Montana dude ranch vacation: Flathead Lake Lodge

On my very first morning of a week-long dude ranch stay at Flathead Lake Lodge in western Montana, I sat down to breakfast in the historic lodge dining room and couldn’t find a spoon. I looked about, but the wait staff was busy, so I turned to a fellow guest…a veteran of many summers at the dude ranch. “Oh, just start checking the drawers,” she said, pointing to a cabinet. “I think they’re in the second from the left.”

I felt odd, digging through a restaurant’s silverware, but before I’d reached the second drawer, I had more help. “Spoon? Oh yeah, right here,” a man said, directing me to the correct drawer. When looked up to thank him, I realized the owner of the lodge himself, Doug Averill, had come to my rescue. “We’re really causal here,” he assured me, waving away my sheepish apology for helping myself. “Whatever you need, just feel free.”

I quickly learned that this sense of ownership and familiarity is typical at Flathead Lake Lodge. Take the mid-week morning, for instance, that I rounded the corner from the main lodge toward the outdoor volleyball court to see my eighteen-year-old giving a new eight-year-old buddy a piggy back ride toward the barn…a little boy we’d never met before that week. Or the time my 12-year-old informed me he couldn’t tell me where he was headed, because he and a gaggle of other middle schoolers had found themselves a ‘secret’ hideout never before discovered. Or the time the owners took their staff out on Flathead Lake one evening for an appreciation party, leaving with a cheery, “Try not to burn the place down!” in farewell.

flathead lake lodge

Guests at the ranch would never mistake this casual approach to hospitality for neglect, however. The ranch staff, from wranglers to housekeeping to water sports instructors, were attentive, friendly, and enthusiastic, without exception. The difference was, we were treated like family rather than like visitors. And at a ranch like Flathead Lake Lodge that caters to providing a full but relaxed family vacation, this treatment made all the difference.

We’ve now stayed a week at three different dude ranches, and have learned extensively about many more. They each offer their own take on the dude ranch experience, but I have taken to calling Flathead Lake Lodge a ‘dude ranch plus’. More than any other ranch we’ve reviewed, it embodies a full mountain vacation experience. Horseback riding and ranch life is a big part of it, but by no means defines it. Flathead Lake Lodge is just as much an ‘all inclusive lakeside resort’ as it is a dude ranch.

What to expect from a Montana dude ranch vacation at Flathead Lake Lodge:

flathead lake lodge

Flathead Lake Lodge sits on 2500 acres of lakefront and forest on Flathead Lake, Montana. It’s just a short walk from the quaint town of Bigfork, and about 45 minutes from both the airport in Kalispell and the entrance to Glacier National Park. On the property, guests enjoy private shoreline of the lake, with a small but well-stocked marina that includes three small sailboats, two larger sloops, several cruiser boats, motorboats, a ski boat, and a collection of paddle boards, kayaks, and canoes. Also on the lake front are docks to fish from and swim from, a swimming pool, and plenty of lounging space on rolling lawn.

Just up from the lake sits the historic main lodge, which dates from 1945. This houses the communal dining room with its massive stone fireplace, the kitchen, bar, and the lodge office. The main lodge is a central hub at the ranch, where guests and staff alike relax, eat, and mingle.

flathead lake lodge

Tucked around the lodge is a smattering of small cabins, ranging in size from one to three bedrooms, which house guests, as well as the South Lodge, which offers lodge rooms for guests who don’t require an entire cabin. Our family of five stayed in the South Lodge in two adjacent rooms, one of which included an upper loft. All lodge rooms have their own bathrooms. The sand volleyball court sits between the South Lodge and the main lodge, and a path up the hill away from the lake leads to the gift shop and laundry facilities, tennis courts, and barn.

flathead lake lodge

If the main lodge is the central hub for meals, the barn is the central hub for horseback activities and the central play area for children. How so? Above the working space of the barn (where horses are saddled, etc) the upper level houses ping pong tables, a pool table, and other games. Kids tend to gather here before or after their rides. Below the game area, a well-stocked and staffed arts and crafts room occupies a large space. Behind the barn is a large horseback riding arena, with pastures on other sides.

dude ranch vacation

Guests arrive and depart on Sundays. Upon arrival, we were shown to our rooms and given the chance to get settled, then were able to attend an orientation at the barn, which introduced us to the wrangler staff and horse program. I liked that there’s a chance for guests to get up on a horse Sunday evening; this is perfect for people who are less familiar with horses and want to get their feet wet in the controlled space of the arena under the watchful eye of a wrangler.

