“Ya’ll finally look like Texans!” a friend exclaimed on Facebook in a comment on a photo of my husband and me on vacation recently in cowboy hats and boots.
The irony did not escape me that we traveled all the way to Montana from Texas to wear cowboy boots and ride horses, but as a city girl, I have not had the vaguest interest in shooting a gun, fishing, or camping. My outdoor pursuits in Texas (where our seasons range from “hot” to “surface of the sun”) generally involve swimming pools. Needless to say, I was a bit over-enthusiastic about the opportunity to stay at a ranch in Montana with my husband for a long weekend in September.
Perhaps in a way, my city self was curious to connect with a sort of country life that has eluded me in my home state, and maybe, just maybe, I actually harbored a secret desire to shoot a gun. Whatever the reason, I was eager to breathe in this new place, and at the same time, some fresh country air.
The Ranch at Rock Creek near Philipsburg, Montana is no ordinary dude ranch. This property has been operating as a luxury all-inclusive ranch for about six years now and has garnered impressive recognition in that time:
- It is the only property in the US to be named a National Geographic Unique Lodge
- It is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux group
- It is the only ranch to be named to Forbes Five Star travel guide
The Ranch occupies 6,600 acres, which sets the perfect stage for an intimate vacation with either a loved one, or a whole family of loved ones! It consists of a main lodge with nine rooms, ten glamping tents, seven luxury homes, and one historic barn which can be configured several different ways- perfect for a large family. There are infinite outdoor pursuits to enjoy during the day with evenings set around the campfire or the Silver Dollar Saloon. Summers bring more outdoor fun such as special chef’s grill dinners on the flagstone patio or line dancing at the barn.. and many families enjoying the festivities and time with each other. Spring and fall bring crisp evening breezes, delicious chef’s tasting menus at the lodge and makes a perfect shoulder season to visit. Winters bring fun snow-driven activities like snow-shoeing, cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and sleigh rides. The Ranch is also just a half hour away from the Discovery Ski area.
The planning process started when I received an activities questionnaire pre-arrival, loaded with fun questions like:
“Have you ever fly-fished before?”
“How would you describe your (horse) riding ability level?”
Grinning, I furiously checked every box. Archery? Of course! Fly-fishing? Sounds amazing! Rifles? YES PLEASE!! The hubs glanced over my shoulder.
“Really?” he questioned with an amused smile. “YOU want to fish and shoot guns?”
So after a call with the Ranch concierge to go over everything, and thanks to a last minute shopping spree for plaid flannel shirts and puffy vests to ensure that we would fit in, we were all set for our Montana adventure! And if you are like me and do not happen to own a cowboy hat and boots (please, don’t pull my Texan card), the Ranch has gear for guests to borrow during their stay.
We flew Delta via Salt Lake City to Butte, an easy connection. (As a side note, the Ranch also picks guests up from the larger Missoula airport nearby.) We departed DFW at 6am and arrived at tiny Butte Airport at 11am. We hopped in the Ranch’s SUV and made our way through the tiny town of Anaconda just past Butte, and shortly thereafter, we arrived at the Ranch.
The extra friendly desk staff helped welcome us into the small reception area where they said that our room in the Granite Lodge was ready and we were welcome to enjoy lunch before our 2:00pm horseback ride. The Granite Lodge is the main building where check-in, the dining room, great room, and nine guest rooms are located. The canvas tents and family homes are located elsewhere among the Ranch’s 6,600 acres, mostly just across the street along Rock Creek. Our room (Remington) was well-appointed with eclectic country decor, including cowboy hats displayed on the wall above the bed, vintage framed photos, and cowhide rugs.
The Great Room is cozy and intimate and features perfect ranch decor like oversized leather seating, moose horn chandeliers, and bar with cowhide barstools. A roaring fire is frequently lit. Coffee is set out each morning along with pastries for guests to grab and go, and then later in the day, snacks and cookies are available. All are included in the rate, so with our room being inside the Granite Lodge, it felt even more so like it was our personal residence, so we could just slip around the corner of our room for a glass of wine by the fire, or an afternoon cookie whenever we wanted!
As the weather was gorgeous and in the upper 70s, we chose to lunch outside on the flagstone patio just outside of our room. A quick glance at the lunch menu told me that we were in for a very special treat all weekend long! Chef Josh Drage is a true asset to the Ranch, and his cuisine truly sets this property apart. With the Ranch since the beginning about six years ago, Chef Drage hails from Alaska and specializes in unique and locally sourced Montana ranch cuisine. For our first lunch, I enjoyed an organic red quinoa salad with kale, while the hubs chose a sweet potato sandwich. Both succeeded in boosting our energy and filling our bellies just in time for horseback riding.
