“No, that’s not true,” said the Lone Mountain Land Company representative. “The Yellowstone Club doesn’t have a satellite monitoring its ski area for intruders.”
I can’t say I’m not disappointed that, despite it being a scurrilous rumor, the world’s most exclusive and expensive ski resort doesn’t have a satellite, let alone a laser beam that strikes anyone walking away on its private mountain in southwestern Montana. But it’s easy to be fooled by the excess of “YC,” whose members supposedly include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake, and J. Lo.
Closer to the “YC” is Big Sky Ski Resort, where adjacent clubs Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peak open their doors to wealthy outsiders. Moonlight Basin offers luxury rental apartments and lodges, while the five-star Montage Hotel in Spanish Peaks has rooms for $2,000 and penthouse suites for $15,000 a night.
However, matching the lineup of luxury hotels of Vail, Aspen’s, or Deer Valley isn’t the goal in this corner of Montana — it’s the quality, exclusivity, and laid-back approach that appeals to a certain type of well-heeled, quiet American.
The big secret
Lone Peak (3,404m), dominates the horizon above the Madison Range west of Big Sky. Its summit is reached by a “tram” cable car, giving access to some of the most extreme panoramas and ski runs in the United States.
I experienced its most challenging terrain just below the summit with big-mountain skier Dan Egan, on his three-day “steep” route, culminating in a 430m-high chute down a triple black diamond-rated chute , with an entrance with a slope of 50 degrees: the “Big Couloir”.
When compared to Vail’s Back Bowls or Aspen’s Highland Bowl, Lone Peak is the most impressive extreme ski environment. Colorado’s luxury resorts are spread across high-altitude terrain but, like them, Big Sky isn’t just for those chasing vertical extremes. With nearly 6,000 acres of ski area and 39 lifts, it is one of the largest in the United States, with hundreds of named runs, from the steepest of chutes, to tree skiing, to the gentlest green runs; most served by fast chairlifts with well-maintained runs. In contrast, Yellowstone Club mountain has over 100 ski runs, but I suspect rarely more than 100 skiers a day.
When it comes to fueling a day of skiing, as is often the case in North America, the majority of restaurants are located in the lower reaches of the ski area. The exception in Big Sky is Everett’s 8800 Restaurant on Andesite Mountain, a fine-dining bar and restaurant with a menu that includes moose tartare. It’s not a self-serve drop-in: as one of Big Sky’s best restaurants, advance reservations are essential.
Seven miles up the road from Big Sky is another sought-after address, Lone Mountain Ranch, offering a “traditional Montana” experience. It may sound more rustic than the Montage hotel’s bowling alley and ice rink, but at $750 per person per night, the cabins at Lone Mountain Ranch are undeniably luxurious. The range of activities — from horseback riding to Nordic skiing on one of the largest trail networks in the United States — offers discerning guests peace and comfort away from the main resort riffraff. The food is excellent too, as my $200 Tennis Racket Wagyu Tomahawk Steak is proof of that.
Speaking of bears, a trump card in Big Sky’s hands, above Beaver Creek, say, is the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park in the winter. It’s only an hour’s drive and I rode a snowmobile to see the Old Faithful geyser erupt at the top – a sixty mile round trip, but absolutely worth it, especially for those of us who enjoy a day free from sliding downhill.
A bright future
About 320 miles west of Big Sky in nearby Idaho is Sun Valley. From Big Sky, my journey traversed the classic western terrain of endless straight roads, sage plains, distant mountains, and historic site markers of pioneer routes to the Rockies.
Clint Eastwood shot the movie Pale Rider in the Sawtooth Mountains just north of Sun Valley and it was his face I saw on a wall of photographs of Hollywood elite (and Tom Selleck) upon arriving at Sun Valley Lodge, the spiritual home of this ski resort almost as exclusive, but oh so different from Big Sky.
