I was exhausted. Emotionally Spent. I needed an escape. The outdoors. Fresh air. So when I was invited to Triple Creek Ranch, an adult-only, all-inclusive resort hidden in a sea of pine, I knew it was fate.
I learned I’d attend a real Spring cattle branding, ride horseback, commune with nature, and try sapphire panning (Never heard of it? Me neither). Nothing about my trip would resemble my usual day-to-day (makes sense New York City vs a luxury dude ranch, definitely not the same) and that’s exactly what I wanted.
Triple Creek Ranch
A member of Relais and Château, Triple Creek sits in the heart of the Bitterroot Mountain Range in Darby, Montana an hour and a half drive from Missoula.
I arrived in the late afternoon, climbing a long winding road that links the private cabins and guest houses to the main lodge and the rest of the property. A herd of wild elk grazing in a field greeted me. I took it as a good sign. Only a few hours into my adventure and I was discovering wildlife I’d never seen before.
My Cabin: Trapper
My hideaway was the one-bedroom log cabin called “Trapper,” named after Trapper Peak, the tallest mountain in the region. It was dark during the day (I prefer a lot of natural light) but cozy and comfortable. In the half kitchen was a Keurig coffee maker and a small refrigerator filled with beverages. My bedroom contained a shower for two that doubled as a steam room, plus all the amenities you’d expect from a luxury resort.
A welcome gift, a mix of sweet and savory treats, was both a blessing and a curse. Homemade trail mix, bags of Tillamook Beef Jerky (I binged), Huckleberry popcorn and avocado oil potato chips were far more intriguing than I wanted them to be.
Two green apples (a small nod to health) were wholly uninteresting next to the large, cowboy boot-shaped cookies straight from the chef’s kitchen, hand wrapped in cellophane, and tied with string. Anything I ate would have been replenished the next day, but I asked them not to. It’s the only drawback to an all-inclusive resort: no absurd minibar charges to curb my snacking.
The fireplace was the highlight of my little nest. A comfy leather chair, a drink, and a roaring fire became a nightly ritual. Though the hot tub came in a close second. There’s nothing like soaking in bubbling hot water on a cool night surrounded by the scent of Ponderosa pine.
My cabin also came with a golf cart, and as a car-less New Yorker who likes to drive, I was loving it behind the wheel.
Luxury Dude Ranch Activities
Triple Creek is all about nature and the outdoors, and offers a wide range of activities from Orvis-rated fly fishing, white-water rafting, and archery, to hiking, nature safaris, dog sledding, skiing, and skijoring (being pulled on skis through the snow by a galloping horse).
Any specialized attire such as chaps, chinks, cowboy hats, and waders, are available to guests if needed. The ranch also hosts themed weekends such as the Spring Branding I attended, culinary classes and wine tastings, girl’s get-togethers, and Stave puzzle events.
As a former horse owner, I focused on riding.
Spring Cattle Branding Day
Every April, ranchers across Montana and the American West, take turns branding, vaccinating and castrating each other’s calves. It’s an age-old tradition that is more than a work event, it’s a community affair. Children and spouses pitch in, and once the work is done the host ranch throws a barbecue.
I had the opportunity to attend an authentic Spring Branding at the CB, a 26,000-acre working cattle ranch owned by the Barrett family (Craig Barrett is the former chairman and CEO of Intel) who owns Triple Creek.
It was a fascinating, exciting, and emotionally complicated experience. A glimpse of a cultural institution I was familiar with from watching a gazillion westerns but had never seen first-hand.
My first outing was a leisurely, single-file walk through the woods at Triple Creek. Earlier in the day, we had a short orientation at the barn, met the riding staff, and saddled and groomed a few horses. Our ride began after lunch.
The scenery was beautiful. Fog wove its way through the trees, casting a dark fairytale quality over the forest. Unfortunately, it rained. Hard. Soaking my jeans and letting the cold have its way with me, making the ride less than ideal.
Soggyness aside, it was great to be back in the saddle.
My second ride was much better. Under a dazzling blue sky, we went on a lovely, four-hour cross-country adventure at the CB. Blessed with wide-open spaces, we were able to fan out and ride side by side which was much more fun than the single file the woods demanded.
We traversed a variety of terrain amidst magnificent landscapes, climbed hills, switchbacked down steep slopes, and crossed streams. With every step, I felt my stress melt away. Mid-ride we picnicked under a tree overlooking the valley.
