What Is A Dude Ranch? Why I Spent My Time Off In The Snow Instead Of The Sand
Instagram is overflowing with pictures of friends on Caribbean vacations and walking the streets of Brooklyn. But to get away from the mundane sameness of my daily routine, I escaped to a dude ranch smack dab in the middle of fresh snow-capped mountains. You might be wondering, what is a dude ranch? Dude ranches are ranches geared toward tourism and they've been around since the late 1800s, according to the Dude Ranchers Association. While they've long been a place for city dwellers and families to escape the bustle and hustle of city life to reconnect with nature, they're transforming into romantic retreats and girlfriend getaways, drawing adventurous millennials with the eco-friendly experiences dude ranches offer.
Curious to see what the dude ranch life was all about, I found myself a short drive from Philipsburg, Montana, at The Ranch at Rock Creek. As a freelance travel writer, I travel the world in search of unique, off-the-beaten path experiences, so as soon as Rolls-Royce Cars offered me a trip to this luxurious Montana dude ranch, I took it.
I had heard of The Ranch mostly as a mainstay for celebs looking for a rustic getaway. At a rate of $1,800 to $12,400 per night, it's famous for hosting the rich and famous, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Gwen Stefani, Scarlett Johansson, and Vince Vaughan. Some of the biggest names in the world fly to Montana and relax in one of the United States’ most beautiful natural areas, and it's easy to see why. But lately, bachelorette parties and girlfriend groups have been choosing dude ranches over big city destinations as proven by how many dude ranches are offering packages geared to women that combine spa treatments with yoga, horseback riding, guided hikes, country dance lessons, and margarita or wine tasting parties. Places like the White Stallion Ranch offer a "Cactus Cowgirls Package," which includes a margarita welcome party, horseback riding lessons, and even a wine and cheese ride, while Malibu Dude Ranch advertises all inclusive rates for bachelorette parties to take the drama of sending each other constant Venmo payments out of the party planning.
Upon landing in Missoula, Montana, I had my first taste of the luxury to come when a Rolls-Royce Cullinan picked me up from the airport and whisked me away through a countryside fresh with snow. The Rolls-Royce was provided as part of the luxury experience, and the white and baby blue interiors vied for my phone’s attention as much as the snow-covered firs in the pristine white fields we passed.
The Ranch at Rock Creek offers activities I don't get to experience everyday living in the center of Dallas, Texas. With activities like horseback riding, fly fishing, sports shooting, skiing, photography workshops, geocaching, ropes courses, snowmobiling, ice skating, and UTV adventures, I was determined to get the most out of my experience there. Before arriving, I filled out a guest questionnaire that asked me to rate and choose which activities I wanted to do. Since it was winter, I put skiing at the top of the list, followed by horseback riding and skeet shooting, as well as a spa experience so that I would have a mix of exploration and relaxation on my trip.
Upon arrival, I quickly discovered that the ranch has a charming rustic atmosphere in a 19th century homestead surrounded by fields, mountains, a flowing creek, and wildlife such as moose, deer, and elk. I was beyond gleeful to take shots of a mother moose and her child mere hours after my arrival, and was always frantically trying to pull out my phone fast enough to catch other wildlife throughout my trip.
Suited up in my yellow Helly Hansen jacket and my furry Danner boots, I fit in with the rustic chic décor and the adventurous atmosphere of the ranch. Over the course of a few days, I rarely had time to curl up in my cozy bedroom with a drink and snack from the minibar, but rather found myself enveloped in activities and eating amazing meals that begged to be remembered with the click of a camera.
My first full day, I went to the Discovery Ski Area for a half-a-day of skiing. It snowed as I hit the mountain, making my yellow Helly Hansen jacket stick out against the white wilderness. Without the crowds of places like Vail and Aspen, I was able to capture photographs of myself on skis without others invading my shot.
After my ski experience, I pulled on my snow boots and walked outside to the year-round hot tub in the cozy robe provided in my room. I stood out against the Montana backdrop in my red swimsuit and beanie, relaxing in the warm waters of the hot tub as the snow fell slowly to the earth all around me. It was a surreal and beautiful moment and would be echoed on my last day at the Ranch at Rock Creek when I woke early in the morning to take photos from the hot tub as the sun rose over the mountains and settled on the quiet ranch.
The next day, I took the Rolls-Royce Cullinan off-roading on a road that circled a lake. I drove into the historic downtown area of the local mining town, Philipsburg, for an hour of shopping in the gemstone store, old-fashioned candy store, and the local brewery. I couldn’t get enough shots of the colorful and historic buildings in the picturesque town and wished I had the opportunity to return for live music at the brewery at night, to watch a Friday-night hockey game played by locals, or for a summer concert at the outdoor amphitheater at Winninghoff Park.
That afternoon I had a relaxing massage at The Ranch at Rock Creek, and unfortunately missed an opportunity to ride horses across the ranch’s property, an experience that I (and my Instagram account) regret immensely. But it was all made better by an afternoon of skeet shooting, a recreational shooting sport where I used a shotgun to shoot disks that flew across the air. The employees took pictures of me so that later I could marvel at how strong and fierce I looked, like a cowgirl of the Old West.
On the last night at The Ranch at Rock Creek, I had so much fun in the resort’s Saloon, shooting a few games of pool, playing a rousing game of bowling and even grabbing a drink at the bar by climbing on top of the saddles that replaced the bar stools.
As an off-the-beaten-path type-of-traveler who generally travels alone, The Ranch at Rock Creek combined luxury, nature, and an endless number of photographic opportunities to remember the experience by. Even though I traveled there on my own, I never felt alone because The Ranch at The Rock Creek staff (who were the kindest people I've ever met) was always by my side guiding my experience. Plus, with only 29 accommodations, you quickly meet your neighbors and often experience some fantastic Montana fun with other guests during the twice-daily activities, at mealtime, or during happy hour in the cozy bar. In the evenings, everyone gathers around campfires or in the Saloon, connecting with one another over drinks, food, and wholesome fun into the early hours. By being willing to put yourself out there and connecting with other guests, a solo traveler, like myself, will leave with a truly memorable dude ranch experience.
It makes sense that women are trading in their beach vacations for the dude ranch experience. When else do you have the opportunity to see wide open fields, get actual bonding time with a horse, and unwind in a traditional saloon? Now that I'm back in Dallas, my only hope is that I’m able to return in the summer months when the sky is blue, the fields are green, and the horses are carrying Hollywood’s biggest names across the field at The Ranch at Rock Creek.