“I believe that every father should bring his kids out West at least once to show them what a rugged outdoorsman he is, and he has to do it while they’re young enough to fall for the act.” —David Brooks, New York Times columnist
Philipsburg, Montana—I kept thinking about that line and how much my own dad would have loved this place. It had everything he, the original outdoorsman, cared about: a rigorously protected and noble natural environment, bird hunting, trout fishing, horseback riding, not to mention a good saloon with Johnnie Walker Black in big crystal tumblers with an ice cube or two. The Ranch at Rock Creek has all that, for sure, plus those high-end accoutrements of comfort that his son is so fond of—a gorgeously created manmade environment whose style is rigorously enforced in everything from what turn-of-the-century Native American prints hang on the walls to the sumptuous goose-down comforters in each bedroom. Who was it that said if the great Montana writer Norman Maclean were to publish his masterpiece these days, it would have to be retitled A Jacuzzi Runs Through It? Alas, my father and I never got to The Ranch at Rock Creek, but last summer Zachary, my 18-year-old son, and I spent the best week of our lives here and at the neighboring Paws Up (see “Recommendation: Montana’s Resort at Paws Up”).
James Manley, in the tradition of other so-called investment ranchers—Ted Turner, Paul Allen, Mark Rockefeller—was weaned on 1960s TV westerns, like Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and grew up to be a big-city banker, first on Wall Street and then with his own firm, Atlantic Pacific. For nearly 20 years, Manley looked at close to 500 properties out west until he found Rock Creek in 2006. He had nine very specific requirements: that a river run through it, that there be no paved highway, that it have low elevation but a high-alpine feel (no altitude sickness), no poisonous snakes (a particular bête noire of his) or grizzlies (sorry, Man vs. Beast fans), that it have a ski resort and a mining town nearby that looks like a mining town (not a Disney version), that it have adequate rain- and snowfall (for a year-round resort). And he wanted enough land (50,000 acres) to ensure he would never, ever see a development (that wasn’t his).
Granite Lodge is the ranch’s centerpiece, with nine bedrooms, a dining room and the Silver Dollar Saloon, where we headed every night after dinner to watch our favorite westerns, from Stagecoach and The Searchers to The Wild Bunch and Unforgiven. Like the 11 riverfront “cabins,” the look of the lodge was conceived by Santa Fe decorator Jet Zarkadas, whose extraordinary taste may suggest the west of Ralph Lauren but is completely her own, down to the carefully selected tickings on every last sofa, pillowcase and bed ruffle. Even the spa’s exterior has been disguised as just another outbuilding to blend with the nearby horse barns.
By the time we caught the 11:55 a.m. Delta flight in Missoula back to New York, I wasn’t convinced that Zach saw his father quite as the rugged outdoorsman of David Brooks’s description—on a few afternoons, I let him master his skills at shooting clay pigeons and fly casting while I nodded off around the pool with a collection of Hemingway short stories—but at least he knew I had tried.
Ranch at Rock Creek: The Details
Getting There: The Ranch at Rock Creek is just over an hour from Butte or an hour-and-45-minute drive from Missoula International Airport via connections on United through Salt Lake City. Midsized private jets can fly directly into Anaconda, 30 minutes away.
Best Time to Go: It depends on whether you’re a summer/spring or fall/winter person. April is the rainy season.
Rates: From $900 per person (in the main lodge) to $6,800 for the three-bedroom
River House, including meals, wine, liquor and all activities
(from horseback riding to fly-fishing lessons to mountain biking). For details, go to theranchatrockcreek.com.