Photo: Courtesy The Ranch at Rock Creek

BIG TOM ISN’T A REAL COWBOY. SURE, HE looks like one—right hat, ramrod straight, well over six feet—and he oversees about 70 head of horses at the posh Ranch at Rock Creek in rural Montana. But Big Tom, otherwise known as wrangler Tom McCombs, is no John Wayne character; he managed Home Depots in Virginia before making a career change in his mid-50s. But that doesn’t really matter to the average tenderfoot, since he has a stash of gory Old West tales to fill a two-hour trail ride. He’s kind of like the ranch itself: better than the real thing.

Open since spring 2010, the Ranch at Rock Creek runs the Western aesthetic through a luxury filter, providing all—inclusive retreats for greenhorns who want their City Slickers with a side of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Tucked into a shallow valley 90 minutes southeast of Missoula, the hotel accommodates about as many guests as horses—about 80 visitors during the busy summer season.

The hills Big Tom and I are ascending are gentle, not jagged postcard peaks, though on a clear day you can see that Montana from here. James Manley, a Connecticut investor, nursed a ranch dream for decades before building this immaculate wood-beam lodge. The complex holds nine suites and four detached homes, all with aggressively Western decor—no cowhide spared, no antler left behind. An attached spa hunkers under a sod roof, ready for when your inner-thigh adductor muscles scream from saddle soreness (and, oh, they will).

Across the creek, a series of canvas cabin-tent hybrids lines the riverbank, where country music queen LeAnn Rimes stayed on a recent visit—which says something about how glam this camping gets. The ultratidy spread skirts the cheesiness factor by doubling down on high-end touches, from personally sized fleece-lined bathrobes to marble showers.


Photo: Courtesy The Ranch at Rock Creek

A very slow posse hits the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek.

The resort is fully inclusive, not merely for meals and most activities but also incidentals like beer-stocked fridges and bar appetizers. Sleepaway camp has nothing on this recreation menu: Shoot clay pigeons, fly-fish stocked lakes, or even play paintball. In winter, frozen ponds become ice-skating rinks and ski guides lead trips to nearby Discovery Mountain (“Disco” in local parlance), which boasts an impressive 2,200 acres of terrain. Down the road, the ex-mining town of Philipsburg is known primarily for its candy store, the Sweet Palace, a two-story emporium full of saltwater taffy bins and brass cash registers.

Back at the ranch, the grub is good. Alaskan-born chef Josh Drage serves cuts of local bison, housemade ice creams, and salads dressed in delicate balsamic vinaigrettes. After dinner, the action moves to the all-ages Silver Dollar Saloon, which could be Ted Turner’s rec room: the bar stools are made of actual saddles and Legends of the Fall plays on a projection movie screen. One corner is taken over by the clatter of four bowling lanes, where each ball is branded with the Rock Creek logo. The bartender holding court wears the ranch uniform of a checked shirt and jeans; the entire staff looks one step out of a Ralph Lauren catalog.

 Well, make that most of the staff. Big Tom’s denim-on-denim ensemble is perhaps a bit less fashion forward. He dismounts to open gates along the barbed-wire fence line, telling me his favorite stories of infamous Montana mountain men, accounts that land somewhere between history and tall tale.

“One was known as Liver-Eating-Johnson,” Tom says. “After his wife was murdered, he killed 300 Crow Indians. And then he ate their livers.” I also hear about how Johnson once gnawed on the leg of a Blackfoot Indian after being held captive, but that was for nourishment, not revenge. The Old West being mythologized at Rock Creek wasn’t as comfy as the turndown service that’s here now.

The yellow late-summer grass and ponderosa pine are Hollywood-ready, a stark contrast to these bloody tales. In the open meadows, a handful of longhorn cattle give us blank stares. The cows, the general manager tells me, are “Disney,” just for show.

The horses, of course, are hardworking steeds, but the herd has the perfect balance of black, brown, and spotted paint coats; someone was thinking aesthetically. As dozens gallop out to pasture in the evening, they’re the Western ideal brought to life—maybe a little better.

AT THE SPRAWLING PAWS UP RESORT 50 miles north, Mike Doud and Max Salisbury are, without a doubt, the real deal. Between the two cowboys is more than a century of authentic riding, roping, and wrangling experience, and today they’re teaching cattle driving.


Photo: Courtesy Paws Up

The lowly campfire gets an upgrade at Paws Up.

If the Ranch at Rock Creek is the size of a small town, then Paws Up is a county and a half. Bellmen ferry guests to tent camps a mile away from a main compound; 26 homes are closer to reception, restaurants, and the chandelier-lit event space. At some remote sites, heated stone bathrooms are attached to the canvas tents, and it’s hardly roughing it: Sheets are supple and camp butlers serve meals in central open-air pavilions. You can even purchase an “I [heart] My Camping Butler” T-shirt at the gift shop.

The Lindbergh family, of flight and stolen-baby fame, once owned a parcel of this land. In 2005, David and Nadine Lipson made a resort of the 37,000 acres and named it for their dogs. A river runs through it—the Blackfoot, the very one from A River Runs Through It—where fly fishermen play catch-and-release with trout. 

Unlike the year-round Ranch at Rock Creek, Paws Up has a limited winter season in December and January before reopening full time in April. They break out a sleigh for a Currier and Ives–style Christmas, and guests brave near-zero temperatures for cross-country skiing, dogsledding, and tubing. As in summer, activities are a la carte, with charges ranging to the hundreds of dollars.

Which brings us back to cowboys Mike and Max. They’ve taken me on a “cattle drive”—a three-hour, $375 experience—and are instructing me on how to separate cows from the herd. “Go left! Now right! Now left!” shouts Mike, though my mount, Big Red, can hardly be steered like a sports car. The repetition, like a round of Angry Birds, is equal parts frustrating and addictive.

Mike is alternatingly hollering at his hound Sis to stand down; she could do this in her sleep, and she’s all but rolling her doggy eyes at my trial and (mostly) error.

Alas, my flight was imminent, so Mike drove me in from the fields. Like a motivational speaker, he pondered how herding lessons (like “don’t lead your horse straight downhill”) represent real-life insight. The “drive” was all simulated for my enjoyment, but the effort—and-insight—was palpable.

“Clean your boots!” Mike hollered out the window of his red pickup as I made for my ride, one last pearl of Big Sky wisdom. At Missoula Airport security, the line was all of one person long, and I was relieved to find a bootjack. Much of Montana’s Western trappings might be for show, but there’s nothing more authentic than the weary task of prying off cowboy boots.

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