Western Montana

Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: Travel Issue: August 2013
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From fly fishing to horsback riding to clay shooting, the wilds of Montana offer myriad adventures..

We are stalking the elusive wild cutthroat. I crouch and whisper, mimicking my guides, Nick and Ryan, as we squelch through the muck, our waders stirring up freshwater shrimp and the bugs our fly lures are attempting to impersonate. The gunmetal gray clouds above us swell and spit, threatening to burst. But first, I must catch a fish.

Clay pigeon shootingThe cutthroat trout are spawning, swarming the shallows but too distracted making their own catches to glance at anything I cast at them, especially given how my flies bellyflop into the water with the grace of a brick. Like all the staff at The Ranch at Rock Creek – where I’m staying in the epic grasslands between Missoula and Butte – my fly fishing guides are unflappably positive. In my mind, I weave their instructions with the words of late Missoula author Norman Maclean’s father in A River Runs Through It: “[Fly fishing] is an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.” I repeat this to myself as I perform the complicated choreography perhaps a hundred times. And I get it right exactly once.

There’s a satisfying tug at the end of the line. I momentarily anticipate a heroic battle of wills ending in a broken line, bloody hands, and a one-that-got-away legend. Then I reel the fish in easily and realize it’s only about the length of two minnows kissing. Nick scoops at it with the net, and I have caught my first – and only – trout in Montana.

A cabin at The Ranch at Rock Creek

It’s partly why I’ve come here, to A River Runs Through It country – a world, as the movie’s narrator says, “with dew still on it, more touched by wonder and possibility than any I have since known.” A world where people come for the fly fishing, horseback riding, shooting, hiking, kayaking, and – it turns out – gourmet cuisine and impeccable local liquors. And thanks to a nonstop flight from the Mesa Gateway airport to Missoula, that dewy world is just two hours away.

 It is a curious fact that Missoula, population about 67,000, is home to more professional writers per capita than anywhere in the country. I ponder this while my friend Bonnie and I drive through the university town’s Prescott-doppelgänger downtown behind a bumper sticker bearing this gold nugget of wordsmithery: “Carpe Scrotum – Seize Life by the Balls.” The driver may have purchased the sticker at the Testicle Festival, a celebration of the Rocky Mountain Oyster held in nearby Clifton. But it seems to say something about Missoula. Cradled by voluptuous hunter-green hills and bifurcated by the Clark Fork river – Lewis and Clark were here – Missoula is populated by outdoor enthusiasts who, on any given day, can be found seizing the surrounding mountains, waterways and forests by the balls.

Photos courtesy Ranch at Rock Creek; Horseback riding near The Ranch at Rock Creek

Wander around town and you’ll see brewing companies, clothing boutiques, bookstores, and an old-fashioned carousel built by volunteer Missoulans. You can take a picnic and hike the steep, 1-mile trail to the top of Mount Sentinel and the giant M, but we head to Caffe Dolce (500 Brooks St., Missoula, 406-830-3055, caffedolcemissoula.com), a popular place with dulce-de-leche walls that soar to a muraled ceiling. As we gaze out the windows at the maple-lined lanes and Tudor homes common around town, we dine on hearty, contemporary fare like a delightfully gamey lamb burger topped with goat cheese and grilled onions washed down with local coffee and local milk.

But the real lure of Missoula lies outside town. Thanks to 1,800 miles of hiking and biking trails in the surrounding Lolo National Forest, mountain biking here is practically a religion. Stop by Big Sky Bikes (809 E. Front St., Missoula, 406-830-3195, bigskybike.com) for rentals and tips on the best trails for your level. Fly fishing, on the other hand, is more of a rarefied philosophy. The gurus at Blackfoot River Outfitters (3055 N. Reserve St., Missoula, 406-542-7411, blackfootriver.com) will school you in technique and set you up with half- to four-day floating or wading trips.

But we’re driving an hour and a half to The Ranch at Rock Creek (79 Carriage House L., Philipsburg, theranchatrockcreek.com, 406-859-6027; all-inclusive rates starting at $950 per person per night), set on 6,000 acres of tawny hills and emerald meadows painted with yellow wildflowers. The closest civilization, about 30 minutes away, is Philipsburg (pop. 818), a Main Street mining town (sapphire mining trips can still be arranged), where historic saloons have been converted into craft stores, a microbrewery, and a legendary candy shop.

