A real-life cattle drive: adventure travel in Montana

cattle drive mike doudCattle drives call to mind old western films, full of six-shooters and women in hoop skirts who faint delicately at the sight of blood. Most of all, they conjure images of cowboys – complete with hats, belt buckles and worn-in, dusty boots and spurs.

Once a main method of transporting herds to stockyards and markets, cattle drives had their heyday between 1865 and 1895, when more than 10 million cattle were herded between Texas and Kansas for delivery to Chicago and other major cities.

Despite the advent of motorized transportation, ranchers today still use the same basic principles to round up, herd and sort cattle as their cowboy predecessors did more than 100 years ago.

While visiting The Resort at Paws Up, I had the chance to participate in a drive, learning the basics of herding and driving cattle from Mike Doud (pictured at right), a rancher and true cowboy with more than three decades of experience. Before joining the Paws Up team, Mike owned his own ranch and regularly spent days or weeks in the saddle, herding his teams of cattle across thousands of acres.

Mike and his cowboy cohort Max, along with their two dogs, regularly lead guests on sample drives to showcase one of the West’s most iconic activities. While a real “drive” might begin at 3 or 3:30 AM in deference to the extreme summer heat, we began at the more leisurely hour of 9, first learning the basic principles of riding and what to expect from our horses and the cows we’d find. Our crew of six, plus Mike, included two experienced riders and four “newbies,” all of whom were eager to learn the ropes.
%Gallery-129848%Like most western-style riding, the horses were highly-trained and responded to neck reining cues – leaving a cowboy’s other hand free to move as necessary. We learned the basic principals of moving cattle – driving them from behind. Cows are pack animals and see both the horses and dogs as dominant, so they take a prey stance and move away from pressure from behind. The goal? To get our cows to “string out” and be “pulled” of their own momentum – when riding from behind in a fan or U-shape, we would (in theory) be able to get the herd to follow a pack mentality, simply exerting pressure on one side or another by turning our horses to form a barrier.

Movies often show cowboys galloping hell-bent for leather across open fields, cattle strung behind and in front of them, racing as if their lives depended on it. In reality, Mike explained, a cattle drive is a slow, leisurely process, most often experienced at a walk or “long trot.” The idea is to move the cattle at their natural pace so as not to “take pounds off,” as steers and beef cattle were priced by weight. Running the cattle would result in thinner, less profitable sales.

Drives could take place for a variety of reasons – to move cows to market, rounding them to separate a neighbor’s cows from your own, branding or vetting, or moving cattle from one pasture to another. Cattle typically graze across many acres of land, and while these animals often stick to groups, they don’t remain in tight pack. Ranches may range from a few thousand to tens of thousands of acres, with a variety of terrain surroundings, including brush, trees, and large hills.

Most cowboys employ highly-trained dogs to assist in herding. These nimble, agile creatures are voice-command trained and can dodge in and out of herds with ease, nipping flanks and ankles as necessary to get the cattle to move at a certain speed or in a certain direction.

Mike’s dog, Sis, was the eighth in a long line, he explained. We quickly learned that we were superfluous – Mike, his horse, and Sis could easily have handled the 35 or so head of cattle we were tasked with rounding, driving to a pen a few miles away, sorting, and putting the cattle back in their home pasture.

The eight-year-old dog was the star of the show, responding to commands that showed a human-like level of understanding to “get one,” “get two” or “get ’em all,” to “slow,” “round up,” or “go sit on that rock.” If Sis had opposable thumbs, I don’t doubt she could have done my job as a writer. (We learned later that Mike and Sis could have handled this job with three times as many cattle by themselves… we were merely observers.)

The horses aided in the drive as well, often getting right up behind recalcitrant steers and “encouraging” movement with a little nip on the rear.

When we eventually got the cattle to a pen (two hour later) we learned the art of cutting in and sorting out specific steer or heifer, using the same basic principals employed while driving en masse.

Four hours later, we dismounted, sweaty and saddle sore, but victorious. We’d moved cattle. Like any true cowboy, Mike tipped his hat and shook hands before walking off to care for his horses, leaving us with a newfound respect for the adventures of the (semi-wild) West.

