36 Hours in Big Sky, Montana: Experience the “Biggest Skiing in America” at Moonlight Basin
by Mike Richard | January, 2013
On your initial approach towards the awesomeness that is Big Sky and Moonlight Basin, the first thing you’ll notice is the sheer size of the combined resorts. They’re almost comically large. The signs leading to the Moonlight Basin lodge check-in go on forever as though you’ll never actually arrive.
And it’s no surprise. When combined, the neighboring resorts feature the most skiable terrain in the United States – 5,512 acres of downhill terrain, 4,350 feet of vertical, 27 lifts and 220+ trails to be exact. There’s a reason they call it the “Biggest Skiing in America”.
Where wild panoramas, world-class skiing, rejuvenating spa experiences, and plenty of elbow room await.
Sure there’s world class skiing here, but there’s a whole lot more too. If you’re not interested in hitting the slopes or are just looking for a diversion from a full day of skiing, Moonlight Basin also offers a number of other activities such as snowshoeing, dogsledding, sleigh riding and of course, relaxing at the spa. What’s more: Yellowstone National Park is also only 18 miles from the resort. Needless to say, there’s plenty to do.
But with just 36 hours in Big Sky (the town, not the resort) area, here’s how I recommend you spend it …
Start your brief tour of the area in the small town of West Yellowstone. It’s only an hour from chic-chic Big Sky, but the two towns couldn’t be more different. The latter is like the adventure gateway to the west end of Yellowstone National Park. When winter sweeps in (basically every month of the year except July), every other truck is towing a mass of snowmobiles.
Save for the odd, but obligatory peppering of tourist necessities (yes, they have a Subway sandwich shop and, quite unexpectedly, an IMAX movie theater), West Yellowstone is an interesting town in its own right. It’s gritty, gruff and far enough removed from just about everything. In short: it’s authentic Montana.
Noon / Snowmobiling in Yellowstone National Park
Stop in to Rendezvous Rentals to pickup your snowmobile for a self-guided tour of the more than 300 miles of groomed trails next to Yellowstone Park. You’ll have the opportunity to witness amazing views overlooking Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Idaho and Montana and even to cross the Continental Divide.
Rentals start around $110 USD for a base model snowmobile (check the full rate list), but I strongly recommend splashing out on a sportier and much more fun ride. I pegged my Arctic Cat TZ1 well north of the posted 45 MPH trail speed limit and there was still plenty more juice on tap. I only eased off when the backend started to sway a little too much for my liking.
Believe it or not, snowmobiling is a decent workout (around 200-300 calories per hour) for nearly every joint and muscle in your body. After five hours of just trying to balance and stay on, you might need a nap.
(Bonus: if you have time before heading back to Moonlight Basin, check out the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center. It’s open 365 days a year and, even better, the bears here don’t hibernate!)
7p / Dinner at Jack Creek Grille
Hop in the car and head back to Moonlight Basin to check in and grab dinner at Jack Creek Grille.
The restaurant features an emphasis on local eats, including elk, local cheeses and beef braised in Montana’s RoughStock Whiskey. But if there’s one thing you have to try in Montana, it’s the bison. Bison burgers, bison ribs, bison beer (okay, I didn’t actually find that one, but I’m sure it’s in the works …). It’s beef’s leaner, much healthier brother.
With that in mind, belly up to the bar at Jack Creek Grille and start with the flatbread with sausage. For an entree, I highly recommend the (wait for it …) Bison Burger or Bison Short Ribs. The latter was juicy, tender and literally fall off the bone – no doubt the best meal I had during my entire stay.
It’s no surprise that there’s plenty of delicious beer – local and otherwise – on tap. That, and the incredibly friendly barstaff who all seemed to be having a great time, make for a fun, convivial atmosphere any time of day.
Stick around late for a night cap. If you want to be a big girl, pull up your belt buckle and opt for a local RoughStock old fashioned – complete with a fresh orange wedge and Brandy-soaked cherry.
Overnight @ Moonlight Basin
There’s an almost overwhelming selection of lodging options in the Big Sky area. They’re all unique and available in a variety of sizes and sleeping configurations. Many lodges at Moonlight Basin offer near immediate access to ski lifts and trails.
This is a true resort town meaning you seldom need to leave the area as virtually everything is onsite – groceries, shops, restaurants, bars, you name it. Budget travelers can save a little green by staying in a lodge with full services (kitchen, laundry, etc.) where you can eat-in right in your room.
