History of Big Sky, Montana


Big Sky, MT is tucked midway down the Gallatin River Canyon, halfway between historic Bozeman and the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Traveling to Big Sky on Highway 191 (“The Scenic Yellowstone Corridor”), you wind your way along the raging Gallatin River, surrounded by dramatic Rocky Mountain landscapes, miles of secluded wilderness, free roaming bears, moose and bighorn (often on the road), and the grandeur of Montana’s big skies. 

But, where did it all begin, who forged these original trails through the mountains, and what led to the success of Big Sky Resort, a world-class ski destination that gets bigger and better each year? Big Sky’s journey dates back thousands of years to Native American hunter-gathers, notorious mountain men, gold miners, homesteaders, and humble beginnings as a purpose built ski town inspired by the dream of one man.


Native American Hunter-Gatherers

The Gallatin Canyon was first explored by Native American hunter-gathers that regularly trekked along the Gallatin Crest. The tribes set up camp on the banks of the Gallatin River, foraging for plant food and hunting for deer, elk and bison that frequented the lush high alpine meadows. While the Gallatin Valley was never claimed by any specific Native American tribes, archaeological studies show many tribes passed through the Big Sky region including Blackfeet, Nez Perce, Crow, Flathead, Sioux, and Shoshone Indian tribes.


Lewis & Clark

In 1804, explorers Captain Meriweather Lewis & Lieutenant William Clark set out to discover new land acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, a voyage that covered more than 8,000 miles and four time zones. Lewis & Clark reached the three forks of the Missouri River in Montana in July 1805, naming the three tributaries – the Gallatin River after Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin, the Madison River, in honor of Secretary of State James Madison, and the Jefferson River after President Thomas Jefferson.


The Fur Trade & Gold Rush

Following in the footsteps of Lewis & Clark, next came the European fur-trappers, mountain men, and gold prospectors searching for wealth in the 1862 Montana Gold Rush. Fur trading prospered until 1840, but the trappers and colorful mountain men were only passing through and did not settle in the Gallatin Valley. The gold prospectors did not find their riches in the Gallatin Valley and moved west to Virginia City and Bannack, the site of Montana’s first major gold discovery.  


The First Homesteaders

With the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad into Bozeman in 1883, rough logging roads were cut through the canyon to transport pine trees to build the railroad. This created a trail for ranchers to drive herds of sheep, cattle and horses over the pass into the Gallatin Canyon. With the 1862 Homestead Act in place, ranchers began staking out their 160 acre homesteads in the meadows along the banks of the Gallatin River, building cabins, and settling in the Gallatin Canyon. 

One of these ranchers was Augustus Franklin Crail, the first homesteader in Big Sky. In December 1901, Crail purchased a 160-acre homestead with a small cabin (only $1 per acre), which over the years expanded to a 960-acre working ranch. Today, the ranch land is home to the Big Sky Golf Course, and the beautifully preserved historic Crail Ranch buildings are a local treasure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The grounds are open for walking tours and visitors can take a guided or self-guided tour of the homestead museum with original artifacts, photographs and furniture from the Crail family.


Yellowstone Brings Tourism to Gallatin Valley

Tourism in the Gallatin Valley began as early as the late 1800s. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and local ranchers saw an opportunity, encouraging visitors to Yellowstone to extend their vacation and stay on an authentic Montana dude ranch! Only $12 to stay a week + $6 for a horse. 

In 1898, Pete Karst homesteaded just north of Big Sky, setting up Karst Camp, an inn for visitors to Yellowstone with home brewed liquor sneakily served during the prohibition. The historic remains of Karst Camp still stand today with a few original buildings and a short hiking trail leading to an old asbestos mine. 

In 1915, Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Ranch was homesteaded as a working cattle and horse ranch and sold twelve years later as a dude ranch for vacationers. Today, visitors to Big Sky can experience a taste of the old wild west with unique experiences at Lone Mountain Ranch, including dog-sledding, Nordic skiing, old-western sleigh ride dinners in the winter, and horseback rides, fly-fishing, hiking, and biking in the summer months. 