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My horse was a handsome black-and-white paint named Tuff. He was so good the first time I requested him the second.
The only downside was having to walk the entire time. It’s not unusual in groups with varying skill levels, but it would have been nice if more capable riders could have trotted or cantered a bit.
When I first learned about sapphire panning, it sounded painfully boring. Sheehan, an activity coordinator, swore it was a guest favorite. I was skeptical.
“It’s addictive,” He said.
What the hell, I decided to give it a go. Sheehan demonstrated, then it was my turn.
In a nutshell: Gravel purchased from a company called Gem Mountain, is poured into a square wooden sieve, then rinsed in a water trough to remove excel soil and debris. Smaller pebbles are then separated from the larger stones by shaking the sieve up and down (called the “baby bounce”) and rocking it from side to side (the “teeter totter”). Afterward, the sieve is flipped over onto a large table. Tweezers are used to pick through the pebbles until sapphires are found.
I immersed myself in the hunt.
To my surprise I liked it. The appeal is simple: It was like playing a slot machine. Every time I picked through the pebbles I was offered a chance to win, and every time I won a little I wanted more. In 30 minutes I had 15 or so tiny beauties in pink, yellow and blue, and I didn’t want to stop.
It was addictive. Who knew?
The Food at Triple Creek Ranch
I’m not a foodie but I love a good meal. The chef, Jacob Leatherman, served daily menus that were sophisticated yet unfussy and used fresh ingredients from the gardens and orchards at the CB. For breakfast, I loved the bacon, cheddar pancakes. For lunch, the California BLT was especially delish. Dinners were four courses, in addition to an amuse-bouche and a petit four. I rarely left anything on my plate.
The Ranch’s Special Sauce
There are resorts beloved for their overt luxury and others for their subtlety. Triple Creek is the latter. Imagine visiting a friend’s home (albeit a ridiculously rich friend), enhanced by thoughtful touches and all the I’s dotted and T’s crossed, and you’ll get a sense of what I’m talking about.
The staff knew my name and drink preferences, even if I never met them before. At turndown, western-themed poems accompanied gourmet chocolates. If it was chillier than expected, there were toasty, Lands End coats to wear. The kitchen had an open-door policy, inviting guests to visit any time. (I never did but loved that I could have.) In the lounge, where cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served, photos of activities taken during the day were shown on a monitor the same night.
On the morning of my departure, I returned from breakfast to find a gift, a photo of me and Tuff in a paper frame on my coffee table.
It was the perfect send off to a memorable stay.
Tips to Help You Get the Most out of Your Visit to Triple Creek Ranch
- My cabin was set relatively close to others. If you want greater seclusion, consider staying in one of the guesthouses.
- It’s worth renting a car even with a golf cart at your disposal. If you want to explore Darby or partake in activities off the ranch you’ll want the flexibility. Since it costs $300 for Triple Creek’s round trip airport shuttle, you might as well.
- Consider ordering dinner in one night. Hunker down in front of the fire and watch a good DVD. You’ll find a selection in the activity center’s library.
- Check out the panorama of mountains from the Viewing Bench at sunrise.
- If you can’t decide what to eat on the menu, ask your servers for a little of each. They’ll be happy to oblige.
- Enjoy a cocktail before dinner in the rooftop lounge. Or, if you like, have dinner on the balcony.
- Triple Creek sponsors Jessie Royer, an Iditarod competitor who came in third in March and has finished 13 times. For two weeks every January, in preparation for the race and to get her dogs in tip-top shape, dog sledding is free. (Normally $325/per person).
- From April thru October, Cross Country rides on the CB are $150 per person, a cost waived November thru February and on signature weekends such as the Spring Branding.
- If you score while sapphire panning, Triple Creek can set you up with an appraiser. When you get home, clean your sapphires by putting them in a solution of water and white vinegar for a week or two.
- If you’re driving from Missoula to Triple Creek and fancy indulging your inner cowboy, stop off at Murdoch’s Ranch and Home Supply in Hamilton. You gotta love a place where you can buy a log splitter, baby chicks and cowboy clothes under one roof. (I treated myself to a pair of wranglers and a belt with a big western buckle.) Ask for Jody; she was great.
- Solo travelers: I enjoyed myself because I am comfortable being alone when everyone else is with someone. If that’s out of your comfort zone, Triple Creek is probably not the best fit for you.
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