There is a reason why nearly 80 percent of dude ranch guests are families. Dude ranches are the perfect place to connect with nature, fellow guests and each other. While they come in all flavors, from luxury ranches to actual working ranches, at heart these properties provide a comfortable, safe environment for kids to be kids … away from cell phones, peer pressure and overstimulation. And what better place for a family-centric vacation than a family-run ranch?
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch in southern Montana has been run by the Kelsey family for 70 years. Guests are welcomed into the bosom of the clan with family-style meals, guest and crew softball games, and old-fashioned barn dances. Looking around the lodge, you see the coins honoring families that have returned to the ranch for up to 20-plus years. With only 40 guests during an average week, by departure day everyone feels like family — emails and tearful goodbyes are being exchanged, and Facebook groups are being created to share photos.
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch is located in the gorgeous Gallatin Valley, where parts of the movie A River Runs Through It were filmed. Located just an hour from West Yellowstone, the ranch is in a perfect spot for day trips and it’s easy to combine a ranch vacation with a visit to the park. You could even sandwich a Nine Quarter Circle stay between visits to Yellowstone and Glacier National Park.
The ranch is about 60 miles from the cute college town of Bozeman and its international airport, so getting there isn’t too hard. If you are flying in and out on a Sunday, you’ll want to book well in advance due to all the ranches in the area that offer Sunday-to-Sunday stays.
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Unlike some of its peers, Nine Quarter Circle sits 5 miles off of the main road, offering a sense of isolation and peace with no loud trucks barreling by on the highway. During the two-hour-long morning and afternoon trail rides, guests see nothing but the beautiful landscape and possibly wildlife like deer, elk, moose, coyote and bear. In addition to Yellowstone trips, you can access whitewater rafting, tubing and ziplining operators within a 30-minute drive — that is, if you can drag yourself away from the bucolic ranch setting.
Nine Quarter Circle isn’t a luxury ranch and it isn’t trying to be. You won’t find luxe linens and gourmet food. But that is OK, because a ranch vacation and a rustic setting just go together. Traditional log cabins are spread throughout the grounds, set up to accommodate single guests, large families and all group sizes in between. While we would have appreciated softer mattresses and fluffier pillows, the cabins were cozy and comfortable.
The main room of our two-bedroom cabin also served as the master bedroom, with a queen bed, a desk, a dresser and an armchair to relax by the wood stove. Electric heaters were available for the bedrooms and bathroom, but the stove quickly took the bite out of the late-summer morning chill. The back bedroom offered bunk beds but no rails or ladders, so younger kids should plan on taking the bottom bunk. One of the best spots in the cabin was on the front porch, with views across the airfield to the mountain beyond.
Except for special events, meals are hosted in the main lodge and operate on a strict schedule. The bell announces breakfast between 7 and 8a, offering short-order options like pancakes, eggs, oatmeal and other hearty standards that help you fuel up for a busy day. Lunch and dinner are family-style, with kids eating together at their own tables while adults are shuffled around to get to know the other guests and crew.
The food is standard comfort food with a set menu, so you get what you get and you don’t get upset. The Nine Quarter Circle chef is able to accommodate all dietary restrictions and allergies, but they won’t produce a plate of chicken fingers for picky eaters. That said, the fare is very family-friendly: turkey, lasagna, prime rib, tacos, quesadillas, pork tenderloin and salmon. Everything is homemade, including the desserts, which are served with lunch as well as dinner. More than one guest bought the ranch cookbook in the onsite store because those desserts were so delicious.
Evenings kick off at 5:30p with an adults-only BYOB happy hour (a nice selection of wine and local beer is available at the store); the ranch provides snacks, mixers and conversation. The kids eat together at 5:45, then spend time on the playground and play games throughout the ranch, while adults move on to dinner at 6:30.
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Most nights feature a different evening activity, including a group softball game, a campfire with s’mores and songs, a hayride, a cookout and evening trail ride, and the capstone event: a barn dance with an authentic square dance caller.
During the day, the main attraction is the horseback riding program, but fly fishing instruction is also provided at the pond or creek. Guests are challenged to climb to the top of Lincoln Mountain and leave their name in the notebook in the mailbox at the summit. Of course, there’s also plenty of time to relax, join in games, read a book, hunt for tadpoles or just play.
As with many ranches, guests are assigned a horse for the week. You really get to understand the temperament and personality of your horse and create a strong connection. Guests are grouped as beginner, intermediate and advanced riders, while guests ages 6 to 9 have their own “Rough Riders” group. Many different trail options, from alpine forests to plains, mountains and lakes, make each ride a new adventure.
Trail rides are approximately two hours long and are offered in the mornings and afternoons. You sign up for rides the night before and there is no pressure; it’s your vacation and you can ride as much or as little as you like. Advanced riders are also invited on a daylong ride or the overnight “Kelsey Killer,” which sounds exhausting, challenging and exhilarating all in one.
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On Saturday mornings, in lieu of a trail ride, all guests are invited to participate in Gymkhana, a sort of mini-rodeo with events like barrel racing, pole bending and the egg and spoon race. These are amazingly accessible, even for beginners, and tremendous fun for everyone.
A week at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch will run a family of four just under $10,000, which includes all meals and activities. Families who can travel in late August or early September will be able to enjoy a small late-season discount.
Editor’s Note: Tamara received a media package to facilitate our review of Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. As always, our opinions on Ciao Bambino are our own. Photos by Tamara Gruber.
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