It took Connecticut banker Jim Manley 20 years to find the perfect “one-in-a-million” spot in the Montana Rockies to fulfill his dream of owning a working ranch out west, like the Ponderosa on Bonanza.
Really, the plan was never to turn his simple ranch house into a world-honored, luxury guest resort. But like a winter drift in Montana, Manley’s dream snowballed into something there’s no getting around.
Decisions do come slow at The Ranch at Rock Creek in western Montana. Hey, it took head chef Josh Drage three years to develop a recipe for meatloaf that made him happy.
Sitting around a campfire under a fiery painted sky, Manley explained his decades-long quest.
“It had to have beautiful mountains, a ski mountain nearby, an old mining town that hasn’t changed much since the 1800s, a river going through it, low elevations, no poisonous snakes, a combination of meadows and forest, over 25 inches of precipitation each year ... and no grizzly bears.”
At long, long last, in 2007, he found it. “I was told I was looking for a place that didn’t exist anymore. But I discovered the last undiscovered part of Montana.”
The Ranch at Rock Creek sits on 6,600 acres — 10 square miles — in Granite County, that’s Gold Country in western Montana. The resort offers roughing it, luxury-style, roughly halfway between Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. It’s the first guest ranch awarded the Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star rating and recognized by Relais & Chateaux as “one of the world’s finest small hotels and restaurants.” To call this a dude ranch would be to call the Four Seasons an hourly rate motel next to the train station.
The closest city is 20 miles away, Philipsburg, an 1890s mining town that looks like a Hollywood Wild West movie set. A couple of hundred people live in Philipsburg. There’s a pizza place that only opens three days a week and you have to make a reservation to pick up a pie to go. There really is a general store.
The Ranch at Rock Creek’s elevation is 5,200 feet. Look up on a clear night and you’ll understand why Montana is called Big Sky Country. You can read by shimmering starlight. Jimmy Buffett knew what he was talking about when he wrote “Come Monday.”
“Remember that night in Montana when we said there’d be no room for doubt.”
I spent a long weekend at the Ranch at Rock Creek last month. First thing I had to do was borrow a winter coat and gloves. I’m a bit of a weenie when it comes to low temperatures and rugged ranch activities.
A once-in-a-lifetime trip
I flew to Denver, caught a connection to Missoula, where a Ranch at Rock Creek van met me for the complimentary 90-minute drive to the resort. Yeah, this place is out there, in the middle of nowhere, with majestic natural beauty. Manley’s one-in-a-million spot in Montana is the spectacular setting for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation.
The Ranch at Rock Creek has 29 accommodations, from elegant rooms in the main Granite Lodge to private romantic cabins to family-sized log homes on the property. Each accommodation is like a museum with Old West artifacts mixed with modern conveniences. The mattress is overstuffed, the comforter is thick, and the Wi-Fi is strong. There is a full-service spa for ultimate pampering.
To get the most from the resort, it’s suggested visitors plan a week-long stay. I crammed as much as I could into a few nights.
When I arrived, a “ranch ambassador” at the front desk helped me plan my activities. You can pick a morning activity and one for the afternoon.
There’s a lot to choose from. You would qualify for Montana residency to experience everything at the resort. Don’t worry about being inexperienced or klutzy or trying something new. Whatever your skill level, the Ranch at Rock Creek will make it a blast for you.
Fun in a crisp, 4 degrees
It was 4 degrees my first morning — I asked if hiding under my blankets qualified as an activity. Strange thing, 4 sunny, dry degrees in Montana felt warmer than 40 damp miserable degrees in Houston. I undid the top button of my coat to keep from sweating.
Among the activities I could pick: downhill skiing, ice skating, yoga, sledding, trap shooting, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, hiking, mountain biking, nature classes, horseback ridin’ and ropin’, ice fishing, archery, and many more. Spring, summer, and autumn offer their own seasonal activities. For example, the ice skating pond ... it’s a swimming hole in summer.
The best fly fishing
Rock Creek boasts the best fly fishing in the world. There are 2,000 trout per mile.
I chose snowshoeing. I thought it would be funny to clomp around with tennis rackets strapped to my feet.
