BIG SKY, MONTANA

Definitions Used in Resort Guides
Other Inside Tracks Articles

Published March 2002. This article does not reflect any lift upgrades or terrain expansions since then.

Terrain Difficulty

Yellow

Black

Red

Blue

Green

Var. Index

Big Sky

15%

22%

20%

32%

11%

72.0

Big Sky was founded by news anchor Chet Huntley and for 20 years it appealed mainly to low intermediate skiers and those attracted to nearby Yellowstone National Park. The construction of the Lone Peak tram in the 1990ís brought lift access to some of North Americaís most extreme in-bounds terrain. Big Sky now encompasses 3,500 acres, but the lifts and terrain are sharply stratified by ski ability. The lower mountain retains its low intermediate character, while advanced skills are required to negotiate nearly all runs from the Challenger lift or the Lone Peak tram.

 

Lift Serviced

Season

Percent

Percent

Average

Snow Conditions

Altitude

Season

Standard

High Mths

Low Mths

Maximum

Direction of Exposure

Range

Average

Deviation

GE 90 in.

LT 30 in.

Base Depth

North

East

West

South

Big Sky, Mont. 8,920

6,970-11,145

261

45

3%

18%

68

24%

38%

1%

37%

Big Sky resembles Jackson Hole with its long vertical and sunny exposure, but has substantially lower snowfall. Fortunately, the higher altitude and latitude at Big Sky result in better snow preservation than at Jackson. With normal snowfall and cold midwinter weather, the lower mountain terrain is usually well covered with packed powder snow from Christmas into February. In March good spring conditions can be expected around the base area at 7,600 ft., with only the backside of Andesite (Thunder Wolf and Lone Moose lifts going down to 6,970 ft.) getting very slushy.

Experts will have different concerns. 261 inches of snow is plenty for most ski areas, but on the steeps of Lone Peak and Challenger there will nearly always be rock outcroppings. While wide-open terrain like Highway and Liberty Bowl might open by Christmas, experts should stick to the highest coverage season of mid-January to mid-March to maximize skiable lines. Most of Lone Peakís terrain plus some of Challengerís faces south, so timing is key in spring. The top of Lone Peak will preserve packed powder for a day or two after fresh snow, but is then best skied midday or later. Lone Peak may be closed for safety reasons on cooler spring days when the snow remains hard.

At Big Skyís altitude and latitude snow preservation is superb on the quarter of terrain which faces north. These include the Ramcharger groomed runs for intermediates plus the Gullies and Cronís Bowl off the tram. From Challenger Midnight, Moonlight and Nashville Bowl are the north facing runs.

Lone Peak is about 2,000 feet higher than any nearby mountain and thus provides stunning views from the top, well worth the brief walk from the tram station for pictures. Lone Peak will always be closed during storms for exposure and visibility, but is otherwise not as windy as one would expect for an isolated peak. Temperatures are colder than Jackson Hole but not as cold as the Alberta Rockies (Banff/Lake Louise).

Terrain Type:

Cruising: The Ramcharger quad serves several nice cruisers of 1,200 vertical. The longer runs from Swift Current and the Gondola are quite flat, with a length-to-vertical ratio over 5-to-1. The south facing Shedhorn runs are mainly skied by a handful of skiers coming from Lone Peak, so they can have excellent corn snow cruising on sunny days.

Moguls: Challengerís most visible lines, Little Tree, Highway and Big Rock Tongue have Big Skyís best bumps. They are best skied midday as exposure is southeast. Liberty Bowl off the tram and the black marked runs on Thunder Wolf and Lone Moose lifts also have moguls.

Steeps: Lone Peakís rocky terrain confines skiers to a selected few lines, but they are sustained and memorable. Directly under the tram is Big Couloir, a dogleg chute of 40+ degrees for over 1,000 vertical, skiable only with patrol checkout, a partner and rescue equipment. Everyone else starts down Liberty Bowl, but the steeper open runs are first Lenin and then Marx, accessed by traversing left on Otter Slide. Both are about 1,500 vertical, with Lenin being slightly steeper and also providing access to the 3 Dictator Chutes. By traversing across Marx you reach the ridgeline overlooking the Lone Peak triple chair. Below you are the northeast facing Gullies, 40+ degrees for about 700 vertical with openings in two rock bands for added interest. After the first rock band you can traverse left again into the mellow by comparison Cronís Bowl and return directly to the tram. Skiers should be comfortable with the Gullies before considering Big Couloir.

Wide-Open Spaces: Tree line at Big Sky is around 9,000 feet. The only open intermediate terrain is served by the 833 vertical Lone Peak triple. The real wide-open spaces are Lone Peakís south side runs of Marx, Lenin and Liberty Bowl. These fall lines continue for 3,000 total vertical through scattered trees to the Shedhorn lift.

Trees: At the bottom of Liberty Bowl, Bavarian Forest is nicely gladed on skierís right for about 1,000 vertical. On the front side most of the terrain flattens abruptly right around the tree line. There are a handful of short steep tree shots beside the Moonlight and Midnight runs north of Challenger and around Rice Bowl under the Gondola.

Powder: Powder days are likely to yield a small number of very high quality runs. Skier density is very low, but lift access to the prime sustained fall lines on Lone Peak is limited. With high coverage Challenger can be a promising powder alternative. A traverse south from the top of Challenger leads to the Cache trees and with a short hike, to the A-Z Chutes. These runs all face south and are best skied in fresh snow.

Hiking and Backcountry: An excursion from Challenger to Nashville Bowl will give experts a view of Lone Peakís north side. The well-preserved Moonlight Basin is currently used below 9,200 feet by Montana Backcountry Adventures snowcat skiing, but future lift expansion is a possibility. Formidable rock bands are likely to prevent public skiing from the peak into this area.

Crowds: On a 3,500-acre mountain in a remote location crowds are rare. Skier density is very low and most lifts have little or no waiting. The conspicuous exception is the Lone Peak Tram, which only holds 15 people. On a pleasant spring day when you could walk on any other lift, the tram wait was at least 20 minutes all day and peaked at 35 minutes in mid-afternoon. On powder days skiers may have to choose between quality and quantity of fresh tracks.

Intermediates: Big Sky has always been a paradise for low intermediates. The more adventurous may be frustrated by the inaccessibility of the upper mountain. The easiest way off Lone Peak is 1,500 vertical of usually mogulled Liberty Bowl.

Novices: The easy runs are much longer than at many destination resorts. The Gondola, Swift Current and Southern Comfort lifts access gently pitched runs of up to 1,600 vertical.

Children: Big Sky is a good family resort. Itís very convenient with uncrowded runs, on-site day care and much of the lodging slopeside.

Other Considerations: Most visitors fly into Bozeman, about 45 minutes north of Big Sky. Some skiers will want to spend some time there to ski nearby Bridger Bowl. Itís a 6-hour drive from the nearest hub airport in Salt Lake City. The main entrance to Yellowstone National Park is 45 minutes south of Big Sky and is a big attraction to many visitors. Skiers should take note that Yellowstone is closed to the public during most of March.