The story of Sun Valley is a classic of American business and marketing. In 1935, Averell Harriman, banker and president of the Union Pacific Railroad, asked a young Austrian count to set up a ski resort somewhere along the railroad (but far enough away from weekend skiers in their cars). After turning down the likes of Aspen (too many trees), Sun Valley was chosen. Not that there was anything here but a sleepy mining town called Ketchum. Within a year Sun Valley Lodge was built outside of Ketchum and has just changed since then to its old-world, wood-paneled grandeur.
Technically “high desert,” Sun Valley has sunshine and cold, dry air that makes for perfect powder snow. This season has brought ridiculous amounts to the western US, unlike the Alps and the resort’s upper slopes currently sit at over 1,500 inches, but even then, the 2,400-acre ski area is regularly credited as home to the best-groomed slope in the US. United States.
Thanks to the carefully curated legacy of Hollywood glamour, sun and snow, Sun Valley still appreciates its distance from mainstream America and, like Big Sky, strives not to be flashy or vulgar. If proof is needed, Tom Hanks owns a decent house just north of town.
Instead, the Austrian influence still permeates the resort, from the slightly alarming breakfast of Schnitzel, scrambled eggs, waffles and hot sauce I made to the kitschy cafe ‘Konditorei’, to fondue with a good bottle of Grüner Veltliner at the Roundhouse restaurant on Bald Mountain , one of the resort’s most exclusive and venerable restaurants. I stayed at the five star Sun Valley Lodge and then, by contrast, the ultra modern four star Limelight hotel in Ketchum – both were excellent.
While Sun Valley can’t match Big Sky for size on or off the slopes, the resort is poised to further develop its terrain while maintaining its laid-back mountain-town charm. It just launched a new off-piste and outdoor ski area called Sunrise, below the Seattle Ridge Day Lodge. I experienced it myself with patroller Kurt – Sun Valley by name, sun valley by nature – it was a fun ride and a welcome addition to the 65 groomers.
Unsurprisingly, given that five glorious mountain ranges are visible from the top of Bald Mountain, Sun Valley lures even the most vigorous and affluent skiers for heli-skiing and ski touring. Looking for a less obvious luxury experience, I headed 45 minutes north of Ketchum to Galena Lodge, for a snowshoe hike along the river. Walking quietly in the outback was a delight and perhaps more suited to those tired of the extravagance and seeking the true romantic wilderness of the Wild West states.
You never really need to pit one ski resort against another, but as skiing gets more and more expensive, those with significant budgets are becoming selective about which vacations they enjoy. Yes, the Yellowstone Club tops the list of US luxury ski resorts, but consider Big Sky or Sun Valley instead. Both are ideal for a great American ski vacation, not just because of the skiing and glamorous luxury trappings, but because they still retain the understated authenticity and sense of adventure that drew the discerning elite to The Land of Opportunity in first place .
Need to know
The Yellowstone club
There is no official information on the Yellowstone Club’s membership criteria or costs. Unofficially, the cheapest lodge is believed to cost at least $5 million and annual fees to exceed $50,000. You must be a member to ski there.
Rooms at the five-star Montage Hotel run from $2,000 a night. Lone Mountain Ranch rooms cost from $750 per person per night. Transfer from Bozeman Airport to Big Sky costs from $300 (private car) or $75 (shared shuttle) one way with bigskycountrytransport.com.
Lift passes are priced for one day, three days, and six days under a dynamic pricing system: The average price this season was $175 per day. Standard equipment rentals are $74/day, better quality demo skis are $94/day, via bigskyresort.com. Dan Egan’s Steeps Camp includes three days of instruction, including the $1,700 ‘Big C’ descent – capacity and conditions permitting. For more information, visit bigskyresort.com.
Valley of the Sun
Sun Valley Lodge rooms cost from $436 a night. Rooms at the Limelight Hotel, Kethcum cost from $454 per room per night. Lift tickets cost $189 per day and $1,089 for six days. Standard equipment rentals cost $59 per day, with demo upgrades available starting at $79 per day. A two-hour guided snowshoe tour at Galena Lodge costs $70. Visit sunvalley.com for more information.
For more information on visiting Montana and Idaho, visit greatamericanwest.co.uk.
Will has guested on Dan Egan, Big Sky Resort, Sun Valley and the Great American West.