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.
After a day spent fishing deep pools along the roaring Gallatin or hiking into Beehive Basin to catch glimpses of moose and bighorn sheep, guests can book an hour with the resident massage therapist before tackling one of chef John Rolfe's creations, such as pan-roasted caribou tenderloin accompanied by curried tomato purée. I prefer to sit on my terrace and study the moon-dappled crest of the Spanish Peaks, a skyline that appears to be mine alone.
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
Owner Arthur Blank has an eye for beauty. Flowers overhang window boxes and burst from the sides of old horse wagons. All 80 saddle blankets are color coordinated. So are the roofs of the guest cabins. Many of the wranglers are attractive young women. And the dazzling view, capped by a glimmer of Emigrant Peak—nearly 11,000 feet high—could be a stage set.
Blank and his wife, Stephanie, have undertaken a complete refitting and remodeling of this 75-year-old guest ranch, as one might expect of the cofounder of Home Depot. Every room in the main lodge—library, great room, dining room, bar—has a rock-lined fireplace, which is appealing even in summer, when high-altitude evenings call for a sweater and a little contemplation. The property accommodates 80 guests, but cabins are spaced far enough apart to provide privacy and intimacy for even a three-generation family. Besides riding, fly-fishing, and tennis on the ranch's own 7,000 acres in daylight, guests spend evenings taking hayrides, barbecuing beside the heated pool, and Western dancing with the wranglers. Whatever the time of day, count on this: everything at Mountain Sky will be easy on the eye.
Lazy E-L Ranch
In 1901 a wealthy 19-year-old Easterner, besotted with the Rough Rider life, began acquiring parcels of real estate near Red Lodge, Montana. Four generations later, his dream of an unspoiled West is still intact. Open, rolling, vast, and protected, the Lazy E-L summers not only domestic cattle but also scores of wild species. Wolves den in these hills. Elk bugles echo throughout the 12,000-acre property.
Jael Kampfe, the Lazy E-L's general manager and great-granddaughter of founding father Malcolm S. Mackay, delights in listing the various issues that have roiled the family partnership over the last century. Some have involved women's rights, others land use, and one a conservation easement that has forever frozen land development on the ranch. But the decision that dominates Kampfe's life these days is the one that opened the Lazy E-L's gate to paying guests in the late eighties. Today, she thrills to the sight of newcomers occupying her family's cabins. "Now we have no time to travel," she says. "Instead, we bring the world to us."
Kampfe brings the world to the Lazy E-L one small group at a time. Guests get a choice of three cabins, from the small Russell, with cowboy artist Charlie Russell's initials burned into the mantel, to the expansive Summer, with a rarely used formal dining room of whitewashed logs. Families gravitate toward the unpretentious cookhouse at the center of ranch action. While horses graze nearby, guests and crew cluster around several tables for communal barbecues of grilled Montana Legend New York steak (antibiotic- and hormone-free Angus), roasted homegrown potatoes, and a towering plate of apple pie and ice cream.
Above all, the Lazy E-L is inclusive. On my stay, I discovered that there's no activity that Mike Murphy, the ranch's livestock manager, will not share with a guest. Branding a horse, doctoring a calf, or riding hard for six hours may not be for the squeamish, but after a few days in the saddle, I stopped pinning life to old formulas and began to imagine new verities. A horse became an extension of myself. My laughter became a war whoop.
JOHN HEMINWAY's most recent book is Yonder: A Place in Montana (National Geographic Society).
Off the Beaten Path (7 E. Beall St., Bozeman, Mont.; 406/586-1311; www.offthebeatenpath.com) can arrange guided trips into Yellowstone National Park and the Greater Ecosystem; it specializes in itineraries that include nights in these lodges.
DOUBLES FROM $2,950 PER WEEK, ALL-INCLUSIVE. 1710 YELLOWSTONE HWY., WAPITI, WYO.; 800/373-9027 OR 307/587-8307; www.uxuranch.com
DOUBLES FROM $500, ALL-INCLUSIVE. 3327 HWY. 20, ISLAND PARK, IDAHO; 208/558-9900; www.trouthunt.com
Big EZ Lodge
DOUBLES FROM $315. 7000 BEAVER CREEK RD., BIG SKY, MONT.; 406/995-7000; www.bigezlodge.com
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
DOUBLES FROM $5,440 PER WEEK, ALL-INCLUSIVE. EMIGRANT, MONT.; 800/548-3392 OR 406/333-4911; www.mtnsky.com
Lazy E-L Ranch
$9,095 PER WEEK FOR UP TO EIGHT GUESTS, ALL-INCLUSIVE. ROSCOE, MONT.; 406/328-6858; www.lazyel.com