And of course, for your viewing pleasure – don’t miss one of our favorite cowboy songs below:

This writer’s visit was sponsored by The Resort at Paws Up, but her opinions are solely her own.

Glamping 101: What is “glamorous camping,” exactly?

glamping - photo courtesy of Paws Up

For some, travel is about the adventure – the thrill of seeing new places, the draw of different foods, cultures and activities. Accommodations are simply a place to sleep – budgets are best spent on experiences. I am not one of those travelers.

While all travel experiences have a purpose – business, pleasure, relaxation, a show or specific attraction – all travel, at least for this writer, has the draw of a new home away from home.

Not every hotel or lodging experience can be, or should be expected to be, five-star. But if you’re going to get this writer out into the wilderness, there had better at least be hot water and a functional bathroom.

This explains how I first heard about the term “glamping,” or “glamorous camping.” It turns out, there was such a thing, and it didn’t involve an RV or high heels, Paris Hilton in The Simple Life-style.

Simply put, glamping is a term coined that encompasses outdoor wilderness experiences that are somewhere between a hotel and a traditional campsite. Sure, you’ll sleep in tents, tipis or yurts, but they often have real beds with plush mattresses and en-suite running water.

Although glamping has been derided by hardcore campers and snubbed by some luxury travelers who say they’d “never camp,” the idea has been embraced by many who see the eco-friendly benefits of camping and the budgetary advantages to mixing a traditionally free activity with a more luxe vacation.

Glamping can take place anywhere in the world – usually the more picturesque, the better. Campsites and lodges have opened around the world, usually in locations that have natural attractions to recommend them, including Africa, Australia, and my own recent experience, on the edge of Montana’s Blackfoot River in the newly-opened Pinnacle Camp at Paws Up Resort (shown above).
%Gallery-129797%Here, tents came complete with heated slate floors, towel and sheet warmers, Wi-Fi and a camping butler who served dishes like seared sirloin in Romanesco sauce and huckleberry French Toast. The only cooking I was doing involved roasting some s’mores over a fire (built by our handy butler) … but getting closer to the wilds of nature might not have been possible.

Just feet outside the tent, birds chattered, gophers and marmots frolicked, and fawns sprang around the pasture like overeager rabbits. An eagle soared overhead, trout jumped in the river below, and the air took on a crisp, still quality sweetened with meadow grasses and the fresh, clean smell of unpolluted air.

It may be luxe but it was still nature in its purest, finest form, respected by guests who spent evenings bonding around a campfire, swapping stories while their children ran and played below.

What does one do while glamping? The same thing they’d do while camping or at summer camp. In Africa, the activity of choice is often a safari, but at Paws Up, guests can choose from activities like cattle drives, clay shooting, nature hikes and fly fishing. The emphasis is on family togetherness (most all activities can be done by children 12 and over, and nearly all guests were families) and on learning experiences that take place in the outdoors. Guides for all activities focused equally on fun and education.

Despite the glamorous title, I still felt like I was camping … albeit a lot more comfortably. There wasn’t anything cheap about it – rates for camps start at $820 per night in peak season at Paws Up – but that rate did include airport transfers and three gourmet, multi-course meals for two adults daily.

Stay tuned … I’ll be bringing dispatches in the coming days about cattle driving, the best places for you to get your “glamp” on and more.

The author’s stay was provided courtesy of Paws Up Resort, but her opinions are solely her own.

Photo of the Day – Yellowstone Grizzly Bear

It’s not often you come face to face with a Grizzly Bear, one of nature’s most awesome creatures, but Flickr user JasonBechtel was lucky enough do just that in Yellowstone National Park. Jason’s photo is the perfect moment of nature photography – the streams of water dripping down the bear’s mane and the huge floppy fish in its mouth suggest a shot that was a combination of great timing, skill and likely lots of waiting around! Nice work.

Have any great nature shots from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

How to choose a great dude or guest ranch

dude and guest ranchesHang on, I need to get something out of the way. “City Slickers.” Okay, now that the inevitable has been mentioned, we can move on. Guest ranches–also known as dude ranches–are an excellent choice for a family vacation, regardless of season. Even if it’s just two of you, many ranches cater to couples, ensuring you of an active and romantic holiday.

