Stay Here - Eat Here - See This: Big Sky, Montana
Big Sky, Montana.
One of the most breathtaking places in the Rockies. Next to world-class fly fishing in the Gallatin River. Only 45 minutes from Bozeman -- a classy college town with everything from cowboy bars to caviar. And home to one of the biggest, most diverse, and most iconic ski areas in North America.
Maybe most importantly, the Yellowstone Dutton Ranch is supposed to be close by. We've never seen it, though.
As for what you can see, a quick search for Big Sky always returns an image of Lone Peak - a majestic single peak towering over 11,000' in the air that watches down over Big Sky Resort.
The shape and beauty of Lone Peak gets it featured in plenty of national advertising, too. Most recently, a big Hyundai campaign featured lots of footage of the beautiful mountain.
But is there more to this place than just its scenery? As they say in Big Sky Country - you betcha!
In this edition of Stay Here - Eat Here - See This, we'll show you the best way to experience Big Sky during ski season. We'll show you how to do it up like a seasoned local so you don't waste time or money but still have the most fun.
When looking at places to stay in Big Sky, you have to ask yourself two things - How much do I want to spend and what experience do I want to have?
If you want the quiet, beautiful solitude of a huge ski area that's yet to be overrun with out-of-towners, then staying near Big Sky is your ticket. But, with the popularity of the Bozeman/Big Sky area growing quickly due to the show Yellowstone, even humble accommodations near the ski area have gotten crazy expensive.
For our buck, we like to stay in Bozeman and drive to Big Sky to ski. For a world class ski area with the most varied and fun terrain you could ask for, Big Sky doesn't offer many aprés ski options and they close fairly early compared to a lot of ski towns.
The restaurants and bars are just so-so, unless you're shelling out big money to be at one of the new resort clubs. For a couple thousand bucks a night and up, we've yet to try any of those ourselves. They're probably great. Who knows?
What we do know is Bozeman is a little city with a TON to offer. Of course I'm biased because I went to Montana State University in Bozeman, but the city has changed so much since I left 18 years ago.
When I do go back, I always look for an airbnb near main street downtown. Bozeman's main street is full of good shopping, ski stores, great restaurants, and a huge array of bars and lounges. It's very walkable if you stay near downtown and you can even get away with rocking the boots with the fur -- it's that kind of place.
Check out this house that's available to rent right near the heart of downtown Bozeman:
You'll have enough space to spread out and let your ski gear dry, but also have a full kitchen if you're into cooking. If you'd rather go out for the night, you can get the college lifestyle just steps from the house. Plenty of bars are open til 2am, and even a few restaurants serve food til closing time.
There's also plenty of more mature options if you're not into the college scene, and they're right there in downtown Bozeman as well.
For the price and the location, downtown Bozeman is where you want to be.
The classic conundrum of "where do we eat" is one of the biggest questions vacationers have. Do you trust Yelp's reviews (it's been rumored that many of them are paid or fake). Do you trust Google reviews? Do you ask the guy working at the gas station?
We are huge fans of food tourism. I love to try locally famous spots everywhere I go, but it can be a crapshoot going with an unconventional choice.
Downtown Bozeman has plenty of spots for breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as late night bites. Bozeman is even known to be a breakfast town, with dozens of great morning options throughout the city.
Honestly, I've never had a bad breakfast in Bozeman, so any place downtown gets my vote. Just plan on getting there early and/or waiting a few minutes for a table. Also, ask your server what they recommend on the menu -- it's the best way to get something memorable and worthwhile.
Breakfast aside, Dinner is where my heart truly resides. I love finding an excellent cocktail and a mouth-watering meal after a long day on the slopes. Bozeman has everything from pizza to paté, and they do a lot of it really well.
If I only had one night in Bozeman, I'd end up at Montana Ale Works. This microbrew pub at the end of Main Street has been around for a couple decades, but it's still the same excellent beer and perfectly prepared food as it was in the beginning.