Formerly a late-1800s mining claim-turned-horse ranch, The Ranch at Rock Creek is now an all-inclusive Relais & Chateaux property that successfully straddles the wide girth between “luxury” and “cowboy.” Steer horns hang over the main room’s bar, which is constructed of branches and the brown-and-white-spotted cowhide that also acts as bar stool covers and rugs. Country music mixes with the crackling of a fire next to Native American wall-hanging rugs and gorgeous hand-tooled leather sofas. But it’s not so fancy that muddy boots aren’t de rigueur and the resident Rhodesian Ridgeback, Troy, isn’t allowed to curl up in her favorite chair by the bar.

A cabin  at The Ranch at Rock Creek; Photos courtesy Ranch at Rock Creek

Guest rooms – wood-walled and outfitted with historic photos and leather rocking chairs – are located in the lodge, but there are also several free-standing cabins and a revamped barn (all jaw-droppingly poised for an Architectural Digest spread) available for families of four to 15. Glamping is given a ranch-y twist here in the plush canvas-cabin hybrids along Rock Creek, where you can sit on your semi-enclosed patio sipping fine syrah as a breeze rustles the pages of your Western novel.

Culinary activities are semi-choreographed. Chef Josh Drage cooks up alfresco Dutch oven dinners on Sundays and grilled treats on Thursdays. Tuesday mornings, everyone heads to an on-site rodeo followed by a barbecue picnic. Fridays, a multi-course wine pairing dinner is served in the wood-beamed dining room. This is certainly not Blazing Saddles-style beans-and-beef grub, but it does display a locavore zeal that emphasizes Big Sky Country’s bounty. A pre-prandial cocktail highlighting local huckleberry and sage is served with a potato crisp topped with Montana trout roe. Our dinner begins like a crisp May day with sunlight-hued wine and a salad of shaved asparagus and deconstructed pesto courtesy of the on-site herb garden. A juicy pork chop sustainably raised in nearby Livingston is grounded in the base notes of brown butter sweet potato puree but given a percussive pow from red onion-bacon-bourbon-sherry relish. On Saturday, we gather in the Blue Canteen, a canvas tent-style cabin where guests mingle, a staff member sings and strums her guitar, and Western-clad servers pass around wine and appetizers before we pile our plates with local grass-fed beef, coffee-rubbed ribs, and grilled vegetables.

With the help of the worldly and enthusiastic staff, you can arrange daily activities, including fly fishing in blue-ribbon trout stream Rock Creek, horseback riding, shooting, mountain biking, archery, paintball, rafting and river floating, hiking, and – in winter – cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, ice skating, snowmobiling, ice fishing, sleigh rides, sledding, and downhill skiing at nearby Discovery Basin.

Near the top of my list is mountain biking along the rolling grassy hills cresting to big sky views of forests receding into layers of blue mountains. Unfortunately, my visit coincides with an unseasonable rainy spell. So instead of slip-sliding away on two wheels, we opt to trot on two feet and four feet, hiking one day through the expansive meadows, and horseback riding another along the creek. It doesn’t rain in the spa, where I enjoy a lavender-scented massage, or under the partially covered shooting range, where I enjoy something completely different.

Our clay pigeon shooting guides are Wes and Theo, the latter named after Theodore Roosevelt and essentially born with a silver gun in his mouth. Both came to Montana partially for the shooting and are totally in their element. I have never so much as touched a gun. As Theo and Wes explain the intricacies of safety and mechanics, I begin to cloud over with a slight sense of dread. I’m not sure this is for me.

A saloon at The Ranch at Rock Creek; Photos courtesy Ranch at Rock Creek

We are standing in a small V-shaped valley flanked by forest. Half a dozen “traps” are placed around the course, primed to hurl clay “pigeons” (orange discs) at varying trajectories: a soaring lob straight toward us, a mid-lofted left-to-righter, a rabbit-like ground-skimming skedaddle. My friend Bonnie – also a beginner – shoots first. Maybe it’s her military familial DNA, but she basically carpe scrotums the sport. Clay pigeons explode like Fourth of July fireworks.

It is my turn. I expect the shotgun to feel foreign, but it doesn’t. Press the butt of the gun into the fleshy part of your shoulder and the top of the gun to your cheek, Wes instructs, so that when you turn, the gun turns with you, and when it recoils, you move with it. I like this “be the gun” thing. There’s something empowering about it. I slide the safety forward, say “pull” like I’ve heard Englishmen do in period pieces, track the pigeon as it flies, and pull the trigger.

I smithereen five clay pigeons – amid numerous misses – but consider it a wildly successful outing. One real trout and five fake pigeons! Norman Maclean was right: This is truly a world touched by wonder and possibility. As we drive back, I gaze at the valley – vast yet welcoming, broodingly stormy yet serene, with a river running through it. It’s time to celebrate the luxe country way: Head to The Ranch’s saloon, mount one of the saddle bar stools, and sling back some very fine whiskey – Montana-distilled Roughstock brand, of course.