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The Ranch at Rock Creek makes Big Sky Country larger than life. By Martine Bury

In 1960, John Steinbeck embarked on a road trip across America with his pet poodle. The result was the classic Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Out of all the places he went, Montana’s open skies and epic mountain terrain left an indelible impression. “I’m in love with Montana,” he wrote. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey

With a wide expanse that spreads from the Rocky Mountains to the Great Plains and includes U.S. National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier, there is a whole lot to love. For Wall Street investment banker turned luxury guest ranch owner Jim Manley, 6,600 pristine acres of the Treasure State’s southwestern region had him smitten at first sight. Obsessed with the TV show Bonanza as a child, the New Jersey native embarked on a 20-year search for the perfect spot that fulfilled his long-but-absolute wish list. The swath of land where he’d hang his ten-gallon hat had to be low altitude, devoid of rattlesnakes and grizzlies, near a ski resort and an old-timey western town. And a river had to run through it.

Manley found his muse on the Rocky Mountain range in 2007. The 1900s homestead evolved into The Ranch at Rock Creek, arguably the most luxurious dude ranch in the country. Near the old mining town of Philipsburg, the property is vast, private and laid back. There is no question why celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson to Gwyneth Paltrow escape to this elite hideaway. It is easy to blend in.

Manley tells his story with crazy charisma and youthful zeal. If you happen to visit the ranch when he is there with his childhood friends or family, he takes time to check in with guests, playing host on this incredible playground of mountains, meadows, trout ponds and wild, rushing waterways.

The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey

Once you arrive at The Ranch at Rock Creek, it’s all in. The 29 accommodations range from luxury, wood clad homes with names like Eagle’s Perch, Moose House and (yes) Ponderosa, to cozy rooms in the Granite Lodge or in an authentic 19th Century barn. My humble home on the range is one of four Classic Canvas Cabins, lavish half-tented structures that sit on gurgling Rock Creek’s edge. Each guest is outfitted with a mountain bike to navigate the property, even though transport is always a phone call away.

Waking up with the sun each morning offers me the privileged experience of watching the ranch’s team of horses run from pasture to corral. Even with the jolt of a steaming cup of coffee from the self-serve Blue Canteen, which is open only in the warmer months, it’s hard to determine whether this wild and beautiful sight is real or if I’m still asleep, dreaming.

An all-inclusive getaway, The Ranch at Rock Creek offers ample opportunities to eat well. Executive Chef Drage not only prepares an exquisite menu of simple foods like just-caught salmon or cobbler made of freshly picked, local wild huckleberries—but also makes sure meals are the kind of fun befitting the environment. Post-rodeo barbeque at the Blue Canteen is consumed family style at long tables draped in checked tablecloths. On another night, we kick off with roping practice, then cocktails in the Barn followed by a mixed grill of bright vegetables and meats cooked to perfection. Line dancing works off the food we ate, but the evening doesn’t end there.

The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey

The lure of the fireplace fails to draw us back to our rooms, and everyone ends up at the Silver Dollar Saloon. Manley’s personal collection of cowboy movie memorabilia lines the walls in this dark bar, complete with a loaded jukebox, leather saddle-topped bar stools and a bowling alley. I’m a fan of the Moscow Mules served here, infused with the house-made ginger beer.

Whatever the desired outdoor activity, the ranch’s Rod & Gun Club sets you up right. From cowboy boots and hats to sport shooting, archery and fly-fishing gear, you choose the tools of your adventure. In the winter, opportunities abound to ski world-class slopes, take a snowmobile for a spin or hop on a sleigh ride.

I opt for clay shooting, horseback riding and later hit the mountain trail to a stunning viewing spot called Top of the World. Along the way, my hiking partner and I barely speak, taking in the wildflower meadows and the expansive blue skies with water color brushstrokes of bright white clouds. Surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it’s a 360-degree view of forever—which sparks the full-hearted, breathless feeling of true romance.

The Ranch at Rock Creek - Luxury USA Travel - Ker Downey

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