The main lodge building is perhaps the swankiest of all. We were fortunate to crash in Penthouse 4, where the amenities list reads like the set of a Real World mansion:
Ski-in and ski out to both Moonlight Basin and Big Sky Resort from this exclusive penthouse that offers all the comforts of home in a luxurious setting atop the Moonlight Lodge. Spacious and professionally decorated, this penthouse suite features a gas fireplace, private outdoor hot tub, full kitchen with granite countertops, large central living area, and a washer/dryer.
With 4 bedrooms and 5 bathrooms, we almost needed a map to keep oriented. The master bathroom alone was larger than some apartments I’ve lived in. And it’s all literally steps from the main ski lifts.
Breakfast @ North Slope Deli
The North Slope Deli is an ideal breakfast spot before a day on the slopes. Conveniently located in the Moonlight Lodge, they serve breakfast and lunch daily with a variety of delicious sandwiches, homemade soups, and baked goods made locally by nearby Blue Moon Bakery.
Morning on the Slopes
It goes without saying that the skiing here is world class. What’s more is that Moonlight Basin is uncrowded and more affordable than many of the “big name” mountains and resorts.
Plus you’ll have access to (and plenty of room to roam over) more than 1,900 acres of pristine groomers, tree glades, and challenging steeps. Opt for a Biggest Skiing in America ski pass and you’re looking at 5,512 acres of downhill terrain. It’s staggeringly large! Adult passes start around $100 (USD) per day.
1p / Lunch @ Headwaters Grille
If you’re looking for a quick stop to grab a bite and head back out to the slopes or to the nearby spa, Headwaters Grille is a great onsite option. The restaurant offers fresh baked pizza, daily lunch specials, bagels, burgers, and post-ski warm-ups like hot cocoa and toddys.
4p / Massage @ Spa
The onsite spa offers invigorating facials, soothing massages, all-day spa packages featuring scrubs, body wraps, or you can opt for your own personal, customized treatment.
My massage therapist, Shelby, was professional, friendly, and gave an amazing massage. My 80-minute session literally left me weak in the knees and even included a foot scrub (a first for me) which I’m not ashamed to admit felt fantastic. (Because real men like peppermint foot scrubs, dammit!) I stumbled to the spa reception desk immediately afterwards, barely coherent, mumbling something about feeling drunk.
No doubt you’ll want to wander back to your room to sleep off the post-massage “hangover”. But don’t miss the indoor/outdoor pool! The entryway is just off the spa lobby and the combination pool/hot tub is open and heated year-round. It’s the perfect finish to your entire spa session.
6:30p Dinner @ Yurt
For your final night in Big Sky, reserve a dinner spot at the intimate, one-of-a-kind Montana Dinner Yurt.
You’ll meet at Big Sky’s Summit Hotel to board a snowcat for a quick, scenic forest ride to a private backcountry location. The yurt is lit with candles inside and out, and a wood stove keeps it all nice and toasty. The atmosphere inside is lively and fun with long, linen-covered tables providing guests an opportunity to socialize over dinner:
… hearty baked French onion soup and warm bread, followed by a tender filet mignon with peppercorn sauce (most say it cuts with a spoon!), garlic mashed potatoes, and fresh sautéed veggies, and finishes with warm Toblerone chocolate fondue with fruit and pound cake for dessert.
The entire experience lasts a little over three hours, during which time you’ll not only enjoy dinner, but have plenty of time afterwards to stargaze, go sledding, enjoy the live music, or just relax by the fire. It’s the perfect way to end a full two days in Big Sky, Montana.
Getting There & Around
Bozeman is quite accessible from most corners of the United States. Even better: in June, United Airlines launched a new nonstop flight between Newark and Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport. No matter where in the U.S. you’re coming from, you’re probably not more than a single layover away.
Rent a car at the airport and head to Big Sky where getting around is even easier because … you don’t have to. The Moonlight Basin/Big Sky combo is a true resort in the sense that everything you need – excursions, dining, accommodations, everything – is right onsite.
Disclosure: Vagabondish.com was provided a complimentary stay at Moonlight Basin in advance of this review.
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About the Author
Vagabondish founding editor, Mike Richard, is a Rhode Island native, professional web designer and travel junkie with an unhealthy addiction to backpacking, hiking and seeing the world. He enjoys knit hats, small, declarative sentences and speaking in the third person. His professional credits include "Woman's World magazine contributor" and having once been interviewed by Tyra Banks (seriously).