It’s not necessary to sign up for horseback rides, as they’re offered daily with no reservations required, but on Monday morning, guests have the opportunity to sign up for additional activities that do require advanced notice. These activities include the ones offered by outside outfitters or operators, such as guided fishing trips, mountain laser tag (more on that later), whitewater rafting, clay pigeon shooting, massages, and yoga. These activities come with an extra charge. Monday morning is also the time and place to sign up for horseback riding lessons in the arena, guided hikes, and guided or non-guided mountain biking, which are offered by lodge staff (of these, some hikes and mountain biking do come with an extra cost).

dude ranch trail ride

Here’s what’s always included in your stay, and do not require a Monday reservation:

  • horseback riding
  • water sports including waterskiing and wake boarding
  • canoe, kayak, and paddle board use
  • sailing (sailing on the large sloops requires a day-of sign up)
  • horseback lessons (you can sign up for these on Monday but also make reservations later)
  • hiking or mountain biking on your own (with your own bikes)
  • long rides (that include lunch or breakfast)
  • all meals, including the ‘riding’ meals to a steak fry dinner and to breakfast
  • tennis
  • volleyball
  • kids activities, including campout, fire truck riding, and kids’ rodeo

Meals are served in the main lodge, and include breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Breakfast cereals and pastries are available from about 7 am on, with either a hot buffet or plated breakfast (depending on the day) served at 8:30 am. Lunch is buffet style, served at 12:30 pm. Dinner is served buffet style for kids at 6 pm and as a plated meal for adults at 6:30 pm (one choice of entree, with specialty options such as vegetarian or gluten free meals offered with advanced notice). Kids can absolutely eat with the adults; the 6 pm buffet simply gives you the option in case you have kids who would rather eat and run. My teens ate the adult meal with us every evening, while my 12-year-old opted for the kid fare so he could go play with friends.

flathead lake lodge

On the schedule, there are also kids’ meal times for breakfast and lunch listed (30 minutes before adult dining), but we found these times to be more of a suggestion: the food is the same, but the lodge staff simply puts it out half an hour earlier for kids should they want it. Adults can certainly jump in line with the kids. As noted above, everything is causal at Flathead Lake Lodge.

We found the food served at Flathead to be well above average for a dude ranch. Dinners were exceptional, with entrees such as salmon, beef tenderloin, and chicken with risotto on the menu. Lunch buffet was so good, we often over-ate…I tried very hard to utilize only the well-stocked salad bar at lunch, but often found myself tempted to sample far more. The buffet items included a pasta bar, Mexican and Chinese food days, and seafood. Breakfast included fresh fruit and berries, plenty of cereal and granola choices, and hot dishes that usually included breakfast meats, eggs, hash browns or potatoes, or pancakes. Between meals, snacks are always on offer on a counter in the lodge, and water, lemonade, and tea are always available, as well as coffee.

flathead lake lodge

Kids’ activities such as lawn games are usually scheduled for the 6:30 hour so adults can know they’re busy doing something with staff while they eat dinner, but everything is optional, and there’s no formal childcare or kids’ club (you’re responsible for your kids). Before dinner, there’s always a happy hour in the bar from 5:30-6:30 pm. The way the bar operates is unique: while some bottles of wine and beer are available for purchase, guests are encouraged to bring their own liquor, beer, and wine to the lodge, label it with their last name, and store it in the bar. During happy hour, the bar is staffed and the bartender will mix drinks and pour wine, with appetizers served. This is a great time to chat with fellow guests about the day. At any other time, guests can treat the bar as their own, stepping behind the counter to access their own alcoholic beverages.

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About the author

Amy Whitley

AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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