We checked in at the Rod & Gun Club (aka the activities center) for riding. They led us to the horse barn where our welcoming and knowledgeable guide awaited us. After getting acquainted with riding, we enjoyed a gentle hour-long trot along Rock Creek on our respective horses- Cimarron and Traveler. What a joy to ride a horse named Traveler! We were obviously kindred spirits. After chatting horses and Montana with our guide while enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery of Rock Creek, we headed back to the Granite Lodge to rest and get cleaned up for dinner.
A 5-course menu with wine pairings awaited us, and I giddily settled into our table. Organic kale, Alaskan halibut, local beef tenderloin.. this menu read more like that of a 5-star restaurant.. but this is what happens when you combine a luxury dude ranch in Montana with Relais & Chateaux and Chef Drage! The Ranch staff are not only knowledgeable about the food and wines, but are genuinely interested in the guests. Every single day they asked us what activities we were doing, how we were enjoying it, etc. LOVED each and every one of them, and we miss them already!
Post-dinner haze settled in (as we had been up since 3:00am Dallas time at that point!) but we could not bear to go to sleep before exploring the Silver Dollar Saloon. The Saloon, with its four-lane bowling alley, shuffleboard table, darts, movie theater, iconic saddle barstools, and karaoke, is an awesome place for guests to relax in the late afternoon til late night. Play with friends or make new friends! We tried out every game there until we about passed out from sheer exhaustion. A cowgirl needs her beauty sleep, so we finally tucked in to be ready for our first full day at the Ranch.
The next morning greeted us with the crisp (read: cold) fall breeze that I have been longing for in Texas (but which will elude us for another month or two), and we settled into to a hearty ranch breakfast of organic egg scrambles, bacon and toast. Once sufficiently energized, we headed down to the Rod & Gun Club for our 9:00am fly-fishing activity. Our guide energetically greeted us and helped us put on our fly-fishing pants with neoprene booties, and then boots over that! He then went over lures, and the basics of fly-fishing, which I fully admit, was much more involved than I would have thought. You have to try to figure out where the fish will be in the creek, what they are eating, and then move and bait accordingly. We practiced casting our lines on the green lawn before heading down to the creek.
It was a beautiful Montana morning to be outdoors, and we had so much fun to learn how to fly-fish. Our guide asked me around 11:15am what time it was, and when I told him, he leaned in and asked almost confidentially with a grin, “How much longer would you like to fish? Because I could be out here all day.” And I believed it! After each activity at the Ranch in general, we were asked if we were finished or if we would like to keep fishing/riding/shooting? The whole experience just felt so personalized, never rushed, and it was fantastic.
After fishing, we enjoyed another gourmet lunch (organic red quinoa and kale salad again for me!) before gearing up to shoot rifles. I expected this to be an entirely hilarious experience as prior to this trip, my shooting experience involved water guns. Our rifles guide loaded us into the vehicle and we drove about 10 minutes over to the rifle range. After reviewing safety procedures, we settled into the little hut and stared at the targets ahead of us, which included paper targets and metal disks at 25, 50, 100, and 200 yards. I slipped my noise-canceling headphones on, and the guide handed me a 22 long semi-automatic rifle. Nervously, I sat down on the bench and rested the rifle on a little beanbag in front of me before leaning in to peer out the scope. Safety off, and I fired at the paper target 25 yards ahead of me. Nailed it! Whoa, that was fun! For the next hour, we went from the 22 long, to a 17 HMR bolt action, to a 38 special lever action, to a 223 AR 15, which turned out to be my favorite, as it was the most powerful and accurate. Pre-Montana Laura didn’t even want to shoot, let alone have a “favorite rifle.” What the heck was happening to me? My gun-toting friends back home will be proud.
After shooting, we headed up to a beautiful lookout point on property called “Top of the World” which has a sign posted there indicating as such. At 5,800 feet above sea level, and 600 feet higher than the ranch, you can see out over much of the surrounding area including the nearby Sapphire mountains. Then we headed back to the Granite Lodge for a cocktail to celebrate our day, which included my first time to ever fish or shoot a gun. (Reason to celebrate, indeed!) We enjoyed our drinks and then headed to the Lodge dining room for another amazing dinner.
