Montana: Spirit of the West sparkling once again

By Luke Blackall

Luke Blackall saddles up for the first time during a visit to a wonderfully remote Montana ranch.

Visitors can engage in a vast selection of outdoor activities - including horseback riding - while staying at The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo / Courtesy of The Ranch at Rock Creek
Visitors can engage in a vast selection of outdoor activities - including horseback riding - while staying at The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo / Courtesy of The Ranch at Rock Creek

The Ranch at Rock Creek sounds like the setting for a 1960s made-for-television Western. In fact, it is a hotel in rural Montana - but its location is striking and beautiful enough to be a film set.

I arrived at the small and unassuming Missoula airport in the dead of night, so the 90-minute drive to the ranch was carried out in darkness. The only sense I got of the surroundings were dark, looming hills, rustling trees and the distant murmur of the creek. When I awoke, however, I was greeted by the sun rising over a remote and colour-changing valley.

Inaccessibility is the key to this wild corner of the United States. Montana is a giant state - bigger than the land area of the British Isles - but with barely a million people scattered across the prairies of the east and the mountains of the west.

To the west, the Rocky Mountains that gave the state its name rise up towards the Idaho border. Northwest is Washington state - but even from Spokane, the first city you reach, it is a full day's drive to the Pacific. Canada hems in Montana to the north, with the Dakotas and Wyoming sealing in the state with their richly evocative names.

The Ranch, you will not be surprised to hear, is on Rock Creek, a winding, rushing river, with a sparkly surface hiding sapphires on the river bed. The nearby town of Anaconda is about an hour away, appropriately reached by a snaking road.

The hotel strives to maintain a genuinely local feel, from the gold-rush-era photos on the walls, to the hide rugs and radios fixed permanently on a local station that plays only western ballads. Thankfully the effect is slightly kitsch rather than overbearing, and there are also many luxury comforts on offer that you wouldn't experience in the area's late-1890s heyday.

Back then, it was at the centre of the silver boom and people came from all over to get a piece of the action.

Today, Montana's big tourist draw comes from the outstanding natural beauty of places such as Yellowstone National Park, while its sweeping landscapes have been brought to greater public prominence by films such as The Horse Whisperer, Legends of the Fall and A River Runs Through It.

The accommodation at Rock Creek ranges from luxury tents by the creek to private cabins that comfortably house large (and comfortably off) families. The tents feature soft beds and indoor heaters and some even have their own bathrooms. The cabins, with their open-plan kitchens and lounges, are designed to allow guests to be self-sufficient. Children sleep in sturdy bunk beds. I had a room in the main lodge with a giant bed, Native American rugs and - authentically - no TV.

The lack of a flat-screen seemed to be part of the Ranch's ethos of getting outside and doing things. To go with its range of accommodation it offered an even wider range of activities, with a strong emphasis on the sort of "hunting, fishing and shooting" pursuits you would expect in this corner of the old Wild West.

A number of the staff are trained guides and instructors. (If you find yourself there in winter, skiing and snow-sports are close by - the local resorts might not be as popular as Colorado but are gaining a reputation for the quality of skiing on big, empty runs.)

I'd never ridden a horse, but it felt as if there would be few better places to learn. The hotel's in-house cowboy, the seemingly unflappable Buck, led me along Ranch Creek on a horse that seemed to go, stop and turn without me doing very much.

Following the river path, I rode through fields and meadows, with only grazing cattle for company. I had the boots, but I didn't quite feel like a cowboy, as the horse seemed to be in control of me rather than the other way around.

The hiking is also excellent, with several guided paths ranging from a 90-minute stroll up a hill to 45-mile hikes. Without too much effort I was able to explore the surrounding hills, watch dawn break over the valley and spot deer, elk and moose.

The nearest town is Philipsburg, 20 miles away by road, a place which has suffered in recent years from the closures of local mines. (The area has a long history of mining coal, silver, copper and gemstones.) Depending on who you speak to, this is either the result of the overzealous campaigns by environmentalists or the cavalier mining companies.

In the town, there were plenty of shops selling locally mined sapphires. The decor of the Sapphire Gallery might be rustic, but its products appeared to be of the highest quality. As were the goodies within the Sweet Palace, which is apparently only the second-biggest candy store in the US (after Ralph Lauren's Dylan's Candy Bar in New York). It nonetheless has enough toffee, marshmallow and fudge to rot the roughest cowboy's teeth.

About eight kilometres to the southeast is the Granite Ghost Town, a combination of crumbling brickwork and the spectacular, twisted remains of a silver mine. Here, I stepped into the former dance hall and tried to conjure up visions of the 1890s, when it was the centre of a town of 3000 miners, all looking for pleasurable downtime.

While the face of the area has changed irrevocably, it's a shift that has a silver lining. Against the backdrop of an old-time boom, Montana is conjuring up a new spirit of the West for today's tourists.

- INDEPENDENT

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