BIG SKY, Mont. - As the name implies, this haven of golf, skiing and the outdoors in southwest Montana doesn't do small.
Big Sky has always been big boom or big bust since the Big Sky Resort hired Arnold Palmer to design his first golf course, Big Sky Golf Course, in 1973. Like a good ski hill, this unincorporated hamlet has ridden a series of peaks and valleys as the economy has ebbed and flowed. The good times are back roaring again.
All three of the region's high-end private clubs - The Yellowstone Club, The Reserve at Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks Mountain Club - are thriving under new ownership, CrossHarbor Capital Partners LLC, an east coast private equity firm out of Boston that purchased all three developments from 2009-2013. The trio have transitioned from their bankruptcies during the recession into a new era of growth. Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks will add luxurious resort hotels to their communities. The 150-room Montage Big Sky near the 18th green and clubhouse at Spanish Peaks broke ground in September and could open by 2021. A One&Only hotel could come to Moonlight Basin further in the future, bringing resort tee times to Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks. Limited public access is already available to golfers who stay in vacation rentals inside Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peaks.
Closer to public life, the Big Sky Town Center, an emerging 165-acre ski village of shops, bars and restaurants, has exploded the past five years. The 129-room Wilson Hotel, a Marriott Residence Inn, is finishing up construction for the 2018 ski season. It is another project of CrossHarbor Capital. Outdoor concerts (Music in the Mountains), a farmer's market, a run and bike races, a rodeo and even a "Pray for Snow" celebration in fall entertain when the snow isn't flying.
Why here, so far off the grid from America's population centers? Big Sky - less than an hour's drive from the Bozeman airport - sits in the heart of some of the best outdoor recreation in America at the edge of Yellowstone National Park and in the shadow of the Madison Mountain Range, a subset of the Rockies.
Big Sky today is what Jackson Hole, Wy., and Aspen, Colo., were like 25 years ago - still underdeveloped with plenty of outdoor space to roam for the folks who can afford it. Its first full-service grocery store only opened in 2014. Just two gas stations fuel up vehicles for the 2,500 year-round residents. The New York Times reports that one billion dollars in development will occur over the next decade. The Lone Mountain Land Co. - the major player in real estate - was created as the real estate arm of CrossHarbor Capital to capitalize on the growth.
All this development was a far cry from the small ski resort destination I visited in college in 1995, back when I tackled slopes at Big Sky Resort, a 5,800-acre retreat with 300 named runs on four connected mountains owned by Michigan-based Boyne USA Resorts. In September, my first trip back in decades, I fly-fished the Gallatin River, where Brad Pitt filmed "A River Runs Through It" and tasted the private club life, playing Tom Weiskopf's Spanish Peaks and Moonlight Basin, a stunner that designer Jack Nicklaus called the most beautiful course he's ever seen. You can see the potential being realized.
The Spanish Peaks Mountain Club
Riding through the Gallatin Canyon from Bozeman, I was awestruck by the beauty of the surrounding Gallatin National Forest. Highway 119 winds along the Gallatin River, hemmed in by towering rock walls. My shuttle driver pointed out where Ted Turner's ginormous 113,613-acre Flying D Ranch was hidden off the roadway. Regular folks are used to being surrounded by riches.
I spent an extended weekend in one of the eight rooms on the second floor of the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club's clubhouse, where breakfast is served complimentary each morning. That night, the best food and drink in town flowed, introducing why so many have fallen in love with this lifestyle.
Weiskopf's 7,200-yard golf course is expansive like the 'big sky' above. Located at more than 7,000 feet elevation, no two fairways border each other and there is almost 1.5 miles between the fourth green and 14th tee box. Thankfully only five holes play uphill, the 536-yard seventh being the most arduous of the bunch. Weiskopf's signature drivable par 4 debuts at the downhill 17th hole, requiring a long poke (even by the standards of high-altitude golf) of up to 349 yards off the tee to reach the green.
The cart ride is otherwise a joyous one, normally filled with views of the Spanish Peaks and Gallatin Range, stretching 40 miles all the way to the Absaroka and Beartooth peaks of Yellowstone National Park. Unfortunately, a wicked fire season left the sky choked with lingering smoke. Two self-serve comfort stations stocked with snacks and drinks ensure golfers enjoy every convenience imaginable.
Only from a few of the holes - notably the first - do the million-dollar homes interrupt nature in the 3,530-acre development. About 300 properties have been sold with approximately 600 potential units remaining. Many of the homes offer rare ski-in, ski-out access.
An extensive network of hiking and biking trails, as well as Nordic and snowshoe trails in winter, and private fish camp on four miles of private river create more bonding opportunities with nature. I wanted to hike to the nearby Ousel Falls but a bout of altitude sickness sent me lounging by the outdoor pool instead. Not a bad alternative.
The Reserve at Moonlight Basin
The golf at Moonlight Basin takes golfers to higher heights - literally and figuratively. I've yet to come across a more beautiful inland course in all my travels. It's that spectacular.
The 8,000-yard course has to be one of the great modern marvels of architecture. Nicklaus completed the first nine (the back) in 2007 and returned to complete the full routing by 2015. It roams across 1,000 acres following more than 10 miles of cart paths. Starting at 7,500 feet, there is more than 1,000 feet of elevation change along the way. The jaw-dropping first tee plummets 252 feet alone to a twisting fairway. The view of the imposing 11,000-foot peak of Lone Mountain, along with Fan Mountain, the Spanish Peaks and the Madison Valley, is alone worth the price of admission. It's at least an eight count after hitting the tee shot that the ball lands in the fairway (hopefully).
As expected, the terrain is just too difficult to build enjoyable golf holes in a couple of spots (specifically the par-5 sixth and par-4 12th), but one of the longest holes in the world - the 777-yard par 5 at No. 17 - isn't one of them. It glides gracefully downhill. Even this short hitter made par from the 676-yard Lone Creek tees. The Cabin, another comfort station, spoils golfers with free food and drink twice during the round.
The small mountain-contemporary clubhouse, built in 2015, serves as a great hangout for not only golfers but also members without golf privileges, especially families. Its outdoor woodfire oven cooks up great pizza. The driving range transforms every weekend into a par-3 short course enjoyable for all ages.
The community's members can gather all year long at the Moonlight Lodge, a private lodge with a lounge and family area, the Moonlight Tavern dining and bar, fitness center, outdoor pool and hot tub and space for special events. Members-only recreation at the private Ulery’s Lake includes guided hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, paddleboarding, archery and sporting clays in summer and nordic skiing, snowshoeing, a snow tubing hill and an ice rink in winter.
Price ranges for real estate balloon from $1 million to $8 million - a discount compared to what's for sale in the ultra-private and exclusive Yellowstone Club, America's only private ski and golf club, which is operated by the Discovery Land Co. Approximately 375 properties in Moonlight Basin have sold with approximately 1,200 parcels of land remaining.
Venturing back into the public realm of Big Sky was equally rewarding. I spent a morning learning to fly-fish with Wild Trout Outfitter, one of the many local guide businesses. Despite being a rookie to the sport, I actually felt more comfortable casting a rod than I did swinging a golf club. Unfortunately, at first bite, I yanked my line the wrong way, missing the opportunity to set the hook. Our fishing hole on the Gallatin River didn't land a catch, but I blame a time constraint more than our friendly guide.
The terrific Horn and Cantle restaurant at Lone Mountain Ranch is where locals celebrate special occasions - weddings, anniversaries, birthdays. My meal was to celebrate a return to Big Sky after a 23-year hiatus. Don't make that same mistake. Get here soon before more people discover this mountain paradise. Big changes are coming to Big Sky.