The Wild West is synonymous with wide open plains, long summer days and cowboys but there is oh so much more to this vast area. Our expert, Greg Salmon, decided to see what the winter months have to offer…
Montana, aptly known as “Big Sky Country”, is home to little over a million people living in an area that is significantly larger than the United Kingdom (with its 66 million residents). Here, the clear sky stretches above you due to the minimal light pollution and the mammoth Rocky Mountains cut through the state. The remaining landscape is filled by vast valleys, dense forests and pristine lakes, with a spattering of small cities in between.
The land is used for a large variety of agriculture, the majority of which are wheat fields and cattle ranches. These remote ranches are nestled in stunning locations with rivers running through and monumental mountains as a backdrop, so they make an idyllic spot to spend time relaxing, breathing in the fresh air and embarking on some exciting activities. This is why some of these ranches have been bought for the sole purpose of hosting guests looking for a taste of Big Sky Country life. Scott Dunn has selected a handful of luxury offerings, so that after a day of riding, rafting, rifle shooting and all the rest, you can retire to an authentic cabin with wooden beams, homely rugs and a roaring fire, before enjoying Ralais & Chateaux dining.
Its true that Montana ranches are primarily associated with summer activities such as fishing, rafting, hiking and so on but I visited during December, when the first snowfall coated the ground and the fire roared inside, ready for hot chocolate and s’mores.
In the winter months, there is a plethora of thrilling activities on offer, activities such as skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowshoeing, snowmobiling and horse riding are all firm favourites. However, there are also more unusual options that will lead to plenty of attention on your social media accounts! During our time on the ranch there was a fair amount of horsing around, skijoring is a good example: bung on some skis and cling on to a rope for dear life whilst a wrangler gallops off in front of you on horseback! You can also try your hand at wrangling cattle in Cow Croquet: players on horseback take it in turns to try to “push” cows through gates to score points. Alternatively, you can tick an adventure off your bucket-list, and swap horse-power for paw-power by going Dog Sledding!
Let me talk you through a typical day: firstly there was breakfast, where hearty food is served with a smile and in generous quantities that set you up perfectly for a full day of action! Then it’s time to change into your winter-gear before meeting the guide down at the concierge desk and embarking on that morning’s adventure. I think morning snowmobiling was my favourite activity; it was exciting and picturesque, with wonderfully fresh mountain air! Head back to the ranch and change your clothes, grab some lunch, maybe sit and read a book by the fire for a while. The afternoon usually involves something a bit less physically strenuous, for example shooting – I was unsure about shooting to begin with but after hitting a couple of targets and getting in the rhythm of reloading, it was addictive! My instructor seemed to have fun as well, whooping, cheering and telling me I could be a field agent…he was a very entertaining man! My top tip: if you have a free afternoon or some time before dinner, the Montana ranches all have great spas on site…my masseuse seemed to take great pleasure in seeking out and destroying the many nots that I had accumulated over the trip!
The days activities may be adventurous but the evenings are indulgent. Whether you fancy simple farm-to-table dining or exquisite Raleigh & Chateau meals, mouth-watering traditional Montanan food is served up – a particular highlight was a five-course tasting menu which was complimented by a couple of tequilas in the saloon! End the evening curled up in front of a crackling fire or get to know your fellow guests. The Ranch at Rock Creek has a full three-lane bowling alley in the saloon which is entertaining for all ages or saddle up at the bar on the authentic cowboy saddles (though I would recommend limbering up before, I can’t say I found it particularly comfortable).
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another huge draw to this area: the wildlife! The bears may be fast asleep in the winter but the ranch’s varied terrain draws all manner of deer, elk, moose, big horn sheep, wolves, coyotes, beavers, foxes and bald eagles, which you can go in search of on a half or full day of wildlife viewing. Prior to our stay in Montana, we visited the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone, often referred to as America’s Serengeti, and we were blown away by the beauty and sheer abundance of life. A definite highlight of the trip was hearing wolves howling over the stony silent valley.
These ranches may be remote but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t easily accessible by a few small domestic airports via Seattle, San Francisco and many other wonderful detours (depending on seasonality). The ranches sit about four hours’ drive away from Jackson Hole where you can ski and also use it as a base to embark on wildlife safaris to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks (in both summer and winter) before heading to a ranch, so the options are vast!
In Summary, my time in Montana was amazing, I embarked on unique activities that I feel would be hard to find elsewhere and I saw numerous animals (within an hour of being in Yellowstone we’d had a “three dog day” by spotting a couple of coyotes, a fox and a pack of wolves albeit from a distance). The winter was a truly magical time to visit, it was more accessible than it looks on a map and every part of the experience at these ranches was amazing. I have to say that The Ranch at Rock Creek, in particular, was magical: the service was exceptional, the food was exceptional, the styling of the rooms were exceptional, every single detail from the moment we arrived to the moment we left was exceptional! This is a trip that I would thoroughly recommend to anyone considering it, a Winter Wonderland in the Wild West!