Have you ever dreamed of riding your horse in Montana and gazing at majestic vistas? But, you wondered, where would you go? Where would you stay with your horse? What about riding trails? And, wouldn't a little pampering feel wonderful? Just enough to feel like a real vacation! You can do it all - and do it safely, comfortably, and relatively inexpensively.
Here, we'll provide useful information on several beds, breakfasts, and corrals - also known as "bed & barns" - luxurious getaways where you can stay with your horse and receive a home-cooked breakfast. First, we visit the Chief Joseph Ranch, the crown jewel of B&Bs that's patterned after the beautiful Old Faithful Inn. Then we'll explore riding trails in the area. Finally, we'll review a few other B&Bs and give you contact information for each one.
Not all bed, breakfast, and corrals are created equal. Some stand alone, unequaled in architecture, hospitality, and comfort. The magnificent Chief Joseph Ranch in the Bitterroot Valley near Darby, Montana (406/821-0894; www.chiefjosephranch.com), is one such example. Once a dude ranch and then closed to the public for many years, the historic ranch is now open again for all to enjoy.
The main lodge was built from 1914 to 1917 by William Ford and Judge Hollister from Toledo, Ohio, with the help of 25 men. The property was purchased for their two sons who'd decided to "ditch the city life" and become ranchers out West. The lodge was modeled after Yellowstone's Old Faithful Inn. It has a sense of timelessness, an atmosphere that's difficult to put into words. One author wrote, "A massive structure, the house is graced with unexpected elegance."
When you stand in the old lodge and look around, you feel strongly that you're in a special place. This feeling is created in part by the unique design structure and also because of the native materials used in its construction. The logs are enormous - 2 feet in diameter and 60 feet in length.
Years later, when the ranch was sold, the new owners renamed it Chief Joseph Ranch. Chief Joseph was a great Nez Perce chief who led his people through this area during the Nez Perce Indian War of 1877. The present day ranch consists of 150 acres, 22 of which are along the beautiful Bitterroot River. In addition to the main lodge, there are also two private cabins that may be rented.
Bob Shupp and his wife, Janet, operate the ranch along with Bob's son, Ryan, and Ryan's wife, Shelley. What struck Kent and me was the happiness this family radiated. Operating a ranch bed & breakfast (the ranch also provides dinner) is a great deal of work. We've been to bed & breakfasts where the hosts seemed burdened by many chores and were just going through the motions of hospitality. The Shupp family genuinely loves the Chief Joseph Ranch and delights in sharing it with others.
Bob Shupp's personal philosophy is, "Don't get in the way of the ranch." He strongly believes that the ranch is a sanctuary where harried, stressed people will unwind and relax. The Shupps understand and respect the spell that this remarkable, enormous building casts on unsuspecting visitors. In addition, the spectacular scenery it commands from its lofty hilltop location high above the Bitterroot Valley renders one mute with wonder. It takes a lot to render us speechless, but we were. And just when we thought it couldn't get any better, we were treated to a glorious sunset.
And guess where we ate dinner? Yep, in the all-glass Sunset Dining Room. Unlike most bed & breakfasts, Chief Joseph includes a delicious dinner as part of its package. While our eyes feasted on a brilliant scarlet-streaked sky, we slowly worked our way through a scrumptious pork chop dinner.
Our horses, Buddy and Scout, also fared well. When they weren't busy eating in their spacious corral, they spent their time watching a big, black moose that was wandering in a distant field.
After a comfortable night where the only night sound was from a lonely coyote, the next morning I opened the door to the hallway only to find that which is near and dear to my heart: A coffee setup! We took steaming mugs of strong, black coffee and found a morning alcove. How fun it is to watch Mother Nature wake up and begin painting all over again.
The Shupps are "hosts with the most"! If you want to hear historical stories about the area and the ranch while sitting in front of a massive stone fireplace and sipping wine, you've got it. If you don't have your own horse, arrangements can be made for you to rent one.
Jack Goodwin and his son, Clint, are authentic Montana cowboys who assist guests with horse activities. If you want them to, these men will guide you into the wilderness. If you'd rather do activities other than horseback riding, you can go hiking, whitewater rafting, fly-fishing, or mountain biking. And of course, there are comfortable chairs and cozy nooks where you may relax, read, gaze at the beautiful scenery, and watch for deer, elk, moose, and eagles.
We had our own horses and were interested in places to ride. Our riding choices were many. Following are some of the places we learned about.
A Wilderness Paradise
The Chief Joseph Ranch is strategically located about two-thirds of the way down the Bitterroot Valley, giving riders many trails to choose from. Here are just a few.
First, the Shupps have an easement from Chief Joseph Ranch to ride into the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. Talk about unlimited riding, this is it! This wilderness covers 2,000 rugged square miles of Montana and Idaho backcountry. Its 1,340,681 acres cover four national forests, and include valleys, canyons, and mountaintops. Elevation ranges from 1,780 feet along the Selway River to the 10,157-foot summit of Trapper Peak, which is near the ranch.
Charlene and I have done pack trips in the Selway Bitterroot Wilderness. In fact, we were on the divide just above Chief Joseph Ranch. The scenery was mind-boggling! One memorable night, we camped by a small lake in the wilderness and spent the evening watching four moose as they grazed on weeds from the lake bottom.
