Man Up: Be A Cowboy In Montana

Above: Genuine cowboy experiences in Montana
Above: Genuine cowboy experiences in Montana

Picture this; you’re sitting on top of a beautiful white stallion as you leisurely ride through tall grass in an open field. To your right and left is open land as far as the eye can see and in front are snow-capped mountains that almost touch the sky. Where are you? In Montana of course! For this month’s Man Up feature, we’re taking you to Big Sky Country to fulfill your childhood fantasy of becoming a cowboy à la John Wayne. Here you’ll put in an honest day’s work, ride and rope four-legged creatures and shout “Giddy up raw hide!”

When it comes to managing a ranch and tending the land and its animals, not much has changed in Montana since the late 1800s; the frontier spirit is alive and well here, as well as in its habitants who reside within its 94 million acres. If you’ve always wanted to be a cowboy then this is the place to do it. On this working vacation you’ll learn how to ride a horse, rope and even participate in a cattle drive. So saddle up buckaroo because it’s going to be a wild and exciting ride!

Getting there: Montana has several international airports scattered throughout the state – Bozeman Yellowstone (BZN), Billings Logan (BIL), Great Falls (GTF), Glacier Park (GPI), Glasgow (GGW) and Missoula (MSO) – which you’ll fly into depending on the location of the ranch you’re staying at. Most ranches will offer its guests airport pick up/drop off service at a cost ranging anywhere from $100-$200 per person. However, to see what makes this state so beautiful we recommend that you rent a car and hit the open road – you won’t get a more picturesque view of the American West even if you downloaded images from iStockphoto!

Staying there: most working ranches usually take a small number of guests at time to ensure you’re well informed and trained when helping out. Types of lodging will vary per ranch from a quaint log cabin to a large rental house. Montanans pride themselves on their hospitality and after a day of riddin’ and ropin’ you’ll be eager to try some delicious home cooking, put your feet up and watch the sun set over the mountains.

What to pack: the climate in Montana will vary throughout the day and season; mornings can be cool, afternoons hot and night time chilly so it’s recommended you pack clothing that can be layered such as fleece, windbreakers, long/short sleeved shirts and a heavy jacket. You’ll need a pair of  boots with a heel (for when riding horses), jeans or riding pants, a hat, rain gear, gloves and, of course, a camera.

Be prepared for: while many ranches offer a good balance between relaxation and work remember it ain’t no Club Med. A working ranch is just that, so you’ll be expected to help out with daily chores which may require you to rise and shine early in the morning, but remember it’s all part of the authentic cowboy experience. Some ranches don’t serve alcohol so be prepared to BYOB and you may even have to purchase a phone card since cell service can be spotty in the countryside. Wi-Fi is available at some locations.

Ranches to consider: as you can imagine there are a ton places in the state to book your cowboy vacation and the Montana Dude Ranch Association has a listing of ranches, from resorts to working ranches, for you to choose from. Here are three that made us want to yell “Yee haw!”

  • Bonanza Creek Country Guest Ranch (Martinsdale, Montana) – located in south central Montana, the Bonanza Creek ranch is operated by four generations of the Voldseth family who work the ranch and run 1,500 head of cattle on 25,000 acres of land. Can you say “Where’s the beef?” The ranch’s 2014 season runs from now until September 21st where for $1950 per person you receive accommodations, three meals and take part in a long list of activities from herding cattle to team penning to hiking. 
  • J Bar L (Lima, Montana) – praised by the New York Times as providing an authentic “cowboy lifestyle,” J Bar L is situated in south west Montana near Yellowstone National Park. The ranch boasts fully restored, luxury homestead cabins for rent that can comfortably accommodate from two to 14 guests where you’ll be surrounded by Montana’s breathtaking landscape. However, don’t let the stunning views from your lux cabin fool you into a zen-like state, there’s lot of work to be done and guests are expected to take part in the ranch’s daily routine; from mending barbed wire fences to herding cattle. 
  • McGinnis Meadows Cattle & Guest Ranch (Libby, Montana) – owned by Shayne and Jo-Anne Jackson, McGinnis Meadows is located in the northwest corner of Montana surrounded by tall trees and mountains. Named by as one of the “6 best places to be a cowboy,” you’re guaranteed to get an authentic western experience as the team here will work with you individually to perfect your horse riding skills (whether you’re a novice or experienced) in order for you to assist with working the ranch’s cattle. Log cabins serve as your accommodations and are nestled among aspen trees giving it a charming and laid-back feeling. McGinnis Meadows offers a range of programs from winter horsemanship to cattle roping; check here for pricing and further details.

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