I don’t know about you, but because of the pandemic I hadn’t been on a real vacation in a freakishly long time. I don’t count one terrifying night in Vegas being mouth- and nose-breathed on by hordes of unmasked, (probably) unvaxxed tourists. Dummies. Feeling trapped in my house in Palm Springs 24/7 for almost two years really wore me down physically and emotionally, to the point I kinda felt dead inside, if I may be slightly overdramatic.
I mentioned the existential dread consuming my soul on a Zoom, what else ugh, with my best friend EJ, who lives across the country in New Jersey. She lamented that the most exciting thing she’d done recently was drive an extra 15 miles to check out a brand new Wegman’s. So yeah, she was in the same boat.
Between ugly politics, non-stop work zooms, taking care of our aging parents, one breakup and one ex dropping dead, we were sad, burned out, and uninspired.
I insisted we go on a trip to unplug, rejuvenate, reset. A legit vacation where we’d turn off our phones and nobody would dare type, “I hope this email finds you well.” No work at all. Period(t).
“In this economy?” she joked.
We decided, for our mental stability, we needed to go somewhere away from lots of people where we’d get fresh air and feel zen-like peace, but also move our bodies in ways we hadn’t in a long time. That’s what she said. No, really, that was EJ’s suggestion. I forgot to mention that two years imbedded in our couches streaming Reese Witherspoon dramedies had atrophied our minds, spirits, and bodies.
We picked The Ranch at Rock Creek, about an hour and change south of Missoula, Montana, for a couple reasons. This authentic 19th century homestead, the world’s first Forbes Travel Guide five-star guest ranch, offered the best of both worlds. We’d be super active and get down n dirty with mother nature, but also be pampered and spoiled rotten. Plus, The Ranch was pandemic-proofed. It was so isolated, the COVID rate in the county was almost non-existent. Plus, I thought EJ might enjoy eyeballing some cute cowboys. I’m giving and unselfish like that.
So we booked it, bought too many boleros we’d only wear once, and I met my bestie out Westie.
Here’s the thing though. The minute we arrived at The Ranch at Rock Creek it was clear this was not going to be a typical “dude” ranch vacation. First impressions are everything. The driver who picked us up at the airport, an effervescent young woman in a denim tuxedo named Kary, hoisted our embarrassingly overpacked 50-pound bags in and out of the SUV trunk with ease, as if she was flipping over a tire during a CrossFit workout.
Kary was our first indication of what and who was to come. The Ranch, nestled in a pristine, rolling valley between the Pintler, Sapphire and John Long mountain ranges, was basically the Western version of Wonder Woman Island. Montana newsman Joseph Kinsey Howard famously described the landscape as “High, wide, and handsome,” but this particular place had a woman’s touch all over it. Everywhere we went and almost everything we did was organized and/or instructed by talented cowgirls with fascinating backgrounds and skillz for days. They could shoot, wrangle, ride, rodeo, fish, bee-keep, bow, cook, scale tall mountains, skin a bear, anything and everything, and they were more than happy to teach us soft city folk the more rugged ways of their world. For real, it didn’t feel like White Lotus, we didn’t get the sense that the staff secretly hated our guts and one of us would end up in a pine box by the end of the trip.
The all-inclusive price included two privately guided activities per day, chosen from an extensive list of 45 outdoor adventures, like fly fishing, horseback riding, downhill and cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, sporting clays, riflery, trap and skeet, snowmobiling, mountain biking, sapphire mining, 3D archery, geo-caching, wildlife viewing, float trips, ATV tours, sleigh rides, ice fishing, and more.
Even though our daily itinerary was packed from morning til night, it felt serene rather than stressful. I mean, you’re one with nature ffs. First stop on our schedule, a scenic overlook: our baby-faced hiking guide Erin marched us up to a vista that overlooked the entire stunning 6,600-acre property including Rock Creek, one of the World’s few Blue Ribbon designated fisheries. I was embarrassed that I had to stop often to catch my breath, the air was mighty thin for this desert rat. But the awe-inspiring view was worth every gasp and wheeze. Erin had such an infectious, positive vibe and was so knowledgeable about the area, history, plants, and animals we might encounter.
“What animal is this?” I asked, pointing to a giant mound of scat on the trail, imagining a big cat with big fangs looking for dinner.
“A horse [you dummy],” EJ answered.
Oh, right. In any case, not being eaten by a mountain lion or bobcat was the perfect way to kick off our retreat.
