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A Magnificent Seven Ranches

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.

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