During the summer in Yellowstone, RV's are more numerous than bison. The daytime crush in the lobby of the Old Faithful Lodge induces claustrophobia. And "bear jams"—multiple-car pileups occasioned by the sighting of a far-off sow—are greater hazards than the bears themselves. But thanks to a collection of singular lodges surrounding the park, there's a novel way to appreciate the wilderness without the bedlam.
In my 25 years as a part-time resident of the northern Rockies, I've come to know many retreats within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem—18 million acres of park, plateaus, mountains, forests, and rivers. These five lodges may not be the most luxurious, but they are the most comforting. I especially like their owners—always friendly, occasionally eccentric backcountry enthusiasts who treat their guests like family. I, in turn, have no trouble embracing them as long-lost relatives. So it is with the other guests. After a week at the lodge, they, too, assume the manners of the seigneur: jokey with the staff, sentimental about the horse, possessive of the land.
Those of us lucky enough to live in this open space know not to compete with the landscape through self-important architecture—a point of wisdom thankfully adopted by these proprietors. For them, a sunset, a wolf track sighting, a lazy interval on the porch are moments of note, maybe even worthy of a war whoop.
Hamilton Bryan could never erase a childhood memory of cattle drives with his grandfather on the family ranch. So in 1996, Bryan sold his city business and lit out for Wyoming, where he assumed the lease on the dilapidated UXU, located just off a road Teddy Roosevelt called "the most scenic fifty-two miles in the United States."
The makeover took eight years. Each of the comfortable log cabins, which are surrounded by towering sandstone hoodoos and miles of Douglas fir, has been upgraded with subtle but vital details, such as handmade soapsand concealed CD players. An eager international staff attends to any request. On my first night at UXU, chef Randy Peasley's delicious dinner—grilled blue marlin in coconut-lemon broth, rosemary-and-garlic-crusted chicken, shrimp-and-scallop risotto, all served alfresco—was the perfect conclusion to a day's ride into the backcountry. Over mango sorbet, I contemplated the next day's alternatives to once again skirting peaks and winding into valleys carved by wind and rain. Should I spend it wading the Shoshone trying to outwit a wild brown trout, or leave before sunrise for a guided expedition into an uncharted nook of Yellowstone?
I set my alarm clock for dawn.
Anyone who fishes knows the reputation of the Henry's Fork. Part of the Snake River, it's generally rated the most demanding fly-fishing water in America. The 11-room TroutHunter lodge is situated near that riverine sweet spot where the Henry's and other great Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana trout streams are born. And if, admittedly, the Henry's Fork requires a Ph.D., its neighbors—the Madison and the Fire Hole in Yellowstone come to mind—will make any well-guided freshman fisherman feel like a doctoral candidate.
René Harrop, Rich Paini, and Jon Stiehl, three of the owners of this property, have set out to deliver the ultimate fishing experience. They and their team of guides are determined to instill in clients a lifelong instinct for pursuing, catching, liberating, and being belittled by great fish.
In TroutHunter's high-ceilinged restaurant built from mighty 100-year-old fir logs, I awaited the arrival of chef Jack Cole's New Zealand rack of lamb, encrusted with pecans and rosemary.I eavesdropped on septuagenarian executives as they rhapsodized with teenagers about arcane fly patterns and aloof fish. From a far table, I heard someone boast of yet another failure. Nothing, it seems, could be more amusing than being outwitted by a rainbow on the legendary Henry's Fork.
Big EZ Lodge
Everyone should commit at least one folly. This mountaintop compound is Donna and Steve Hicks's. Steve first conceived the Big EZ Lodge as a corporate retreat for his company, AM/FM Corp., but by the time the final log was in place, he had sold the company, and the firm's empty $12 million getaway was fast becoming a white elephant.
The Hickses now share the several thousand acres surrounding the Big EZ with guests, most of whom are regulars. Donna, tall, vivacious, and rarely short of words, believes the lodge will always be a work in progress. Every year, she adds to the Hickses' considerable collection of Sandra Blair and Peter Hayes pottery and Nelson Boren and Beth Loftin oils. A full-time decorator—her clients include Dennis Quaid—Donna has brought her Texas influence to each of the 13 cavernous guest rooms and every adjacent corner of the Big EZ. The bronze bears cavorting near the lodge's entrance are bigger than any grizzly in Montana. The lone star inlaid in the floor bears a striking resemblance to the one in the capitol rotunda in Austin, her hometown.