Montana may not be for everyone. There is talk of a man who, every summer, accompanies his wife and kids on a plane as far as Bozeman, hugs them good-bye at the baggage carousel, and catches the first flight back to New York. For him there is only one canyon, and it's between Park and Fifth.
He is the exception. Over the last decade, Montana has become the city dweller's fantasy getaway, a Hollywood-brewed American dream where the wannabe land baroness can try to outvamp Barbara Stanwyck, where the kid in you can race a buckskin horse across the north 40 in the morning, and then, in the evening shadows, stalk a trophy trout.
Related: America's Best Dude Ranches
Ever since the OTO Ranch near northern Yellowstone began taking paying guests nearly a hundred years ago, Easterners have been donning wide-brimmed hats, angora chaps, and silver belt buckles as a way of laying claim to the northern Rockies. And what have the dude ranches offered them? Until recently, a numbingly consistent experience: a clanging bell announcing an early breakfast, followed by a trail ride with bologna sandwiches for lunch; upon return, a hot bath, and then a furtive cocktail (no liquor license, thank you) in a cold cabin; the dinner bell summoning the saddle-sore to a few bars of "America the Beautiful," a charbroiled steak, and lumpy potatoes.
Today, most Montana dude ranches have loosened the yoke of tradition. They prefer to be known as guest ranches, for one thing, and offer comforts that were unimaginable a mere decade ago. Stylistically, each goes its own way. The seven superior ranches we're spotlighting promise inventive food (Would you believe wild mushroom soup? Sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna?), privacy, elective activities (many unrelated to horses), and relief from the forced camaraderie of yesteryear's summer camp. But for all their distinctions, they unanimously contend that awesome scenery, fast water, land to roam, and a charming cabin will make every guest forget the banality, brutishness, and busyness of a faraway world. They are correct.
If there is any one place that best defines the new approach, it is the luxurious Elk Canyon Ranch. You return from a dinner prepared by a master chef to discover your bed turned down and logs in a massive river-rock fireplace. At dawn the herd, numbering 75, is driven into the corral for the pleasure of the guests. Early morning rides take in giddy views, mysteries of natural history, and, in an advanced group, a good hard gallop. But riding need not dominate your stay. By the end of seven days, guests might have sampled many more than seven activities (including skeet and trap shooting, tennis, swimming, and fishing), and hanker to repeat them all.
Elk Canyon was born in 1984, the dream of Hugo Schoellkopf, who wanted to achieve the standards of one of the most exclusive ranches in the West, the A Bar A in southern Wyoming. So he recruited its managers, John and Kay Eckhardt, as his partners. Together they combed western Montana for the perfect site, and found it on the Smith River in rolling country just east of the Continental Divide. It had everything: rimrock, meadow, mountaintop, forest, mule deer, elk, and a blue-ribbon trout river. The existing buildings, handsome in their own right, would be fine for the staff, but guests would receive new and sumptuous appointments.
Three years after construction began, Schoellkopf was killed while piloting his plane through Montana's Absaroka Range. His heirs and the Eckhardts have sustained his vision. The buildings are all high-ceilinged, tastefully decorated, in tune with the landscape. Staff members-- mostly undergraduates from Southern colleges-- are long on smiles and "Yes ma'ams," horses match every preference, privacy is guarded. Such carefree luxury does not come cheap, but for those in search of a safe and gracious foothold in the West, Elk Canyon has no peer.
One might be suspicious of a Montana guest ranch that offers not just horses but sailing, waterskiing, white-water rafting, fishing, tennis, and golf. We're not in a Florida resort, after all. But Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge passes the Montana test; it's a comprehensive guest ranch built around good quarter horses, an expansive equestrian facility, and well-maintained trails.
While Flathead Lake Lodge takes as many as 120 guests at a time, it remains intimate: you'll sense it in front of the huge stone fireplace in the evening, at dinner served alfresco around campfires. Your wrangler may well be your dinner partner as you enjoy a meal of grilled salmon, beef Wellington, and sunflower-seed cake.
In this country, one's eyes are fixed not so much on big sky as silvered water. Flathead Lake is shadowed by the Mission and Swan mountains, and the white peaks of Glacier National Park loom to the north. At 197 square miles, Flathead is the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi. In the space of minutes, a howling storm can fleet into oblivion and whitecapped waters become as guileless as a millpond's.
