Rad standing in front of trail map

July 13, 2023

A New Perspective

Story & Photos by Gabrielle Gasser


Big Sky Resort rolls out updated summer trail map

The sun shines on slopes lush with green vegetation and wildflowers. Lone Mountain looms over lifts and mountain biking trails sporting a perpetual patch of snow on the North Summit Snowfield. Sphinx Mountain and Cedar Mountain stand in the distance above valleys blanketed by clouds. This stunning view has been artfully captured by Rad Smith, a Bozeman-based illustrator, in Big Sky Resort’s new summer trail map.

Filling a sizable gap in the trail map illustration industry, Smith has stepped up in the wake of James “Jim” Niehues’ retirement from a prolific 30-year career. Smith painted Big Sky Resort’s new summer trail map that debuted for the 2023 season, and he has completed about two dozen projects for other resorts.

Smith, 52, has lived in Bozeman for 25 years and always had a strong interest in drawing and painting from a young age. After earning a degree in Fine Art and Commercial Art from Flagler College, Smith followed the call of the mountains to Montana.

Photo Credit: Patrick Conroy

Initially, Smith worked as an art director for a now-defunct magazine and later landed a job with environmental consulting firm Garcia and Associates where he worked for 20 years on mapping projects.

“I've always loved maps and been drawn to exploring the world through maps,” Smith said in a June 14 interview at his home studio.

During his time at the agency, Smith said he transitioned from more traditional analytical mapmaking to an artistic mode that combined graphic design, cartography and illustration. Then, seven years ago, Smith reached out to Niehues after reading an article about his work on the Big Sky Resort winter trail map.

“I wanted to get back to painting,” Smith said, “I was tired of staring at a computer.”

Niehues suggested to Smith that he take a digital trail map and turn that into a painting as an initial test project.

“He assured me that I was moving in the right direction with everything,” Smith said. “I think more than anything, just having that support from him and assurance was huge.”

As the mentorship blossomed, Niehues began referring projects to Smith and offering him advice. He emphasized the need for Smith to develop his own style and technique.

Rad painting the trail map

Margaret Siberell, Senior Graphic Designer at Big Sky Resort, connected with Smith last summer after a retired Niehues recommended Smith for the summer trail map project. Siberell said that it was a good time to make the switch from a traditional topographic map to an illustrated one.

The goal, she added, was to make the summer trail map reflect the winter trail map creating continuity between the two seasons for guests.

To start, Siberell invited Smith to the resort to explore Lone Mountain in the summer on mountain bikes and take reference photos. From there, she said, Smith worked through his process.

“His work just keeps getting better and better, Siberell said. “It's so cool to have somebody like that right in our backyard in Bozeman spearheading the industry now that Jim is retired.”

Siberell standing next to the trail map at Big Sky ResortSiberell beside one of the trail maps at Big Sky Resort Photo Credit: Big Sky Resort

To create detailed illustrations for resort maps, Smith follows a three-step process. First, he sends a thumbnail or line drawing to the client that he created on the computer. Then, once he and the client are happy with the drawing, Smith projects it onto vellum paper and creates a detailed pencil sketch.

“Map illustration, it's all about trying to emphasize the features and textures that make the place unique and then really trying to simplify the landscape so that it can be used as an easy wayfinding tool,” Smith said.

Finally, Smith projects his drawing onto an illustration board and creates the painting using gouache or opaque watercolors. This entire process can take up to about 150 hours, Smith said, but every project is different.

Rad's paint tray

“Jim helped me and gave me the confidence that I needed to work with the pigment,” Smith said. “I tended to use too much water. At first, I wasn't getting the blending and the saturation that I wanted and that I saw in his paintings.”

For the Big Sky Resort project, Smith used the perspective created by Niehues, which captures the roughly 6,000-acre resort in one panoramic view. Smith said he was excited to work on this summer project because it included features that he always wanted to paint, including Lone Mountain and Sphinx Mountain. 

Rad's paints lined up

“The local aspect of it for me was really special,” Smith said. “There's a lot of places around Southwestern Montana that I'd love to paint, and this was certainly one of them.”

Though summer maps used to scare him, Smith said the Big Sky project was one of his favorites to work on so far.

“I've only done a handful, and they're challenging,” Smith said. “There's just a lot more texture and detail that goes into a summer map.”

The new map is not only a piece of art but a useful wayfinding tool for guests visiting the resort this summer.

Rad smiles while painting the trail map

As opposed to the previous topographic map that provided a top-down view of the resort, Smith’s map provides a more intuitive view of all the trails and activities that the resort has to offer.

“I think something that reflects the winter map is really beneficial to anybody that is up there in the two different seasons,” Smith said.

He added that he thinks this map will encourage visitors to want to explore new areas and trails armed with a new perspective and the promise of a stunning view.

“Someone would look at a map like this and sit over a beer and talk about where they've been or where they want to go the next day,” Smith said. “I think an illustrated map encourages that, the fun side of exploration and being in the outdoors.”

The finished trail map

As part of Big Sky Resort’s commitment to its ForeverProject sustainability mission, copies of the summer trail map are no longer printed out. The map is available on signage around the resort, on the Big Sky Resort app and on the resort’s website. Printed trail maps are still available in the winter season.

Gabrielle Gasser is a writer and photographer who grew up in Big Sky, Montana and is currently based out of Bozeman. In the winter you'll find her ski instructing out on the slopes at Big Sky Resort or curled up with a good book.