We checked out the northern and southern Bitterroot Valley for other possible day rides.
In the southern Bitterroot Valley just south of Darby at Sula, follow the East Fork of the Bitterroot River Rd. #472 for about 14 miles. You'll arrive at a trailhead into yet another wilderness, the Anaconda Pintler Wilderness. Horses can be ridden up Trail 433 along the upper East Fork.
Across the valley from Sula at the Crazy Creek trailhead, horsemen can ride eight miles up to Too Good Cabin. This cabin was restored by the local backcountry horsemen group so people could enjoy a day visit or weekend getaway. Too Good Cabin is quaint and well-maintained.
Go north in the Bitterroot Valley and you'll find crystal clear Lake Como, named after Lake Como in the Italian Alps. Follow the signs to Lake Como, west off the main highway. At the road junction below the dam at Lake Como, turn left, and follow the signs for the Rock Creek trailhead, on the southeast side of the lake. There's a horse ramp here and plenty of parking.
We rode our horses up the south shore of the lake. I had my 5-year-old Missouri Fox Trotter, Buddy, and Charlene was riding her 7-year-old Fox Trotter, Scout. Buddy and Scout made good time going along the south shoreline. We had lovely views of the shining water and high Como Peaks.
At the end of the lake, follow the trail up Rock Creek to Elk Lake. The trail is in a steeply walled, heavily forested canyon and has a gradual climb of about 1,400 feet to Elk Lake. Going all the way to Elk Lake makes for a long, round trip ride of 24 miles. We were happy for the fast pace and occasional fox trotting of Buddy and Scout. Even going part way and turning back sooner makes for a very rewarding day.
Other trails of interest on the west side of the Bitterroot Valley are Blodgett Canyon, Fred Burr Reservoir, and Bass Creek trails. These are all just north of Chief Joseph Ranch. Blodgett Canyon is located west out of the town of Hamilton on Road 62 - follow the signs. There's good parking and trailer turning at the trailhead.
Blodgett Creek passes through one of the most spectacular canyons in the Bitterroot Valley. Riding through here is sometimes reminiscent of riding through a miniature Yosemite Valley, with gurgling streams, large, moss-covered rocks, bright flowers, and sheer canyon walls. At the beginning of the trail, you'll pass a memorial to firefighters who lost their lives protecting our forests, a poignant reminder of the raw forces of nature.
Continue north on the west side of the highway following Road 50, and you'll find the Fred Burr Reservoir trailhead. This is an easy ride of about five miles up to the lake. This is especially pretty in the fall when cottonwood leaves are turning yellow.
Even farther north is the trail up Bass Creek, just 2_ miles off the highway on Road 20. This is a good trail, which, after about two miles, comes to the ruins of a very old splash dam. From here, you can travel as far as desired with mountain views in every direction.
More Great B&Bs
Here are some other recommended B&Bs in the area.
• Deer Creek Crossing (800/763-2232), near Darby, Montana, has theme rooms. Our favorite was the Charlie Russell suite, named after the renowned western sculptor and artist. The suite, rich in Western art and memorabilia, has a cedar interior, heavy beams, a cozy sitting area, a fireplace, and a double hot tub. In addition to rooms in the main building, there are also several cabins that can be rented. Trails take off right from the property.
• The Mandorla Ranch (406/745-4500), near St. Ignatius, Montana, is a top-notch place that even boasts a spa. The beautiful great room includes a 20-foot coffee bar. Every room is wired for the Internet. The gorgeous setting for this B&B is the base of the Mission Mountains. The snowcapped Missions dramatically rise 4,000 feet off the valley floor.
• The Carriage House Ranch (877/932-5339), near Big Timber, Montana is near where portions of The Horse Whisperer were filmed. The legendary Crazy Mountains rise majestically on the immediate horizon. An outdoor patio at the inn invites you to sit back and listen to the relaxing sounds of Big Timber Creek flowing nearby.
• Elk Lake Resort (406/276-3282), quite remote, is ideal for those wanting to get away from it all. It's located 40 miles west of West Yellowstone; the last 23 miles are dirt road. Follow the dirt road over the Continental Divide at Red Rock Pass into Red Rock Valley. Follow signs to the resort. A side trip here would be to drive to Red Rock Lake and see the home of the endangered trumpeter swans. The resort has no electricity - everything is operated by propane and generators. There are seven cabins, and horse corrals are free. This beautiful, wild country is inhabited by deer, elk, wolves, and grizzlies.
• Rye Creek Lodge (888/821-3366), south of Hamilton, isn't really a bed and breakfast, but we include it because there are kitchens for do-it-yourself cooking, and because of the uniqueness of the resort. The owners are extremely nice folks and have a corral for your horses. The cabins are really full-size log homes scattered up a beautiful valley. Each cabin has one or two bedrooms, a laundry, kitchen, fireplace, and its own hot tub. Charlene and I have sat in the resort's hot tubs many times and enjoyed watching elk on the nearby hills.
For more information on these places and other bed & barns, visit www.bbonline.com/horse.html. This website, which has been in business for nine years, lists many inns across the country that offer equine accommodations.
So hitch up that horse trailer, and hit the road! Maybe we'll see you at one of these B&Bs and ride together. Happy trails!