Apparently, there have been advances in snowshoe technology since the old Sergeant Preston of the Yukon TV show. These snowshoes were like mini-water skis, and I glided along the top of soft, powdery snow with ease. They gave me ski poles, but I was moving so effortlessly, I didn’t need them. A small group of guests and I walked about three miles along Rock Creek, turned around, and headed home for lunch. It was fun. I want to do that again.
Food at The Ranch at Rock Creek is a gourmand’s fantasy. Don’t expect a kettle of possum stew hanging over a fire, prepared by a grizzled cowboy named “Cookie.” This resort is totally gourmet, dishes prepared with wholesome products from local farms and ranches, obsessed over by talented chefs. There is a wine social hour before dinner each night. Remember three years tinkering with a recipe for meatloaf? That was serious.
The Ranch at Rock Creek is all-seasons, all-inclusive, one price including all activities and meals and wine and spirits and brownies on the bar. There’s always food, great food in reasonable amounts, not gross cafeteria-quality buffets like a cruise ship. You want a chicken salad sandwich for an afternoon snack? Just ask. The only extra you’ll have to pay for ... maybe a T-shirt so somebody won’t complain back home.
Owner Manley explained that he wants guests to enjoy activities, not sit in a dining room all day and lumber back to their rooms holding their tummies.
“I love hearing guests say, ‘I haven’t done this since I was a kid in camp.’ That’s the idea of this place,” he said. “No other property has this many activities. You’re in Montana, surrounded by wonderful food in a beautiful place, with a million acres of wilderness around us.”
This was cool. After dinner, guests gather at the Silver Dollar Saloon, where there’s a full bar, billiard tables, movie theater, and, uh-oh, karaoke. Over on the side: four bowling alleys. Like everything else at The Ranch, these bowling lanes were first-rate. There were plenty of house balls and bowling shoes to borrow. The automatic scoring video screens had a sense of humor — when you got a strike, it would high-five you — and a sarcastic streak: when you missed an easy spare, it would give you a look.
I missed a 7 pin in the 10th frame that cost me a 200 game. The screen asked, “What happened, hot shot?” I need a wise guy scoring machine?
A little Texas in Montana
The next day, I tried rifle shooting. This took some learning because I had never touched a rifle or gun in my life — unless you count that BB rifle at the carnival where you’re supposed to shoot out a star. I don’t want to say those carnival rifles are tinkered with, but you see those bicycles they have as prizes? The Wright Brothers sold them to the carnival.
I met Eric, the ranch hand in charge of rifle instruction, at the shooting range. First, we went over the rules. I wasn’t to touch any rifle unless he handed it to me. I had to wear ear and eye protection. Most importantly, I had to listen to everything he said.
I have always been creeped out by guns and rifles — I’m scared of them. First Eric gave me a .22 caliber rifle, a very light rifle used for target practice and shooting small game like rabbits and squirrels. Just hold it tight, be calm and aim at those targets about 25 feet away.
I didn’t hit anything. I could see the bullets land in the snow beneath the targets. Eric commented, “You’re aiming too low.” I didn’t know if he was talking about my shooting or my career.
My next rifle was a Winchester .38, which was more powerful with a lever — like Lucas McCain’s rifle on The Rifleman. Eric said cowboys use this rifle to “get their dinner” or kill varmints like coyotes. My aim was improving. I was hitting targets 100 yards away with about half my shots.
Next was an AR-15. Eric called this a “versatile target gun” that also “works well for varmints.” This rifle had a scope on it. Eric told me, just line up the laser red dot, the crosshairs in the scope and the target. I fired at targets 200 yards away and was hitting bull’s-eyes. With the scope, this was closer to Dave & Busters than target practice in the Montana Rockies.
We had to wait a few minutes to shoot a 30-06 hunting rifle with single bolt action. There were horses in the distance. This rifle can bring down an elk no problem. There’s no hunting or killing at The Ranch at Rock Creek. We let the horses pass and, again, I was hitting the targets like a sharpshooter in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
I asked Eric, “So how did I do?”
He said, “For sure, you get an A. You kept it nice and relaxed, and you listened to everything I said.”
Next year, I’m winning that bicycle at the carnival.