White open spaces

Times Staff Writer

YOU wake up to a fresh handkerchief of snow draped over the mountain, 4 inches deep and as light as linen, atop a 5-foot base. You lug your skis to the lift. "Is it open?" you wonder, since so few fellow skiers are around. It's open. It's Montana. Get used to it.

This is the land where the circus doesn't stop, where skiing is an escape from the crowds and the traffic, where a ski lift doesn't have a line like Starbucks, 20 deep and a little ornery.

Talk about your sugar highs. Look at all that pristine powder, which swirls in the morning air like pixie dust. Big Sky Resort and neighboring Moonlight Basin offer creamy, six-mile runs where skiers and boarders can go 20 minutes without seeing another soul -- on the intermediate runs. On the expert runs, high up the hill, you can go hours.

Add luxe slope-side accommodations, 400 inches of snowfall annually and Yellowstone National Park just down the road and you have the ingredients for one of U.S. skiing's best-kept secrets, which, ironically enough, was the brainchild of a newsman.

A retirement project of NBC anchorman Chet Huntley, Big Sky Resort goes back less than 40 years. Huntley died in 1974, days before the ribbon-cutting. Subsequent growing pains were widespread. Sewerage lagoons leaked. Condos were built and immediately condemned.

Under new owner Boyne USA, Big Sky persevered and now boasts 150 trails on three mountains. A second, adjoining resort, Moonlight, opened in 2003.

The two operations have teamed up to offer a joint pass to 5,512 acres of skiable terrain this year. California's Mammoth, by contrast, offers 3,500. The two resorts boast 4,100 feet of continuous skiing from peak to bottom; Mammoth offers 3,100.

Ski magazine's readers' survey called the Big Sky area "God's country. A great place to hide away " and described it as "what Colorado was like years ago."

So, it's not just the mountain. It's the elbow room and breathtaking runs where it's just you and the squirrels.

What's the catch? It must be hard to get to, right? Or snooty? Or riddled with rabid elk and rednecks?

Well, they do appear to be selling off this majestic state one log cabin at a time. In Montana, the only thing more ubiquitous than snow is the blizzard of real estate brochures. But this is not a deal-breaker. This is merely the price of paradise. Montana isn't a state; it's a Larry McMurtry novel.

I didn't find any fatal flaws on my trip last winter, only some cautionary flares along the way. And pixie dust galore.


Big hill, little nightlife

FROM L.A., it takes about five hours to reach Bozeman, the drop-in point for the Big Sky area, with a change of planes at Salt Lake City or Denver likely along the way.

Welcome to southwestern Montana, where the handsome Bozeman airport looks like a ski lodge itself, cedar stretched across its high ceilings and a couple of fireplaces glowing.

Big Sky is an hour's drive south, along the Gallatin River, renowned for scenes from "A River Runs Through It." Fishing lodges and other small motels dot the scenery. Conifers hold their frosting like a cupcake. One right turn, and you're headed up the hill to Big Sky.

This, you soon find, is not Aspen. The brochures may boast 650 types of lodging, but it seems far less than that. Condo and town-house options are widespread, but single rooms are harder to find.

The village is less a village than an odd collection of rental stores, assorted eateries and T-shirt shops. If you've come for the apres ski -- the lively after-hours scene of clubs and partying -- you should have de-planed in Denver.

Don't fret. Instead, you have some fine choices in high-end lodging and one hellacious hill featuring the two resorts, side by side.


"The worst dining experience may be to walk into a restaurant loaded with nothing but tourists," I told a fellow diner the next night at Bambu Bar, a sushi bistro serving decent spicy hamachi ($14) and offering a good mix of tourists and locals.

"I'd say the worst experience would be for a tourist to walk into a restaurant loaded with nothing but locals," he said.

Of the two, I'd take the second.

After two days of stumbling around Big Sky and Moonlight looking for good grub, fancy or otherwise, I happened on the Huckleberry Cafe a few miles down the road, where the $8 breakfast turned out to be the most memorable meal of the week.

Help may be on the way. Big Sky broke ground last year on the first of several structures that will reshape the restaurant and retail space. It will include more pedestrian areas and slope-side work-play entertainment suites for you industry types who just can't completely get away. Phase One is scheduled to open a year from now.

Till then, turn your full attention to the great things this place has to offer. It's the snow, dude.


Fast and fluffy

IN Big Sky, the snowflake that just landed on your mitten probably started out as moisture in the Pacific Northwest. Zapped by the cold, dry Montana air, the flurries here land loose and stay loose, creating a champagne powder that makes winter skiing some of the best in the nation.

"It keeps its snowflake quality; nothing clumps together," says William Locke, professor of earth sciences at Montana State University in Bozeman.

Snow is a mineral, Locke reminds us, and its hardness depends on the temperature. By virtue of its altitude and daytime highs that are below freezing, the Big Sky area can maintain premium conditions longer than many Western resorts.

For the expert skier or snowboarder here, this means mind-blowing runs, chutes and snow fields on a fast, fluffy track offering many options.

This is premium skiing in a masterpiece setting. In the end, do you need the $79 Lone Peak pass, giving you the run of the two resorts in a single day?

Well, it is only 10 bucks more than the adult pass to Big Sky alone. Yet there's so much terrain here that most skiers will be content to ski one resort one day and the other the next. But for serious skiers who appreciate sweeping views of three states, the pass is one of the real bonanzas in U.S. skiing.

And for any skier looking for pure skiing, great altitude and little attitude, this shank of Montana offers all that atop what sometimes seems like your own private hill.

Lonely? Occasionally. Disappointing? Never.

Good night, Chet. Good night, David.





Schuss amid the hush


From LAX, Alaska, Delta and United offer connecting service (change of planes) to Bozeman, Mont. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $402.


Huntley Lodge, Mountain Village; (800) 548-4486, www.bigskyresort.com. Convenient, comfortable full-service facility at Big Sky, with spa services and children's programs. Doubles from $145.

Summit at Big Sky, 1 Lone Mountain Trail; (800) 548-4486, www.bigskyresort.com. Large hotel in the heart of Mountain Village, with slope-side location and heated outdoor pool. From $159.

Cabins at Moonlight Basin, 1 Mountain Loop Road; (888) 676-9977, www.eastwestbigsky.com. Handsome ski-in, ski-out cabins with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. From $310.


Huckleberry Cafe, 1700 Big Sky Spur Road; (406) 995-3130. Popular cafe away from the slopes. Big country breakfasts and lunches. Meals about $8.

Bambu Bar/Asian Bistro, Arrowhead Mall in Mountain Village; (406) 995-4933, www.skimba.com. Lively slope-side bar and restaurant offering sushi and Asian dishes. Sushi from $4.50; entrees from about $16.


Big Sky: Adults $69, ages 14-21 $49, 11-13 $39, under 10 free. Lone Peak pass for both resorts $79, 11-21 $59, under 10 free.

Moonlight Basin: Adults $47, ages 11-17 $35, under 10 free.


Moonlight Basin, (800) 845-4428, www.moonlightbasin.com, or Big Sky, www.bigskyresort.com, (800) 548-4486.

-- Chris Erskine

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