The dude operation was created by Doug Averill's father, Les, just after World War II. But Doug has since touched the ranch with second-generation embellishments-- the addition of a bison ranch to the north and, now, the purchase and restoration of two sailboats, one formerly owned by J. P. Morgan. In late afternoon, climb aboard and set your bearings for Wild Horse Island. With a tailwind, the skipper and his mate might raise the spinnaker. On your return you may execute a few stylish jibes to enter the lodge's harbor under full sail, hoping that someone at the lodge's Saddle Sore Bar is watching.
While other guest ranches rave about their variety of activities, the Complete Fly Fisher prides itself on just one. Fishing is at the heart of its powerful philosophy: a stay at the Complete Fly Fisher promises not just an exceedingly good time, but a change of perspective.
Brothers Stuart and David Decker apprenticed at the ranch under the previous owners, Phil and Joan Wright, who set the standard for fly-fishing across the entire northern Rockies. Theirs was an English chalk-stream sensibility whereby those who chose dry flies over wet were beatified, success was deemed secondary to casting elegance, and proper attire was mandatory. In those days, vintage wine accompanied every picnic.
Stuart and David have updated the tradition by investing it with spontaneous fun. They describe their river, the Big Hole, as a producer of genetically superior rainbow and brown trout, 3,000 fish to the mile. They also claim that their team of river guides can transform a novice into an independent angler in a week's stay. Rarely do guests graduate: 70 percent of Complete Fly Fisher's visitors return year after year, not merely for good fishing but for its revelations. A vacation here imbues you with an awe of waters and the disclosure of inner quiet.
The ranch accommodates 16 guests in private, modern cabins. Evening cocktails are taken in a contemporary lodge on the riverbank; the library contains first-edition Rudyard Kiplings and vintage volumes by O. Henry. Dinners (expect pumpkin, coconut, and curry soup followed by fresh arugula, venison or salmon, and a just-baked pie) are springboards for soul-stretching conversation.
As owners of 9,000 deeded acres and stewards over 11,000 more in what is perhaps the most beautiful valley in southern Montana, Maryanne Mott and Herman Warsh never had to open the B Bar Ranch to guests. Dudes were introduced here in the spirit of several other follies-- rare heirloom vegetables, Suffolk Punch draft horses, and even more precious White Park cattle. But they are loath to hoard their natural treasures, and besides, they love company.
A working cattle ranch, the B Bar offers guests a chance to participate in real cattle activities with real cattle folk. Its hikes are world-class: sharing the range with elk, grizzly bear, moose, and mule deer, visitors can enjoy mountain glades and little-known corners of Yellowstone Park in the company of naturalists. After fishing Tom Miner Creek for cutthroats, they might return to a game of tennis, a hot tub, and a cocktail on the porch.
Dining at the B Bar is a holistic experience, for the food is homegrown-- the beef is natural, the vegetables are staggering in their variety (45 kinds of lettuce, 18 types of tomato, 14 different potatoes). Guest quarters consist of six A-frames, each of which sleeps four. They have all been restored and decorated with bold quilts and log furniture. The main lodge houses Maryanne and Herman's extensive collection of Don Hindman and Molesworth furniture, some of it from the nearby OTO, the now- defunct fountainhead dude ranch. This classic Western room is yours to enjoy. After a while you will think that it and everything else at the B Bar is, in fact, yours. That's just the way Herman and Maryanne like it.
Lone Mountain Ranch is no secret. Hard by Big Sky, Montana's much-ballyhooed ski resort, it is known for exceptional cross-country skiing in winter and an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing program the rest of the year.
Lone Mountain has all but made a science of giving families indelible vacation memories. In summer, for instance, it employs full-time naturalists to escort guests into the mountains. It has published its own checklists of trees, wildflowers, birds, and mammals, as well as a book of campfire songs. The fishing here is expansive, with outings to the Yellowstone, the Madison, and the Henry's Fork rivers.
Picnics? Three years ago, the owners of Lone Mountain invited the Timber Framers Guild of North America to craft an enormous pavilion just for picnics. The result: a stunning structure where Culinary Institute of America graduates add voodoo to traditional hamburgers and coleslaw.