EJ and I were most excited to get back on the horse, literally and metaphorically. So, we signed up for “Team Penning,” which had nothing to do with the somewhat unsatisfying Season 3 finale of You. No, wranglers Bri and Erynn taught us to move stubborn, sneaky cattle while astride our beautiful horses, Tank for me and Pepto for EJ. The ranch has about 70 horses, including several majestic draft horses, and once a week at sunset you can witness them gallop back to pasture for the night. For the “The Running of the Horses” you stand in “a people pen” in the middle of a field and they all stampede past you, their manes wisping majestically in the wind, their hooves pounding the ground like thunder. It was so moving, I checked Zillow to find out how much it would cost to move to Montana immediately. It ain’t cheap due to tourists like us falling in love with it, so I snapped back to reality.
Unlike on Wonder Woman Island, the lassos are real at The Ranch at Rock Creek, but they still felt like they had magical powers in the hands of the all-female, bad-ass barn staff, which included Hailey, Ariel, Sam, Brooke, Paige, and Sophie. I kept seeing them all moving around The Ranch together, almost like a pack of horses themselves, and I desperately wanted to be included in their posse. Or at least get in one little bar fight together.
Paige, who has a popular TikTok account about that barn life called @paigethewrangler, took EJ and I on a trail ride to the top of Whiskey Ridge, (there’s literally a barrel of bourbon aging way up there), and taught us all about the personalities of horses. I felt bad when Tank had to drag my fat ass up steep hills, but Paige assured me Tank actually enjoyed it, and that I could tell he was very content because he was snorting a lot, a sign he was relaxed. I made a mental note to cancel my Calm subscription and just start snorting. Much cheaper. Just as effective.
EJ’s horse, Moose, on the other hand, wanted to take EJ on his own path, probably because she was too nice to him at first and he took advantage of her kindness, Paige explained. Gotta show ‘em who’s boss right off the bat! A lesson for horse life and life life, ya know.
This was real life, and The Ranch was a real place — not Themyscira — so we weren’t really hidden from Man’s World. The property is owned by a guy literally named Jim Manley, and there were other guys there, too, who were just as awesome and awe-inspiring. Our fly-fishing guide, Minnesota Matt, was so passionate about his craft, any time our bobber dipped under the water he bounded over with his net like it was Christmas morning. His enthusiasm was so infectious, we didn’t even mind standing for two hours in freezing 23-degree creek water, or as they say ‘round there “crick,” feeling like our toes might fall off, even with waders on. I pretended I was Brad Pitt in my favorite movie A River Runs Through It, we each caught two fish, and EJ got first prize for her forearm sized cutthroat trout. It was so addicting — we are now fly-fishing groupies 4 life. By the way, I fell in the crick and Minnesota Matt didn’t even laugh at me. He was a gem.
Speaking of gems, EJ went sapphire mining and a kid in her group found what her guide Kevin said was the biggest one they’d ever seen, and it felt legit and like maybe he doesn’t say that to every guest even if they’re a surly, scary teenager. Likewise, I was pumped to try shooting clays with a Browning 20-gauge shotgun and my instructor Harry said I was a “natural” when I blasted those flying bird and bolting rabbit saucers to smithereens. Sorry I got a little excited. Turns out, EJ was not a gun enthusiast, but she was a good sport and turned out to be a decent shot. Harry did not call her a natural, too, and I was #grateful. He also didn’t mind posing for an Instagram picture like Charlie’s Angels with finger guns afterwards #photooftheday. I’m praying Harry wasn’t just humoring me because I really took a shine to shooting, despite the tree knot-sized bruise on my shoulder that was entirely my fault for not holding the gun tight enough on my body.
It was just so cool to try new things again, after so much boredom for so long. It felt really good when our bodies were so beaten up by end of day, between the horseback riding and hiking and shooting and fishing. Plus, the ranch is pretty much car-less — you’re given bikes to ride around the property to and from activities. Fortunately, we requested ebikes and I felt #blessed for the extra help.
No self-respectin’, five-star tootin’ lodge is complete without a little spiritual health + wellness. At the Granite Spa you can treat yourself to a facial, a Saddle Sore Soak, or a CBD-oil massage, which is what EJ and I picked. The massage was heavenly in the hands of Trish, our fabulous therapist. Afterwards, I was in such a daze, I almost fell over. In warmer seasons, treatments are offered creek-side in an authentic Conestoga Wagon. The Ranch also offers morning yoga classes, Forest meditation & Wildcrafting and holistic wellness and herbal remedies consultations. Because of course it does.
