Big Sky Country
They call it Big Sky Country for a reason: Interrupted solely by the distant peaks of the Rockies, the horizon here goes on forever, holding dominion over horse ranches, National Forest Service lands, and a whole lot of cattle. Eager to switch our cell phones off and get our cowgirl on, we canvassed the Western edge of the state for the perfect dude ranch experiences. And for those who’d prefer to roam, we’ve put together the consummate Glacier guide, home to some of the most spectacular vistas in America.
Paws Up | 40060 Paws Up Rd., Greenough | 877.588.6764
Just 40-minutes east of Missoula, we came to affectionately call this 37,000-acre spread Montanaland: Paws Up is a bit like a theme park set against some truly majestic country. There’s ATV-ing, go-carts, a gun range, archery, paintball, a kids camp (where they took the kiddos on a legitimate hike), horses galore, plus ample opportunity to river raft, fly fish, and work a cattle drive. The on-site spa is excellent, the food is good, and the accommodations—which range from log cabin homes to tented yurts perched on a cliff above the Blackfoot river—will leave little doubt in your mind that this is the West. The only real drawback is that it’s not all-inclusive, which can make it harder to completely disconnect. Ultimately, though, it’s kid heaven, where blessedly, iPads probably won’t come out of the suitcase. Every morning brought new adventures, and by the end of the day they were ready to pass out in front of the fire. A huge thanks to Paws Up for hosting us and giving us our first Montana experience, which will hopefully become an annual tradition.
The Ranch at Rock Creek | 79 Carriage House Ln., Phillipsburg | 877.472.2392
If you were to drum up an image in your mind of what an Old West homestead should look like, you’d probably conjure up The Ranch at Rock Creek. And for good reason, as it was one, dating back to its original function as a mining claim in the 1800s (nearby Philipsburg was home to a major silver boom). It was homesteaded in the early 1900s and has been a working cattle ranch since, though it now doubles as a luxury guest ranch—and it is really, really well done. Though it’s been tastefully rehabilitated, much of the main lodge is original, and the log homes and tent-style accommodations that dot the valley seem like they could have been from that era as well, thanks to period-appropriate (though cushy) fixtures, and an incredible body of photography, all sourced from the state archives in Helena (19th century boy with pet bear? Check.). It’s all-inclusive here, and you can pick from a range of activities every morning, so if your kid falls in love with a particular horse, he can ride that horse everyday. (As a nice extra, they accommodate more advanced riders, too, which means you can actually get out and run.) There’s fly fishing, paint ball, shooting, archery, an on-site spa, and a rodeo every Tuesday night—they can also arrange for rafting, helicopter trips to Glacier or Yellowstone, or heli-hiking into the back country (those cost extra). And the food? The food is the perfect balance between comfort ranch and modern healthy— and all as locally sourced as possible. There’s a weekly post-rodeo barbecue, an evening of cooking outside in Dutch Ovens (a neat culinary trick that the chef, Josh Drage, picked up from his grandmother), interesting spins like sweet potato sandwiches, and the occasional night of wine pairings and fancy food.
Triple Creek Ranch | 5551 West Fork Rd., Darby | 406.821.4600
There are a few distinguishing factors about Triple Creek Ranch, which has been hosting guests since the ‘80s. Most notably, it’s adults only. Second, there isn’t a stitch of cell service, which makes it the perfect choice for those who generally struggle to disconnect. And finally, it’s nestled up against Trapper Peak, meaning that the cabins look out on forests, creeks, and elk herds, which gravitate to the lands since they don’t allow hunting. Beyond trail riding and fly-fishing (it’s an Orvis-endorsed lodge, which apparently means quite a lot to fly fishermen), you can learn how to pen cattle, and you can hike for days—after all, the lodgings abut the rest of the property, which is a 26,000 acre working ranch where guests can participate in all-day cattle drives. And come winter, there’s an on-site Iditarod dog-sledding team that guests can drive and help train. While many of the activities are included, for a bit extra, they’ll hook you up with a plane to Glacier or Yellowstone. Besides getting outside, they offer artist workshops and wine tastings, and when the owners, Craig and Barbara Barrett are on-site, cocktail parties at their residence, where you can take in their extensive Western art collection. But we would go just to hang with the Barretts: He was the CEO of Intel, while she is a trained astronaut, was the US ambassador to Finland, and was the first civilian woman to land an F/A-18 Hornet on an aircraft carrier. No big deal.
There are few spots in America where the landscape can actually move you—reminding you not only of your relative insignificance, but of how mighty and ancient the earth really is. Glacier is one of those places. Whether you get out and hike, check into one of the Alpen-themed park lodges, or just drive the Going to the Sun Road (which you might recognize from the beginning credits of The Shining), this is absolutely one of those places you need to see before you die. Here’s how we like to do it.
