Jan 10 2013

Big Sky Resort: A Guide for First-Time Visitors

Big Sky Zipline

“Live Big,” says the Big Sky Resort website, and that we did.  While we were at Big Sky, we had the opportunity to check out many of the activities the resort offers.  If you’re planning your first trip to Big Sky Resort, I hope this will help you to decide what your family will enjoy while you’re there.

Equipment Rental at Big Sky

Big Sky Equipment Rental

The rental area at the base of the mountain is well-marked and well-organized, but if you’re skiing for the first time, as we were, it can be a bit overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re doing.

First:  plan 30-45 minutes to get your rental equipment.  It takes a while to do the paperwork and payment and then be fitted for helmets, boots, and skis.  If you’re taking morning lessons, which begin at 9:15 a.m., be to the rental location by 8:30 or so to give yourself plenty of time.

Second:  when you arrive at the rental center, you need to start at the computer terminals on the right, even before getting in the line.  At the terminals, you enter you name, age, and size information in order to provide the best-fitting equipment.  If there are multiple adults in the party, they can each grab a terminal and split up the entry of the kids’ information in order to save time.

After printing out the information sheets provided at the computer terminals, get in the line to the left of the door, which will take you to the payment area.  From there, you’ll move through different stations–helmet fitting, boot fitting, ski fitting, and a final round of signatures–and then you’ll head out the door and be ready for your lessons or for the lifts to open and get on your way to skiing Big Sky.

Big Sky Ski School

Since our children had never been on skis before, and my husband and I hadn’t skied for many years, we all enrolled in group lessons at Ski School.  Our kids went off to the children’s area, where they had a small hill in a fenced-off area and a “magic carpet” lift to practice on.

Children's Ski School at Big Sky

Adults begin in a different fenced area at the bottom of the hill to get the basics of moving and stopping, and then move up the hill to practice coming down in a controlled manner.  Everyone learns at a different pace, and our instructor was very patient as we learned to navigate on our skis and come to a stop.

Ski School at Big Sky

One of our daughters caught on quickly, and soon she was up on the same hill that we were, making it look very easy to do her “french fries” (parallel skis) and “pizza” (wedge for stopping).

Ski School on Big Sky Slope

In hindsight, a full day of lessons probably would have been better for all of our kids.  Our younger children caught on pretty quickly and continued on with their dad for another day of skiing, but our tween boys had a little more trouble with it and might have had more success continuing on with a knowledgeable teacher than with inexperienced parents.

If you haven’t skied before, I recommend at least a beginner half-day lesson in ski school to get you off to a safe start.

Taking to the Slopes

If you’re an experienced skier, you won’t have any trouble with the trail maps and lifts and you’ll be off to a good start.  If you’re new to skiing, Big Sky has plenty of easy “green” runs to provide variety in skiing.  After a morning of ski school and an afternoon of practicing on the easiest short hill, my husband and daughters took one of the big lifts up and skied green runs down the mountain, enjoying (most) every minute of it.

I had a son who desperately wanted to take the dual-purpose scenic/lift trip on the Lone Peak tram, but it requires being able to ski a blue run down the mountain at the end of the tram ride, so he’ll have to save that for another time.

Snowshoe Tours

Snowshoe Tour at Big Sky

Some people don’t catch on to skiing as quickly as others, or have knees and hips that make skiing difficult.  For those in our group with this experience, we found a guided snowshoe tour to be an excellent way to enjoy the snow and the mountain at a slower and easier pace.

