If that were someone’s chest, you’d have killed him,” said Tom, the ranch manager. The paper target from my first pistol-shooting lesson lay on the table by the porch swing-seat from which I was watching the moon rise over the mountains. I can’t deny I was proud of this punctured piece of paper. All six shots I’d fired from a .38 Special revolver were on target, one of them a perfect bull’s eye. Until that afternoon, I’d never so much as seen a handgun except in the holsters of police officers; they terrified me. Now I was hooked by the adrenaline, the sheer thrill that comes from firing them.
Next morning, I was back on the range, high in the hills of western Montana’s Gold Country, the sound of discharged bullets echoing round the valley as I worked my way through the ranch’s armoury: first a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum, then a .45 ACP semi-automatic and finally a lever-action rifle like the one James Stewart uses in Winchester 73, but chambered for a .44 Magnum cartridge, Dirty Harry’s ammunition of choice. My shoulder is still bruised from its recoil. More scarily, my inner Sarah Palin has been revealed.
I was staying at the Ranch at Rock Creek, about 20 miles west of Philipsburg in the heart of the Anaconda-Pintler wilderness. Founded in the late 19th century and still a working cattle station, it belongs to James Manley, founder and chief executive of the boutique investment bank Atlantic-Pacific Capital. Manley grew up watching Bonanza and other western TV series and decided as a child that he wanted a place where he could “ride horses and shoot guns”.
It wasn’t till 2007, however, that he found the ranch of his dreams. His wish list included a valley to ensure no other properties were visible, proximity to a mountain he could ski on and “a cool western town” that still looked as it did a century ago (in this case Philipsburg). There were to be no grizzlies or rattlesnakes, though there are elk, moose, deer, lesser bears and wolves. And the altitude needed to be high. Above 5,000ft the thinness of the air causes your kidneys to produce the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), in its synthetic form the drug at the centre of a succession of Tour de France doping scandals, which boosts the amount of haemoglobin and oxygen in your blood, so increasing aerobic threshold and stamina. This ranch lies between 5,100ft and 6,500ft, high enough to be beneficial but not so elevated as to cause mountain sickness.
Finally, he wanted a river. Again he was in luck: the four miles of Rock Creek that run through the estate teem with stocks of six sorts of trout and provide, so several keen fly-fishermen who were staying there told me, some of the best fishing in the US.
Manley saw more than 500 estates before he found this one: 6,800 acres of quintessential “Marlboro Country” (though smoking is banned across the entire estate, not least because this part of Montana is regularly ravaged by forest fires). But having restored it and added buildings to accommodate his extended family (he is one of nine children; the ranch sleeps about 60), he realised he would never get to spend sufficient time here to justify the cost of running it. The answer was to turn it into a hotel, now in its first full year of operation.
His own four-bedroom house ($7,480 a night) is a picture-book 19th-century log cabin on the riverbank. I stayed in what had been the hayloft above the original wrangler’s cottage by the corral. But even where the accommodation is new it looks original, built from logs and granite with wood-shingled roofs and copper flashing just to reinforce the sense that the buildings are truly of the land they stand in.
Inside, too, the design is authentically western: wood walls and floors strewn with cowhides, leather-upholstered furniture, hooks and curtain-rail supports fashioned from horseshoes and a lot of pictures of horses. There are nine rooms in the main lodge but the really desirable quarters are the cabins and houses.
The ranch is run on an all-inclusive basis, so although its rates of almost $1,000 per person per night seem steep, everything – unlimited riding (there are 60 horses), fishing, shooting, skiing in winter, all with guides – is included bar treatments in the fine, agreeably unpretentious spa.
The food is good, not fancy but supremely fresh and, where possible, local (the excellent beef comes from the neighbouring ranch). There’s also a well-researched list of predominantly North American wines, though Montana’s microbrewery culture makes beer the indigenous option, dark chocolatey Moose Drool or Cold Smoke for preference.
People tend to dine early and then repair to the ranch’s own Silver Dollar Saloon, modelled on the fabled Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, hence the stools made from saddles and silver dollars set into the bar counter. Here there’s a four-lane bowling alley, pool table, screening room and karaoke.
Not everything is perfect. There’s no gym and housekeeping could sharpen its act when it comes to cleaning. I could have done with much bigger bath towels than the stingy ones they supply, not to mention a bathrobe. (Instead they provide woolly dressing gowns and furry slippers.)
It’s as well to note, too, that none of the rooms in the main lodge has a television or bathtub. If you want to soak after a day in the saddle, you need to be staying in a cabin, ideally Bluebird, Wrangler or Eagle’s Perch, the Loft, or one of the houses.
Even so, I loved this place. It tested me physically and mentally. I rode. I cycled. I hiked to the remains of remote silver mines with Hank, the activities director, who told me astonishing stories about what life had been like for the settlers in these valleys. One of my shooting instructors, six foot five plus the heels of his cowboy boots, had spent 15 years teaching people to shoot in combat (he would not divulge where). My highly educated, well-travelled guide to a couple of nearby ghost towns was the son of a Daughter of the Confederacy and did his best to convince me that Abraham Lincoln was one of the two worst presidents the US had ever had (the other being Ulysses S Grant). It was another world from the one I know. Hell, I even wore a Stetson. But I found skills and strengths I’d never realised I had. And, more than that, I had amazing fun.
SPURS AND STETSONS: Five more Montana ranches
There are two sorts of guest ranch: resort or, less luxuriously, dude ranches where you go to ride; and working ranches where you help with chores and rope steers or drive cattle.
A working ranch for serious wannabe cowboys on the Crow Reservation east of the Bighorn Mountains. Its April-to-November season means the chance to round up horses and drive cattle along the Old Sioux Trail from the summer pastures of Montana back to their winter home in Wyoming. Guests stay in a bunkhouse (private rooms, shared bathrooms) or there are ensuite cabins. Five nights from $1,500 per person; www.dryheadranch.com
Lone Mountain Ranch
Founded in 1915, this is no longer a working ranch but its location 18 miles from the edge of Yellowstone National Park gives access to beautiful hiking and riding trails. In winter it has a Nordic Ski Center and 100km of cross-country trails that lead right from the doors of its homely log cabins. Seven nights from $2,084 per person; www.lonemountainranch.com
Lonesome Spur Ranch
In the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains, this is the working ranch at which Nicholas Evans researched his bestselling novel The Horse Whisperer. In addition to the usual hardcore ranch activities, there are excursions to the site of Custer’s Last Stand at Little Bighorn, Yellowstone and a local rodeo. Open all year. Seven nights from $1,620 per person; www.lonesomespur.com
Rocking Z Guest Ranch
Life at this child-friendly working ranch is all about riding, so expect to spend four to six hours a day in the saddle, chasing cattle and bringing them in for penning. Just eight rooms and open all year. Doubles from $340; www.rockingz.com
An 8,000-acre estate on the edge of the Gallatin National Forest, this is the best-known of Montana’s resort ranches. It has 30 idyllic timber cabins, set amid pines. And in addition to riding, hiking and fishing, there’s yoga and golf. Closed November 1 to May 1. Doubles $750 a night, three-night minimum stay; www.mtnsky.com
Claire Wrathall was a guest at the Ranch at Rock Creek (theranchatrockcreek.com). From $990 per person per night, inclusive of meals, drinks and activities. Butte and Missoula are the nearest airports, accessible via Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis.