We’ve always dreamt about going to Montana, and who hasn’t? The land of Big Sky, where buffalo roam, cowboys rule the rolling hills, and A River Runs Through It… it’s the wild west at its most romantic. Ever since the railroad blazed a trail across the country in the late 1800s, Montana has captured the imagination of city slickers. The pioneers were proud of their new frontier, and the tradition of inviting guests to experience ranch life has long been woven into the state’s fabric. More than a century of hospitality experience also makes Montana one of the finest places to get rugged. We had the chance to find the best dude ranches in Montana to make these cowboy dreams come true.
The Resort at Paws Up
Driving down the dirt roads of Western Montana, we reached The Village at Paws Up, and indeed it was a world unto itself. We’ve experienced over 100 luxury resorts and have heard about the highly acclaimed Paws Up for years, but still couldn’t imagine a place quite like this. It’s on 37,000 acres with the Blackfoot River running through it (yea, the one from the Brad Pitt film) and they’ve spread the lodging across the full expanse of land. They have a dozen different glamping camps and neighborhoods of luxury homes, so even though the resort can sleep a few hundred people, it still feels intimate and inviting.
The heart of Paws Up is the Wilderness Outpost. Every Montanan activity you could possibly imagine starts here. Classic country pursuits like horseback riding, riflery, and fly fishing to adrenaline sports like rappelling, mountain biking, obstacle training, and more are on tap. We opted for the ATV trails to make a dent in these tens of thousands of acres.
Not just for recreation, 7,000 acres of Paws Up is a working Black Angus ranch. When we saw “cattle drive” on the activity menu, we put on our boots and spurs! We saddled up with our wrangler, a young Montanan who grew up on a horse ranch, and trotted over to the 30 head of cattle in need of greener pastures. We’ll admit, we’re not experienced riders but with a highly trained horse and a newfound cowboy confidence, we rounded up them dogies! Galloping after stray calves, hollering yeehaw, and guiding a herd was so empowering and even cooler than in the movies.
The Ranch at Rock Creek
Traveling from Greenough southwards to Philipburg, we reached The Ranch at Rock Creek, continuing on our quest to find the best dude ranches in Montana. We knew this 19th-century-homestead-turned-glamping retreat would be nothing short of amazing with the amount of accolades on its door, including that of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, Relais & Chateaux, and a Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Guest Ranch (the world’s one and only). Though we also wondered if all that praise would get to a hotel’s head—not here. We were welcomed with open arms and a huckleberry spritz.
Blue Ribbon Fly Fishing
It would be all too easy to spend our days luxuriating in the ranch’s chic cabins, full-service spa, and the all-inclusive Blue Canteen, but the Rod & Gun Club was calling. The Ranch at Rock Creek is on a Blue Ribbon trout stream, which means pristine waters, thousands of fish per square mile, and some of the best angling you can get in the States. Even though we had never fly fished a day in our lives, we geared up like pros, with Simms waders, artfully tied flies, and rods suited to our statures. The Ranch has pro-guides leading float trips, but Rock Creek runs through the center of the property so you can just walk right in. We took a quick casting lesson to make sure we caught more fish than trees, and before we knew it…Mike had a cutthroat trout on the line!
BBQ at the Buckle Barn
Perhaps our favorite thing about RRC is that it’s full of surprises, especially at dinnertime. Each night is different, whether it’s Dutch ovens over a bonfire, sunset cocktails and ice skating at Bikini Pond, or a BBQ at the Buckle Barn after a rodeo… we were lucky enough to catch the latter.
We spent the day horseback riding the riverside trails and taking calf roping lessons to get in the rodeo spirit, then twilight came. Guests filled Camp Roosevelt Arena, and half the staff was gearing up to ride. It would seem a dangerous business decision to have your top employees ride a bucking bronco or barrel racing at top speed, but they’re Montanan. They’ve done this before… even competed professionally. With American flags waving, cowboys in their best chaps, and stallions running wild, the love of the west was infectious.
Best Dude Ranches in Montana
By this point in our Montana travels, we’d bonded with broncos, cattle, trout, and bald eagles, but to top off our wildlife of the west experience, we needed to commune with the American Buffalo. We heard about Bison Quest and were as intrigued by the prospect of shaggy bull sightings, as we were to meet the founders. The husband-wife team, Dr. Craig and Pam Knowles, have sixty years of combined wildlife biology experience and after working for the Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society, US Fish & Wildlife Service, and dozens of other conservation projects, they decided to share their knowledge and love of animals with guests at their buffalo ranch. They rescued an abused herd a decade ago and bought hundreds of acres for them to roam.
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