Montana dude ranch vacation: Flathead Lake Lodge

A typical day at the lodge:

People arrange their days to suit at Flathead Lake Lodge, but typically, horseback rides for kids, teens, and adults are offered every morning, starting around 9 am. The morning is a good time to ride, as its cooler, and the water sports on the lake aren’t as appealing yet. After riding, lunch is served, followed by options for the afternoon ranging from swimming, boating, water skiing, arts and crafts, or laser tag. Of course, it’s also possible to go hiking, mountain biking, fishing, or just about anything else you might desire. Should you need one, the lodge will lend you a company car for an outing, a wonderful perk.

dude ranch vacation

In the late afternoon or after dinner, a second ride is offered for everyone, and most nights, there’s an evening activity planned, such as a roping demonstration, a barn dance, a horseback activity. My favorite was ‘group penning’, during which groups of three of us got on horseback and tried to separate a calf from a herd and corral it (with mixed results). On Wednesday evening, the entire ranch eats a steak dinner at a camp on the property, with the option to ride out on horseback or on one of the lodge’s three fire trucks.

flathead lake lodge

Guests tend to linger outdoors after dinner and dessert, congregating around the outdoor patio and volleyball court area while kids play on the lawn or jump off the dock during a twilight swim. This is the moment of the day Flathead Lake Lodge feels most like family camp…a gathering of friends and family in traditional summer time pursuits. Grown ups linger over a last glass of wine or beer and kids sneak extra cookies before bedtime.

Flathead Lake Lodge culture:

The culture nurtured at a dude ranch really matters. As a fellow first-time guest noted at Flathead Lake Lodge, dude ranches can start to feel the same until you meet the other people vacationing with you. The fellow guests and the staff are what make or break a dude ranch vacation. I agree with this statement, and yet, it’s very hard to get a ‘feel’ for ranch culture until you arrive. Because dude ranches tend to have high retention rates, with the same guests booking year after year, some ranches can start to feel ‘clique-y’, with groups of long-time friends shutting out new guests. At Flathead Lake Lodge, the staff values a friendly, non-competitive atmosphere, and this trickles down from the very top. When I spoke with owner Doug Averill, I asked him about their guest return rate. In my experience, when this number is high, which it is for Flathead, owners tend to want to brag about it. After all, what better stamp of approval than a return guest? But Averill downplayed his number, explaining that Flathead Lake Lodge values its first-timers greatly, and strives to make these guests feel just as at home as their return families.

dude ranch

 

This attitude rubs off on the staff and guests. Many, many times during our stay, my family and I were approached by return guests and enthusiastically welcomed. They asked how we liked the vacation, and were open to questions. During our week, we guessed that about half of the 120 guests were returning (with some having come to the ranch for as many as 20+ years), and half were new, like ourselves. While some of the returning families were pretty tight, this ratio, combined with the number of people available to interact with (some ranches are smaller) made for easy social interaction.

Riding program:

Most people come to a dude ranch expecting to ride a lot, and even though Flathead Lake Lodge is unique in that it offers so much more, the riding program still deserves its own section. Here’s what you can expect: because there are so many other activities at the lodge, we found there were fewer guests than typical at a dude ranch who were serious riders. There were a handful of us who wanted to ride almost all the time, a few more who rode regularly, then a bunch who were inexperienced and only wanted to ride occasionally. So if you fall in that category, or think you might, you’ll be in good company.

dude ranch lessons

I was told it’s hard to predict how many dedicated riders will show up to the barn during any given week. Therefore, only one kid, teen, and adult ride is offered per session, with additional rides added as needed. This means, for example, that if five people show up for the adult ride, one group will go out. If fifteen show up, the group will be divided and two groups will depart. If only one person shows up, they get an individual ride (lucky!). The downside of this system is that there isn’t always a fast ride offered. For those familiar with dude ranches, most rides are operated as ‘fast’ or ‘scenic’. Fast rides include trotting and loping (sometimes a lot of it), while scenic rides are walking only. When you arrive at the barn for the adult ride at Flathead Lake Lodge, wranglers will ask which you prefer, but if the group is small, you may be outvoted (in favor of the slower ride option, usually). I am told that this may change in the future, with scenic and fast ride options more clearly available, but we’ll see.

