Ridgetops not Rooftops
Emilie-July 2, 2020
Nestled amidst the forests and tall peaks of Montana’s Madison Range, Moonlight Basin was born from one man’s dream to create a luxury mountain community that harmonizes with nature, protects its abundant wildlife, and provides world-class recreational amenities.
That man was the late Lee Poole, a longtime Montanan, and outdoorsman who in 1991 bought a 25,000-acre property adjacent to Big Sky resort from a timber company—and went to work. Poole’s first order of business was highly unusual for a developer. Lee and partners sold 17,000 acres to conservation buyers. The buyers subsequently put 14,500 acres in conservation easements so those lands and their wildlife habitat would forever be protected.
“Lee was a die-hard Teddy Roosevelt Republican who believed that capitalism and conservation could go hand in hand,” says Kevin Germain, vice president of Moonlight Basin. “Lee had a saying that I’ll never forget: ‘Listen to the land.’”
For Poole, listening to the land meant developing it responsibly. His goal was to leave 80 percent of the 25,000 acres undeveloped. Poole had lived in nearby Ennis, for several decades, and he treasured Montana’s outdoor lifestyle, spending his free time hunting, fishing, and skiing throughout the region.
With several partners, Poole and his team built the trails and installed the chairlifts and infrastructure that became the Moonlight Basin ski area, which opened in 2003. Moonlight Basin was an immediate hit with skiers, providing access to 11,166-foot Lone Peak and its chutes, bowls, and treed glades. Off the mountain, he hired a cadre of environmental experts, biologists, hydrologists, botanists, and others to walk and study the lands beneath the ski area to find the areas that could be developed with the least impact to the Jack Creek Watershed and its wildlife.
The economic crash of 2009 stalled Poole’s plans, ultimately leading to the acquisition of the skiing operations by Big Sky, which now runs the lifts. Poole passed away in 2015 before his work was done, but his vision lives on.
Now, Lone Mountain Land Company and its parent company, CrossHarbor Capital Partners, the new owners of the lands at the base of the ski area and its Jack Nicklaus designed golf course and base area lodge, are honoring Poole’s dream of developing a resort community that provides access to Big Sky’s legendary slopes and the region’s recreational amenities. “Our planning methodology is to preserve open space and concentrate development into little islands of density,” says Germain. “We want our members and guests to see ridgetops not rooftops. That’s been our guiding philosophy.”
8,000 Acres of Wow
Moonlight Basin is located a short drive from Yellowstone National Park and within the 20 million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, which comprises one of the most intact natural landscapes in the Lower 48. Just outside Moonlight’s borders to the Northeast and Southwest lies the 260,000 acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness, rugged and wild lands that carry the highest level of protection and are off-limits to development. With sweeping vistas of the Spanish Peaks and Madison Range, the setting is off the charts beautiful, or “8,000 acres of wow,” as Moonlight’s owners say.
“The viewshed and the lands within the Jack Creek drainage comprise one of the more stunning landscapes I’ve seen in my life,” says Mike Wilcynski, general manager of Moonlight Basin. “We are surrounded by Wilderness, with 42 miles of roadless area to the south, and 19 miles of roadless area to the north toward the Spanish Peaks. Moonlight is this little private corridor of paradise in the middle.”
Germain and Wilcynski both live nearby in Big Sky, have children in the local school district, and want to pass on a legacy of conservation to future generations. Both are avid outdoorsmen who ski, mountain bike, golf, hunt, and fish. “This is a great place to raise kids,” says Wilcynski. “We feel very fortunate to be here.”
For skiers and snowboarders, Moonlight Basin offers easy access to Big Sky, one of the largest ski areas in the United States, with more than 5,800 acres of terrain. Unlike more crowded resorts in Colorado and Utah, which can receive millions of visitors annually, Big Sky typically sees only 500,000 visitors per winter, which means lots of room on the slopes. “I’ve never been in a liftline over 15 minutes in all my years of skiing here,” says Wilcynski. “You can find powder stashes here two to three days after a storm. That’s hard to do these days at most big resorts.”
