320 Ranch – Big Sky, Montana

It’s no mystery that the area a few dozen miles south of Bozeman, MT is called Big Sky. Gazing up from the scenic Gallatin landscape, the sky seems larger than the mind can comprehend, stretching across the heavens like an endless, overhead sea.

I could feel the tension and stress begin to evaporate immediately as I followed the Gallatin River north along Hwy 191. Thirty-five miles north of West Yellowstone, I stepped out of my car and my feet hit the dry Montana dust. I knew I’d found a little slice of Western paradise.

The 320 Guest Ranch had been on my radar for some time, but timing and logistics had kept it as no more than a bookmark and a wish. Finally, the pieces had come together for an overnight stay.

I asked for a cabin that would be some distance from the center of activity. My yearning for the life of a cowgirl recluse was handed to me in the form of a key to Cabin #40, at the very end of a long row of similar structures. Though technically one half of a duplex, there would be no one in the other side that night, giving me exactly the peace and quiet I wanted. Even better, I had a wood-burning fireplace and a generous stack of firewood just outside the door.

I decided to do some wandering before settling into my log hideaway. I would pass on the numerous recreational options – horseback riding, rafting, hiking and more. I was content to wander the grounds, visit the horses and simply breathe in the fresh air. One stop I had no intention of missing, however, was the restaurant, housed in an impressive log building that had been developed around one of the ranch’s original log cabins.

The interior of the dining hall had none of the trappings of touristy western décor. This was the real deal – a true guest ranch for those desiring an authentic experience. I took in the bear rug above the saloon’s bar, the old harnesses hanging on the rafters and the original oil paintings on the restaurant’s walls. Under wagon wheel chandeliers and to the soft strains of cowboy music, I easily fell into the ranch spirit.

Not surprisingly, the menu was focused on local fare, with creatively prepared selections of elk, bison and fresh fish. There were plenty of choices. Even my now-vegetarian appetite had no trouble being satisfied, as the chef whipped up a delicious pasta dish with fresh pesto and generous portions of sautéed mushrooms, zucchini and fresh peppers, topped with pine nuts and fresh grated parmesan cheese. I resisted the dessert options, which included mixed berry cobbler and crème brulee.

The 320 Guest Ranch is hardly a newcomer to the Montana hospitality scene. It dates back to the late 1800’s when father and son Sam and Clinton Wilson had properties next to each other, later combined to form what was then called the Buffalo Horn Resort.

In 1936 Montana’s first female doctor, Dr. Caroline McGill, purchased the property and ran it as a healthy retreat for patients and friends. The historic McGill cabin still remains, available to guests as a rental unit.

Ownership was subsequently inherited by friends of Dr, McGill, the Goodwin family, who ran the ranch until selling it to current owner Dave Brask in 1987. Since then the ranch has flourished, developing return customers, hosting conferences and providing guests with a welcome escape from the stress of daily life.

I spent a peaceful evening in the cabin, interrupted only by a brief altercation with the fireplace flue, which resulted in a very non-peaceful piercing screech from the smoke detector. I was grateful I didn’t have a neighbor in the next cabin. But the episode faded away into a quiet evening with a glowing fire. It was a relaxing night and I slept well, waking up to a day of pristine weather and a hearty breakfast buffet, included with lodging.

I love finding places that I can recommend without the slightest hesitation. The 320 Ranch falls right into that category. Whether as a lodging guest, a conference attendee or a customer stopping by for a good meal or trail ride, it’s a great destination. I’d save a little room for the berry cobbler. And make sure the flue is open before kicking the fireplace into gear.