The fate of Moonlight Basin has been a worrisome puzzle for skiers—and for nearby Big Sky Resort—for years. Wracked with financial woes, Moonlight filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2009. Since then the question has remained unresolved: Who will end up with the resort, its amenities and its roughly 1,900 skiable acres southwest of Bozeman?
The answer, made official in October 2013, is Big Sky Resort. Boyne Resorts, the owner of Moonlight’s expansive neighbor, teamed up this year with CrossHarbor Capital Partners LLC, owner of the adjacent high-end Yellowstone Club, to purchase Moonlight and cement its role in what Boyne bills as the biggest skiing in America.
“It was inevitable,” says Sheila Chapman, public relations manager for Big Sky. “People saw that kind of future. They knew somebody was going to have to—whether it be Boyne or CrossHarbor or somebody else—someone was going to have to come in and make Moonlight a viable business.”
- Glenniss Indreland
- Big Sky and Moonlight Basin now boast a total of 23 chairlifts and 10 surface lifts—trumping Vail and contributing to a lift capacity of 29,000 skiers per hour.
Boyne and CrossHarbor partnered to execute a similar purchase of the lift-connected private resort community Spanish Peaks for $26.1 million earlier this year. Combined, with an estimated 5,700 skiable acres, Big Sky is now the largest ski resort in the United States, second in North America only to British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb complex.
The Moonlight acquisition had been rumored for months, sparking concerns about escalating ticket prices at an area that last season charged as little as $66 for a day pass and $549 for an adult season pass. Chapman assures skiers that passes already purchased for the coming season remain valid. Those Moonlight passes, however, will not cover the connected Big Sky terrain—joint access first marketed by the two resorts in 2005—unless skiers pay an additional $549 to $679 by Dec. 31 for an upgraded “Biggest Skiing in America” season pass. According to the resort’s October announcement, single-day passes this season will cover the entire Big Sky/ Moonlight/Spanish Peaks complex for $99. Day pass and Biggest Skiing in America pass holders will have the option to ski anywhere on the complex, including the North Summit Snowfield. Those with Moonlight- or Big Sky-specific passes must continue to honor existing area boundaries.
Chapman says Boyne and CrossHarbor are talking now about how much passes will cost next year. “They’re trying to work on making it very affordable,” she says. According to marketing director Lyndsey Owens, Big Sky hopes to maintain a separate season pass for just the Moonlight area after this winter, but the resort has yet to make a final ruling on that plan. This year’s rates for the full-access Biggest Skiing in America pass range from $1,298 to $1,798. Chapman adds that the majority of employees currently working at Moonlight will be retained.
While day pass skiers are losing the ability to ski on the cheap at Moonlight alone, Chapman says the situation could have been much worse. An outside party like Vail Resorts could have purchased the mountain and put up “an iron curtain,” for instance.
Chapman points out that Moonlight isn’t the only local resort recently plagued by financial hardship.
- Lonnie Ball
“In a community where there were five major players—Lone Mountain [Ranch], Yellowstone Club, Spanish Peaks, Moonlight and Big Sky Resort—four out of the five have filed for bankruptcy,” she says. “Big Sky is the only place that has not.” (Lone Mountain Ranch operated as a privately owned guest ranch near Big Sky until 2007, when it was acquired by the luxury vacation club Everlands for $16.5 million. The recession hit Everlands hard a year later, and Lehman Brothers—a major financier of the club—eventually acquired it as well. A California corporation was reportedly scheduled to close on purchase of Lone Mountain in October 2013).
When it comes to the Big Sky-Moonlight merger, Chapman says, Big Sky doesn’t discount the local skiers who have helped build Moonlight’s reputation, but the resort’s upbeat assertions haven’t calmed all tempers. After news of the acquisition broke, skiers took to Moonlight’s Facebook page to lament skyrocketing pass prices and the potential loss of their mountain’s identity. One shared a mock logo reading “R.I.P. MLB.” Another claimed Boyne is “killing Moonlight Basin.”
“There’s definitely a lot of people that are put off,” says Eric Newman, founder of Bozeman-based ski manufacturer Seneca Boards. Newman has come around to the view that the merger is a “beneficial thing,” but he has spoken to other locals who are concerned about losing “their private little slice of heaven.” Those frustrations haven’t boiled over in a big way yet, Newman adds. In the event that they do, the resort is trying to keep its options open beyond the coming season.