Snowshoe Fitting at Big Sky

Our guide, Bea, was great throughout the trip, from getting us outfitted in our snowshoes, to convincing a reluctant child that he wanted to make the trip, to giving us breaks without telling us they were rest breaks, to taking some photos of us along the way.  The snowshoe trip, which generally lasts about an hour and a half, entails snowshoeing about a mile and a quarter in distance while rising about 500 feet in altitude.  Along the way are breathtaking views of the Spanish mountain range and Big Sky’s Lone Peak, maybe some zipliners flying by overhead, and if you’re lucky some animal tracks or wildlife sightings.  At the top, above the treeline, there’s a yurt with sleds for a few quick runs, and even a porta-potty for those who need a pit stop.  The snowshoe trail runs between the ski runs but once you get a ways up you hear nothing but the quiet of nature.

Lone Peak from Snowshoe Trail at Big Sky

Although anyone can snowshoe, Bea told us that most of her snowshoe clients are women aged 30-60 and that the moms in the groups frequently say it’s their favorite thing to do at the resort.  In general, if your family or group signs up for a snowshoe tour, they won’t add other people to that time so you’ll be able to enjoy some family time together, along with your guide.

Tube Park

Tubing was the first thing we did at Big Sky, and it was a fun way to start off our vacation.  After checking in at the Base Camp building, we walked up a hill, grabbed our tubes, and rode up the magic carpet to the top of the tube park.  Once there, we had the choice of three runs–#1 right next to the magic carpet exit; #2 up the hill a bit farther and with a fire built for warming, and #3 which entailed a bit more of a climb but was a longer run.  Each run is its own chute with straw on the snow at the bottom slow-down area, and staff are careful that only one person is going down the course at a time.  Though #1 was the shortest, it was running fast, and those who wanted a bit more excitement could ask for a “super spinner” start by the attendant.  Although I had no qualms about the safety of the course, and my kids and husband had a blast, the scaredy-cat in me took over and I couldn’t bring myself to go over the edge.  I give the staff credit for encouraging me but not mocking my decision to back out.  (I’m also told that you can probably get a refund if you’re in my shoes and just can’t make the sliding start.)

Tubing Run at Big Sky

From the snow tubing area, the night-time views of the resort are beautiful, and because the number of people allowed in each one-hour tubing session is limited, you’ll get plenty of chances to try out all the tracks.  My kids estimated that they each got to do 7 or 8 runs before our time was done.

The safety-conscious mom in me was much more comfortable with this tubing hill than with the free-for-all hills in our area that have been known to result in broken bones, especially with the care the attendants were taking to make sure the course stayed safe.  (Of course, ask my husband about it and he’ll tell you they put down too much straw so he couldn’t go fast enough at the bottom . . . )  Tubing was a fun way to start our Big Sky vacation.

Ballroom Bonanza

Big Sky offers a complimentary kids’ club for a couple of hours each evening throughout the season, and paid babysitting is available at other times, but during the Christmas break they have a special “Ballroom Bonanza” set up for kids from 4-8 p.m. each evening.  For a fee, kids can go in and experience the fun, which this year included a bungee trampoline, climbing wall, tie dying, “calf” roping, face painting, giant Jenga, bean bag toss, and other kid-friendly activities.

Big Sky Ballroom Bonanza

Kids can come and go throughout the evening, but we made the most of it by giving our kids an early supper and then letting them be in the ballroom the entire four hours while my husband and I wandered through the shops and had a nice dinner at Chet’s restaurant.  Our kids had a blast and made new friends, and as we experienced throughout Big Sky, the staff were friendly and fun, even talking to the kids again when we saw them the next day.

The only problem with the Ballroom Bonanza, our 9-year-old son proclaimed, was that there was a Packers fan there, but even the two of them seemed to work out their differences through their team-colored face paint.

Zipline Tour

Big Sky Zipline

If you had asked our kids what they were most looking forward to at Big Sky before our trip, they would have said the zipline.  They’ve dreamed of riding a zipline for quite a while, but most that we had considered previously had age or size restrictions that would have left out our youngest kids.  Big Sky’s zipline, however, has a 3-foot, 45-pound minimum, making it ideal for our family.

