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The glamorous US ski resorts the hoi polloi don’t know about

sun valley - Sun Valley
sun valley - Sun Valley

“No, that’s not true,” said the Lone Mountain Land Company representative. “The Yellowstone Club does not have a satellite monitoring its ski area for intruders.”

I can’t say I’m not disappointed that despite it being a scurrilous rumour, the most exclusive and expensive ski resort in the world doesn't have a satellite, let alone a laser beam zapping those who stray onto its private mountain in southwestern Montana. But it’s easy to be duped about ‘YC’ excess, whose members are reported to include Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Justin Timberlake, and J. Lo.

Neighbouring the ‘YC’ is the ski resort of Big Sky, where the adjoining Moonlight Basin and Spanish Peak clubs do 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 at $2,000 and penthouse suites at $15,000 a night.

The penthouse suite at Big Sky resort costs $15,000 per night - CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Montage Hotels & Resorts’ Big Sky
The penthouse suite at Big Sky resort costs $15,000 per night - CHRISTIAN HORAN PHOTOGRAPHY/Montage Hotels & Resorts’ Big Sky

However, matching the range of Vail, Aspen’s or Deer Valley’s density of luxury hotels isn’t the aim in this corner of Montana: it’s the quality, exclusivity and laid-back approach that draws in a certain kind of well-heeled, quiet American.

The big secret

Lone Peak (3,404m), dominates the skyline above the Madison range to the west of Big Sky.  Its summit is reached by a ‘tram’ cable car, giving access to some of the most extreme views and in-bounds skiing in the US.

I experienced its most challenging terrain just below the summit with big mountain skier Dan Egan, on his three-day ‘steeps’ course, the crescendo of which was a drop into a 430 vertical-metre triple-black-diamond-rated chute, with a 50-degree slope entrance – the 'Big Couloir'.

Will Robson descending Big Couloir - Jon Stone
Will Robson descending Big Couloir - Jon Stone

When compared with Vail’s Back Bowls or Aspen’s Highland Bowl, Lone Peak is the more imposing extreme skiing environment. The Colorado luxury resorts are spread over higher altitude terrain but, like them, Big Sky is not just for those chasing vertical extremes. At nearly 6,000 acres of ski area and 39 lifts, it’s one of the biggest in the US, with hundreds of named runs, from the steepest chutes, to gladed tree-skiing, to the gentlest of green runs; most served by fast chairlifts with well-maintained pistes. By contrast, The Yellowstone Club’s mountain has over 100 ski runs but I suspect seldom more than 100 skiers a day.

When it comes to fuelling a day’s skiing, as is often the case in North America, most restaurants sit at lower sections 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 Elk tartare. It’s no drop-in self-server: as one of Big Sky’s best restaurants, booking in advance is essential.

Buffalo beside Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park - Will Robson
Buffalo beside Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park - Will Robson

Seven miles down the road from Big Sky is another sought-after address, Lone Mountain Ranch, which offers a ‘traditional Montana’ experience. It may appear more rustic than the Montage hotel’s bowling alley and ice rink, but at $750 per person per night, Lone Mountain Ranch’s log cabins are undeniably luxurious. The range of activities – from horse-riding to Nordic skiing on one of the US’s largest trail networks – offer discerning guests peace and comfort away from the main resort riff raff. The food is excellent too, as my tennis racquet-sized $200 Wagyu Tomahawk steak bears testament.

Talking of bears, a trump card in Big Sky’s hand, over Beaver Creek, say, is the opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park in winter. It’s only an hour’s drive away and I rode a snowmobile to see the Old Faithful geyser blow its top – a round trip of sixty miles, but utterly worth the experience, especially for those of us who enjoy a day off from sliding downhill.

A bright future

Some 320 miles west of Big Sky in neighbouring Idaho lies Sun Valley. From Big Sky, my drive traversed classic western terrain of endless straight roads, sage-brush plains, distant mountains and historic site markers of pioneer routes to the Rockies.

sun valley lodge - Sun Valley
sun valley lodge - Sun Valley

Clint Eastwood shot the film Pale Rider in the Sawtooth mountains just north of Sun Valley and it was his face I saw on a wall of photographs of the Hollywood elite (and Tom Selleck) on arrival at the Sun Valley Lodge, the spiritual home of this almost as exclusive, but oh so different ski resort to Big Sky.

