by Lee Foster
“Our ranch used to hibernate in winter, like the bears,” said the rancher. “We’d just rest from December through April while the snow fell. We’d come back to life in June when the summer fishing and horseback riding crowd returned.”
Today all that has changed. The Bohart Ranch (seven rooms) and the Lone Mountain Ranch (20 cabins), both near Bozeman in southern Montana, do a booming winter business for cross-country skiers. They are two of a dozen Montana ranches catering to this growing sport. Visitors often come for a week’s stay.
For a quiet ranch vacation, emphasizing cross-country skiing, gourmet food, plus a visit to nearby Yellowstone Park to see animals and thermal activity, southern Montana ranches have much to offer from December 1 to April 15. Montana’s terrain is interesting for cross-country skiing. The ranches with their gourmet chefs are well established. The snow is dependable and excellent.
Vacation pace in Montana is more relaxed than in similar destinations outside Denver or Salt Lake, largely because the air flight to Bozeman takes a little extra time and trouble. Tourists are fewer here, so your travel dollar also may go farther in Montana.
Getting to Bozeman
Major carriers fly into Bozeman. You can drive there from the west or midwest over interstate freeways.
History of Montana Cross-Country Skiing
The proprietors of these ranches have watched as interest in cross-country skiing has soared.
“People are looking more toward lifetime sports,” said one rancher. “You can cross-country ski at any age. It’s good aerobic exercise. The rhythmic movements of the cross-country skiing over crunching snow is a satisfying aesthetic experience. Moreover, there are no wait lines at a lift, and of course, there is the economy of no lift ticket to buy.”
“The typical cross-country skier also has a special rapport with nature,” added another rancher. “We emphasize some naturalist-led ski trips. Cross-country is a minimum impact sport, ecologically. The solitude of the forest and the lack of frenetic pace are appealing in cross-country.”
Although cross-country or “nordic” skiing has existed in Europe for countless generations, it has flourished in the U.S. in a prominent way for only the last decades, and boomed only in the last ten years. Most cross-country skiing occurs on trails that are “set,” using a tool, pulled by a tractor-like snowmobile, that cuts two tracks for your skis and compacts the snow so ski poles won’t push through it. The set track is then groomed, as necessary, to keep the tracks defined. Though most cross-country occurs on tracks, some skiers proceed also over open terrain without tracks. This can be difficult, however, in deep snow.
Cross-Country Ski Providers in Montana
Bohart Ranch lies 15 miles northeast of Bozeman in the Bridger Canyon. A van from Bohart can meet you at the airport. The ski center, located right outside the lodging, can rent you ski gear at a nominal price and arrange guided ski lessons. You can also simply take off on your own over the 23 kilometers of set and groomed trails, leading through a forest of lodgepole pine that is gradually giving way to subalpine fir. Trails circle below Sacajawea Peak and several adjacent mountains.
Evening dinner at Bohart put me in the capable culinary hands of an outstanding chef. Expect a meal that might begin with Mushrooms Bohart (mushrooms sauteed and then flambeed with sherry), proceed to Montana Filet Mignon (charbroiled and served with a mustard sauce), and conclude with a copious selection of homemade pastries.
Lone Mountain Guest Ranch lies 40 miles south of Bozeman. Like Bohart, they can arrange transport from the airport. Lodgings consist of classic log cabins made from lodgepole pines. Lone Mountain has a complete cross-country rental shop for gear and lessons. Their 60 kilometers of set and groomed trails lie at the base of Lone Mountain. A wood-fired hot tub beckons skiers after a day on the trails.
Lone Mountain offers gourmet dining and a Friday on-the-snow lunch out on the trail. The chef during my stay had eclectic and nuanced offerings, such as whole wheat rolls with turkey, plus vegetable soup. Each week, one spare ribs dinner includes a horse-drawn sleigh ride to remote North Fork cabin, site of the dining and later banjo entertainment.
Cross-country skiing offers a wonderful opportunity to savor the Montana landscape, which is called Big Sky country because, as you look at the horizons, your eyes are carried from vast planes upward to mountains at almost every edge, making the sky seem huge. Southern Montana consists of numerous semi-arid valleys used for cattle grazing, heavy forests of lodgepole, Englemann spruce, and Douglas fir, and a dozen mountain ranges. Through the valleys run several “blue ribbon” trout streams, such as the Gallatin. Dry fly fishermen match wits with the brown trout in summer.
At these ranches, especially over the leisurely dinners that are a tradition, or out on the trails, you’re bound to meet a few Montanans. The Montanan, typically, is a cordial person deeply interested in tourism, now the fourth largest industry (after mining, agriculture, and manufacturing) and second largest employer. A Montanan, with his Wrangler jeans and a prominent belt buckle, tends to drive a pickup truck with a blue heeler sheep dog in the back and a rifle rack in the cab. The Montanan is an independent breed of outdoor person who has the same intense passion towards the land found in the paintings of the great artists Charles Russell (Montanans call him Charlie). The Montanan may be a fisherman and hunter for whom gun control is anathema. The Montanan likes to do what he wishes with his land and resents planning or zoning. He’ll favor the local state beer, called Kesler, and will indicate with pride a Made in Montana label on his wool sweater. His family may have been ranch people for generations, carving out a marginal existence, but too proud of their land to sell out and move to warmer, more southerly climates. His impassioned dinner table conversation on Montana issues may focus on water rights, the coal severance tax, and the proper management of the forests.
Nearby Trips From Montana
Both ranches are close to the Gardiner and West Yellowstone entrances to Yellowstone National Park. Both can arrange day trips in to see the impressive thermal activity at Mammoth Hot Springs and the animal life between Mammoth and Tower Junction. There are many miles of cross-country trails in Yellowstone near Tower. West Yellowstone, which calls itself the Snowmobile Capital of the World, has numerous rental businesses that allow you to use a snowmobile for an hour, half day, or day.
Both ranches are adjacent to major downhill ski runs, allowing visitors to combine cross-country and downhill if they so desire. Bohart lies at the foot of Bridger; Lone Mountain is a few miles from Big Sky. Big Sky is a major resort focused around the Huntley Lodge, started by broadcaster Chet Huntley. The lodge is located right at the base of the ski runs. Downhill ski enthusiasts rank Bridger and Big Sky highly for excellent snow. The relative isolation of Bozeman (compared to Denver or Salt Lake) shortens the lift lines and reduces the lift ticket prices.
In summer, both ranches turn to guided fishing trips, horseback riding, naturalist walks, and chuck-wagon barbecues as major draws. Lone Mountain organizes extensive pack trips into Yellowstone.
Montana: If You Go
For a winter vacation, if you’d like to sample the growing sport of cross-country skiing, Bohart and Lone Mountain Ranches near Bozeman are excellent choices. Vacations and skiing in Montana are a little like vacations and skiing used to be, meaning friendly, relaxed, and uncrowded.
For Bohart Ranch search via Google.
For Lone Mountain Ranch, see http://www.lonemountainranch.com.
The Montana state tourism site is http://www.visitmt.com.