In addition to Lone Peak, which offers 360-degree skiing off its summit for experts, Big Sky offers a plethora of long blue and green groomers for intermediates and beginners. “There is ski terrain here for everyone, from gnarly black diamond steeps to wide blue groomers and greens that you can cruise for miles, as well as world-class tree runs,” says Wilcynski. “And it is all just minutes away from your door.”
“The access to the slopes from Moonlight is great,” says Jerry Hood, a Moonlight Club member who stores his skis in a member’s locker at Moonlight Lodge. “I can park, put on my boots, and get onto the mountain in no time.”
Skiing is just one of the winter amenities at Moonlight, which has a network of groomed Nordic trails for classic cross-country and skate skiers, plus balloon-tire fat bikes—also known as snow bikes—for pedaling on the forested trails around Ulery’s Lake.
There’s a cliché saying in places like Big Sky: “Residents came for the skiing, but stayed for the summer.” It’s a widely used expression because it’s true. Summers at Moonlight Basin are just as exciting as winter and offer a range of healthy outdoor pursuits. The area is networked with multiuse trails ideal for hiking and trail running, and Ulery’s Lake offers ample paddleboarding and swimming. A short cruise down the road gets you access to Big Sky’s lift-served gravity riding. And, because it’s Montana, outfitters offering trail rides on horseback are as common as coffee shops in the city. For those who like to stay fit, the mountain biking trails within Moonlight and the surrounding National Forest lands provide epic rides and incredible views. “There are hundreds of miles of trails,” says Wilcynski. “I can head out my door and be in the woods in minutes.”
The anchor activity at Moonlight, though, is the 18-hole Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. Golfing here, too, is a uniquely Montana experience. The holes are long. Large tracts of land with native grasses and trees separate the holes. The eight and one-half mile long golf cart path is a scenic tour in and of itself.
“We chose a large layout,” says Wilcynski, who came to Moonlight in 2004 to work with Nicklaus and his team on the golf course design. “Most courses might be laid out on 200 acres. Ours is on 900 acres. That means a lot of open space between fairways.” This large layout was a function of Moonlight’s desire to avoid sensitive natural areas and construct the holes in areas with the least amount of wildlife. In Poole’s terminology, Nicklaus and his designers listened to the land. “Our philosophy was to move as little dirt as possible, to minimize disturbance, and preserve the area’s natural beauty and rugged landscape,” says Wilcynski. “You stand at the tee thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here playing golf. ’” But don’t lose focus. “You have to pay attention and be on your toes because it’s a challenging course. You will for sure use all 14 clubs in your bag.”
“I’ve played all over the world, and that golf course is one of the most unique I’ve ever played. The views are incredible,” says Hood, 59, who lives in nearby Big Sky Meadows, but has a club membership to take advantage of the golfing and skiing.
Moonlight also has a short, four-hole practice course ideal for a lightning round or family outings. On Friday evenings and weekend nights through the summer, Moonlight staff serve dinner outdoors. “You can grab a beer or a glass of wine and have dinner with the family outside and get to know your neighbors,” says Wilcynski.
Wildlife and the People: At Home at Moonlight
Located near Yellowstone and surrounded by Wilderness areas, animals abound at Moonlight. “I like to say that we have every major species that you see in Yellowstone National Park except bison and pronghorn antelope,” says Germain. That means elk and deer, black and grizzly bears, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep in the alpine wilderness. Even wolverines, one of North America’s most elusive and long-ranging carnivores, pass through the property and surrounding areas.
Hunters and anglers have access to some of the Lower 48’s best big-game terrain and blue-ribbon trout waters. The Madison River is a fly-fishing hotspot renowned by anglers from across the nation. While most Big Sky visitors must drive 90 minutes or more to reach the Madison, some lucky Moonlight Club members can use the private road that cuts through the property and trims the journey to 45 minutes.
Living at Moonlight entitles residents to become members of the Moonlight Club, which offers four-season access to equipment, lessons, golfing, special events, and facilities off-limits to the public. The vibe is family oriented and friendly. “We like to be on a first-name basis with all of our members,” says Wilcynski. The membership is diverse, with owners and members hailing from 46 states and six countries, and ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s.
