching the resort’s highest point, gaining 4,350 feet. The tram is expected to open next season and the gondola the following winter, but the improvements to date have already increased uphill capacity from the base by 50%.
Big Sky is huge, with nearly 6,000-acres of skiable terrain and depending how you count acreage (the ski industry has no standard), it is either the second or third largest resort in the country. Size matters in skiing, but what increasingly matters more to many travelers is crowds, and Big Sky has long been one of the least crowded major resorts. Even with the recent growth in visitation, acceptance of both the Ikon and Mountain Collective passes, and opening of a couple new hotels, including the luxury Montage (and the first ever mountain property from luxury operator One & Only is under construction), lift improvements have kept pace.
Last year, according to the National Ski Areas Association, the American ski industry saw an all-time record number of skiers and snowboarder days (60.7 million), and in the past few years, long lift lines and crowded slopes have become the norm at many resorts. This has become a social media hot topic and spurred countless complaints among numerous areas’ locals and visitors. But I skied Big Sky last winter and saw firsthand how it has remained one of the least crowded top tier destination resorts in North America. Yes, there are a lot of people at the base, especially on weekends, but the ultra-modern lift system gets them out of there quickly and then things really spread out across the huge resort. Even on a Saturday in mid-winter, we had trail after trail completely to ourselves, especially at the Moonlight Basin side of the resort, where the new One & Only is going. The biggest lines tend to be for the old, small tram to the summit of Lone Peak, Big Sky’s experts-only area, with extremely steep double black diamond terrain. But this affects only a small percentage of visitors and will be a moot point next season when the new, much larger, much faster aerial tram replaces the existing lift.
Popular formula-driven ski resort ratings site ZRankings lists Big Sky as the eighth best ski resort in the United States, which is impressive, but it should be even higher. It is larger than any of the seven ahead of it, and while Zrankings weighs acreage, snowfall, lifts and terrain quality, crowds do not seem to be part of their formula, and several of the resorts rated ahead of Big Sky – all of which are smaller – see more skiers, as many as three times the amount. 2020 was the last year for which skier visitation seems to be publicly available for Big Sky, and the Lone Mountain Land Company, which develops much of the residential and commercial real estate around Big Sky, reported that the resort had a record breaking 700,000 skier visits. In comparison, smaller Vail had over 2 million, but comes in fifth on the Zrankings list.
Vast acreage with low skier density is what Big Sky is most famous for, but the skiing is also excellent, with plenty of terrain for every ability, from beginners to the most extreme experts, with glades, bumps and more, and not every large resort can say the same thing. It also has a very varied array of lodging, from luxury to older condo hotels, and Big Sky is the only major resort I know of that has a full-service upscale dude ranch on site, Lone Mountain Ranch. Sitting right on the access road, guests are driven to the lifts each day, and a dude ranch is a unique lodging choice for a ski vacation. Lone Mountain Ranch is also home to what has been rated the Number One cross-country skiing trail system in the nation, and since many fans of winter sports, like me, enjoy both alpine and Nordic skiing, this is a wonderful addition that makes for a two-in-one vacation.
There are a lot of great places to ski and snowboard, and in my opinion, there’s no such thing as one “best ski resort.” But Big Sky makes a pretty good argument, combining one of the biggest arrays of terrain anywhere with short lines, lots of new restaurants and shops, and a fun atmosphere. Part of the joy of skiing is trying different destinations each year and seeing new places, and Big Sky is definitely worth checking out for an upcoming ski vacation.