Montana Skiing Arrives at Big Sky Resort

Chet Huntley, newscaster of NBC’s nightly “Huntley-Brinkley Report”, had a dream to return to his Montana roots, develop a small mountain ski village and golf course, and promote the tourism industry in Montana. At this time, only a handful or ranchers had permanently settled along the West Fork of the Gallatin River

In 1970, Chet Huntley retired from NBC, purchased Crail Ranch and began to fulfill his dream of building a ski resort in the Rocky Mountains. The historic Crail Ranch buildings were used to house the workers building the resort, the ranch land was transformed to the classic links-style Big Sky Golf Course by Arnold Palmer, and the original Huntley Lodge was built at the base of Big Sky’s iconic Lone Peak. Stop by Chet’s Bar at the Huntley Lodge for a toast when you’re in town! 

In September 1973, Ski Magazine made a grand announcement “Montana skiing has arrived!” and in December, Big Sky Resort opened for its first winter ski season with four ski lifts. Sadly, Chet Huntley died of lung cancer shortly after on March 20, 1974, just three days before the grand opening of Big Sky Resort. Here’s a blast from the past – the first promotional video for Big Sky Resort.


Boyne Resorts Acquires Big Sky Resort

In 1976, Everett Kircher, honored as one of the “Top 100 Most Influential Skiers of All Time”, purchased Big Sky Resort expanding Boyne Resorts portfolio of premier mountain and golf resorts. There was a gravel road from Highway 191 to the resort base and one flight to Bozeman, from Billings! 

Led by Everett Kircher, Boyne Resorts invented the Boyne Snowmaker and pioneered the design of snow grooming equipment, a technology still used today. In 1981, Boyne Resort’s state of the art snowmaking system was installed at Big Sky Resort guaranteeing good snow conditions all season long. The installation of the Challenger lift in 1988 opened up access to some of the most epic expert terrain in the US, putting Big Sky Resort on the radar of every die hard skier and snowboarder. 

In 1995, the construction of the Lone Peak Tram took Big Sky Resort expert skiing to higher altitudes, 11,166 feet at the summit of Lone Peak. The tram increased the vertical drop at Big Sky Resort to 4,350 feet, one of the biggest vertical drops in North America. Dropping into the Big Couloir, a 1,400 ft chute with a 50-degree slope straight from the summit, became a big bucket-list experience for expert rippers and shredders.


Moonlight Basin Ski Resort

In December 2003, Moonlight Basin Ski Resort opened on the northern face of Lone Mountain with 1,900 acres of terrain ranging from gentle cruisers to steep chutes. The development struggled and in 2013, Big Sky Resort acquired Moonlight Basin becoming the “Biggest Skiing in America” with over 5,850 acres of diverse terrain, epic ski runs for all abilities, and uncrowded slopes.


Big Sky 2025 – A Vision for the Future of Big Sky Resorts

In 2016, Big Sky Resort unveiled Big Sky 2025: A Vision for the Future of Big Sky Resorts.

“Big Sky 2025 is an ambitious 10-year vision transforming the Big Sky experience from the moment you touch ground in Montana to the top of Lone Peak.”

To date, completed projects include the installation of the brand-new Challenger 3 chairlift, Powder Seeker 6 (the first state-of-the-art Big Sky Blue Bubble with heated seats), Ramcharger 8 (the first 8-seat chairlift in North America), Swift Current high-speed quad, and new magic carpets in the learning areas (including a Big Sky Blue Bubble magic carpet dome). In 2021, Big Sky Resort completed snowmaking expansion and extensive renovations to the Summit Hotel and Huntley Lodge. Future Big Sky 2025 projects include enhancements to Big Sky Mountain Village, the replacement of the Lone Peak Tram, a new tram terminal with a glass viewing platform at the summit of Lone Peak, a two-stage gondola, and unique on-mountain dining experiences.


As Big Sky Resort continues to add amenities to enhance the overall experience, Big Sky Vacation Rentals are continually increasing our portfolio of hand-picked vacation homes to enhance your stay. Spend your vacation in Meadow Village, the original Crail ranch and homestead, slopeside in Big Sky’s Mountain Village, or in the seclusion of the Spanish Peaks in Moonlight Basin

Big Sky Vacation Rentals have been welcoming guests to Big Sky for 15 years. We represent the top 125 luxury vacation rentals in Big Sky with exclusive platinum perks, high-end vacation amenities, and exceptional guest services from our local team. We look forward to welcoming you to Big Sky!


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