dude ranch riding

On Monday and Tuesday, you can count on the rides being slower paced while wranglers get to know guests and their riding abilities. This is on par with other ranches we’ve visited. If you want a faster ride earlier on, there are two things you can do. Sign up for the Tuesday lunch ride (lunch rides are offered Tuesday-Friday), which is longer and in my experience, including some loping. Or, sign up for a lesson, and do your first loping in the arena (a great option for kids needing to get used to being on a horse). Definitely take advantage of the lunch rides and extended breakfast rides if you like longer rides, because these tend to go farther out on the ranch property and have a quicker pace. They often go through the ranch’s personal elk preserve, where the elk make for a beautiful sight while riding.

Kids rides are for kids 12 and under, while teen rides are for 13-18, but these ages are suggestions. During our week, plenty of 11-12-year-olds opted for the teen ride, and some teens joined the adult rides (though they have to be 16 to do so). Adults can ride with kids or teens on their rides, but not vice versa (unless 16). Lessons are in the arena and highly recommended (by me…they are not required in any way).

lodge building

Activities not to miss:

There’s more to do at Flathead Lake Lodge than any family has time to do, but there are a few not-to-miss activities you’ll want to carve out time for. On our shortlist are:

Laser tag: this activity is offered most afternoons, and does require Monday sign up (though we were able to sign our kids up for additional sessions after they realized how fun it was). I promise this is not the laser tag you’re picturing: it’s more like paintball, conducted on a large scale on the ranch property, through a wooded area. Two teams of about 15 players are selected and the battle is fought through trees, shrubs, up hills, and through creek beds. It’s an absolute blast, with the latest laser tag equipment. Your kids will want to go many times!

laser tag

Mouse races: Yes, you read that correctly. Before the barn dance, the wranglers gather everyone at the barn for some friendly betting action. First, the kids get a turn, placing $2 bets on which of 20 numbered holes in a metal dish a standard pet-store issue white mouse will squirm into for a treat. It’s a lively, exciting moment. Then, five mice are auctioned off to the highest bidders and raced along ropes off the ground. If you want to participate, bring cash, and a lot of it…these mice go for much more than you’d guess! But it’s equally fun just to watch, and people will less buying power have fun pooling their money to share a mouse.

Sailing: When we came to a dude ranch, we never anticipated our kids would fall in love with sailing, but they did! After just one lesson with the sailing crew, our teens were ready to man their own sailboat on the lake, which they did with relish every day. If your kids are less interested in learning to sail, encourage them to sign up for the ski boat at least once; the crew is very patient and helpful with first-timers.

sailing

Mountain biking: Stop by the bike barn and talk to the mountain biking expert (our year, it was Matt). He can either rent you quality mountain bikes and point you in the right direction, or for $75 per person, he can take you personally for an afternoon of single track biking, rentals included. Our teens loved this; they declared the trails were some of the best they’ve seen, very challenging, and only about 15 minutes’ drive from the ranch. You can also rent bikes to ride around the property, a good option for younger kids.

Hiking: Talk to Kyle, the hiking expert at the ranch, buy some bear spray, and go on a hike (or sign up for one of Kyle’s guided hikes). We went to the Jewel Basin, about 35 minutes away, and hiked Mt. Aneas peak, on a six mile loop that climbed the mountain then dropped down into a stunning lake basin filled with wildflowers. It’s also possible to hike in Glacier National Park, but I actually suggest adding Glacier onto the beginning or end of your stay so you can give it the 2-3 days it deserves. A day trip to Glacier may prove frustrating, as it gets crowded.

hiking in montana

Kids’ rodeo and barrel racing: We’ve never been to a dude ranch that’s offered so many fun riding activities and games for kids! One morning, the kids have their own rodeo, with pole bending, relay races, and calf chasing, and on another occasion, they learn to barrel race and have a barrel racing (friendly) competition. It’s a blast, and kids can participate even if they’re beginners.

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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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