I Went to an All-inclusive Ranch During the Pandemic — Here's What It Was Like
At Montana's Ranch at Rock Creek, expect cows instead of crowds.
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
When Club Med debuted the all-inclusive model in the 1950s it was revolutionary. The cruise industry followed suit in the 1960s. Today, the idea of lining up for a buffet or waterslide is taboo at best, dangerous at worst. Fortunately, all-inclusives aren't limited to congested resorts or the confines of The Queen Mary. In fact, I stayed at one last month. Think Montana, not Mexico, glamping cabins in lieu of ship cabins, and cows instead of crowds.
The gun range at The Ranch at Rock Creek is one of its biggest draws. When I first visited four years ago I fired pistols, rifles, and shotguns at reactive targets. This time, before I could even check in, I was the target, and the gun in the receptionist's hand was taking my temperature. Despite being located in one of the least densely populated states, 30 minutes from the nearest town (Philipsburg, pop. 927), the ranch is taking coronavirus as seriously as it takes its reputation. Not long after opening in 2010 it became the world's first Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star guest ranch.
The ranch was homesteaded in the late 1800s to run cattle. Those cows are long gone (although team roping is a popular event at the ranch's weekly summer rodeos). However, some of the original 19th-century buildings — including the historic barn, which now boasts a three-bedroom suite — still stand. Today, the ranch is a Relais & Châteaux property where cowboy hats and boots, so strongly encouraged they're for sale in the ranch mercantile, are optional. Masks, on the other hand, are mandatory. They're required in public spaces and outdoors when social distancing isn't possible. They're also complimentary.
Normally, the ranch — which is popular with city-dwelling celebrities like Gwen Stefani, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kate Bosworth, who got married there in 2013 — can accommodate 125 guests. Currently, that number is capped at 50. Furthermore, 17 of the property's 29 accommodations are in separate buildings. They include barn and lodge rooms (from $1,800/night), glamping cabins (from $2,200/night), and luxury homes (from $2,400/night). The all-inclusive nightly rate includes meals, premium beverages including wine and spirits, nightly entertainment, and on-site activities. Because the resort is spread out over 6,600 acres, transportation is included. But unlike at other all-inclusive resorts, here it's private. We rode around in a luxury SUV and open-air UTV. Mountain bikes and fat bikes are also included.
My dog — yes, this all-inclusive is pet-friendly — my friend Kayla, and I stayed in the 1,300-square-foot Sweet Grass glamping cabin (from $4,200/night). We had neighbors on both sides. Still, the only sound we heard was the babbling of Rock Creek, a stone's throw from the cedar soaking tub on our back porch. Our cabin had a wood-burning stove, living area, kitchenette, and two bathrooms with showers. The two adjoining canvas tents featured king suites with claw-foot tubs and gas-burning stoves. Our only complaint was that the heat went out. Still, the custom-made bedding (I liked it so much I had to ask where it was from) kept us cozy.
As comfortable as our cabin was, we spent most of our time as we would at any other all-inclusive. The pool was closed for the season, but between the hot tub, ice skating rink, disc golf course, ropes course, and hiking and mountain biking trails, we were never bored. Even the fitness center and spa were open, albeit only to one party at a time. As much as we wanted to take advantage of the Peloton or try the CBD Massage or Saddle Sore Soak, we spent most of our time indoors trying to turn splits into spares in the Silver Dollar Saloon.
Normally, the saloon is a gathering place. These days, guests can reserve it, for free, and have the entire sanitized space — complete with four-lane bowling alley, movie theater, pool table, and karaoke — to themselves. The saloon's bar, where patrons sit on saddles, is currently closed. However, because there were so few guests on property, Noah, the lodge bartender, was happy to bring us hot toddys, huckleberry mules, and homemade guacamole and chips whenever we called.
For many, the unlimited food and beverages is the best part of an all-inclusive. At the ranch, it's all from a curated menu, featuring locally sourced ingredients like Montana Wagyu beef, fit for a Michelin Guide inspector. Since Kayla lives in California, where indoor dining is still off limits, she was worried about eating in a restaurant. However, the rare opportunity to eat out in a safe environment was too good to pass up, so we didn't opt for room service. Our tables were so far apart we couldn't touch our neighbors' imaginary six-foot poles with our imaginary six-foot poles. Even when there's not a pandemic, the closest thing the ranch has to a buffet is cocktail hour around a roaring bonfire.
The next best thing about an all-inclusive is the included activities. At the ranch, fly fishing and horseback riding reign supreme. Unlike other guest ranches, which offer group rides, The Ranch at Rock Creek has always only offered private rides. Our wrangler told us it has more to do with catering to guests' comfort levels and abilities. While Kayla trotted off in search of elk, I fed, and subsequently made friends with, Thelma and Louise. Can you catch COVID-19 from sheep? I wasn't sure, so I wore my mask to be safe.
I even wore it on our guided nordic skiing excursion over a nearby mountain pass on our final day. It kept my face warm. Plus, at this point in our stay, I was just used to wearing it. It was like the wristband you wear at most all-inclusives. But that's not to say The Ranch at Rock Creek is like most all-inclusives. Yes, you only have to pay one price (unless you want extras). But one price you don't have to pay is your peace of mind. And during a global pandemic, you can't put a price on that.