Sun Valley’s story is a classic of American enterprise and marketing. In 1935, Averell Harriman, banker and chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, asked a young Austrian count to create a ski resort somewhere along the railway (but far enough away from weekend skiers in their cars). After rejecting the likes of Aspen (too many trees), Sun Valley was chosen. Not that there was anything there but a sleepy mining town called Ketchum. Within a year Sun Valley Lodge was built outside Ketchum and it’s barely changed in its old-world, wood-panelled grandeur since.

The old-world lodge bar at Sun Valley resort - Will Robson
The old-world lodge bar at Sun Valley resort - Will Robson

Technically ‘high desert’, Sun Valley has the sun and the cold dry air that creates perfect powder snow. This season brought ridiculous amounts to the western US, unlike the Alps and the resort’s upper slopes currently sit on over 400cm, but even then, the 2,400-acre ski area is regularly credited as home to the best-groomed piste in the US.

Thanks to the carefully curated legacy of Hollywood glamour, sun and snow, Sun Valley still relishes its distance from mainstream America and like Big Sky, it strives not to be showy or vulgar. If proof were needed, Tom Hanks owns a discrete house just north of town.

Instead, the Austrian influence still permeates the resort, from the slightly alarming Schnitzel, scrambled egg, waffle and hot sauce breakfast I had at the kitsch ‘Konditorei' cafe, to the fondue with a fine bottle of Grüner Veltliner at the Roundhouse restaurant on Bald Mountain, one of the most exclusive and venerable restaurants in the resort. I stayed at the five-star Sun Valley Lodge and then, for contrast, the thoroughly modern four-star Limelight hotel in Ketchum: both were excellent.

Roundhouse restaurant on Bald Mountain - Sun Valley
Roundhouse restaurant on Bald Mountain - Sun Valley

While Sun Valley can’t match Big Sky for size on the slopes or off, the resort is set on further developing its terrain while maintaining its laid-back mountain town appeal. It has just launched a new area of off-piste and gladed tree-skiing called Sunrise, below the Seattle Ridge Day Lodge. I tested for myself with patroller Kurt – Sun Valley by name, sun valley by nature: it was a fun run 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 also draws the more vigorous, wealthy skier for heliskiing and ski touring. In search of a less obvious luxury experience, I headed 45 minutes north of Ketchum to Galena Lodge, for a riverside snowshoe walk. Tramping silently into the backcountry was a delight and perhaps more well suited to those tired of extravagence and seeking the real and romantic wilderness of the wild west states.

Skiing the trees at Sun Valley - Hayden Gilmour
Skiing the trees at Sun Valley - Hayden Gilmour

It never really does to face off one ski resort against another, but as skiing becomes ever more expensive those with significant budgets are becoming selective about the holidays they value. Yes, the Yellowstone Club is top of the US luxury ski resort bucket list but consider Big Sky or Sun Valley instead. Both are ideally suited to a big American ski holiday, not just for the skiing and the glamourous luxury trappings, but because they still retain the low-key authenticity and sense of adventure that drew the discerning elite to The Land of Opportunity in the first place.

Need to know

The Yellowstone Club

There is no official information about Yellowstone Club membership criteria or costs. Unofficially, it is believed that the cheapest lodge costs at least $5 million and annual fees top $50,000. You must be a member to ski there.

Big Sky

Rooms at the five-star Montage hotel cost from $2,000 per room night. Rooms at Lone Mountain Ranch cost from $750 per person per night. Airport transfer from Bozeman airport to Big Sky costs from $300 (private car) or $75 (shared shuttle) each way with bigskycountrytransport.com.

Lift passes are priced for one day, three days and six days based on a dynamic pricing system – the average price this season was $175/day. Standard equipment rental costs $74/day, better quality demo skis are $94/day, via bigskyresort.com. Dan Egan’s Steeps Camp includes three days’ instruction, including the descent of ‘Big C’ – ability and conditions permitting – from $1,700. For more information visit bigskyresort.com.

Sun Valley

Rooms at the Sun Valley Lodge cost from $436 per night. Rooms at the Limelight hotel, Kethcum, cost from $454 per room per night. LIft tickets costs $189/day and $1,089 for six dayss. Standard equipment rental costs $59/day, with demo upgrades available from $79/day. A two-hour snowshoeing tour with guide at Galena Lodge costs $70. For more information visit sunvalley.com.

For more information on visiting Montana and Idaho visit greatamericanwest.co.uk.

Will was a guest of Dan Egan, Big Sky Resort, Sun Valley, and Great American West.