The Best Dude Ranch in Montana, An All Inclusive Family Vacation
You won’t get far in Bigfork, Montana, before you hear the name Doug Averill. He is one of eight sons, and completely beloved by the community for his generosity, integrity, and hard work. He is also the second-generation owner of Flathead Lake Lodge, one of the top dude ranches in the country. He took it over from his father, Les, who had a dream upon returning from the war in 1945: He would build a ranch and hunting lodge for people to experience the Wild, Wild West. What was once a boys camp became Flathead Lake Lodge, and it slowly began attracting people from all around the world.
I first learned about dude ranches during my first job in LA, working for a high-profile producer. Part of my job was researching fabulous vacations—he hired the right girl!—and dude ranches always came up as a luxury experience the whole family could enjoy. When I was invited to Flathead Lake Lodge, I jumped at the chance; I saw it as a compromise with my Eagle Scout husband, who always wants to take me camping. Besides, I grew up climbing trees and playing in the creek; I can do outdoorsy from time to time.
So: What it is really like, being at a dude ranch? There is literally something for everyone, and I think The Mister experienced it all. While I was most happy going horseback riding, sailing, and getting a massage, my godparents—our travel companions—couldn’t get enough of the hiking.
Yes, it is rustic. At times, it is even “roughing it”—but at the core is family values. And that’s what gives this place such heart.
The accommodations are not luxurious—but that’s really the point. The philosophy here is not to be too comfortable in your own quarters, encouraging a more social experience. I’m confident that I would be just as social with Egyptian-cotton sheets, but I played along. We shared a small two-bedroom cabin with no A/C, and one tiny bathroom for four grown adults. And we all totally survived! I remember thinking one morning, as I took my shower, thank God for hot running water! Perspective.
All meals are included in your stay, and everyone eats together as a family here in the main lodge.
There are numerous activities to get to know other guests, including happy hour every day at 5:30 in the Saddle Sore Saloon. Without question, making new friends was my favorite part. We became so close with one family—all ten of them—that we took a “family photo” on the last night.
What really sets Flathead Lake Lodge apart from other dude ranches is that they have an incredible water program. There are sailboats, speedboats, kayaks, and canoes. You can go waterskiing, paddle boarding or just cruise around the lake.
You know what I picked.
I was also into the canoodling.
Each night, there was some form of entertainment on the schedule. One of my favorite nights was the steak fry, where we all loaded in a fire truck and headed to a big open space in the middle of the woods, and ate steaks cooked over an open flame.
Never fear, vegetarians, they can accomodate dietary restrictions.
Gorgeous elk roamed the property!
During the day, there were many chances to go on hikes, surrounded by berries and views of the lake.
Doug Averill (right) leads the rodeo.
The Mister tries to get that steer to go inside the pen. Pure comedy!
There are three horse rides offered daily, but without question, the last ride on the last night was the most spectacular ride I have ever been on anywhere. Like a scene out of a fairytale, we galloped through a magical forest and rode off into the sunset.
Happy trails to you.
And many happy returns.
Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge. 150 Flathead Lodge Road. Bigfork, Montana 59911. 406-837-4391