At first glance, Montana’s Gallatin County is movie star country.
It’s home to the famed Yellowstone Club, which includes among its members Jessica Biel, Justin Timberlake and Bill Gates, and vacation housing dots the surrounding mountains. Big Sky Resort, the third-largest ski hill in the United States, dominates the tiny base-area town of the same name. While it may not be Aspen, Gallatin County sees its share of the rich and famous.
But if you look at the core of Big Sky, you won’t find Hollywood glamour. Since the ski resort started spinning its lifts in 1973, the soul of the area has been that of a fervent ski bum, waiting in the lift line for first chair. And in the 15 years since the resort opened to mountain bikes, that soul has come to include a whole culture of hardcore riders.
My first taste of Big Sky came in 2009, while working on the inaugural issue of Freehub. The 11,160-foot summit of Lone Mountain dominated the horizon immediately after our car popped out of Gallatin Canyon, the only thing bigger being the Montana sky. While the ski resort has been around for decades, the actual town of Big Sky didn’t come into being until 2001, and lift-accessed trails came shortly after. The resort quickly earned a stellar reputation, which was the reason for our journey. Within the first 15 minutes after walking out of the rental shop and loading the lift, it was obvious that reputation was well-deserved.
Returning years later, Lone Mountain still seems huge, but the trails are now even more incredible, having evolved alongside the sport’s popularity and changes in bike technology. High-speed lifts whisk riders to multiple drop-offs and elevations, providing better access to new trails winding through the sprawling terrain. Lift tickets remain cheap and rental shops are more plentiful, making it a welcoming place for riders of all levels.
The nuts and bolts of the operation are its trails, built by the resort’s crew as well as Whitefish’s Terraflow Trail Systems. The newest gem is Ninja Marmot, a flowing jump trail constructed by Terraflow that includes massive, toilet-bowl-esque berms, gaps and respectably sized tabletops. The speed is perfect, providing a natural flow that floats riders from one side of the track to the other. Just don’t hit the brakes.
For folks looking to put some work into their descent, the Mountain to Meadow trail starts with a short climb from the base area. Throughout the ensuing six miles, riders will rip their way through open meadows and spruce forests before dumping out onto a paved backroad, a coast away from Big Sky Town Center.
Big Sky’s standout classic, however, is Snake Charmer. Another Terraflow masterpiece, the trail pours off Andesite Mountain and into a series of large, arcing berms, before entering a flowy section of lodgepole pine dubbed the “Bermize Forest.” After that, things get steeper and sendy, including some skiddy sections and an abundance of playful jumps. Eventually connecting with Mountain to Meadow, the variety of lines is as endless as the views, including vistas of chiseled Wilson Peak and strange rock formations in Beehive Basin.
Gallatin County also has its share of hard-earned epics; and by “hard-earned,” I mean to the point of machoism. Though few people try, it is possible to pedal out of town, through West Yellowstone and into Idaho, 40 miles as the crow flies. It’s brutal, but those who succeed describe it as being all-time.
But visiting riders don’t have to stress as the majority of local pedal trails aren’t sufferfests. More than 40 miles of singletrack are accessible from town, and even more are a short drive away. A decade and a half since mountain biking came to the area, you’ll see more riders than ever in town, be they gravity junkies suiting up for the resort, or XC fiends preparing for a high-mileage mission.
And who knows—if you pay attention, maybe you’ll even see Justin Timberlake.
Freehub Magazine Issue 8.3, the Montana Photo Book, is a visual guide to the trails of the Treasure State. We selected four local photographers, Reid Morth, Jason O'Neil, Tom Robertson and Nick VanHorn, to document their respective hometowns of Big Sky, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish and capture the experience and vibe that fill the mountains of the Montana high country. Be sure to check out all the other articles!