Geographically, Montana isn’t at the heart of United States cowboy country, but it is wholeheartedly Western. The state is all sky (as its Big Sky Country moniker reaffirms) and mountains; after all, its very name is derived from montaña (Spanish for “mountain”). And when the ground is swathed in winter white, the wide open spaces seem even more vast. This, here, is ranch country.
About 160 kilometres southeast of Missoula, on the outskirts of the small town of Philipsburg, there lies a sprawling enclave of log cabins and an authentic ranch house: the Ranch at Rock Creek. It’s a destination that is in the running for the most ruggedly luxurious ranch resort in North America. Already a member of the esteemed Kiwi Collection, Virtuoso Hotels & Resorts, and Signature Travel Network, the property was named an official Relais & Châteaux member this past fall.
The picturesque Montana locale is just one of the many reasons that owner James Manley snapped up the working cattle ranch and transformed it into state-of-the-art accommodations. In his quest for the ideal spot, Manley (who is chairman and CEO of Atlantic-Pacific Capital, an investment bank based in Connecticut and New York) looked at more than 500 properties in locations ranging from Northern California to Colorado before finding his winner in Montana. He then enlisted interior designer Jet Zarkadas to spearhead its transformation. “Everything we did was in keeping with the old ranch. Then we actually pushed the cowboy [angle] more and went more Western than it was before,” says Zarkadas. “What Jim really loved about the old ranch was that it felt so real and authentic, basically, because it was.”
The Ranch is a property of many parts. There’s Granite Lodge, with its lavish log dining room, full bar set-up, and roaring fireplace. It has nine guestrooms and acts as home base. On the surrounding 6,800 acres there’s plenty of space for other lodgings, including six self-contained log cabins, three specialty suites in the revamped barn, and nine private “canvas cabins”—think luxe safari tents set back in the Montana wilderness.
Of these, Trapper Tent is a standout. Virtually out of sight from the rest of the ranch buildings and just steps away from Rock Creek, it is the epitome of cozy isolation, especially in the winter, when it is fully heated by propane stoves (as are all tents, which are available year-round). “With all of the tents, we made a conscious effort to make them more like an old camp rather than the Western-style lodge,” explains Zarkadas. “Because they are right on the river, it’s more about fishing and hunting—there’s more of a camp feel to it.”
Authenticity rules the interior decoration scheme of all the ranch buildings and tents: the lodge corridors are lined with historical photographs from Philipsburg archives, chandeliers made from antlers hang from the ceilings of the main lodge rooms and cabins, and artifacts like rodeo buckles from the 1950s and minors’ helmets turn up around other bends. A wing of horse-themed rooms includes the Palamino, bedecked with a white four-poster bed and vintage books (Black Beauty and The Valley of the Horses included) all sourced from nearby Philipsburg and Butte.
Winter at Rock Creek equals acres upon acres of undisturbed snow. Summer activities like hiking and trout fishing are replaced with ice skating on mountain ponds, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding. Guests can make tracks in the surrounding mountains however they like, then be greeted back at base camp by a field full of galloping horses pounding through the snow. A morning sleigh ride pulled by Percheron draft horses—and sometimes offered in a stagecoach that dates back to 1895—can be balanced with an afternoon at the outdoor shooting range, learning the ways of a .22-calibre rifle at target practice.
For downhill skiers, Discovery Ski Area is a 25-minute drive away with 67 runs. Rock Creek’s ski concierge will tailor trips and organize equipment rentals and transport at no additional fee, and they’ll even pack a gourmet lunch prepared by executive chef Josh Drage.
Bedtime doesn’t come early at the Ranch at Rock Creek, not even after a treatment in the full-service spa, a long day of winter sports, and a venison dinner. The in-lodge Silver Dollar Saloon is open late, with its four bowling lanes, two pool tables, a movie theatre, and karaoke. Clint Eastwood has been known to make an appearance at the dinner-and-a-movie nights, albeit on the TV screen showing Unforgiven. Even sidling up to the saloon bar has a Western touch: the barstools were crafted from saddles mounted on restored antique ice cream stools.
By preserving the best and updating the rest, ranch life at Rock Creek is anything but hard work.
Photos provided by the Ranch at Rock Creek.