America's newest ski resort looking for its corner of the market

Posted: Sunday, March 07, 2004

BIG SKY, Mont. Just past the shadow of Big Sky Resort, up the road about two miles, is a ski destination trying to find its niche.

Smaller by comparison, and not asking to be compared, Moonlight Basin is equipped with just four chairlifts and 1,500 acres of lift-served terrain.

But the small size, coupled with employees who open the door for you at the lodge and brush snow off your car while you ski, is what sets Moonlight apart.

''Bridger has its own scene,'' mountain guide Craig Beuning said. ''Big Sky has its own scene. We don't have a scene, and it's beautiful.''

Now in its first season, it is North America's newest ski resort, and it has amenities usually found only at much larger resorts and an emphasis on personalized service.

Hand warmers are passed out to skiers at the bottom of each run, warming huts are available for snow riders looking for a quick break and mountain guides are everywhere, eager to show off the resort's terrain.

Most of the runs are groomed, extremely fast, and hide pockets of powder in the trees.

''I think any resort has to work with the terrain you have,'' said Moonlight Basin CEO and General Manager Burt Mills.

''Our land lent itself best to rolling, intermediate types of runs.''

This makes for terrain suitable for beginners, yet still challenging for more advanced skiers or boarders willing to push themselves.

Extreme skiers can hike the Headwaters Ridge where several steep chutes await; offering a challenging backcountry to an otherwise unimposing mountain.

''It's largely the things you do when you're not skiing that leaves the biggest impression,'' said Rich Hohne, vice president of marketing and sales.

Added Mills: ''We're challenged a little bit to maintain a distinction with a neighbor like Big Sky.''

Big Sky's unflappable reputation stretches nationwide. Its wide-open, diverse 3,600 acres of terrain has garnered attention from media outlets such as The New York Times, and the mountain is often rated as one of the top 10 resorts in North America.

''But we've been getting a lot of press too,'' Mills said.

Word of mouth hasn't hurt either, drawing six friends from Willmar, Minn., to Moonlight Basin for the group's annual ski trip to Montana.

''It's awesome,'' 18-year-old Luke Esboldt said while eating lunch at the Madison Lodge. ''It's cheap and has really good runs. And the scenery is great from way up there.''

Another bonus: Esboldt and his five friends can all fit on the resort's Six Shooter lift. The state's only six-person, high-speed lift can turn a simple ride to the top of a mountain into a party for a group of young men from Minnesota.

''I like all the perks here,'' said Nate Hillenbrand, 19. ''And the runs are fast and long.''

Although somewhat dwarfed by Big Sky, Moonlight Basin shares with its neighbor breathtaking views from nearly every corner of the mountain; the Spanish Peaks to the north and Fan Mountain, a towering, spectacular sight to the west.

A mountain guide like Beuning will point out the sights along the way. Just look for a purple and yellow jacket and ask for a free tour.

''We just want to offer no-brain skiing,'' Beuning said. ''We're trying to make it as easy as possible on the skier.''

Following a day of skiing, sitting on the leather couches in the elegant Moonlight Lodge, with its soaring fireplace, tall windows and stuffed mountain goats peering down, one can become attached to the slow pace of the family resort.

From the Timbers Restaurant and Bar, you can see ice skaters twirling on the resort's outdoor rink and steam rising from an outdoor spa.

The mountain does plan on expanding toward the west, and Hohne said eventually new lifts could add hundreds more acres of expert terrain.

Despite this, Moonlight's niche is not bound to be focused solely on the quality of its skiing.

Instead it's the ''grass-roots acceptance of the different taste and different style'' we offer, Mills said.

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