Campbell Schnebly was on her annual ski trip to Big Sky when coronavirus infections started spiking in New York City. It was early March 2020, and the Manhattan-based literary agent and her fiancé decided to hunker down in the Montana mountain town for a couple of weeks. Weeks turned to months, and by summer they stopped pretending they were going back to the big city.
“We completely shifted all life plans,” says Schnebly, who now runs Big Sky’s Acre Café & Cocktails with three other New York expats. “There’s a real shift happening in this town, and we had an opportunity to be a part of it.”
Located halfway between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park, Big Sky has always been a refuge for movers and shakers coming in from the coasts. The allure is understandable: Montana has the third-lowest population density in the U.S., and on an average day at Big Sky, there’s more than an acre of terrain for every skier. All that privacy and epic mountain air have lured plenty of prominent part-time residents, including Tom Brady and Gisele Bündchen, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel—all of whom have built vacation homes there. But recently, another wave of transplants has discovered the destination’s charms, just as new hotels, shops, and restaurants are turning the seasonal ski resort into a year-round destination.
Though many newcomers arrived during the pandemic, Big Sky has been preparing for them since 2016, when it began a ten-year, $150 million expansion project. As part of it, the slopeside Summit Hotel (rooms from $350)—long the only upscale option in town—has begun renovating its 213 rooms and Peaks Restaurant and added a dining terrace overlooking Lone Mountain. Later this year, it will be joined by Montage Hotels & Resorts, which is opening a ski-in/ski-out property with 150 rooms and suites and 39 residences in the exclusive Spanish Peaks Mountain Club development. One&Only Resorts is also planning a hotel, at Moonlight Basin, which is among Big Sky’s most coveted addresses (along with Spanish Peaks and the Yellowstone Club, the 20-year-old private ski resort that the Bradys and Gateses call a second home).
Outside the clubs’ gates and beyond the slopes, the village, about 15 minutes down the hill from the resort, has taken off too, with new art galleries, boutiques (including a handful of home shops specializing in the ubiquitous Montana-chic style), restaurants, and breweries. Riverhouse BBQ, a Texas Hill Country joint, has become a local favorite, and just yonder, at the resort Lone Mountain Ranch (rooms from $475 per person), the hipster-cowboy restaurant Horn & Cantle is the après reservation of choice. Of course, it doesn’t yet rival Aspen—but that’s the point, says Tallie Lancey, a broker at Big Sky Sotheby’s International Realty. “Here, people still feel like they can get in on the ground floor.” Even with the recent flurry of new residents—Lancey says her sales doubled from 2019 to 2020—Big Sky still has room to grow.
And then there’s the mountain. With an average of 400 inches of snow a year, Big Sky has some of the best and most consistent powder conditions in the U.S.—a reassuring detail for skiers who have had winter trips spoiled by lack of precipitation in California and Colorado. Along with a renovated base lodge and more slopeside dining options, the resort has added high-efficiency Sno-Cats and chairlifts, part of an ambitious plan to be carbon-neutral by 2030.
Still, insists Schnebly, the slopes are no longer the only show in town. “Big Sky is much more than just a place to ski,” she says. “The town itself is becoming a destination. It’s developing its own character aside from the resort.”