Retirees Bob and Patty Rhea, bought a home at Moonlight in 2011 after visiting Montana for many years from their home in Illinois. After owning the house for a year, “we both looked at each other and said, ‘What are we still doing in Illinois?” They now live full-time at Moonlight and feel “incredibly spoiled to be here.” Bob, 59, appreciates the fact that there are no buildings taller than the treetops, and he likes Moonlight’s lack of pretension. “It’s not a clubby place. People at Moonlight want to feel like Montanans. You don’t see people making fashion statements or flaunting their money. It is a comfortable, organic place.”
Culinary options are diverse, spanning the spectrum from a lunchtime food truck at Ulery’s Lake for quick eats after a bike ride or paddleboard session, to farm-to-table cuisine from chef Jorge Morales in the Moonlight Lodge, which offers both a formal dining area where the menu can include mountain inspired fare such as locally sourced elk loin, Montana lamb chops and trout, or a casual bar setting for burgers, beer, and heavy apps. “Our membership includes vegans, vegetarians, meat eaters, and everything in between,” says Wilcynski.
Ridgetops not Rooftops; the tradition continues.
The Moonlight Basin community is not just a model of conservation planning—it’s also one of the West’s prime opportunities for retirees, second-home buyers, and urban escapees to live the Big Sky lifestyle. Investment opportunities exist in the Lodgeside, Gateway, Lakeview, and Lake Lodge neighborhoods. “People don’t buy from us just because they want a great condominium,” says Germain. “They also buy from us because they want crystal clear water, incredible views, abundant wildlife, and serenity.”
Homes in the Lodgeside neighborhood provide ski-in, ski-out access to the chairlifts and are a short stroll from Moonlight Lodge, where skiers can après at the Moonlight Tavern, or soak in the outdoor heated pool and hot tubs. A short distance away are the Gateway condominiums, which offer prime access to the hiking and mountain biking trails and snowshoeing at Ulery’s Lake, plus a community fire pit for warming up and roasting marshmallows with family and friends on chilly evenings.
The Lakeview homes and townhomes are steps from Ulery’s Lake, set amongst tall pines and providing mountain vistas in all directions. Owners can ski from their door to the Six Shooter chairlift, or walk to the LakeLodge that’s set to open next winter. The 50,000-square-foot LakeLodge is one of Moonlight’s big coming attractions. It will be home to Moonlight Outfitters, a recreation hub where members and guests can rent mountain bikes and paddleboards, Nordic skis, snow bikes, and other equipment.
The LakeLodge will also offer a half-court basketball court, fitness center for cardio and strength training, and a rock climbing wall and outdoor lap pool. Wilcynski describes the lodge as “the basecamp for membership activities.” The LakeLodge will also include residences ranging from studios to five-bedroom penthouse units for people who want to be close to the action.
This winter, the new Jayhawk chairlift begins operating, connecting LakeLodge to the future Madison Village, and providing a comfortable way for members to transit between these two epicenters of Moonlight life. Madison Village is envisioned as a new base area, complete with pedestrian walkways, a boutique hotel, homes, restaurants, and shops. Once completed, the village will be the heartbeat of Moonlight and the prime gathering center, with ski-in, ski-out access.
Contemplated plans for summer 2020 include construction of a new five-star luxury hotel at Moonlight. The 94-room boutique property will be operated by one of the top names in “ultra-luxury” hotels, says Germain. The vision for the hotel is grand, with a 15,000-square-foot spa where guests can book massages and get pampered after a day on the slopes or hiking in the woods. The facility will include several fine dining restaurants and retail shops.
“Montana is a unique place, and Moonlight is a unique place within Montana,” says Germain. “Just the word Montana has a romantic connotation in peoples’ minds. We want to honor and protect that. Ski areas are getting more and more urbanized and homogenized around the world. They are overdeveloped and crowded. We are doing it differently here. If you buy a home at Moonlight, you are looking at Wilderness and surrounded by incredible natural assets.”
Lee Poole would be proud.