Big Sky Zipline Preparation

After checking in at Basecamp and being suited up in our harnesses, we headed up the mountain again, retracing part of our snowshoe route but then moving on to a bit more rugged ground before reaching the first line.  We had two guides with us, one in the lead and one behind, and when we reached the first line, guide Rachel zipped across to “catch” us on the other side, while guide Evan was responsible for hooking us up and doing the 8-point safety check for each of us.  Our kids just walked off the platform and went “wheeeeeee!” across the line.

Then it was my turn.  I looked across at the cable, looked below at the 60-foot drop, turned around, hugged a tree, and proclaimed through my tears, “I can’t do this!”  Evan and my husband assured me that I could, but I wasn’t buying it, and was seriously contemplating the long walk back down the hill by myself.  With exceeding patience, Evan offered that I could just sit in the harness, clipped to the anchor, to see what it would feel like without actually going anywhere.  I acquiesced, and sat there hooked to the tree for a bit, after which I allowed him to unhook the brace clip so I would slide across.

I have to say this about the first zip line:  the scariest part was the ending, because with my eyes squeezed tightly shut I had no idea when it was coming and the sound of the line at the end startled me as Rachel brought me to a safe stop.

On the second line, which is longer, but not quite as high, I again slid off the platform from a sitting position rather than just walking off into the air like my children did.

Big Sky Zipline Platform

I managed to peek a few times and started to think this was ok.  (Contrast this with my six-year-old, who didn’t have enough momentum to get all the way across and ended up hanging over the gorge for a while until Evan went out on the line and pulled her to the ending spot.  “That was fun!  Can I do the same thing on the next one?”)

By the third line, I was doing much better, and although I hadn’t mastered the “run off the mountain and let the line pick you up” enthusiasm that my children and husband had, I kept my eyes open the whole time and enjoyed every second of the magnificent view.  (Tip:  on the third line, you can do one of two things–attempt to situate yourself for a great camera shot with you in front of the mountains,

Big Sky Photo Third Zipline

or forget about the camera and pay attention to a view that you’ll never see again unless you repeat the zip trip.  I recommend going for the view, even though my picture looks like I’m a Christmas ornament on a really tall pine tree.)

Big Sky Zipline Tree Ornament

Although you can bring your own camera on the zipline, there is also an option to buy photos taken by a professional photographer on the mountain; you can buy digital copies of all your group’s photos (we averaged 35-40 for each of us) for a per-person fee, and copyright release is included.  We decided that it was important to have proof that I conquered the zipline as my final Big Sky activity of the trip and quickly bought the photos.

Overall Impressions

Big Sky Montana

Coming to Big Sky as a family of non-skiers, I was pleased that there was such a wide variety of activities for our family to try.  We all attempted some new and different things–some with more success than others–and created some family memories that won’t soon be forgotten.  While the activities themselves were fun, the staff at the resort get much of the credit for our enjoyment of it.  From Bea convincing my son that the snowshoeing would be all right, to Evan talking me out on the zipline, to the Ski School instructors getting all six of us up and moving, we were impressed with the people at Big Sky as much as the facilities.  We did indeed “Live Big” at Big Sky, and we had a blast doing it!


Big Sky Resort provided our lodging, activities, and some meals during our visit.  The experiences, however, were all ours.

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4 comments so far

4 Comments to “Big Sky Resort: A Guide for First-Time Visitors”

  1. Jody on 10 Jan 2013 at 11:14 am

    Oh, Linda, your trip looks like it was incredible! Snowshoeing and ziplining would be at the top of my list!

  2. Jen on 10 Jan 2013 at 11:36 am

    And here I thought I was being brave by going on the 300ft zipline over a frozen lake…hanging over the gorge?!? This trip looks amazing. I love that you all tried some firsts together to form some great memories.

  3. [...] 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 [...]

  4. darcie on 04 Feb 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Wow! Does THIS look amazing! This is something I’d like to do with our kids one day – this post will be very helpful if we get out that way!

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