Dining? In the high-beamed restaurant, decorated with Native American parfleches, one is daunted by a menu of starters that might include gravlax, carpaccio, fried calamari, buffalo mozzarella, and a sachet of asparagus and chèvre, followed by mixed grill, ravioli St. Jacques, or bison.
The cabins are varied. Many date from the time of Paul Butler-- the Chicago land baron for whom, in the thirties, Lone Mountain was a private refuge. Some are cozy one-roomers with woodstoves and adjoining baths; others accommodate as many as three families. The recently completed Ridgetop Lodge is of slick, modern log construction and may remind you of Aspen.
At Lone Mountain, all guests must attend an orientation class before saddling up. Trail rides are limited by the encroachment of Big Sky. Unless you sign up for a glorious all-day outing, in which the horses are trailered into nearby Yellowstone National Park, you can expect loops of two hours or less, featuring natural history tidbits. Either way, a massage therapist awaits you on your return. Lone Mountain is for those who view the prospect of the outdoors with enthusiasm, but the actual wilderness with equivocation.
The signs to Bonanza Creek Country are modest, and so is the road. It heads north out of Lennep, nearly a ghost town, and seems more a crazed roadworker's doodle than a proper route. On one side lies the Castle Range, on the other, the Crazy Mountains. In between: a broad valley with the symmetry and power of a furrow between massive ocean rollers. Add 30,000 deeded acres to its National Forest lease and you are sitting on a spread that's well over 100,000 acres.
Bonanza Creek Country is the invention of June Voldseth, whose husband's family has held the property since 1877. A few years ago she decided she needed something more than hayfields in summer and hay bales in winter. Couldn't this beauty and serenity be put in the service of something other than cows?
David and June Voldseth set out to build a guest ranch much as others decide to add dormers to their second floor. They selected the four attractive cedar buildings from a catalogue. While modest in design, the lodge and cabins are welcoming, roomy, comfortable, and appropriately decorated, with art and furniture ranging from Plains Indian to mountain-man motifs.
But if the architecture appears to be an homage to convention, everything else at Bonanza Creek is pure extravagance. Take the view from the decks: no cabin is visible from any other. A molten sun rising above the Crazies ignites the morning air. Breakfast in the lodge's spare, light-filled dining room includes fresh muffins and smoked ranch bacon. The riding is not on traditional dude horses mindlessly advancing head to tail, but on honest ranch mounts willing to adapt to your course-- horses that can make a devotee out of a beginner.
Most important of all, Bonanza Creek Country imposes no set program on its guests. Accommodating 16 people tops, the ranch is rarely occupied by more than two or three parties simultaneously. "We're flexible," says June Voldseth. The staff is happy to adjust to your whims: a child's horsemanship lesson in the corral, a daylong ride in search of Native American pictographs, a hike, cattle-gathering in company with the ranch "ramrod" (the chief cattleman), a mountain bike ride, a fishing expedition after giant rainbow trout, a drive to the nearby Charles M. Bair Family Museum, or, yes, a good book by the fire.
The Voldseths say they took up dude ranching to diversify their business, but clearly there's a simpler reason: they like people. Several evenings a week, after taking an exhilarating gallop, you will come upon the Voldseths and their children gathered around a campfire in a grove of aspen, laughing. You will be invited to picket your horse, pull up a chair, enjoy a glass of wine, hors d'oeuvres, a steak fry, hash browns, peach cobbler. And when David and June, unfailingly observant, have come to understand you, the conversation may turn on galaxies, history, or heifers. At its end, you will know that the extravagance of Bonanza Creek Country is not merely in its great space, but in the human grit that brings it into view.
On its brochure, the ranch's motto may go unnoticed, as a simple banality: "Beyond all roads." It is, in fact, the very essence of the K Bar L-- what renders it without equal among dude ranches and makes the very process of arrival an adventure.
Imagine leaving a sleepy Montana town (Augusta) and driving nearly an hour on a gravel road until it ends beside a shimmering lake (Gibson Reservoir). After a moment of solitude, you find yourself racing in the ranch's jet boat to where the lake narrows-- a far mudbank, bracketed by willows. Your baggage will be transferred to a buckboard hauled by mules. A tethered horse then awaits you for the final leg-- a meander alongside buttes and Blackfoot rock painting, until, rounding a corner, you meet the junction of the north and south forks of the Sun River, on the edge of the vast Bob Marshall Wilderness. A narrow wooden suspension bridge will bring you out of the forest into a compound of corrals, cabins, green lawns, and delphiniums.
