You might think, “Who on earth would want to go to a ranch in winter? You can’t horseback ride, you can’t fly fish, you can’t hike…” But, actually, guest ranches offer a surprising range of fun activities during the winter, as well as an unexpectedly snug atmosphere—what’s more, there are even a few ways to save some money.
I happen to be at Triple Creek Ranch in Darby, Montana right now, voted the No. 1 hotel in the world byTravel and Leisure readers this year (and No. 5 by Condé Nast Traveler readers), and thanks to a subzero cold snap, I’m seeing first-hand how fun a winter ranch vacation can be.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. I talked to Caroline Bach Wood, our Trusted Travel Expert for this area of the U.S. (check out her insider’s guides to Yellowstone and Jackson Hole). Caroline is familiar with a wide range of guest ranches in the West, and when I asked her the benefits of visiting in the cold weather, she pointed out that, “The biggest difference in going in the winter is that it gets dark earlier, so instead of staying busy from sunrise to sunset with various activities, you really get to take advantage of enjoying the cozy fire in your cabin, spending time together or relaxing alone.” What’s more, she adds, “If you’re coming from a place that doesn’t have all that much snow, simple winter activities like sledding and building snowmen can be a lot of fun.” I haven’t had a chance to build a snowman yet, but here are five other reasons to consider planning your winter getaway at a guest ranch.
1. Winter sports are breathtaking.
You don’t have to be an extreme skier to get an adrenaline rush from snow sports. Sure, horseback riding is fun during the summer, but sprinkle a few inches of snow over the fields and pine trees of Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, where Triple Creek Ranch is located, and it becomes downright magical. The same goes for other activities you might normally associate with warm weather: archery, fishing, trap shooting, wildlife spotting. At TCR, all of these are doable—and definitely worth doing—even in the cold, and they usually come with the added benefit of a thermos of homemade hot chocolate, a personal bonfire where possible (like at the archery range), and a chauffeur to take you back and forth.
Then there are all the pulse-raising sports you can only do in winter: downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding, and skijoring (a Norwegian sport that’s basically like water skiing but instead of water, you ski on snow, and instead of being pulled by a boat you’re pulled by a horse).
And don’t worry if you didn’t pack enough warm clothes, TCR has a trove of parkas, gloves, earmuffs, boots, hats, and other gear available for anyone to use. I’ve been hoarding hand warmers myself.
2. The indoors can be as much fun as the outdoors.
In the dead of winter, when nothing sounds better than hunkering down with a hearty meal and a bottle of wine, Triple Creek hosts special event weekends for foodies and oenophiles. And the best part? They’re available to all guests at no extra charge.
For instance, this year from January 8-11, TCR is hosting a Cooking School weekend, when executive chef Jacob Leatherman and his sous chef, pastry chef and sommelier offer daily, three-hour hands-on classes. In February, two more Cooking School weekends will include visits from vintners: Napa Valley’s Chateau Montelena (February 8–11) and the father-daughter team from Oregon’s Et Fille winery (February 26–March 1), who will mingle with guests during the cooking classes, and offer tastings and wine-pairing lessons. This is no amateur-hour wine program either: Every year for the past ten, Triple Creek has won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence for its cellar of more than 500 bottles. So even if you miss the vintner weekends, you can sample plenty of impressive bottles throughout your stay—all house wines, spirits and beers are free while you’re here, whether you choose to sip them with your meals (also included) or in front of the fireplace in your cabin, where your wet bar is complimentary too.
And of course, the holidays are their own special events. In addition to festive meals and parties over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, at Triple Creek, you can have your own Christmas tree (real or fake) set up in your cabin. Bring your own ornaments or decorate with the ranch’s stash once you get here.
3. Special stuff is free in the winter.
Most guest ranches offer some type of all-inclusive pricing plan, and (as at Triple Creek) many of your activities will be included in the cost of your stay—but not all. Nevertheless, thanks to seasonal circumstances or special relationships, sometimes activities that would normally cost extra are given away for free.
That’s the case with a special week of dog sledding at Triple Creek. While this activity costs $325–$425 per session, if you book a trip here anytime between January 4 and 19, it’s completely free, thanks to a happy coincidence: Those two weeks are the time when Iditarod pro (and resident dog-sledding guide) Jessie Royer will be readying her dogs for their 13th Iditarod. And since she has to prepare the dog team anyway, the ranch takes the opportunity to offer the activity at no extra charge.
Off-ranch horse rides are also complimentary here in the winter (usually $150 per person), and so is downhill skiing. Triple Creek is about a half hour from a hidden ski gem, Lost Trail Powder Mountain, which remains little-known outside of Montana even though it boasts an average of 300 inches of snow per year on its 1,800 acres and 50 runs. TCR guests are entitled to as many complimentary lift tickets as they can handle during their stay, plus equipment and transportation to and from the mountain. Better yet, the staff will bring along hot drinks when they pick you up, and then drop you off at the private hot tub back at your cabin, for your own personal après-ski session.
4. Winter travel can mean seasonal deals.
Be sure to ask about special winter deals wherever you’re booking your guest-ranch vacation: The low season after the holidays can translate to savings, and packages sometimes bundle activities together at a lower price point. Triple Creek offers two winter packages. The Big Sky Big Five includes a five-night stay for two people, plus a slew of sports, some of which usually cost extra: snowmobiling, dog sledding, horseback riding, skijoring, skiing, and massages. For Valentine’s Day, couples get a discounted rate on a three-night stay with romantic perks including champagne and chocolates. Both packages deliver a 10% discount, which may sound small but adds up to a decent savings when cabin prices start at $950/night per couple. And as with all stays here, the price includes all meals, all house wines and spirits, many activities and equipment, and (my favorite) chocolate-chip cookies and granola dropped off in your cabin every day.
5. There might not be anything cozier than a mountain ranch in the snow.
Which brings us to the fireplaces: Fireplaces in your cabin. Fireplaces in the lodge. Fireplaces in the cocktail lounge. Fireplaces everywhere—there’s even a nightly bonfire outside the main lodge, with s’mores.
Don’t feel like sharing? No problem. Every cabin has at least one fireplace (prepped by housekeeping every day), and most cabins also have their own outdoor hot tub on a private deck (a few of the lower-priced cabins share a communal hot tub in a wooded nook, and two ‘honeymoon’ cabins have indoor whirlpools instead). You can even order in a massage—to be enjoyed in front of the fireplace, of course—and all your meals. Seriously, if you were so inclined, you could never step foot outside your winter ranch hideaway, and you’d still have a great vacation.