320 Guest Ranch, Gallatin Gateway
This classic Old West guest ranch in the Gallatin Forest near Yellowstone National Park has been hosting travelers for about 110 years. Construction started in 1898, and the ranch welcomed its first guest in 1905. Today, high-end accommodations (with exposed wood everywhere) include 36 log cabin-like guest rooms, 12 riverfront cabins, seven log homes, two chalets, and a historic cabin. You don’t have to be a guest here to join the old-fashioned Old Western fun: summer’s Monday night pig roasts; winter cowboy chili sleigh ride dinners; a chuck wagon ride and steak cooked on an open fire; and two-hour to full-day trail rides on horses from the ranch’s 80-head herd.
Belton Chalet, West Glacier
The Belton Chalet was the original Great Northern Railway lodge, a grand rustic hotel built in 1910 to serve passengers arriving at the western gateway to the new Glacier National Park. But by the late 1950s, the once bustling lodge was silent and shuttered. National historic landmark status saved the Belton from demolition, and after a 40-year closure and a complete restoration, it reopened in 2000.
Expansive wraparound porches, gleaming hardwood floors, Arts and Crafts-style furnishings, and simple guest rooms with one queen bed (book a balcony room for views of Apgar Mountain) reflect the chalet’s original, comfortably basic feel. Guests arrive by train (Amtrak makes twice-daily stops) or car, and ride the chalet’s convenient, free shuttle to Glacier’s Apgar Visitor Center.
“Tourists are drawn by the history of the railroad and the park, but the Belton isn’t just a tourist destination,” says the chalet’s general manager, Christie Dunn. “We’re sort of like the bar [from] Cheers for our locals: cozy, comfortable, friendly, and everyone knows your name.”
Rocking Z Guest Ranch, Wolf Creek
“We are focused on people who really want to learn about horses, not people who just want to take a ride,” says Patty Wirth, who, along with husband Zack, co-owns the Rocking Z Guest Ranch, located about 25 miles north of Helena. The Wirths are a fifth-generation Montana ranching family eager to share their Western heritage and love of horses.
Beginner-to-advanced riders learn the basics of Parelli Natural Horsemanship, an instructional approach focused on building trust between cowboy and horse. Each guest is matched with a specific horse to groom, ride, and bond with during the stay. This connection, explains Patty, translates into a more enjoyable and genuine “dude ranch” experience. “Our guests are blown away when, after only a couple of days, their horse will come and meet them at the gate. The horse has a different rider each week, yet it still can figure out which person is their person.”
Rocking Z is a small, laid-back ranch accommodating up to 18 guests in eight guest rooms. Rates include home-cooked meals, unlimited horseback riding (winter rides are shorter and slower), and traditional ranch activities like roping, shooting, wagon rides, and, in summer, swimming in the creek.
Triple Creek Ranch, Darby
Upscale Triple Creek Ranch is a 650-acre oasis of pampering tucked among the pines in western Montana’s Bitterroot Range. Geared to adults (families with children 16 and up are welcome), the high-country resort has 23 elegantly rustic log cabins luxuriously outfitted with wood-burning fireplaces, locally made blankets, and private or nearby hot tubs. Rates include lodging, snacks and meals (ask Chef Nick for the chili recipe), house spirits and wine, and seasonal on-ranch activities like trail rides, guided nature and birding tours, fly-fishing, hiking, tennis, cross-country skiing, and photo safaris.
Everyone regroups in the rooftop lounge at night to watch a slideshow of the guests’ varied activities that day. “The entire experience is like an intimate and luxurious adult summer camp,” says Toni Haselton, who has been a guest at Triple Creek 11 times since the 1990s. “We go there for a romantic getaway, to relax in the mountain setting, and for the gourmet menu fit for foodies. Returning to Triple Creek each time is like the best ever family reunion.”
The Lodge at Whitefish Lake, Whitefish
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The Lodge at Whitefish Lake is a grand mountain resort owned and operated by the fourth-generation Montanan Averill family. The posh rooms in the main lodge are primarily expansive studio suites equipped with all the comforts of (a luxury) home: gas stone fireplaces, top-of-the-line wet bars with mini-fridges and microwaves, and soaking tubs with walk-in slate tile showers.
The real draw is the setting: Whitefish Lake out back, Whitefish Mountain Resort ten minutes away, and Glacier National Park less than a 30-minute drive. One of the best outdoor amenities, however, is the Viking Creek Wetland Preserve located across the street from the main lodge at the property’s Viking Lodge. Take the pedestrian sky bridge over Wisconsin Avenue from the main lodge to the preserve. The Averills donated land and funds to establish the 30-acre conservation preserve. Interpretive trails are open year-round, and snowshoes are available to guests who want to explore the preserve in winter. New for 2014: Viking Creek luxury cabins located next to the nature preserve.
Chico Hot Springs Resort and Day Spa, Pray
Chico is a literal Montana hot spot, boasting two warm natural spring-fed pools where you can soak the stress away. The 152-acre property also features a full-service day spa, a Western saloon, and a 114-year-old main lodge, as well as chalets, cabins, and log homes. The draw for locals is the pair of eateries onsite.
“The menu at Chico is so special because, like our property itself, it links the past and the future,” says Colin K. Davis, managing partner. Restaurant fare includes classic dishes like beef Wellington carved tableside and roasted duck Grand Marnier, complemented by contemporary dishes such as bison short rib ravioli with a sweet corn cream sauce finished with a garden chili oil. In addition, the property has a full-time gardener and a sizable garden. The hot springs heat an on-site greenhouse that provides fresh herbs, vegetables, and fruits year-round. Adds Davis, “It is a luxury in Montana to have such immediate access to fresh produce and herbs, particularly in winter, and that is reflected in our fare.”