Adventures in Montana’s “biggest” ghost town

Big Sky Ski Resort

The first thing you need to know about Big Sky Resort in Montana is that it’s bigger than ever.

Now that it’s merged with neighboring Moonlight Basin, it’s the biggest ski resort in the United States. How big? More than 5,750 acres of skiable terrain with 4,350 vertical feet.

Biggest skiing in America, they say.

The second, and maybe more important thing to know about it is that in mid-October, the only ones here to appreciate its bigness are the moose, the grizzly bears, and an occasional maintenance worker preparing this mountain resort for Opening Day on Thanksgiving.

Welcome to Montana’s “biggest” ghost town.

So what’s a family of five to do at a partially-closed resort, with not quite enough snow to ski on?

Well, we do what we do best — we explore! We found plenty of hiking options, a cool day trip in nearby Bozeman and more than enough breathtaking scenery.

I use the term “breathtaking” in a literal sense, too. Coming from Central Florida, which is at sea level, to an elevation of 6,000 feet will actually leave you gasping for air, especially if you try to chase one of your kids up the mountain.

Iden and erysse at the falls

Hiking and exploring.

A word of advice to hikers in Big Sky: if you see bear tracks along your mountain path, walk the other way.

Just the thought that a lone grizzly could be foraging nearby amped up our adrenaline. We discovered that energetic Broadway showstoppers — anything by Cole Porter — kept the wildlife away. But when you’re trying to ward off bears with loud noise, anything goes. Other animals you may spot include elk, moose and the small weasel called ermine. Up top of Lone Peak there’s a herd of elegantly white-wooled mountain goats you can see year-round.

Day trips.

Both West Yellowstone and Bozeman are about an hour’s drive from Big Sky. West Yellowstone is the gateway to the worlds oldest national park and it’s minutes from the legendary “Old Faithful” geyser or the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, with its open ranges dotted with wolf packs, caribou and what our six-year-old likes to call “Bison-Bison.”

Let’s be honest, you come to a place like Montana to encounter modern wildlife in its many forms and for that, Yellowstone is absolutely adequate. But a trip to Bozeman offers a completely different kind of wildlife.

It starts with a nostalgic drive along historic Main Street, with its mix of Art Deco, Italianate and Mission Revival architecture. The pioneer town has nine distinct historic districts with more than 40 properties listed on the National Historic Register.

Bozeman Museum of the Rockies

We took a drive on the wild side along South Wilson Avenue where Craftsman, Folk Victorian, Queen Anne and Colonial Revival style homes mix uneasily with frat houses from nearby Montana State University. (How wild is that?)

Beyond the campus and past the Bobcat’s football stadium, we found the Museum of the Rockies, a fossil depository for ancient wildlife that once roamed the plains. Though the geology and ancient artifacts of the area are the emphasis of the collection – and the dinosaur bones are wicked awesome – we found the Yellowstone exhibit to be of greatest interest. Didn’t you want to know what Yellowstone was like before it became the first national park?

And you thought the grizzlies were terrifying.

Look! Mountains!

Even if you don’t go anywhere, there’s plenty to see. Pale-faced Lone Mountain, the dominant snow-covered peak at Big Sky Resort, puts on a remarkable show every morning, slowly shifting from its pre-dawn blue-white to early-morning pink. It’s especially dramatic as the moon phase shifts from full to waning gibbous. Then you have the added startling vision of cold moon just above the shifting colors on the mountaintop.

Frost-drenched grasses along the steaming Gallatin River create another haunting early morning vision. Highway 191 races alongside the Gallatin’s rapids, whose golden-leaved tree lined banks contrast richly with the deep green conifers and steely grays boulders reaching above the valley. Simply the colors of autumn are enough to steal your breath, but the dramatic effect of the steaming waters and sparkling ice-glazed straw at first light are truly awe-inspiring.

Our family prefers to visit parks out of season for the very reason many people avoid them. Simply put, there’s not a lot going on.

We don’t mind the limited restaurant hours, boarded up shops, endless quiet, empty roads or lack of other visitors. It simplifies the experience, reducing distractions. We’re happy to commune with nature, fire up the grill at our vacation rental and take advantage of the plentiful wildlife in all its forms.

That was especially easy to do in the weeks before ski season opens at the “biggest” ghost town in Montana.

Lone Peak Dawn Moon