The guest ranch tradition was established in the Western states as early as the late 19th century. They grew in popularity after the first World War, when advances in technology and the era of the automobile sparked nostalgia for the “Old West” way of life and legendary hospitality. It was also around this time that “dude” ranches spread to the eastern U.S..

While some ranches were and are dedicated to serving tourists, many are working ranches that host guests as a means of supplemental income. My dad worked as a wrangler at one such spread in northern Colorado in the mid-1950’s, when he was putting himself through vet school. Then called UT Bar Ranch, it’s now the Laramie River Ranch, and Colorado’s “newest old dude ranch.” I spent a very enjoyable week there with my extended family for my parents’ 50th anniversary five years ago.

It was the first time I’d stayed long enough at a guest ranch to really get the full experience. Even though I grew up on a ranch, I still love being immersed in the Western lifestyle and participating in ranch activities such as cattle and horse gatherings, trail rides, feeding and care of livestock, and barbecues. When kayaking, canoeing, fishing, hiking, nordic skiing or snowshoeing, horsemanship clinics, mustang/wildlife viewing, pack trips, or even yoga are thrown into the mix, a ranch stay can become a diverse holiday adventure, and you don’t need previous riding experience.

After the jump, tips on how to ensure you choose the right property and get the most out of your guest ranch experience.

%Gallery-128529%dude and guest ranchesFind an online resource
Ranchseeker.com provides a listing of various national and international dude and guest ranch organizations, as well as state associations for Colorado, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, and Wyoming. It also describes the strict criteria required for membership. The Dude Rancher’s Association site is helpful for both potential guests and those in the industry.

Another excellent site is Top 50 Ranches, which is “dedicated to showcasing some of the most breathtaking, authentic, and luxurious [international] ranch destinations.” It also allows you to input dates, destination, and other info, highlights special-interest packages, and offers helpful articles and tips, such as what clothes to pack. American Cowboy’s website has archived features on specific properties, as well as their picks for the best guest ranches, and Writing Horseback has similar content.

Authenticity factor
There’s are all kinds of guest ranches out there, from the hokey, git-along-lil’-doggies, tenderfoot tourist mills (this is just a personal quirk, but I tend to think of these places as “dude,” rather than guest ranches, although that’s not necessarily true).

Some ranches are luxury properties (and may in fact be members of boutique hotel or high-end property organizations such as Relais & Chateaux), while others are very family-oriented, with rustic cabins. Many are working ranches, raising cattle or breeding horses. I strongly recommend the latter, for the most authentic, rewarding experience.

Plan ahead
Guest ranches often book up to a year or more in advance. Plan accordingly.

How long do you plan to stay?
Most guest ranches offer a standard week-long program, says the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association (CDGRA). To get the most out of your visit, you’ll really need that amount of time. Some ranches do, however, offer weekend packages.

Ranch capacitydude and guest ranches
Depending upon where you stay, you might find yourself in the company of only a handful of other people or a hundred. If you’re looking for a quiet or kid-free holiday, be sure to take capacity into account during your research.

Are you looking for luxury or a rustic, refurbished historic cabin? Main house or separate building? Full-on Old West decor, or something a bit more modern or genteel? Mountains or desert? Tipi or luxury safari tent?

Whatever your preference, you’ll find it: Family-style, communal, formal, menu options or no, traditional Western cuisine, kid’s menus, cookouts. Some properties, such as Colorado’s Dunton Hot Springs and The Home Ranch, or Montana’s The Resort at Paws Up are justly famous for their food, made with locally-sourced ingredients. Policies differ on alcohol, as well: be sure to ask whether it’s included, or if you need to BYO.

When to godude and guest ranches
The best thing about guest ranches is that most operate year-round. It’s hard to beat summer in the Rockies, but you may want to consider visiting in the early fall, when the aspens are changing color. Winter allows you to ride horseback in the snow and engage in traditional winter sports, or you can head to parts of the Southwest or California where the climate is mild. Depending upon where you want to go, spring is the only time I’d suggest you think twice about, because “mud season” can be a logistical pain, and blizzards well into April aren’t uncommon.

