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A Magnificent Seven Ranches

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.

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.

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