The K Bar L is one of the few surviving traditional dude ranches. A homemade hydroelectric system provides power, telephone service is of Alexander Graham Bell vintage, and there's a wood-burning stove for cooking. While the ranch dates to 1927, its present owners, Dick and Nancy Klick, admit that a mere three generations of their family have run it, since 1947. Maintenance has been fastidious, but its look has changed little. The Klicks are committed to preserving the artifacts of their history because the K Bar L's prized clientele, who return decade after decade, are hooked on ranch tradition. One proud relic is the outhouse, "good enough for the prewar era, as it is for today" (there are also modern facilities). Another is the saddlebag picnic: a brown paper bag with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a chocolate chip cookie, and an apple. Another is the pool-- a salubrious hot spring, consistently 86 degrees, rich in sulfur.
In more than 30 miles of rivers, native cutthroat and wild rainbow trout are ravenous for the well-presented fly. The string of horses, most of them broken by Dick Klick (a descendant, he allows, of a Russian Cossack), are long-distance animals, ideal for excursions to remote verges. Hiking is unsurpassed, with trails so numerous that in the course of a week one need never retrace a step.
Repairing to the lodge, on a flower-fragrant porch hung with a phalanx of record-book elk horns, one sips a cocktail, watches calliope hummingbirds wage war over sugar, and savors Dick Klick's laconic, sometimes inscrutable, jargon ("Forest Service wanted me to lamatize my cavvy. . . . No damn way, I said."). Inside, a fire blazes at one end of the great room, bear and mountain lion skins line log walls, a massive Chinese breakfront brought in by mule team dominates a corner. This is where one should curl up to read the complete novels of John Buchan. But no time to waste, for the table is filled with No Peeky Chicken and C.M.R. Country Noodle Casserole.
At the K Bar L, you sleep the sleep of centuries in a log cabin and wake to bursts of heat from a Franklin stove and to the sound of drumming hooves. Unexpectedly, you've found a new home in a place beyond all roads.
Elk Canyon Ranch White Sulphur Springs; 406/547-3373, fax 406/547-3719; adults $300 per day, children 11 and under $225, no credit cards. Transfers to and from the Bozeman airport are $175 one way for a party of six or less. Season: late May through mid-October. One-week minimum stay.
Averill's Flathead Lake Lodge Bigfork; 406/837-4391, fax 406/837-6977; $2,275 per adult per week. One-week minimum stay. Transportation to and from Kalispell and Whitefish is $25 per family, each way. Season: mid-June to mid-September for families.
Complete Fly Fisher Hwy. 43, Wise River; 406/832-3175; $460 a day for each angler (includes guide and equipment). Recommended stay is six nights. Season: June through September.
Lone Mountain Ranch Lone Mountain Ranch Rd., Big Sky; 406/995-4644, fax 406/995-4670; $2,500 for the first person per week, $1,887 for each additional person. Season: June through October. Cross-country ski season: mid-December through March.
Bonanza Creek Country Lennep Route, Martinsdale; 800/476-6045 or 406/572-3366, fax 406/572-3366; adults $183- $200 a day, children 12 and under $133- $150. Price includes all meals and activities, including horseback rides, fishing, hiking, and mountain biking. Season: June through August. Also available for fall and winter activities at reduced rates.
K Bar L Ranch Augusta; 406/562-3589 (winter and spring), 406/562-3551 (summer and fall); adults $960 in July and August for a six-day, five-night minimum stay ($160 for additional days), children $840 ($140 for additional days); $350 per person in June and September for a three-day, two-night minimum stay ($150 for additional days). Special family rates are available. No children under six. Pack trips are extra. Season: June through September.
Off the Beaten Path 27 E. Main St., Bozeman; 800/445-2995 or 406/586-1311, fax 406/587-4147. All good guest ranches are booked by loyal guests one year in advance, and openings are usually sparse. Off the Beaten Path is a custom travel service that enjoys considerable clout with the West's best ranches. It can do what you might not be able to-- find a spot at the ranch of your choice at the right time, or locate an equally alluring alternative.