Since the time of Lewis and Clark, folks have been fascinated with the American West. In the late 19th century, romantic accounts of the open range and Western adventurers like Theodore Roosevelt and Buffalo Bill circulated back East, and those itching to escape the congestion of the city vacationed out West to get a taste of life on the wild frontier. For a few bucks, these travelers—called “dudes”—could enjoy the full ranching experience at outfits that offered grub, bunks, and plenty of saddle time to their guests.
In some ways, dude ranching today has come a long way from its early years (most ranches no longer pick guests up at the train depot in a horse-drawn wagon), but in the most important ways, dude and guest ranches haven’t changed hardly at all in the last century—they still offer horses and hospitality, and share their love for the Western way of life with people from around the world.
In 1863, a Montana territory homesteader named George Bruffey registered his brand—the 63, in commemoration of the year—with the Territorial Government (Montana was not yet a state). The 63 Ranch remuda still sports the brand, making the 63 one of the oldest continuously recorded brands in Montana.
In 1907, Bruffey’s son, Memorus, homesteaded some 156 acres on upper Mission Creek, some of the prettiest country in the West; it’s where the Mission Creek Canyon meets the jagged peaks of the Absaroka Mountains and the rolling grassy hills, rimrock ridges, and sagebrush vistas above the Yellowstone River. This homestead, against its breathtaking backdrop, eventually became the 63 Ranch.
In 1929, the Christensen family—brothers Paul and Elmer and their sister Johanna—purchased the property, a mutual dream-come-true for siblings who had long wanted to own a Montana dude ranch. They kept the brand, and named their guest ranch after it.
Eighty-five years later, the 63 Ranch is still owned and operated by the Christensen family, making it one of the oldest family-owned and operated dude ranches in Montana. A testament to family history and heritage, the ranch still utilizes many of the originally constructed log buildings. In 1982, the 63 Ranch was the first ranch in Montana to be designated a National Historic Site by the National Register of Historic Places.
The 63 Ranch is also a working cattle ranch, and guests have the opportunity to gather cattle (and hone their roping skills, if they’re handy). For trail riders, there are over 100 miles of trails to explore and enjoy.
Other ranch activities include fishing for trout in Mission Creek (3 1/2 miles of which run through the ranch), square dancing, perusing through the library stocked with Western classics, hiking the surrounding mountain ranges, and roasting s’mores under the stars.
Lone Mountain Ranch, 100+ years
Big Sky, Mont.
Seasons: summer, winter
Originally homesteaded in 1915 by Clarence Lytle, the ranch that would eventually become Lone Mountain was first a cattle, horse, and hay operation.
In 1926, Lytle sold the ranch to J. Fred Butler, a Chicago paper mill tycoon. Butler was enamored with the natural beauty of the ranch and wanted to use it as a vacation spot for his family. He spared no expense improving the grounds, buying 11 sections adjacent to the homestead and building cabins for his daughter and son-in-law, Florence and Don Killbourne. Named after the Butler and Killbourne families, the property was then called the B-K Ranch.
Florence spent much of her free time collecting Native artifacts, many of which are still on display around the ranch. After the elder Butler passed away, Don and Florence opened the family operation to guests and ran the B-K as a successful dude ranch for many years.
The ranch has enjoyed many livelihoods since them—a boy’s summer camp in the 1940s, a logging camp in the ’50s (when it officially picked up the Lone Mountain Ranch moniker), and a guest ranch once again in 1977, when it was purchased by current owners, Bob and Vivian Schaap.
The ranch offers the full gamut of Western and outdoor activities—everything from horseback riding and fly fishing in the summer to snowshoeing and sleigh rides in the winter. Artistically inclined guests can capture the natural splendor of the area on canvas in oil painting classes, and aspiring yogis can stretch out their saddle soreness with yoga classes. Guests can regale their fellow travelers with tails from the trail at the ranch saloon, which features live Western music from local musicians.
In 2006, in recognition for its role in the history of Montana, Lone Mountain Ranch was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
The Ranch at Rock Creek, 100+ years
The Ranch at Rock Creek is located between Butte and Missoula, near the old mining town of Phillipsburg, home to less than 1,000 people. In its heyday, however, during the Silver Boom of the late 1800s, Phillipsburg catered to more than 3,000 residents. At this time, what would become the Ranch at Rock Creek was merely a mining claim.
At the turn of the century, after the Silver Crash of 1893, the ranch was homesteaded by W.W. Shaffer and P.B. White as a working cattle ranch—an operation it maintains to this day, over 120 years later.
Also preserved is the ranch’s 19th-century barn, now converted to house three lodging units, including “The Loft,” featuring a slipper tub and various other supremely well-appointed furnishings. Guests can also relax in the comforts of one of the Granite Lodge’s nine rooms, styled after Old West themes such as the guns used to win the West. For more privacy, the ranch offers accommodations in individual log homes or in canvas-walled glamping cabins.
But all the pretty things do not exist solely within the walls of the ranch. When Jim Manley purchased the ranch in 2007—a dream he’d had since he was a 10-year-old boy in New Jersey—he did so knowing the surroundings at Rock Creek would be worth every pretty penny.
Resting against the base of the John Long Mountains, The Ranch at Rock Creek encompasses approximately 10 square miles (or 6,600 acres) of pristine Montana meadows, woodlands, and mountain ridges, and also includes four miles of Rock Creek frontage.
Such grand outdoor amenities allow for countless recreational opportunities, from horseback riding and mountain biking to fly-fishing and hiking. It has a herd of more than 50 horses and is the first and only resort in Montana to be named Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Hotel.