It’s an evening in Greenough, Montana, and about 80 adventure seekers have gathered on the shores of the Blackfoot River. A man strums the guitar, whiskey flows like water, and a master of ceremonies operates the chuck wagon—a mobile grill whose origins date back to the cowboy and pioneer days. All is well. Except the year is 2023, not 1883, and tonight’s crew isn’t exactly “roughing it” the way our forebears had to.
Look a little closer and you’ll see how much has changed. Instead of a cook charring buffalo meat, it’s a chef artfully turning 20 best-in-class tomahawk steaks over an open flame. Tables are set with pristine linens and cutlery, and a chauffeur neatly deposits you back at your luxury glamping accommodation at the end of the night. Here at The Resort at Paws Up, which emulates classic dude-ranch experiences such as horseback riding, fly-fishing and, yes, a good old-fashioned chuck wagon, the cowboy life and luxury are anything but mutually exclusive. You won’t be put to work here to earn your keep—unless you really want to.
The demand for luxury ranch experiences has grown steadily over the last ten years. Limits on international travel and a renewed desire for open spaces—not to mention the runaway success of Paramount’s neo-Western melodrama Yellowstone—have only brought more attention to guest ranches. And these days, they can be found all over the American West, from the mountains of Montana to the high desert valleys of Arizona.
Options abound. There are ranches near ski resorts (Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana), ranches that abut federally protected lands (Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort near Zion National Park, and Tanque Verde Ranch near Saguaro National Park), and ranches that belong to the prestigious, gastronomy-driven Relais & Chateaux network (The Ranch at Rock Creek in Philipsburg, Montana). Each offers exclusivity in different ways. For some, luxury has less to do with Michelin-starred chefs and more to do with privacy: At Reid Creek Lodge in Douglas, Wyoming, a buyouts-only property, a group of up to 22 guests can immerse themselves in a 300,000-acre working ranch for a cool $15,000 a night. But can you really put a price tag on waking up to the sounds of roosters crowing at sunrise? Turns out you can.
But don’t shy away from all this grandeur. There are still plenty of guest ranches out there where you can get a little mud on your boots if you’re so inclined. Each spring at Dryhead Ranch in Pryor, Montana, guests can help drive up to 250 mother cows and calves down the old Sioux Trail over four days—and be shuttled to and from the ranch each evening for a warm meal and comfortable bed. And while the rates at Vista Verde Guest Ranch in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, are about half or less of what they are at some high-end resorts, Vista Verde offers luxury in other ways. It reserves certain times of the year for adults-only vacations, no kids allowed—so you can horseback ride off into the sunset in absolute peace.