Where to stay
Many Glacier | 1 Many Glacier Rd., Babb | 303.265.7010
Located on the other end of the Going to the Sun Road on the eastern edge of the park, this is inarguably one of our favorite hotels in the world. There are few amenities—the towels are more like washcloths and you won’t find fancy shampoo in the shower—but the Alpen-themed lodge, which dates back to 1915, sits on the edge of the surreally beautiful, glacial Swiftcurrent Lake. While rooms here tend to book up far in advance, it’s a sprawling place, and if you’re persistent, something usually opens up. The food is not going to blow your socks off, but it’s pretty much the only option, and after a long day of hiking, it’s totally sufficient. You can leave from here, on foot, for a handful of the park’s best hikes, including Grinnell Glacier and Iceberg Lake (see below), though the lodge lobby, complete with a gigantic fireplace, is a nice place to read away the better part of an afternoon, too. Like with all the Glacier lodges, there are no TVs in the rooms, and there’s no cell service throughout the park, making this one of the few places where you can truly check out.
Lake McDonald Lodge | 288 Lake McDonald Lodge Loop, West Glacier | 303.265.7010
Only about 30 minutes inside the park from the West Glacier entrance, this historic lodge—completed in 1914—is a National Historic Landmark. Try to get a room in the main lodge, rather than one of the more far-flung cabins (if you’re in a cabin, bring extra layers, as temperatures drop at night). The central lobby, lined with a giant fireplace, ages-old taxidermy (trapped by John Lewis, the land speculator who built the original hotel), and beautiful, hand-painted lanterns is a must-see whether you check in or not, and the café with views of Lake McDonald is a great place to have lunch.
Where to eat
When you’re in the park, you’re pretty much limited to eating at one of the lodges: Most have small general stores attached where you can stock up on ice cream bars and chips, too. If you feel like venturing out of the park for a meal, Whitefish—40 minutes from West Glacier—is your best bet.
12575 Highway 2E, West Glacier | 406.888.5000
Located immediately outside of the park’s West Glacier entrance, this former 1910 train-depot-turned-hotel has some of the area’s best restaurants. There’s the casual Tap Room (bison burgers, nachos, simple salads), along with the more formal (formal in Montana is still super casual) dining room, which revolves around hearty comfort food like pork chops, duck breast, and meatloaf. This is a good place to stay, too. While the tracks outside are working, a train is the only thing that might disrupt your sleep. Cell service is spotty and there are no TVs in the rooms.
Lodge at Whitefish Lake
1380 Wisconsin Ave., Whitefish | 406.863.4000
This is inarguably the most luxe hotel in the area—but while it boasts more amenities, it’s not exactly fancy. The on-site restaurant, which offers great views of Whitefish Lake is really good, and there’s also a cute little coffee shop. The biggest benefits of the hotel are the fact that you can rent houses for big groups, and you can also rent boats and jet skis for a day out on the lake. Whitefish is about a 40 minute drive from West Glacier, but it’s a great small town, with a pretty epic assortment of cowboy bars on its main drag.
What to do
Iceberg Lake Hike
Accessible via Many Glacier or Swiftcurrent Lodge, this 9.7-mile hike leads to, well, a glacial lake dotted with icebergs. Some like to swim in the arctic water.
Highline Loop Hike
This leaves from Logan Pass, which sits at the tippy top of the Going to the Sun Road. It’s 11.8 miles round-trip, though you can always turn back early. You will definitely see snow (often, Going to the Sun Road doesn’t open until the end of June, and is closed again by Labor Day), and mountain goats.
These iconic red tour buses travel up and down Going to the Sun Highway—if the drive seems daunting (it hugs the edge of a precipitous cliff), then this is a great way to go, particularly if you want to take photos. These tours leave from all the lodges.
Grinnell Glacier Hike
This 7.6-mile hike leaves from Many Glacier, and passes by many glacial likes before reaching Grinnel Glacier, an ages-old, 300-acre ice sheet that’s sadly dwindling more and more every year.
There are a million spots vying for attention on the road from West Glacier to Whitefish: If you have kids, you’ll probably want to stop at Big Sky Waterpark, which also has miniature golf, and The Amazing Fun Center, which has a huge maze, go carts, and bumper boats.
There are a ton of outfitters that run rafting trips down the middle fork of the Flathead River, but we like Glacier Raft Company. They’ve been at it since the ‘70s, and they know how to create adventure without, well, danger. Besides rafting, they can arrange fly-fishing and kayaking.