Big Sky’s the Limit

It’s a skier’s paradise in Bozeman, Montana.

By David Laskin December 14, 2009 Published in the January 2010 issue of Seattle Met

A sleigh ride at 320 Guest Ranch.

YES, TED TURNER and all manner of coastal slickers have descended on Bozeman, Montana, in the past couple decades and jacked up the prices. But the Boz Angeles crowd hasn’t changed the vistas of mountain ranges shouldering the sky in every direction, the lure of two heart-stopping valleys (Gallatin and Paradise) rolling south of town clear down to Yellowstone, the sound of fresh powder sighing beneath your skis, or the reliably extreme weather. Old-timers may grouse that wine bars and spandex emporia have chased the useful businesses out of the gracious redbrick shop-fronts along Main Street—but they’re as grateful as the rest of us that downtown remains alive and well.

My wife Kate and I have no beef with wine bars, so after deplaning on a wintery Friday evening we joined our Seattle transplant buddies Carolyn and Barrie at dark, packed, and jazzy Plonk on Main Street to strategize the weekend over Oregon pinot noir. We were itching to try our luck in the fabled “cold smoke” powder with both downhill and cross-country skis, to eat well, and to prowl around downtown shops and cafes.

By 9:30 the next morning, powered by a double cappuccino and frittata sandwich from Sola Café on the outskirts of town, we were standing in our skis in the sun atop Bridger Bowl surveying the precipitous panorama of evergreen and deep white. Imagine Snoqualmie Pass without the crowds, clouds, freeway view, corporate claptrap, and cement-like snow—that’s Bridger. It’s the low-key, glitz-free neighborhood hill for the luckiest neighborhood this skier has ever visited. Let me be frank: Kate and I are cautious, competent middle-aged skiers. But the instant we carved into Bridger’s packed powder, we acquired a hitherto unknown dash of panache, an unbidden conviction that our skis would do anything we asked. I’m sure the Montana Rockies have their off days—but every time I’ve skied around Bozeman I get the same magical boost.

Barrie and Carolyn had stocked their van with cross-country ski equipment in case we wanted to break up the day and spend the afternoon tooling around the trails that circle the Hyalite Reservoir, another local hangout about 18 miles south of town. But with all those nice groomed bowls and strips of powder lining the sides of the trails, it seemed crazy to quit Bridger. And anyway, we wanted to save time for downtown après-ski pleasures.

“A sound-as-a-dollar little city catering to its plump valley” is how Ivan Doig describes Bozeman in Heart Earth, an unforgettable memoir of his mother’s brief life set partly in the “horizon-bumping” Bridger high country north of town. Doig’s turn of phrase is as apt now as it was in 1945 when he was a scruffy tyke peering owl-eyed at Main Street from a barber’s chair. These days the wide sidewalks beside the dozen downtown blocks host a genial mix of students and faculty shuttled over from Montana State University at the south end of town, second-home owners in from their foothill spreads in what Doig calls the Montana Riviera, outdoor sports enthusiasts, and people who just like to stroll around a vibrant little city.

While Kate ducked into the enticing Girls Outdoors shop to contemplate the Kavu hats and Sherpani bags, I browsed the stacks at Country Bookshelf, a genuine independent bookstore with a good Montana authors section (big Doig display), and then ambled a few doors down to Vargo’s Jazz City and Books, an offbeat shrine to high-minded music and literature. Espresso and beer joints cried out for our patronage, but the day was fading fast, snow was in the forecast, and we had plans to spend the night at the 320 Guest Ranch, an old homestead-turned-cabin complex down in the Gallatin Valley. Prudence dictated driving the potentially treacherous road before dark.

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Skiing at Big Sky.

Image: Bob Allen

If you’re bent on putting tracks in the powder at the twin world-class ski resorts— Big Sky and Moonlight Basin —that loom over the Gallatin about 50 miles south of Bozeman, there are scads of accommodations more convenient and tonier than the 320 ranch. But we keep going back to those no-frills cabins set back from the main road to West Yellowstone because we like the creaky homestead feel, never tire of the view of the Madison Range soaring straight across the valley floor, and don’t mind staggering through snow ruts in the parking lot to reach the hot tub. We appreciate the fact that they welcome dogs—and we love the prices (there’s a sweet skier’s package that combines lodging with lift tickets at Big Sky or Moonlight or both). The restaurant’s nothing to sniff at either—herb-crusted elk or buffalo au poivre for those who majorly shredded; pan-seared rainbow trout for those who watched. 

Downtown Bozeman.

We woke on Sunday morning to a north wind, temperatures in the teens, and the promised new coating of snow—about six inches of powder so light you could clear it from the car windshield with a feather duster. Twenty minutes after breakfast we were shivering on Moonlight Basin Resort’s Six Shooter high-speed six-person chair as we climbed toward the 11,188 foot summit of Lone Peak that the resort shares with Big Sky. It was Barrie’s idea to ski Moonlight rather than Big Sky—diehard, seasoned skier that he is, he definitely made the right choice.

Big Sky has a lock on the name, the fame, and the lion’s share of the terrain (3,800 versus 1,900 skiable acres), along with higher prices ($79 versus $55 for an undiscounted adult day ticket). But the snow’s the same at Moonlight, and since we couldn’t possibly access all those snowy acres in a single day we figured we’d save a few bucks. Skiing blue routes and a few black diamond bump runs off the Six Shooter and Lone Tree lifts, Barrie and I rarely encountered a soul. Groomed, powder, tracked-out, crud, cruisers, bowls—it didn’t seem to matter—the runs were flawless. By quitting time a grin was frozen firmly to my face.

The grin did not quite survive the 7am Monday—morning flight home. But I have to say, I stepped off the plane at Sea-Tac with a little Ted Turner–esque swagger.

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