Our Favorite Places

Family Vacations, Summer 1996

Our Favorite Places
By Nancy Debevoise

Livingston, Montana
One of the oldest working dude ranches in the West, the 63 has been owned by the same family since 1929 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The rambling log lodge is the genuine article, left over from the early glory days of dude ranches. These days it's stuffed with studded leather and Molesworth furniture, big-game mounts of elk, deer, moose, and bear, old Indian blankets and cowboy regalia, and a plentiful supply of well-worn western novels.

Since the 63 is set in a stunning landscape of snow-saddled peaks, glacier-formed canyons, forested mountain flanks, and rolling grasslands, you probably won't spend too much time lounging around the lodge. This is a place where you could spend two weeks in the saddle and never see the same view twice. Riders can amble up into the rugged Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness for 100-mile vistas or head out into open rangeland for off-trail gallops. Or you can tag along with wranglers to the high pastures above the ranch where the 63's cattle spend their summers.

While most ranches won't allow children under six on trail rides, the 63 lets kids as young as four ride with their parents. When youngsters aren't glued to their horses or shadowing cowboys, they're yanking fish out of the stocked trout pond, messing around in the rec room or hanging out in the kids' tepee. After-dinner it's nostalgia time: old-fashioned parlor games, square dancing to records, wagon rides, snipe hunts, and nature walks.

If fish are almost as high on your list as horses, this is the place. A trout stream cascades down from the mountains through the ranch, and most of Montana's fabled blue-ribbon trout streams are within an hour's drive: the Yellowstone, Madison, Firehole, West Boulder, and Main Boulder rivers.

Guests stay in appealingly rustic, simply furnished cabins tucked into the pines. Built in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, the cabins (some log and some frame) have from one to four bedrooms and a bathroom. The cost of a seven-day stay, including all meals, ranges from $815-$880 per adult (depending on the number of people sharing a cabin), with a $25 weekly discount for children under 12. Call 406-222-0570.

Harrison, Idaho

Hidden Creek is an upscale ranch with a not-so-hidden emphasis on conservation ethics and American Indian traditions. The ranch encourages its guests to think green by stocking the log cabins with eco-friendly linens and soaps, serving ranch-grown organic produce, and sprinkling many activities with subtle lessons about the importance of living lightly on the land.

Unlike many ranches, Hidden Creek offers in-depth riding instruction to those who want to improve their skills. A guest rodeo at week's end gives kids and grown-ups a chance to show their stuff in events like barrel racing, pole bending, and team relays.
But if you're only pretending to like horses, you won't be chained to the saddle at Hidden Creek: There are guided nature hikes, fly-fishing lessons in the ranch's pond, mountain biking on groomed trails or nearby logging roads, boating on nearby lakes, archery, and trapshooting.

It's impossible to imagine a bored kid at Hidden Creek. Several age-appropriate children's programs keep youngsters and teenagers entertained with riding, hiking (including a trip to an old gold mine), biking, swimming in the pond, fishing, crafts, nature studies, campfire storytelling, and tepee overnights. Television is banned, for obvious reasons, at most dude ranches, but Hidden Creek opens its otherwise off-limits video library to kids on occasional rainy days.

Hidden Creek's "week" is six nights long. Rates are $1,375 for adults and $925 for children three through 11. There's no charge for infants and toddlers, and discounts are available for groups of eight or more. Call 208-689-3209.

Dubois, Wyoming

The Absaroka is a secluded hideaway at 8,000 feet in the mountains of northwest Wyoming. The ranch takes just 18 guests, making it ideal for families who like the homey feel of small places.

Miles of superb riding country stretch away from the corrals, much of it gentle enough to permit lots of cantering and an occasional gallop. The Absaroka's rolling hills lead to the foothills of Ramshorn Mountain, about five miles away. For a ranch of its size, the Absaroka's horse operation is lavishly staffed with horses and wranglers. Three rides take off from the ranch each morning and afternoon: a sedate amble for beginners and those who prefer a leisurely pace; a walk-trot ride for those with fair riding skills; and a fast ride for skilled thrill-seekers. Guests with time and enthusiasm to spare can spend a few days before or after their ranch stay on a guided wilderness horsepack trip.

Except for daily rides, the ranch has no set schedule. Instead, the staff organizes guided hikes, fishing expeditions, river trips, and other doings in response to the guests' daily whims. Owners Emi and Budd Betts delight in organizing deliciously corny after-dinner activities like three-legged races, campfire sing-alongs, cowboy poetry, and outings to local rodeos and square dances.

A seven-night stay costs $950 for adults and $850 for kids 12 and under. Discounts are available for families of four or more who share one of the exceptionally comfortable two- and three-bedroom log cabins. Call 307-455-2275.

Choteau, Montana

If you're the type of person who likes knowing the name of every flower, bird, animal, and rock you trot past, you're in luck at Pine Butte: A full-time naturalist is on hand to lend a slightly academic tone to the dude-ranch experience.

Set in dramatic wild country on the eastern front of the Rockies, the ranch looks west into the vast mountain stronghold of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and east into the roaming countryside of the high plains. The Nature Conservancy owns the ranch and the nearby Pine Butte Swamp Preserve, 18,000 acres of protected wetlands and pristine prairies. Together, the two properties safeguard an astonishing array of wildlife: deer, beaver, bighorn sheep, bear, coyote, and numerous bird species--such as sandhill cranes, long-billed curlews, and eagles.

Guests stay in cabins built of native stone and wood and decorated with hand-crafted lodgepole furniture. Most have two bedrooms, two baths, and a fireplace; some have living rooms as well.

On morning and afternoon rides into the mountains, kids can fish in alpine lakes, check out beaver ponds, and search for ancient sea fossils. Each day the staff naturalist guides hikes focusing on native plants, birds, mammals, geology, and paleontology. For dinosaur freaks, the ranch schedules an all-day outing to Egg Mountain, a world-class dig where novices can help experts uncover dinosaur bones, eggs, and nests.

Guests who'd rather hang out at the ranch can swim in the heated pool or poke around in the Natural History Center, a large cabin filled with nature books, maps, fossils, photographs, and information on the natural history of the area.

Weekly rates are $1,050 for adults and $800 for children 12 and under. There's no minimum age (babysitting can be arranged for younger kids). For information and reservations, call 406-466-2158.

Steamboat Springs, Colorado

In a valley surrounded by aspen- and pine-forested mountains, Vista Verde offers guests the best of both worlds, combining working-ranch traditions with dude-style fun. The ranch runs 80 head of cattle, corrals 60 horses, and raises lots of farm animals--pigs, lambs, chickens, and ducks--and at the same time provides comfortable accommodations. Guests stay in posh-rustic log cabins, most of which have a master suite for parents and a sleeping loft or second bedroom with its own bath for kids (some of the cabins also have Jacuzzis). In a bow to its sophisticated clientele, the ranch is staffed with a professional chef and equipped with a spa, exercise machines, and a sauna.

Unlike many dude ranches that crowd a dozen or more riders of varying abilities onto each trail ride, the Vista Verde takes groups of no more than five guests on their choice of slow, medium, and fast rides that range from one to six hours in length. The ranch caters to adventurous spirits with rock-climbing instruction at a fairly tame rockface down the road, mountain biking, and even hot-air balloon flights. There are also supervised kids-only rides, hikes, swimming excursions, archery, treasure hunts, panning for gold at nearby Elk River, and tepee overnights.

Rates for a seven-night stay are $1,595 per adult and $1,095 for children under 12. Call 800- 526-7433 or 970-879-3858.

Copyright 1996, Outside magazine

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