sun sets behind Lone Mountain in Big Sky, Montana.
SKY, Mont. ó This place is absurdly misnamed. Thatís
not a complaint, but it does require an asterisk.
you want truly big sky, head east of here, to the flatter,
slightly more mundane plains of this state (or, say,
eastern Colorado, Wyoming or the Dakota of your choice).
In those leveler places, the sky travels from the infinity
at your left to the infinity at your right. Now thatís
some big sky.
the southern Montana region known as Big Sky, the sky,
curiously, is much smaller ó and thatís a good thing.
Montanaís version of Big Sky is a wild and stirring
pocket of mountains, pines, wildlife and recreation that
comes in many forms. In winter, thatís principally
skiing on peaks with so much acreage and elevation that
the town has trademarked the slogan, "biggest skiing
summer, when I visited, Big Sky recreation becomes an even
broader palette of adventure: hiking, hunting,
mountain-biking, zip-lining, fly-fishing,
horseback-riding, rafting and golfing among them. Tucked
between Yellowstone and the handsome brick town of
Bozeman, Big Sky is about clean air, active spirit and
embracing the West. Itís just not about big sky. Too
many peaks and pines for that.
divide Big Sky into three areas. Down low is "the
canyon," where U.S. Highway 191 snakes past
old-school steakhouses, ranches and the sparklingly clear
Galatin River, where fly fishermen are likely to be
casting for trout on a summerís afternoon.
up the mountain, and you come to "the meadow," a
grassy plain where much of Big Skyís commerce exists. It
is strangely split into two little villages separated by
about half a mile, but the intention is that theyíll be
farther up, you reach "the mountain," which
essentially is a garden-variety ski village that includes
one of the local highlights: a tram to Lone Peakís
perfect 11,166-foot-high triangular point.
dinner one night at Olive Bís, a new bistro that had
locals excited, my waitress, who was drifting through Big
Sky after stops in Maine and Hawaii, explained that there
are meadow people and mountain people. We were in the
donít really come down here," she said, "and I
donít really go up there."
was funny, because the mountain and the meadow sit just a
few miles apart. But the meadow has most of the makings of
a town growing so fast that it needed to open a high
school in recent years. Add to that a Chinese restaurant,
a Thai restaurant, a pizza place, a brewery, a few banks,
a movie theater, a liquor store and a couple of small
grocery stores. Big Sky is so cozy that on my second day,
when another visitor asked me the location of the liquor
store, I could tell him exactly.
winter is the busier tourism season, Big Sky is
increasingly embracing summerís possibilities. That
includes a stop from the Professional Bull Riders in
August, outdoor concerts on Thursdays (this summer
includes The Beach Boys) and a farmers market on
Wednesdays. The day I visited, a table of air guns made to
look like semi-automatic weapons sat beside an array of
homemade amaretto brownies, which sat beside antlers that
were being recast as jewelry or dog toys. It all felt like
pristine Montana ó though it wasnít that pristine.
fed?" someone asked the guy selling tri-tip steak
sandwiches at the farmers marker.
itís Costco," he said.
a visit to Big Sky, your best bet is to experience some of
the canyon, some of the meadow and a bit of the mountain.
I spent my nights in the canyon, at 320 Ranch, a
collection of duplex cabins where my neighbors were some
Colorado cowboys whose boots clip-clopped across their
wood porch. Several of the cabins face the river (though
that means they also face the road). Like any
self-respecting ranch, it also offers meaty meals and
daily horseback rides.
I told the folks at the small Big Sky tourism office that
I wanted to check out some hiking, they asked if I was
more of a flower or wildlife kind of guy. Wildlife I told
them; Iíd rather watch things move and graze and look
back at me. Their next question was whether I had bear
ó black and the attention-getting grizzlies ó are a
very real part of life here, all the way down to the
desserts made to look like bear claws. A waiter at the
pizza place suggested I leave my leftover slices outside
my hotel room for keeping when I told him my room didnít
have a refrigerator. It made sense, considering that at
7,000 feet, temperatures drop to the upper 30s at night
even in summer.
wouldnít a bear come find it?" I asked.
that I just rode by one on my dirt bike going through
someoneís trash, yeah," he said.
realities like that that lead most everyone to carry the
bear spray thatís for sale at every nearby outfitter and
hardware store. Not only did I track down some bear spray
before heading out on a favorite local hiking trail called
Beehive Basin, I sang aloud to alert any bears of my
presence as long as I was hiking alone. Which was until I
ran into Joe Gretzula, 55, a dermatologist who splits his
time between Big Sky and Palm Beach, Fla. He told me I was
doing things all wrong.
bear spray was in the external pocket of my back pack. Got
to have it on your hip, he said, or at least chest strap.
want it in front," he said. "Thatís the
biggest mistake people make."
it better fortune to see a bear or not see a bear
here?" I asked.
on how close you are," he said.
climbed for another hour or so to one of the most idyllic
scenes Iíve ever reached on foot: a meadow sitting high
above the land we left below. An alpine lake sat in the
center of the meadow, and at its end stood tall, jagged
mountainous teeth. The crowd, on a sun-dappled summer
afternoon, was made up of locals.
some rocks above the lake, I met Sandy Eggers, 65, who has
split her time between Memphis and Big Sky (there are many
part-time residents) for 13 years. I remarked on all the
new construction and the new businesses down in the meadow
and asked if the place felt bigger even though it remains
relatively cozy. Big Sky was indeed getting bigger, she
said, but it still felt manageable.
are more buildings," she said, "but it doesnít
feel more crowded."
sky, she added, still felt plenty big.
THERE: Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, an hour
north of Big Sky, is served by airlines that include
United, Delta and Frontier. Many people will find
themselves in Big Sky as part of a Western road trip that
includes Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and
whatever other Western destinations move them ó which is
Olive Bís (Meadow Village Center, 151 Center Lane,
406-995-3355, olivebsbigsky.com) is a newer bistro and
widely considered the finest meal in Big Sky. Ousel and
Spur (50 Ousel Falls Road, 406-995-7175,
ouselandspurpizza.com), a pizza place, is a recent
addition and offers tasty, fresh pizza. Buckís T-4
(46625 Gallatin Road, 406-995-4111, buckst4.com) serves
classic "Montana food," including elk and trout.
Ranch options include 320 Guest Ranch (205 Buffalo Horn
Creek Road, Gallatin Gateway; 406-995-4283; 320ranch.com)
and Lone Mountain Ranch (750 Lone Mountain Ranch Road,
406-995-4644, lonemountainranch.com). Buckís T-4 also
has rooms. Ski areas Big Sky Resort (1 Lone Mountain
Trail, 406-995-5000, bigskyresort.com) and Moonlight Basin
(66 Mountain Loop Road, 406-993-6000, moonlightbasin.com)
have rooms available during summer.
Summer activities in Big Sky are nearly endless, and
include hiking, fishing and horseback-riding. During
summer the town offers a farmers market on Wednesdays and
free outdoor concerts on Thursdays. There are several
memorable hikes, including Ousel Falls (which basically is
in town) and Beehive Basin, which is a ride up the
mountain. The west gate of Yellowstone is just an hour
away. In winter, locals boast of the short lift lines at
both ski resorts.