Activities and special packages
From traditional wrangling work–gathering cattle, roping, and caring for livestock–a ranch vacation revolves around horses and riding. If horses aren’t your thing, this is the wrong type of vacation for you. That said, you don’t have to ride, but you’d be missing out on a key part of the ranch experience. But there are all manner of outdoor activities offered by ranches. If paddling is your primary interest, look for a ranch on or near a river known for its whitewater. Ditto fly-fishing.

Many ranches offer specialty packages; Central California’s Alisal Ranch, for example, hosts a four-day “BBQ Bootcamp” where guests learn how to master the grill from local experts, and enjoy a traditional Santa Maria-style barbecue.

Kid/teen programs
Most ranches are very family-oriented, and I can’t think of a better–or healthier–vacation for kids. Be aware that every ranch has a different age policy, and not all offer kid’s programs or babysitting. You’ll also want to check on minimum age requirements for independent riding.

Level of horsemanship ranch caters to/Can you bring your own horse?
It may sound counter-intuitive to bring your own horse, but if you’re an experienced rider, you may have a more fulfilling holiday and equestrian experience on your own mount (be sure to get referrals, first, to ensure your animal’s health and safety).

Some ranches hold horsemanship clinics, which are as much about educating the animal as the rider. If you’re just planning to pleasure ride but are an experienced equestrian, there are many ranches that breed and train their own animals and emphasize natural horsemanship and the cowboy way of life. Regardless of your skill level, you should always ask detailed questions about instruction, safety policies, how the ranch goes about pairing horses and riders, and their horsemanship philosophy. A poorly-trained mount or injury can really take the fun out of your holiday.

Handicap accessibility
Not all properties have it. Do note that some ranches offer riding programs for those with disabilities.

Phone, wifi, and internet access
Many ranches seek to provide guests with a complete escape from the stresses of modern life. If you can’t live without your cell or computer, rest assured there’s a property that can accommodate your needs.

Pack appropriately
A good ranch will always provide you with a packing list, but you can definitely leave your fancy duds at home. If you don’t own a pair of riding boots or other heavy-duty shoe with a heel, get some (you can find an inexpensive used pair at a consignment or vintage store). These are essential for safe horseback riding, so your foot doesn’t get hung up in a stirrup.

Proximity to a major medical faciilty
If this is a concern for you, definitely bring it up in your initial conversation. Many ranches are located in isolated rural areas.

Cancellation policies
Ask what they are.

How Tourists See Life on a Cowboy Ranch

The Beartooth All American Road opens for its 75th year

The Beartooth All American Road is a drive beyond compareLast fall we introduced you to the Beartooth All American Road, declaring it “America’s Best Drive,” and lauding it for its breathtaking beauty. The road, which passes through the heart of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, begins in Red Lodge, Montana, and passes briefly into Wyoming, before wandering back into Big Sky Country, passing through the sleepy little town of Cooke City, before eventually ending at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Closed from mid-October to mid-May, the Beartooth re-opened for the travel season last weekend – a travel season that will celebrate the 75th year of this iconic highway.

Construction on the road began in 1931, but due to bad weather, it was often suspended for several months each year. Even with those challenges, the 69-mile route was completed in 1934, officially opening on June 14th of that year. At the time, the road was a monument to modern engineering and construction techniques, and it remains an impressive feat to this day.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Beartooth, both Red Lodge and Cooke City have a number of activities on tap. Red Lodge will begin the festivities with a three-day celebration that gets underway on June 10th and runs throughout that entire weekend. The town will play host to a number of historical presentations and walking tours, a free BBQ, driving tours of the highway, and a parade. For a full schedule of events in Red Lodge, click here.

Similarly, Cooke City will also be hosting events to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the scenic highway and its historical roots in mining operations throughout the area. While the town hasn’t completely formalized its plans yet, you can see what they have on tap by clicking here.

If you aren’t able to make any of these celebrations, the Beartooth is always worth the drive any other time this summer as well. It is quite simply one of the most spectacular drives you’ll ever take and you’ll find yourself stopping frequently along the way to snap photos of the amazing scenery. My advice for the best way to experience the road however, is on the back of a bike with Beartooth Bike Tours. If you have the time, there is simply no better way to take in the sights.