It only felt right to cap off such a great day with the finest cuisine by Chef Drage, including tonight’s line caught chinook salmon and a butterscotch budino, which had the torched crust of a creme brulee with a thick and sweet butterscotch pudding beneath. The top was dusted with sea salt, and the treat’s sweet and salty flavors mingled to create the perfect ending to our meal. By the way, it was almost embarrassing how clean our plates were when the servers picked them back up.. gleaming white as if we had quite literally licked them clean.. Or did we? We’ll never tell. All I can say is, I miss Chef Drage and his kitchen creations terribly!!
Post dinner we headed back to the Granite Lodge great room where we were greeted at the bar. Not sure what I wanted, the bartender asked if I wanted to try his special smoked strawberry margarita? Duh. The contrasting flavors of smoke and fruit with tequila in a tall glass rimmed with salt & sugar was delicious, and unlike any drink I’ve had before. The hubs and I then slipped out to the Silver Dollar Saloon where we again bowled a few games and shot pool before deciding to try out karaoke. People, it does not get more fun than wearing a suede-fringed vest and sipping a smoked strawberry margarita from a horse saddle turned barstool while belting out karaoke on a ranch in Montana. Seriously. I highly recommend it.
Today, after another hearty breakfast, it was time to try archery! We headed to the Rod & Gun Club and after a safety-briefing by our guide, we loaded up our compound bows with arrows and began target practice. While I think I was much better at rifles, archery was a ton of fun. From target practice, we graduated to a nine animal course through the woods (the Ranch has two courses) that consist of foam animals that we got to target from various distances. From bighorn sheep to turkey, I’d say we pretty much nailed them all! So fun. And after a midday lunch break, it was on to our afternoon activity- a ropes course!
Our ropes course guides met us at the Rod & Gun Club to take us over to the ropes course, which consist of various obstacles teetering 35 feet into the air. Safely harnessed in, we tackled each one, from tightrope walks to ziplines with our guides cheering us every step of the way. “NICE! NIIIICE JOB GUYS!!” The final task is called the Leap of Faith. First, you climb up a wooden pole 35 feet in the air (which swayed with the steady breeze that day) while being attached to the ground, and to the guide, by a belay. Then, if you can figure out how to get both feet onto a round surface that is only about as wide as your head, you can leap freely 4-6 feet in front of you and attempt to catch a trapeze bar. The hubs caught it; I did not (but I tried my best!). What an adrenaline rush!
Shooting foam animals all morning and hurling ourselves about in the air by afternoon called for a serious cocktail hour back at the lodge. We sipped drinks by the roaring lobby fire before heading to our last dinner at the Ranch. Chef Drage certainly did not disappoint, with an enticing menu of red leaf lettuce salad (evoking fall with pepitas and delicata squash), north pacific ling cod, and a delicate banana chocolate peanut butter tart. We gobbled every bit and handed back our gleaming white plates to our sweet servers, who were very engaging and asking us about the day’s activities. And then we naturally headed to the Silver Dollar Saloon for more bowling and pool fun. We toasted our last Ranch night with champagne and then got right down to karaoke business, tonight with new friends, other guests of the Ranch.
Sad depressing day.. last day at the Ranch. We packed up our bags and enjoyed one last breakfast and coffee before saying goodbye to all of our new friends. It is rare, I think, to visit a place where the staff all feels like friends. But it is so obvious that they are not only passionate about what they do, they genuinely want their guests have a great time as well! They are so special and made us feel special, too.
The car pulled up, and to my huge surprise, I felt big fat tears welling up in the back of my eyes and threatening to spill over. I don’t often cry when I leave a place, but I can tell that something has really moved me when I do. Some connection has been made deep within my soul, a connection that I am afraid will be lost if I leave. Our driver hops over to help us load up our luggage for the drive towards Missoula. When we told him that we were disappointed we hadn’t seen any wildlife yet, he grinned. “I live near here on six acres, and sometimes I see moose on my way to and from work. Want to stop and see if they are out this morning?” So we swung off the main road in just a couple minutes detour. Our driver slowed down and pointed out our right window. “Look! Do you see it?” I squinted. My moose-hunting eyes were not as good as his. Stepping out of the car to try to get a closer look, we came to a stop in the middle of a field of tall grass. I took a moment to breathe in deep the cool and clean Montana air. We were surrounded by small mountains, grasses, a sapphire blue sky pierced with cotton ball clouds, and.. quiet. It was so peaceful, just the grasses rustling in the breeze as we stared at the moose in the distance. My eyes inexplicably welled with tears again. Montana had obviously stirred something within me.
So to everyone at the Ranch who made our stay so special- thank you so much for sharing your little piece of Montana with us, and I know that we will return someday because I would be absolutely heartbroken if we didn’t!