Montana is a state that lends itself to superlatives. This July I attended a press trip to the Big Sky region in the southern part of the state, and I left with the distinct impression that Montana's sky isn't just big, it's massive, and its people aren't just sociable, they're some of the friendliest folks in the world. The warmth of Montanans probably owes a lot to the tightness of the state's community -- Montana is roughly the size of Germany, but it boasts under 1 million citizens. (Berlin alone, by contrast, has about 4 million people.) But weather was another important factor for the general good mood: Everyone I met said they relish the state's short summer months, if only for the mere absence of below zero temperatures.
Although Big Sky is hard at work to spread the word that the area is a great warm-weather destination, most locals recognize that winter is still the main season here. In 2005, the two ski resorts in the area, Big Sky Resort and Moonlight Basin Lodge, merged their ski terrain and came away with 5,800 acres, making Big Sky the largest ski spot in the U.S. The majority of tourists to the area remain winter sports enthusiasts who recognize a bargain: the slopes here are some of the most varied in all of North America, and they're far less crowded than those in California or Colorado.
Because of its hype as a ski destination, Big Sky still feels undiscovered in the summer. The fly fishing, white water rafting, and hiking and mountain biking trails are all stellar but underutilized here. The region also has some exciting developments on the horizon, including a number of new spas and a new golf course. If these things don't convince you to visit, Yellowstone should. Big Sky is only 48 miles from the national park, and it makes a great base if you don't feel like roughing it at a campsite. And then there are the sunsets. For a city dweller like me, these alone made the trip worth it.
The following is a suggested itinerary for your own relaxing summer weekend in Big Sky:
Big Sky Resort (P.O. Box 160001; tel. 800/548-4486; www.bigskyresort.com) has all the amenities you'd expect from a large ski lodge -- from mountain biking rentals to spa treatment rooms to multiple conference centers -- and it offers a range of affordable accommodations. Yet I recommend splurging a little and staying at the cozier Moonlight Basin Ranch (P.O. Box 160040; tel. 877/822-0430; www.moonlightbasin.com) since they offer amazing deals in the off-season. For $1,010 a night, you can split a penthouse suite including four stylishly decorated rooms and a loft area, a full-service kitchen, multiple bathrooms, and private parking facilities. If you're traveling in a smaller group, two bedroom cabins are also available, for $285 and up per night. Rounding out the deal are an on-site full-service spa, a sophisticated restaurant and bar, and a soon-to-be-completed golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.
After checking into your new swank digs, decompress from your flight by visiting the Moonlight Spa (tel. 406/995-7700; www.moonlightspa.com), which is located inside the main Moonlight lodge. I tried the spa's Montana hot-stone massage and was so happy afterwards, I seriously considered investing in some massage stones to call my own. Since you'll probably be hungry after your treatment, grab some food at The Rainbow Ranch Lodge (P.O. Box 160336; tel. 800/937-4132; www.rainbowranch.com). I had the best meal of my trip here -- the owner really knows his wine, and the inventive menu, including tasty twists on ubiquitous trout and elk dishes, uses an abundance of local produce and game. This place also boasts a rustic 16-room lodge and a growing number of charming cabins with lake views, so it's another great accommodation option. The Rainbow Ranch is even planning on opening a hammam spa in another year, which means you'll soon be able to cap off your decadent meals with serious steam baths.
I didn't have a chance to tour Yellowstone on my trip, but it's certainly close enough that you can drive there early, tour the highlights during the day, and be back by dinnertime. Check out www.westyellowstonechamber.com or call tel. 406/646-7701 for details.
If you'd rather not head to the park, Big Sky boasts countless other outdoor options. This is the heart of fly fishing country, after all -- A River Runs Through It was taped along the Galatin River, which literally runs through Big Sky -- and you'll find a host of fishing operators to choose from. One to try is East Slope Anglers (tel. 406/995-4369). You can also go whitewater rafting down the Gallatin River with Geyser Whitewater Expeditions (tel. 406/995-4989; www.raftmontana.com). Just be sure to budget enough time to journey to the Big Sky Resort afterwards for a ski-lift ride up Lone Mountain (tickets are available through Big Sky Sports (tel. 406/995-5840). After you've been lifted 9,169 ft up the mountain, take some time to absorb the amazing view, and then get ready to hoof or bike your way down. You'll have about 20 different mountain biking and hiking trails at your disposal, and odds are good that you'll spot some deer or elk along your trek.
By the time you make it down the mountain, it'll be close to dinnertime. Buck's T-4 (P.O. Box 160279; tel. 406/995-4111; www.buckst4.com), housed in a former hunting lodge but now part of a Best Western hotel, is a great place for a hearty meal. Don't be put off by the restaurant's affiliation with the chain hotel: The food and service here are worthy of a three-star restaurant. The portions are also huge; I had a simple yet savory roast chicken that more than sated the huge appetite I'd worked up during the day.
Wake up early for a nine-hole round of golf at the Big Sky Golf Course (tel. 406/995-5780; www.bigskyresort.com). Even if you hate the sport, you can't help but appreciate the beautiful view of the mountains at this Arnold Palmer-designed course. At lunchtime, turn in your clubs and head to the casual American restaurant Whisky Jack (tel. 466/995-4543), tucked inside Big Sky Resort's Mountain Mall. You won't get more here than standard bar food, but it's a good spot for a quick bite.
Once you've finished your late lunch, I recommend springing for one last massage. Ozssage (tel. 466/995-7575; www.ozssage.com) doesn't have its own spa facility -- the spa instead sets up temporary digs in a number of locations, including The Mountain Inn near the Big Sky Resort. During my one session, however, I learned more about my posture and how to correct it than I have from any fancy massage parlor. If you can rouse yourself after their very soothing services, prepare for your evening flight home. It's bound to be one of the most relaxing flights ever.
Big Sky is about 53 miles south of Bozeman's Gallatin Field Airport (www.gallatinfield.com) on U.S. 191. Karst Stage (tel. 800/517-8243; www.karststage.com) can arrange transportation from the airport to your accommodations for about $35 per person round-trip. Since it's easiest to get around this area by car, though, I recommend picking up a rental at the airport. Alamo, Budget, Hertz, and Enterprise all have booths in the main terminal.
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