The Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg, Montana is no ordinary dude ranch. Far from it, as a matter of fact. Saddle up as our man-about-resort Greg Haynes Johnson explores the wide-open West from his five-star point of view
As Texans, we all have connections to various versions of the beloved “ranch.” Be it a sprawling ranch of hundreds of thousands of acres or, a country get-away on a smaller scale, it’s a major perk of living in the Lone Star State. So, when hearing about a “dude ranch” in Montana, my expectations were only stick-pony high.
When we landed in the Missoula airport, however, the folks that were there to greet us weren’t wearing kitschy cowboy drag and claiming handles like “Festus”, “Tex”, or “Maverick.” They were authentic, friendly, and focused on making us feel like old friends. As our driver whisked us quickly thru the hour and a half drive, away from the “big city” of Missoula toward Rock Creek Ranch, the relaxed conversation, passing mountains, and elevation-only scenery made quick work of my jaded mood. In-spite of my still low-expectations, I began to realize again the great fortune of exploring this opportunity.
Immediately I was taken by the sprawling setting. There were no prairie-schooner dioramas or broken spoke props. Instead, there was a stately gathering of functioning facilities. This was no dude ranch. This was the real thing.
King Of The Ranch
Jim Manly, a Connecticut investment banker with a life-long dream of owning a functioning ranch, created the Ranch at Rock Creek. Initially intended for his family and friends, he started building accommodations on the almost 7,000-acre property for his visitors. Knowing that he wanted the ranch to continue for his children and children’s children, Manley decided to open the ranch to guests with the plan to establish it as a world-class destination for the most affluent adventurers.
Log Cabin Luxury
At around $1,000 per person, per night, the Granite Lodge guestrooms are the most modestly priced accommodations at the Ranch. Each guest room has a different theme and is richly decorated with congruency to the mountain surroundings. The more spectacular accommodations at the Ranch, include luxurious tents, cabins, and private houses.
One of the tents is the Sweet Grass – a peaceful two bedroom “tent.” Each of its two master suites includes a king-size bed, a full bath, and fireplace – overlooking the rushing Rock Creek. The houses are completely private log homes with as many as five bedrooms. I stayed with my group in the Moose House, with each evening ending in front of the fireplace with a nightcap of cabernet. The log houses are $6,000 to $7,200 per night, but can house an entire family or several friends.
Haute Comfort Cuisine
Manley, the owner, hand-selected Chef Josh Drage from a long line of candidates, each vetted and then invited to “audition” by cooking for a period of time. He chose Drage for many reasons and the most surprising criteria the owner considered was the chef’s ability to make a “killer” meatloaf – a favorite dish of Manley’s childhood. Don’t let the simple fare confuse you, though. Chef Drage could be just as successful in some of the world’s top restaurants and his epicurean philosophy represents his passion for pure, locally-sourced ingredients – some he even grows on the ranch.
We’d been offered in-advance a set of options for each of day of our stay. After some coaxing from fellow travelers I decided to take some chances and try things completely out of my comfort zone.
It had been bad enough demonstrating my poor marksmanship with just my brothers as an audience while growing up. The thought of doing this with a professional instructor and a group of Jet-Setting swells gave me chills. Fortunately I manned-up and took my turn with a shotgun. The range Rock Creek created has a dozen stations, all computer controlled – apparently impressive to even those most experienced at clay shooting. The instructor would describe the direction and angle of each station then, with the press of a handheld button, would deliver the “pigeon” at our “pull” command. With the instructor’s patient coaching and the friendly support of my fellow shooters, I was amazed that I could bag ¾ of my careening targets. Beaming, I could’ve been done with the day then. But, no, there were more triumphs to enjoy.
Admittedly, most guests won’t get to enjoy owner Jim Manley as their cross-country guide, yet you can’t go wrong with the crew typically available. Another sport I hadn’t tried was cross-country skiing and I expected nothing but exertion out of this jaunt. Was I wrong. The scenery was so stunning and the sound of the wind in the pines made this the shortest two hours I can remember.
A Day Of Downhill
Truly my favorite sport of all is downhill skiing. While not the most aggressive skier, I feel fairly confident on most blue or black (ish) runs. Close to Philipsburg, the Discovery Ski Area is one of those great, remote ski resorts that don’t rely on enormous crowds of showy, once-a-year skiers mostly interested in parading their après outfits sipping $25 cocktails. Discovery is perfect for those who will gladly travel further for great skiing away from crowds. Even on a busy day you can get in twice the runs at Discovery than at other areas with packed lift lines. As guests of the Ranch, we were led past the rental lines to a private area where our boots and skis were ready to go. Having my equipment prepared for me, and even having help donning my boots, was a fantastic surprise. Within minutes we were on our first run.
After an amazing day of skiing, we refreshed with locally brewed beers in the beyond-quaint setting of Philipsburg. It was their winter beer festival so we enjoyed a variety of craft brews with locals that were all first-name friends of the Ranch crew.
The long list of activities includes hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, snowmobiling, and even bowling in the on-site bowling alley and theatre. The Ranch has recently added a selection of helicopter adventures, from heli-fishing to mountaintop, starlit dinners. There are very few places in the world that can offer this type of experience.
Inclusive, Exclusive Ranch
Rock Creek Ranch owner Jim Manley doesn’t want to his guests pulling out their wallets to tip or having to sign checks. The nightly rates include all meals, drinks, many of the activities, and all gratuities.
Since our last evening at the Ranch was a Sunday, we finished our stay with Chef Drage’s signature meatloaf in the dining room. We again shared great laughs, over great food and wine. As new, life-long friends, we said our good-byes and all promised to meet-up again soon at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Perhaps it will be sooner than expected.