Jan 03 2013
A while ago, a representative of Big Sky Resort, near Bozeman, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, invited our family to see what a ski vacation is all about.
“We’re a family of six,” I warned him. “It can sometimes be hard to pin down accommodations that fit us all.”
“No problem,” was his reply; Big Sky Resort has a variety of hotel rooms, condominium-style housing, and cabins available.
“Our kids have never been on skis before, and the last time my husband and I attempted skiing was 20+ years ago.”
Again, the reply came back: “No problem!” Ski school might be a good idea for us, but even if we didn’t take to the slopes perfectly, there would be plenty of other activities to do; in fact, the resort is popular with summer visitors as well. Among the things we could do while at the resort would be tubing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, a spa, indoor-outdoor pool, shopping and dining, kids’ clubs, a kid- and parent-friendly zipline, and even a day trip into Yellowstone National Park.
We decided to give it a try, and they fit us in at Big Sky during their busiest week of the year, as it was the only time we had a school break long enough for the trip.
Over the next days and weeks, I’ll share specifics about things we did at the resort, but today I’ll start with an overview of our vacation. We knew it would be an adventure no matter what happened, but we did not realize how much we would enjoy this vacation.
Getting to Big Sky from Minnesota
We had two options for getting to Big Sky — driving 1000 miles or flying into the Bozeman Airport. We opted to drive, as many Minnesota families do. From Minneapolis, taking I-94 through North Dakota is the fastest route, but since we’re southwest of the metro, we opted for I-90 through South Dakota as it offered a better halfway point (Rapid City) and the opportunity for some Junior Ranger programs along the way. We chose to break the trip into two 8-hour driving days in each direction, though we know people who have driven it in one long day from the MSP area.
We’ve acquired quite a lot of winter roadtrip experience over the years, and while there were storms to the east and south of us, our route to the west was cold but clear, with snow-covered bluffs and hills making for a very pretty drive, even in parts of South Dakota and Wyoming that can sometimes be brown and dull to traverse. Once we got near Buffalo, Wyoming, we had almost-continuous snow-capped mountain views, a real treat for us flat-landers.
Tips for Traveling on Christmas Day
In order to fit our trip into our children’s school vacation, we left early in the morning on Christmas Day. This is perhaps the trickiest day of the year for car travel because most businesses are closed, and one must plan ahead a bit to ensure smooth travels.
For us, attending a Christmas Day church service was important, so we found a church with service times that fit our route. I had also called ahead to some restaurants to be sure we could find a meal along the way, and learned that IHOP was open in both Sioux Falls and Rapid City. 24-hour restaurants like Denny’s, truck stops, and Chinese restaurants are other possibilities for Christmas Day travel, or if you want to be a fun mom, take your kids to the movies and let them have popcorn for supper! Even bathroom breaks needs to be planned a bit, as not every convenience store was open along our route. We didn’t let the gas gauge go below 1/2 tank, just in case we had to stop unexpectedly and/or couldn’t find a gas station, and we had plenty of winter survival gear and supplies in the trunk.
Making a Christmas Road Trip Fun for Kids
One new thing I tried during this trip to make it a bit more fun for the kids took a bit of planning and preparation but worked out really well. I had picked up a variety of stocking stuffers–time-passers like books, activity books, and crayons; treats like gum and Christmas candies; snacks like cereal and granola bars; fun things like glow sticks and card games; and useful trip items like chap stick and zipper thermometers–and wrapped them up for the kids. Each set of gifts went into a repurposed plastic bag and was then tagged with a number (we needed the chap stick before we got there, and I wanted to mix up the food and non-food gifts) and placed in a canvas tote bag, one tote for each driving day of the trip. I ended up with enough packages that the kids could open one gift every time the odometer hit 50 or 100 miles.
The rules were as such:
- Take turns with who gets to open the plastic bag and distribute the gifts. If it’s a group gift (i.e. a box of granola bars or a card game), that person gets to unwrap the package.
- While some of the packages were marked with an initial for each specific child, others were random. Any child complaining about the color/type/character, etc. of the one they got would forfeit the next package (and Dad would get the gift).
- Each child had a canvas bag hanging from the headrest in front of him or her, in which they should keep all of their opened items.
- All trash goes into the numbered plastic bags, and is removed at each stop the car makes.
- You may trade any item with another child as long as the trade is made peacefully and is mutually acceptable.
- You may eat anything you get immediately, or save it for later, but know that these are the only snacks that have been packed for the trip.
This idea really worked out very well, providing little surprises to break up the trip and make the long drive a bit more quiet.
Staying at Big Sky
Our accommodations were in the Shoshone Condominiums, where we had a one-bedroom suite with a very comfortable Murphy bed adjacent to the kitchen table and a sofabed and two chairs next to it, along with two bathrooms, a full kitchen, fireplace, and beautiful mountain views.
We liked that there was a leaf for the table so we fit comfortably while eating meals in the room, and I really could have lounged on the sofa all day and stared out at the mountains, but we had too much else planned to take much time for relaxing.
