Wranglers at Lone Mountain Ranch explore wide open spaces in the Big Sky country of Montana.

Lone Mountain Ranch has a long history of serving guests, dating back to when Clarence Lytle first homesteaded it in 1915.  Nestled in its own little valley on the North Fork of the Gallatin River, the picturesque and historic landmark is studded with rustic yet well-appointed cabins reminiscent of a wild American frontier, but outfitted to pamper its guests with top-shelf amenities and all the creature comforts of home. 

Big Sky, Montana, has a world-wide reputation as a ski resort with some of the finest slopes in the U.S., but its first claim to fame was Lone Mountain Ranch, whose founders and subsequent owners over the years established the town that bears the Big Sky name.

Head wrangler Mary Gandy and her horse Ruby.

Just a 50-minute drive from Bozeman, Lone Mountain Ranch is a wonderland for both summer and winter adventures.  It’s an Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing destination, recognized by National Geographic as a property that protects its natural and cultural heritage, and is also highly regarded for its access to a robust array of natural beauty and outdoor adventure.

Although guests are encouraged to do it all—fly fishing the Gallatin, single- and multi-day nature walks guided by Nat-Geo-qualified naturalists, hiking, whitewater rafting, or merely relaxing, taking a yoga class or having a massage—I opt for the outstanding horseback-riding opportunities on the ranch’s well-trained remuda.

Lone Mountain Ranch wranglers guide us on our ride overlooking Big Sky ski slopes.

This band of seasoned trail horses is managed by an all-woman team lead by Mary Gandy, a Cincinnati native who could not resist the call of horses and the great big Montana skies.

Mary and her team of wranglers have the task of matching guests to horses, then leading rides along a series of awe-inspiring trails that surround the ranch.  Easy, one-hour-plus outings are offered for riders of every level with horses appropriate for each rider’s skill level.  Adventurous riders can book excursions into nearby Yellowstone National Park, where the horses are trailered and the curated backcountry adventure begins.

Trail riding in the majestic wooded expanse of Montana’s high country with its abundance of serene meadows and dramatic vistas brings riders close to nature.  This is large game country and it is possible—and likely probable, depending on the season—to cross paths with elk, moose, and bear.

Wrangler Madison Morgan saddling up.

Our excursion begins at the Lone Mountain Ranch Corral at Moonlight Basin where four of us head out to explore the mountain scenery overlooking the vast ski slopes of the famous Big Sky Resort.  My mount, Betty, a large, trusty gray, easily climbs the picturesque trails through succulent knee-high grasses that would tempt even the most seasoned trail horse.  With a bit of coaxing, I let Betty know we’re not stopping for lunch on the luscious grasses (although she later earned her right to munch contentedly as we stopped to shoot photos in a spectacular meadow with what seemed like hundred-mile views).

Enjoying the ride.

As we commence the ride, I breathe in the fresh, pine-scented mountain air, and listen to the sounds of chirping birds and the scurrying of forest creatures.  As the trail snakes higher, we ride through small pastures and around still mountain pools to enter wide-open, grassy meadows full of colorful wildflowers, where freshly matted grass indicates that moose have recently bedded down.

Midsummer horseback-riding in the mountains is unsurpassed, with the emerald-green landscape festooned with a riot of wildflowers, watered by the still-melting snowcaps from the peaks above.  Stunning views surround me.  To one side, saw-tooth peaks stretching across the horizon dominate the backdrop as I stare, awestruck at their sheer beauty.  To the other, an interconnected network of ski slopes meanders into the world-renowned Big Sky Resort.

The return trip is even prettier than the ride out, but with appetites whetted, we’re ready to see what the chef has to offer.

Enjoying the end of the day at Lone Mountain Ranch with some music.

Back At The Ranch

Lone Mountain Ranch is admired for its farm-to-table fine dining experiences.  Its very own Horn & Cantle Restaurant, located in the ranch’s main lodge, is run by acclaimed executive chef Eric Gruber, who oversees the menus and serves up delectable, mouthwatering entrées to match each season.

The bar at Lone Mountain Ranch.

In addition to a robust breakfast, lunch, and brunch service, Chef Gruber creates dinners that are an experience in and of themself.  The comfortable dining room is rustic and richly appointed with cowboy art, hardwood floors, and a wood-hewn saloon offers expansive views overlooking the ranch.

Chef’s bone-in Rocky Mountain Venison Chop.

For dinner, we sample an array of Horn & Cantle’s signature dishes; first, the Crispy Skin Local Trout, a sustainable Montana Trout Culture rainbow trout paired with heirloom potatoes and other root vegetables in a warm mustard and tarragon dressing.  Following this, we taste the braised Bison short rib, a fall-off-the-bone palate-pleaser accompanied with creamy potato purée, root vegetables, gremolata, and natural jus.  Chef Gruber’s bone-in Rocky Mountain venison chop special, presented artfully on a slab of black slate, delivers a hearty and refined taste of the mountains, accented with local huckleberry gastrique and a dreamy smear of cauliflower/blue cheese purée.

Local crispy skin trout over heirloom potatoes and root vegetables.

A showstopper, though, I have to admit, is the pickle-brined fried red bird chicken with cheddar biscuits, buttermilk mashed potatoes, and country gravy. If you like fried chicken, chalk this one up as off-the-charts delicious. Gruber starts with select local chicken, brines the birds for 24 hours in homemade pickle juice, then cooks them sous-vide (a method of cooking in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch and then placed in a hot-water bath).  Finally, they’re fried to perfection and served in a galvanized bucket.

The dining room.

Custom-Tailored Experiences

Guests at the ranch can make themselves truly at home.  With meals and activities included in most vacation packages, you’re free to come and go and relax as you please, or choose from a wealth of adventure offerings to keep you busy night and day.

The main lodge houses the Horn & Cantle restaurant.

The 27 well-appointed historic log cabins on the property range from one to six bedrooms.  The ranch also offers five pairs of adjoining cabins, perfect for group getaways or for families with older kids.  All of the cabins were renovated and lovingly restored in 2016.

Well appointed cabin interior.

Nothing beats being one with nature, and in the Big Sky Country, nature is vast, at its finest, and truly No. 1 in my book.

Above the barn and corrals.

In addition to the stunning scenery, the serene calm of the ranch itself, and the timeless, historic patina of its structures that assured me that I was at a very special place, the essence of Lone Mountain Ranch is its staff, giving the ranch its inner spirit. One by one as I met them, I asked, “What brought you here?” and inevitably, they answered me with “I love the mountains,” or, “I came once and had to return.” Furthermore, they recognize the historic importance of being a part of something that matters … heritage … nature … wide open spaces … and, of course, horses and horseback riding in the pristine high-country wilderness.

Visit lonemountainranch.com to learn more.