“How big is Big in Montana?” It’s all in the name.
“Mountain” in Spanish is Montaña and Montaña del Norte was the name Spanish explorers gave to the entire mountainous region of the west. Montana lays claim to over 50 mountain ranges, the highest of these remain snow-capped for ten months of the year, so “big” in Montana means really big.
A Year-Round Destination with Eye-Candy to spare
The next two courses we visited were built into the sides of some of these mountains. We headed east on I90 past Butte towards Bozeman and then south on I191 along the Gallatin River (remember “The River Runs Through it”). Two and a half hours later we arrived at the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club, high above the resort town of Big Sky with extraordinary views of, you guessed it, the 8,400+ foot Spanish Peaks. And if you drive another 47 miles south on I191 you’ll find lots more eye-candy through the Western Gate of Yellowstone National Park (West Yellowstone).
I used to be a half decent skier with a healthy respect of the sport, but I gave up skiing around the same time that I started focusing on golf (timing is directly correlated with meeting Evan). Fear (or perhaps good judgment?) ultimately won out when I figured it was a lot harder to break a leg driving a golf ball than schussing down a mountain. In the 20+ years that I avoided the snow (but became a much better golfer), Big Sky morphed into the largest ski resort in the US. It boasts 5,850 skiable acres and a vertical drop of 4,350 feet, treating skiers to the longest vertical run in the Lower 48. I mention all of this because these mountains offer something for everyone, for every season. While its 400 inches of annual snowfall makes for a short golf season (June through September), Big Sky provides golfers breathtaking vistas in every direction – which is exactly what Evan set out to capture at Spanish Peaks Mountain Club and The Reserve at Moonlight Basin.
Spanish Peaks Mountain Club – Tom Weiskopf Design
The photography assignment at Spanish Peaks was limited due to a new 150-room Montage Hotel that is in the midst of being built on property. The plans for it look amazing and the setting is extraordinary. It is scheduled to open in 2021 but in the meantime two red construction cranes loomed over mountain landscape. Despite this, Evan deftly maneuvered the drone to capture some amazing shots.
This par-72, 7200 yard course (from the tips known as “Triple Black Diamonds”) opened in 2007. In typical Weiskopf fashion, the fairways are wide and forgiving. The course sits at a 7,000-foot elevation.
The Reserve at Moonlight Basin – Jack Nicklaus Design
As the eagle flies, Spanish Peaks and The Reserve at Moonlight Basin are probably minutes away from each other, but everyone else should plan for about a 35-minute drive, down and around one mountainside and up another. The Reserve at Moonlight Basin sits at an elevation 7,500 feet. No matter the hole, a jaw-dropping view awaits, including the north side of Lone Peak whose elevation is a whopping 11,166 feet. Other magnificent backdrops include Fan Peak and Granite Peak. You can’t be afraid to play in the snow around here: last summer, preparing for their July 4th tournament, they were blowing the last vestiges of the white stuff out of some the shaded “sand” traps… We were here the first week in September and the superintendent kept on telling us it could snow at any time. And a week after we left that is exactly what happened! I know Evan would have quickly traded-in his short sleeves for the opportunity to capture some snow-capped peaks in these shots.
While the golf holes at Spanish Peaks are cut out of the thick pines, so you only really see and experience the hole you are on, The Reserve at Moonlight Basin has an entirely different feel. Jack Nicklaus designed this par-72, 8,000-yard course as the ultimate mountain golf eye-candy. Moonlight Basin’s beauty is magnified by its size – its 800 acres are probably 4x the size of a typical golf course with the distance between its furthest points somewhere between 2 and 2.5 miles – this is not a walking course.
You will probably think your eyes are playing tricks on you when you look at the 777-yard tee marker on the 17th Hole. It’s a par 5 with a steep drop such that with a good drive the possibility exists that you can get it on in two with an iron. See it, play it, believe it.
I thought using the antlers shed by the deer each year as tee markers was not only original but also practical, adding a wild touch to this extraordinary setting.
Bear Spray vs. Bug Spray?
I usually take wildlife in stride (if anything, I go looking for it) so I didn’t bother to ask anyone about the flame red canister strapped to every golf cart steering wheel shaft.
With some down time between photography shots, I finally realized it was bear repellent, and unlike insect repellent, you do NOT spray it on yourself! I would think this is something that should be shared. Greg at Moonlight Basin was kind enough to walk me through the two things everybody needs to know about a bear encounter: If you find yourself face to face with a bear, and you happen to be lucky/smart enough to be carrying a canister of this pepper spray: Most importantly, you need to keep a clear head, because for maximum effectiveness the bear should be no more than 30 feet away when you use the canister. If you’ve mastered that, then you need to remember to spray the repellent at waist level (the eye level of the bear, assuming he/she is not standing on its back legs). A key footnote to keeping a clear head while standing within 30 feet of the bear is that you must aim this pepper spray DOWN wind of where YOU are standing. Good luck…
Bears that Dine, Elk that Joust and one Elusive Moose
So despite the above, and the fact that Evan and I actually went out of our way to look for bears, we never saw one. We heard of numerous sightings but were never in the right place at the right time. Little did we know we just had to hang out in town to meet some of the locals! This video went viral – Photo credit goes to Ashley Franz and David O’Connor for the Bucks T4 Lodge.
Before dusk each night someone from the Pro Shop makes one last drive around the course to pull the pins on each green. Apparently the elk like to lick the salt off the pins. They’ll do a bit of jousting (and a lot of damage) around the green if a pin is left in. The elk also love to play in the sand traps. The superintendent and his crew have witnessed the elk jumping into and out of the traps as if it is some sort of game (which I guess it is).
On the last afternoon of shooting we finally saw a moose near the par 3 16th Hole. I hadn’t seen one since I was a kid growing up in Maine. Unfortunately it was late in the afternoon with lots of shadows and this guy was a bit shy. I handed my camera with its 200mm lens to Evan to ensure we got a decent shot. He did.
So whether you are a golfer, a skier, a fly fisherman/woman or just someone who loves being outdoors, visit Montana, it will not disappoint.
Spanish Peaks Mountain Club
181 Clubhouse Fork, Big Sky, MT
The Reserve at Moonlight Basin
Moonlight Trail, Big Sky, MT
Stay tuned for my next post: Waterville, Ireland