The food can best be described as upscale mountain pub, with a good emphasis on the upscale in terms of quality -- but the prices are still very reasonable. You'll find everything from grass-fed burgers with wild mushrooms to elk steaks and rainbow trout.
Sound too fancy? It's really not -- and that's what I love about it. I lived in Bozeman for quite awhile and have been back quite a few times since, and I still haven't been to an event that called for anything fancier than jeans and a flannel shirt.
That's what Bozeman is. An old cowboy town with some serious modern frills, but never too serious of an attitude. The only time you need to really get serious and make sure you're properly dressed is when the snow is flying and the locals are racing up to the ski area. That's the only formal event you'll find in town.
As for Montana Ale Works, with over 40 beers on tap, a low key industrial vibe and warm ambience, you'll get some of the best aprés ski you can find in the area.
After a great meal and a couple tasty brews or craft cocktails, you'll have the base you need to venture back down main street to check out any of the other cool spots along the way. Plonk is an excellent wine/cocktail bar (and probably one of the only places you can get away with dressing fancy in town, though it's not mandatory at all) that also has a killer dinner menu.
If you want to go to one of the (many) bars where Beth Dutton gets in a fight on Yellowstone, check out the Crystal. It's a straight up old school cowboy bar mixing stiff drinks and playing classic country jams.
Ok ok, I know. This post was supposed to be about Big Sky. So why not save the best for last?
Big Sky Ski Resort is MASSIVE. I could give you stats on all the acres and runs and lifts but all you need to know is it's huge. You can't possibly ski it all in one day, or probably even three, unless you're Lindsey Vonn at full speed.
But Big Sky has the most varied terrain you will ever find. From long, leisurely groomers to deep trees to vertical chutes, there's something for everyone. I gave up the extreme dream a while ago now, and love to have fun cruising at medium speed.
If this is you, and you want to experience something truly special, then you have to head to the Moonlight Basin side of Big Sky. Located on the very northeast end of the resort, Moonlight started as its own ski area about 20 years ago and was eventually acquired by Big Sky. Before the acquisition, it was a fully functional mini resort with very upscale amenities.
For me and my college buddies, that translated into sitting in a posh bar at lunch on a buffalo hide barstool drinking tall cans of beer. Since the acquisition, all of the luxury restaurants have been privatized, but you're not there for the cowhide coasters anyways.
The best thing about the Moonlight side of the mountain is its mystical feeling. It's sort of carved into this bowl side of the mountain and feels very private, while being part of a huge public ski area.
Everything on this side of the mountain is top notch - from multi-million dollar ski-in/ski-out chalets to high speed lifts. The best part is there's even fewer people over here than there are at the already calm main resort area.
The ski runs are long and meandering, though not to be confused with slow or too easy. They offer just the right amount of challenge, tons of options to explore, and all the natural rollers you can handle. There's also a great beginners area and kids school, too.
Lift lines are nearly non-existent in the Moonlight area, especially as you get higher up the mountain. You can spend all day making laps and seeing something new every time, just by taking a different fork in the run. The best part is, if you do happen to see it all, there's still much more to see on the main resort.
One last thing worth mentioning is that it is a bit of a hairy drive from Bozeman to Big Sky in the winter. Some people want to stay at Big Sky to avoid that drive, but if you've never been here, you need to experience this drive. It is simply one of the most beautiful stretches of highway on the planet.
The Gallatin River, regarded as one of the best fly fishing rivers in the country, meanders through the valley between Bozeman and Big Sky, and the highway follows it the entire way. The river rarely ices over due to its high flow rate, so you'll almost always see running rapids and stunning landscapes. You're also very likely to see deer and big horn sheep in the hills next to the road.
Again, this road can get a little dicey during storms or severe weather, but if you have some adventure left in you, you will remember it forever.
If you have any questions about visiting Big Sky or want some more recommendations, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. Don't let the journey pass you by, it's all part of the journey.