Rustic Luxury

With an abundance of dude and resort ranches in the state of Montana, one in particular — The Ranch at Rock Creek — has been getting a fair amount of attention, including the 2010 Andrew Harper Grand Award. Hence, as our Marin summer continued to slog through foggy cold days that turned into weeks, we booked a long weekend to experience the warmth and expanse of Montana’s Big Sky Country. In doing so, we learned the difference between a dude ranch and a luxury guest resort ranch. “The difference is subtle,” explains Colleen Hodson of the Dude Ranchers’ Association. “They both offer horseback riding, fly-fishing and various other western activities. However, a resort ranch also offers fine dining and higher-end amenities.”

The Ranch at Rock Creek, a 6,400-acre property located less than two hours from the Missoula airport, definitely qualifies as a resort ranch. The property includes a high-season staff of 75 and a variety of lodging options, such as the nine-room Granite Lodge that also houses a saloon-style bar and dining room dominated by a massive stone fireplace. For those who want to sleep near a rushing creek, it doesn’t get any better than slumbering in one of the ranch’s luxury canvas cabins. Sizes vary, with some large enough to accommodate up to six, and all have an indoor camping toilet as well as a full private bathroom in a separate building just a few steps away. Four expansive freestanding log homes are also available — and are especially popular for multigenerational reunions.

Upon our arrival, the property’s backdrop of green, wildflower-filled rolling hills and snow-capped mountains took our breath away. Ranch owner Jim Manley, founder and owner of Atlantic and Pacific Capital (a worldwide private equity placement firm), purchased the property in 2007 after, he says, “obsessing with owning a property like this for nearly 50 years” and scouting the American West for a quarter century in search of this dream.

Located in an alpine valley more than 5,000 feet above sea level, The Ranch at Rock Creek has year-round rainfall that allows pines, aspens and green grasses to dominate the landscape and water to flow abundantly  in the iconic creek.

The stable, complete with wranglers and located a short walk from the lodge, houses more than three dozen horses. Another amenity we really enjoyed was the Ralph Lauren–esque Mercantile Store (where we were tempted to buy some of the fancy western boots it stocked).

And what Western ranch would be complete without a saloon? The Silver Dollar, a popular hangout for adults and kids alike, lured us every night after dinner.

For us, a typical day at the ranch began with waking up in one of the Granite Lodge’s comfy ranch-inspired rooms and then heading down to the dining room for a hearty breakfast — pancakes, eggs, yogurt, toast or oatmeal. Because we’re avid hikers, our activity of choice was to explore the area on foot. There are literally miles of well-marked hiking trails throughout the ranch’s 6,400 acres with spectacular vistas around every corner. A cherished memory was when we came upon a herd of  free-roaming horses high on a plateau that reminded us of a scene from Bonanza.

After the hike, it was back to the dining room for lunch (organic greens and grilled-cheese sandwiches were one of our favorites), then out again for horseback riding or fly-fishing lessons. As the sun set, we’d sip wine on the flagstone terrace, chat with fellow guests about our day’s activities and then enjoy dinner in the Granite Lodge. Chef Josh Drage, who’s passionate about providing the freshest products possible, served up delicious meals featuring organic beef,  free-range chicken, organic eggs, fresh fish and seasonal local fruits.

Sore muscles from a day of outdoor fun? No problem — a deluxe five-room spa with a full range of treatments is available to work out the kinks. There’s also a heated pool and hot tub just outside Granite Lodge with views of the surrounding mountains.

As of 2010, the ranch has been open during the winter months. Guests can take a short drive to the nearby resort Discovery Basin for downhill skiing or enjoy cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice-skating, which are all available right on the property.

An added bonus to our experience was visiting Philipsburg, an 1880s sapphire mining town of 908 people about 20 minutes east of the ranch, where we browsed intriguing antique shops and its one rather famous candy store — the Sweet Palace, known for its hand-dipped fine chocolates and saltwater taffy.

All in all, a visit to The Ranch at Rock Creek exposed us to activities very different than hiking the hills of Marin, offering a landscape to rival our own hallowed county. We found that “Big Sky Country” certainly lived up to its name. m

From $900 per person per day, all-inclusive; Price includes accommodations, meals, libations and all daily activities. Outdoor activities include hiking, fly-fishing, archery, horseback riding, mountain-bike riding, skeet shooting and swimming. Bowling, pool, movies, and karaoke are available indoors.