Headed for the Hills

Headed for the Hills

Escaping to Montana’s Lone Mountain Ranch

Words by Christine VanDyk

Who knew silence could be so loud? Without blaring car horns or jostling crowds, the quiet of the cabin in the woods comes as a shock. Steam rises from my coffee in the chilly morning air, and aside from the occasional hawk flying overhead, the earth is perfectly still. I didn’t realize how much I needed this or just how long I have been waiting to exhale.

The drive from the Bozeman airport told me all I needed to know about the type of vacation that was to come. Out the window I watched as a lone angler in chest-high waders cast a fly into the rushing river while bighorn sheep scurried up rocky outcroppings. A pair of cross-country skiers sliced a path across an empty field and a stand of ponderosa pines rose above my line of sight. As we approached a bend in the road, I could see the timber gate that marked the turn-off—simple and understated, it betrayed the luxury that is the hallmark of the Lone Mountain Ranch.

This is the real Montana, the one of storybooks and country-western songs. 

Begun as a cattle ranch in 1915, the resort treats families, would-be cowboys, and solace-seekers to a glimpse of Yellowstone country. Less than 20 minutes from the park’s northwest border, the boutique property is a place where the juxtaposition of rugged and refined just seems to make sense.

Today I’m up with the sun, bound for a hearty breakfast at Horn and Cantle, a lodge-style restaurant where all meals are farm-to-table and included. After fueling up, I’ll hitch a ride with the free driver service to Big Sky Resort for the first tracks of the day. The neighboring slopes have some of the biggest skiing in North America, but that’s only part of the appeal. The 300-plus runs offer the same quality as more prestigious hills but without the lines or the pretension. It’s a big reason why everyone from billionaires to movie stars are carving up these trails.

While a lot of vacationers may overlook this corner of Montana, especially in winter, the serenity, scenery, and abundance of wildlife make it the ideal time to visit. Imagine frozen waterfalls, boiling geysers steaming in the cold air, and brilliant mineral pools set against a backdrop of pristine snow. There are bison and elk roaming just beyond the asphalt of the road and eagles in the crevices of the Rockies. This is a photographer’s dream and a setting that seems more fairy-tale than reality.

Even though the day has just begun, I’ve already planned its end: unwinding in the saloon when my legs finally give out. There’s an almost certainty that at some point the pull of a Montana Mule will be greater than the urge to board the chairlift one more time. I hear there’s going to be live music, so I’ll sit back, order the pickle-brined fried chicken, and let the bartender indulge my downhill tall tales.

Later in the evening I’ll wander out under the stars, snow-dusted pine trees and the smell of a fire conjuring up images of a Currier and Ives painting. One of the most idyllic experiences at the Ranch is a horse-drawn sleigh ride where guests snuggle beneath blankets as they journey to the North Fork cabin. In a room lit by oil lanterns, cowboy music fills the air and the taste of apple-huckleberry cobbler takes you back to another place and time.

I’ve been to lots of places, and it’s fair to say many of them were incredible; however, I can’t think of any that have touched my soul quite as much. From the country’s best Nordic skiing to dog-sled rides, yoga classes to fishing for rainbow trout, it’s the best of nature without actually having to sleep in a tent with your kids.

Nights at this Ranch are spent in luxury log cabins. Pendleton blankets, claw-foot tubs, and wood-burning fireplaces are among the in-room perks. But truth be told, my favorite amenity isn’t actually an amenity at all, but rather the lack of one. Without Wi-Fi and television, the chance to truly unwind comes easily and with unexpected welcome. Willie, Waylon, and Johnny spill from the turntable and a selection of naturalist book titles only seems to heighten the sense of place.

While this winter wonderland is just what I needed, summer months are also in high demand. Horseback riding, mountain biking, and white-water rafting make the warm weather retreat the ideal way to discover the American West. If I’m lucky I’ll find myself back here one summer for family trail rides, campfires, and a behind-the-scenes Yellowstone experience. 

It won’t matter if the land is covered in wildflowers or a blanket of snow because I’ve come to believe that life will always seem better under a Big Sky.

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