Even though most of the day at the Ranch is spent being rugged and dirty, thoughtful, feminine touches put the service over the top here. Things like leaving glasses cleaner, pillow spritzers, coloring books about the local fauna and flora with colored pencils, and jars of honey, produced right down the road on the property, in our room. EJ returned one afternoon and found an adorable bookmark sitting on top of her copy of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. Every day, an invisible angel tied up our phone cords with twisties, and I felt bad that I immediately uncoiled it and left it right back on the floor.
We stayed in the cozy Mustang suite in the main lodge but there are 29 one-of-a-kind accommodations on the Ranch, including Canvas Glamping Cabins, and a converted, restored historic barn. Nine private, luxury, multi-bedroom log cabins can also house up to twelve guests. Sara Jane and Eagle’s Perch have cool bunk rooms, while the secluded Trapper Cabin, perched on Rock Creek, is ideal for lovahs.
No matter which accommodation you choose, you feel like you’ve stepped into a Ralph Lauren catalog. Every inch of the Ranch was impeccably designed by acclaimed Western designer Jet Zarkadas with comfy, custom and vintage décor, antiques, textiles and art. Her elegant touches put it over the top, such as copper tubs, calfskin rugs, ornate chandeliers, and a two-person slipper tub in the barn’s Loft. You’ll also probably want to take your insanely comfy bed home with you, and honestly, I bet they’d let you if you brought a big enough truck.
Whatever your little heart desires here, someone will make every effort to make it happen. The Ranch has a Mercantile on site and they will open it for you privately like you’re Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman or something. I bought a cowboy hat even though I knew I’d literally never wear it again. And that’s okay. I mentioned fresh squeezed orange juice one time and the next morning and every morning after, it was waiting for me on the bar in the great room in the Granite lodge. That’s where we watched the sunrise and had first breakfast — coffee and thee most buttery croissants — sitting in front of a roaring fire place on buttery leather couches. In our pajamas. That was rude I guess but it genuinely felt like our own private living room.
Second breakfast and lunch were served in the picturesque Buckle Barn (the Birdman toast, shipped in from Missoula baker Le Petit Outr, was to die for). Executive Chef Drage’s dinners were multi-course performance art, basically, made with locally sourced, seasonal, organic ingredients. The menus changed daily but you were likely to get Montana beef with whatever theme the chef chose that night. I especially loved the “Homestead Supper Club” beef tenderloin and the “Montana Craft Beer Pairing” featuring country fried bison.
After dinner, major food coma set in, and we were tempted to melt back into our beds but forced ourselves to giddyup on over to the Silver Dollar Saloon to hang with the other guests. And thank God we got a second wind, because meeting new friends turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip. For whatever reason, it was a very estrogen-heavy week on the Ranch when we were there, and a kind of sisterhood, for lack of better word, developed between us and the other groups girl-tripping there together. There was mom and daughter Melissa and Rylee from California and Minnesota sisters Jen and Julia, plus their best friend Margaret.
Let’s just say after throwing back a few handcrafted cocktails by our gifted bartender Jaitlyn, some common trauma was discovered and shared, tears were shed, and hugs abounded. It had been a devastating couple years for everyone there — death, divorce, addiction, to name a few nightmares — and being at the Ranch brought sweet relief and release. We went bowling on the four-lane alley in the saloon and made a TikTok video doing the Neon Moon challenge, with cameos by Jaitlyn and Kary our driver, who was also an excellent dancer on top of all her other skills. We were the happy version of Nine Perfect Strangers — just ‘86 the Russian guru and add three goats named Gummy Worm, Fruit Snack and S’mores.
When it was time to put the chairs in the wagon and head home, I wasn’t too mad because my body and EJ’s liver couldn’t handle much more fun. But we were definitely sad to leave this refuge from the real world. EJ and I would never forget this trip and how it lifted us out of our pandemic funk. “I love how quickly we all bonded,” Margaret DM’d me. “I get goosebumps even when I talk about it.”
Same. I swear I was beaming and smiled like a maniac for at least two weeks after my trip to The Ranch at Rock Creek, until I unfortunately stumbled on CNN while searching for the World Fishing Network. My mind was clear, and my soul was recharged, but most of all, I felt so much hope and faith in the younger generation. If Erin and Kary and Jaitlyn and Paige and all the barn girls were the future of womanhood, I knew we were in good hands.
And that’s all I got to say about that, partner. I “accidentally” left my cowboy hat in my room but if I hadn’t, I’d touch the brim, give a little nod, and silently ride off into the sunset.