The Luxury of Going Wild
A week on a Montana guest ranch is good for the soul
STORY: Jennifer Bradley Franklin
I listened to a podcast while stuck in Atlanta’s gridlock, and the speaker referenced a recent study that found Westerners spend 93 percent of their lives indoors or in climate-controlled spaces, often staring at technology’s blue light. Worse, most of us actually prefer the artificial to the reality of fresh air, the feel of grass under our feet and variable outdoor temperatures. We want to control every element of our surroundings, the speaker noted as I guiltily adjusted my AC down an all-important degree. If anyone needed to experience nature, it was me.
I didn’t know what kind of magic lay ahead when I planned a trip to Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in the town of Emigrant, in southern Montana, this summer. The property is tucked into a 17,000-acre plot of land in the spectacular Paradise Valley, surrounded by dramatic peaks in the Gallatin Range, part of the Rocky Mountains. The ranch is owned by Atlanta’s own Arthur Blank, who fell in love with it as a guest before purchasing it in 2002. He’s since carved out a reputation as a staunch conservationist.
Driving up the gravel road to Mountain Sky, it’s hard not to marvel at the beauty in every direction. You can glimpse Emigrant Peak, still snow-covered even the last week of May. Big Creek, which winds through the ranch’s land, was a torrent due to intense snowmelt, and brilliant blue and yellow-orange wildflowers dotted the otherwise green landscape. We settled into our charming cabin, Sylvanite, named for a mineral found in the area. It felt rustic and cozy, with wood-hewn furniture; a plush, kingsize bed; and a modern bathroom. Since the property’s 150 horses were the main attraction for me, I was thrilled to have a view of the stables from a front porch rocking chair.
At dinner the first night, I met head wrangler Adam Crum, who asked a bit about my previous riding experience. I later learned that Crum, who celebrated his 20th season this summer, is a matchmaker of horses and people. The next morning, I met my horse, Ivan, my equine companion for the week. A former rodeo horse, Ivan loved to run, and his spritely personality was the perfect match for me, since I felt ready to embrace the freedom that would come with seeing this stunning part of the world on horseback. Once I got my first taste of riding on and off the trails, I knew there was nothing else I’d rather do. It pushed me in ways I hadn’t imagined but proved to be just what I needed. One day brought picture-perfect weather, with bright sun and such clear air you could see for dozens of miles from a point 1,000 feet above the ranch. Another afternoon, I helped the on-property ranchers with a cattle drive (don’t be too impressed: Ivan knew what to do) up the mountain before the sky opened up and fat raindrops soaked us. Learning to feel both the rhythm of my horse and the ever-changing Montana weather created a connection to my surroundings I rarely experience at home.
Part of the beauty of Mountain Sky is the variety of activities it offers. It has Montana’s only 18-hole golf course on a private guest ranch (designed by golf legend Johnny Miller and designated an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary) and features terrific hiking, a clay shooting range, fishing lessons in the trout pond, yoga classes and a heated pool. While my heart wanted to be riding Ivan six or more hours a day, my body rebelled. Fortunately, the new wellness center offers massages and body therapies geared toward the program’s activities, and after spending an hour on the table, kneaded with arnica and organic essential oil blends, I was ready to ride another day.
After five days on the ranch, with little to no cell phone reception, terrific made-from-scratch meals, exhilarating rides and stars so bright you’d swear they were fake, I felt like my heart was singing. If all goes according to plan, rather than controlling minutia like air-conditioning, I’ll put that effort into returning to Mountain Sky again next year.
Whatever you do to recover from a hard workout (electrolytes, ibuprofen, arnica, epsom salt baths), come prepared to do it here. After spending all day in a saddle, you’ll need it.
Bring something leather to have marked with the Mountain Sky brand as a keepsake.
You’ll need cowboy boots to ride; the ranch keeps a boot closet stocked with extras for guests to borrow for the week.
If your schedule permits, arrive a day or two early to acclimate to the high altitude and explore the area (including Yellowstone National Park, only 30 miles south of Emigrant). It’s well worth it.