A weekend at Lone Mountain Ranch.
Sliding across the snow, a gentle stream beside us and the big blue sky above, we make our way toward the mountain. All is quiet. An hour passes, then another, and what was once an amorphous mass slowly takes shape: gentle glades rise to steep, open slopes; timbered hillsides spill into dark ravines; spur-ridges plunge from the summit toward side-canyons far below. It’s a world in itself up there, writ large upon the landscape like a rising supermoon.
“What’s that mountain up there called?” I ask our guide. He pauses a moment, as if to honor the monolith, its very name dampening the mind, its gravity retarding speech. “That,” he says, “is Crowfoot Ridge.”
Crowfoot Ridge. I repeat the words aloud, to feel them in my mouth, the sounds rumbling up my throat and out into the open air. They seem charged with hidden meaning, and I ponder the origin: did some Crow warrior break his foot up there while on a vision quest? Or was it named for the fabled Blackfoot chief who slayed a grizzly with his spear? My thoughts commingle with the myriad features of the mountain; imagination floats free as concrete and abstract coalesce amid the rarified alpine air.
Into the wild Wild landscapes aren’t the only domains whose names capture our attention. Local place names also carry meanings, memories, and feelings—substance both known and hidden, like rail cars on the long train of the southwest Montana experience.
One car whose contents had always been hidden to me is Lone Mountain Ranch. Sure, I’d skied the trails a time or two, but like much of Big Sky, it was by and large unexplored territory. After all these years, we were still mere acquaintances; it was high time we got to know each other.
I twisted my gal’s arm and our weekend staycation was on. Together, we’d explore this icon of the Bozeman area, making it our home base for a weekend of outdoor excursions—a jumping-off point for adventures far and wide, with a warm, cozy cabin waiting after each one. No more changing clothes in a cramped gas-station bathroom or a windy parking lot. No more white-knuckle driving down the canyon in the dark. We’d have a room of our own, to extend the stay and make things more comfortable. And we’d give Lone Mountain Ranch our full attention, discovering exactly what lies beyond the renowned skate-ski trails weaving through the surrounding forest.
Horn & Cantle restaurant & bar at Lone Mountain Ranch A skiff of snow greeted us as we pulled onto the entrance road; we looked at each other and smiled. Elk grazed on the hillside above. We parked the truck and in short order were settled into our cabin. We noted our proximity to the bar—closer than any other cabin—and wondered if our reputations had preceded us.
No Big Sky weekend would be complete without a day at the resort, so off we went up the hill. In the spirit of the trip—trying new things, exploring new terrain—I rented a snowboard. It had been several years for us both, so we tooled down a few groomers to get our legs underneath us. Soon we were carving big, fast turns on Mr. K and the front side of Andesite. Muscles warm and joints lubricated, we turned our attention to Andesite’s back side, where an untracked entrance summoned us forth. We noted the name of the run—Bear’s Lair—and then bombed down it. The steep drop through the timber was covered in fresh snow and we whooped our way down, slipping between trees and launching off protruding mounds. All smiles, we jumped on the lift, sped down to the base, and then headed back up the Swift Current lift for an equally fun descent of Soul Hole, another tree run full of variable terrain and plenty of untracked snow.
Dropping into the trees at Big Sky A half-dozen more runs and our legs were toast, so we hit one of my all-time favorite après spots, Whiskey Jack’s. Alas, some marketing meeting must have gone awry, as the place had been renamed; it was now the anemic and kitschy “Montana Jack.” This felt like a sucker-punch, a blindsided attack on all the memories I’d made here; but no matter—it’s Whiskey Jack’s and always will be, at least to me and every other skier who has charged down this mountain for years and then bellied up to the bar for a warm burger, cold beer, and lively, triumphant banter. Awash in powder glory, we raised our glasses and extended our middle fingers to the newly-installed security cameras above the bar.
After a short ride down the hill, we rented skates at Grizzly Outfitters and tooled around the Big Sky ice rink before heading back to our cabin for a hot shower and change of clothes. Sinatra crooned on the old-timey turntable and I availed myself of the well-stocked mini-bar. Refreshed and ready for the evening, we hit the Horn & Cantle lounge to sip whiskey and admire the bar’s unique shotski design—little cowboy-boot glasses mounted in tiny bindings—before the call came to load the sleighs.
That’s right, sleighs—huge wagons pulled by a pair of massive draft horses that hauled our group of ten with little effort. Huddled under blankets and sipping hot cocoa, we fell into easy conversation as the day gave way to night. A group of friends from Georgia swapped barely-appropriate jokes, while a mother-son duo looked around, marveling at the darkness of the lodgepole forest and the shimmering stars breaking through the canopy overhead.
Horse-drawn and hunger-driven We’d snuck a flask aboard the sleigh, and by the time we arrived at our destination, our attitude was, shall we say, elevated. Scampering up the stairs, we settled into our chairs and imbibed the Old West ambiance—oil lamps, wood-fired cookstove, a cowboy troubadour named Bruce playing guitar and belting out folksy, funny lyrics—before commencing to stuff ourselves to oblivion on the heartiest of Montana meals. Three courses and two pounds of prime rib later, I leaned back in my chair and sipped wine while Bruce sang stories—of friends and family, of love and loss, of hard and honest work, of wild animals and wild lives lived close to the land in the mountains of Montana.
Full house at the sleighride dinner Bellies full, over-laden as a hyperphagic bear and relaxed as if we’d soaked in a hot spring, we loaded the sleighs. The rhythmic trot of the horses carried our contentment through the cold forest and back to our cabin, where we stripped and clambered into bed. Lying side by side, flush from a day well spent, we took stock of evening: delicious dinner, wine and whiskey, good conversation, the cool night air, a big plush bed beside a crackling fire… this is how you do it. Not all the time, of course (even if one could afford it), as it would eventually lose its luster. But every so often, you drop a few hundo and treat yourself to a taste of the good life, right here in your own back yard.
No better place to bed down The same principle applies to outdoor adventure, we’re finding, as Chris, Lone Mountain’s backcountry ski guide, enriches our experience afield. He points out animal tracks and various alpine flora, including the abundant delphinium: bony stalks reaching out from the snow along the streambed. He regales us with tales of native tribes, mountain men, and the long, colorful history of Gallatin Canyon. We’re entranced, and my mind is free to wander as Chris breaks trail and navigates our path along the river.
We stop for water. And now, standing below the mountain, it’s not a name, but a number that comes to me: 25. That’s how many years I’ve lived in Bozeman, how long I’ve explored the mountains and canyons of southwest Montana—and yet I’d never been to Crowfoot Ridge. Sure, I knew all about Fawn Pass, and the classic overnight ski trip to Mammoth, swapping keys with another party along the way. Yet this place, remarkable as it is, had somehow escaped my attention.
But now it had my attention—and my imagination. As we turned around and made our way back to the trailhead, I knew that we’d be back, this time for an early start and a plan to climb all the way to the top, uncovering its many secrets along the way.
But for now, it was back to Lone Mountain for another mouthwatering meal, followed by a warm, cozy cabin in which to dim the lights, wrap our arms around each other, and drift off with visions of Crowfoot Ridge dancing in our heads.
Crowfoot Ridge in the spring
Lone Mountain Ranch offers various discount packages – ski-and-stay, sleigh-and-stay, etc. – as well as advanced booking, to make it even more accommodating to locals and their visiting guests. For more information, visit lonemountainranch.com.