We ate our breakfasts in the Huntley Dining Room in our building, and it was definitely the best breakfast buffet we’ve encountered in our travels. My daughter feasted on pancakes each morning, while the youngest loved the bacon and the boys went for omelets. I filled up on the fresh fruit, yogurt and granola, and smoked salmon spread on a bagel, as well as the variety of cooked eggs and potatoes and biscuits and gravy. There was certainly no reason for anyone to start the day hungry, even with the pickiest of eaters. I appreciated the allergen labels (listing pork, gluten, etc.) on the entree tags. The Huntley Dining Room is open from 6:30-10:30 a.m., and because we were there during a particularly busy time, we were happy to be early risers, as we had no line to get a table when we arrived at 6:45 Friday morning, but when we left an hour later the line was quite long.
Most other meals we cooked in our condo, though we had dinner at Chet’s restaurant one evening, where the bison/elk/beef meatloaf was delicious and my husband thoroughly enjoyed the huckleberry-sauced ribs, and we used the cafeteria in the Mountain Mall for a quick mid-day meal with good, meaty sandwiches at prices similar to those in an amusement park. There’s also a small grocery store in the Mountain Mall with prices ranging from slightly-inflated-for-your-convenience (cream of mushroom soup at $1.75) to desperate-mother-who’s-run-out-of-sugared-cereal ($8.00 for a box of Cap’n Crunch). The store, though small, had a surprisingly good variety of products for any last-minute food, beverage, or medication needs at the resort.
Big Sky Weather
Before we left, I had asked what gear and clothing we would need for our trip, and I had packed multiple balaclavas, handwarmers, and other such recommended items. It turned out that during our stay, the afternoons were at about 20 degrees with sunny skies and little wind, so we hardy Minnesotans found some of the layers and gear to be unnecessary (although the kids thought the base layers and goggles were really cool).
There was fresh snow each night, and the sun came out during the day to give us beautiful views with clear blue skies. Though it can get extremely cold at Big Sky, and storms can dump a large amount of snow, much of the ski season is made up of weather similar to what we had. For us Minnesotans, the weather was very enjoyable.
Big Sky Activities
Though Big Sky Resort’s main focus is definitely skiing, there are many other activities to enjoy. Into our three-day visit, we squeezed ski school, skiing, tubing, snowshoeing, ziplining, “ballroom bonanza” for the kids, and a day-trip to Yellowstone. Given a few more days, we would have had more time to get better at skiing and do a bit more relaxing in our room or at the pool.
On a Budget?
We enjoyed our trip to Big Sky very much, but I’ll be honest: a ski vacation isn’t a shoestring-budget vacation. If you’re thinking of a ski trip, check out the prices for lodging, lift tickets, meals, and activities to see if it fits in your family’s budget. To save some money, compare the cost of staying on-site (which may include breakfast and/or ski passes for kids) with staying off-site and driving in each day, and try to find lodging where you can prepare your own meals. For more ideas on saving money on a ski vacation, check out these articles at We Just Got Back, The Frugal Toad, ABC News, USA Today, Lonely Planet, and Family Ski Hub.
Overall Impressions of Big Sky
From the moment we arrived, we found all staff at the resort to be extremely friendly and helpful. (Remember, this is coming from someone who lives in the land of “Minnesota nice.”) Though we were first-timers at the resort and new to most of the activities, we felt welcome and not at all out of place. The instructors and guides were excellent at calling us by name and being sure we were comfortable in all of our activities (including getting this scaredy-cat to decide she could conquer the zipline, and convincing a 10-year-old boy that he could indeed snowshoe up the mountain).
Even though we were there on what is the resort’s busiest week of the year, we didn’t feel that the resort was crowded. The only crowds we saw were at lunch in the cafeteria seating area, where my husband told me that getting a table was a bit cutthroat, and at the base area, where what looked to be a long line for the Swift Current lift was actually only 15 minutes or so. People at Big Sky are proud of the fact that the mountain is big and there are enough lifts that lines are generally non-existent, and cap at 10-15 minutes on the busiest days. They tell me that this is excellent compared to many other ski resorts, which have much longer lift wait times.
While we were at Big Sky, I asked other families how they had decided to make Big Sky their destination. One family from Missouri, all of whom were new to skiing, said that winter was the only time they could get away, and they had chosen Big Sky over some Colorado resorts because they thought it would be better for beginners. A family from New York City who usually takes a March ski trip to Taos, New Mexico, decided on Big Sky in December on the advice of friends, and took advantage of the inaugural nonstop flight from New York to Bozeman. They said that they enjoy skiing because it’s a family vacation where teenagers will happily go along with their parents.
We found Big Sky to be a relaxing place to visit, with a definite vacation feel to it. People, both staff and visitors, were laid-back and pleasant, enjoying the skiing, the mountain views, and everything else there was to enjoy at the resort.
Though a ski trip may not have been something we would have previously considered for a family vacation, we truly enjoyed our time at Big Sky. I can’t count the number of times my husband and I turned to each other and said, “Wow! That was fun!” or “I hadn’t expected to enjoy this so much,” or “The kids are going to remember this for a long time.” We saw new places, tried new activities, and enjoyed our time together as a family. We knew our trip to Big Sky would be an adventure, but we didn’t realize how enjoyable that adventure would be.
Have you been to Big Sky Resort? If you have memories or tips to add for a successful ski vacation, please share them below in the comments.
Big Sky Resort provided our family with complimentary lodging, activities, and some meals during our stay.