There can be few better remedies for the stresses and strains of metropolitan life than an activity break in the classic landscapes and wide-open spaces of Montana’s ‘Big Sky Country’. Nick Smith goes glamping at the exclusive Ranch at Rock Creek…
It’s like something out of an old Wild West movie. The sun dips over the snow-capped Pintler Mountains, while horses are being ridden home along the trail. Tucked away in the lush rolling foothills, surrounded by miles of ranchland a fast, shallow river runs past the Granite Lodge. Inside, a fire crackles, champagne is served and all around there is memorabilia from the old days of the great railroad hotels, hard rock quarrying and the Ghost towns of the silver mining boom years. There’s a frontier spirit and a pioneering zest with a twist of luxury here at the Ranch at Rock Creek. And it’s paradise.
Twenty-four hours ago I was in London. But now, here in Montana I might as well be on another planet. Gone is the impersonal hurly-burley of a city bristling with commerce and bursting with traffic. Surrounding me is the huge jagged landscape of the bones of old America, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and everything else is… well, there isn’t much else. Just space. It’s no wonder that the Rock Creek’s owner Jim Manley, after a lifetime’s search for the perfect ranch, chose this utopian pocket of land near a fork in the creek which, if you exclude the small town of Philipsburg (population 914), is fifty miles away from anywhere. To try to understand how peaceful and isolated Montana is you need to savour the statistic that it is the fourth largest of the American states, and yet fewer than a million people live here.
Montana gets its name, with some justification, from the Spanish for ‘mountainous country.’ But it is also the ‘Big Sky Country,’ and absurd as it may sound, this is a region of the world that seems to have been blessed with a disproportionately large canvas of ever changing cloud formations. As we spend our days fishing, riding, shooting and hiking, the sky is a constant source of amazement. If you climb to the Top of the World – a vantage point on the ranch that no photographer can afford to miss – there are sweeping, uninterrupted 180-degree horizons. This is something you don’t get in the city. And this is why ‘city folk’ come to Rock Creek.
They also come here to experience the rustic simplicity of ranch life. It has to be said though, at Rock Creek there are a few small embellishments that seem to transform rough frontier living into something of a master-class in uncomplicated guilt-free luxury. Everything is thought of and nothing is overstated, but the first order of the day is privacy and seclusion. If you chose, you could spend your whole time here and never see anyone outside your own party. And yet, as I quickly found, evenings are a sociable occasion, when after fine dining in the Lodge, there’s 8-ball pool, karaoke and bowling in the Silver Dollar Saloon. Everyone joins in, and it was in the saloon that I met Jim Manley who tells me, as he sits on a bar stool made from a saddle, that his childhood dream was to own such a ranch.
But it is a dream fulfilled with a thread of luxury woven through its fabric. With the distinctive style of Americana, the accommodation works more like a village, where you can stay in rooms in the lodge or log homes dotted around the ranch. I stayed in one of the ‘tents’ down by the creek, a term that does nothing to prepare you for the experience of ‘glamping’ taken to a new level. My classic canvas cabin, named Cut-Bow after one of the six breeds of trout that live in the creek, had a fireplace, screened-in porch and was furnished in a reassuringly rustic style. Facing the river, in the early morning the only sounds you can hear are those of the creek rushing past and the breeze in the cottonwood trees.
For outdoor types – and by the time it comes to leave Rock Creek Ranch, that means everyone – the rhythm of your stay is dictated by the activities that are on offer. What this means is that very quickly you become familiar with the Blue Canteen and the Rod & Gun. The former is where you fill up on coffee and pastries before setting off for the day, and where you sit around the fire with a pre-dinner drink on your weary return. The latter is where to saddle-up, tackle up and otherwise prepare for any of the ranch’s dozen activities that range from archery to clay pigeon shooting, horseback riding to fly-fishing. For many, the main attraction will be to take a horse out along the trail and there is plenty of superb riding at the ranch. But for me the jewel in the crown is the creek itself.
After a quick induction on fly-fishing I find myself out on the creek with one of the expert resident fishermen who tells me that we’re on one of Montana’s finest stretches of ‘Blue Ribbon’ water, meaning that it is environmentally pristine with great sport to be had too. Within half and hour I’d caught two trout (and released them) and was thoroughly hooked myself. For the rest of my visit, I did little other than go fishin’ and take the photos that go with the article.
Rock Creek Ranch is one of those places where you vow to return and actually mean it. It’s a great way to get away from the buzz of the city. The people are friendly, the food is sumptuous and you can take ranch life at any pace you like. But more than anything, it’s Montana’s landscape that is so captivating. To walk and ride amongst it feels like a privilege, as if you are experiencing America at its best, having discovered one of the last great secret places on earth.
Carrier is offering 7 nights from £5745pp, including accommodation in the main Granite Lodge, ranch activities (one morning and one afternoon) and return flights from London Heathrow with United Airlines. The price is based on 18 August 2013 departures and excludes transfers. (Carrier: 0161 492 1356, http://www.carrier.co.uk)