This summer, my children, mother, and I discovered that the absolute best way to spend a family vacation is to experience the beauty, history, lifestyle, and western hospitality of "Big Sky Country" at Circle Bar Ranch!
All opinions are of the author. The author and her family were provided a complimentary stay to facilitate this review.
Circle Bar Ranch, the exceptional all-inclusive Montana dude ranch, is the PERFECT authentic western-style, activity-filled, family vacation destination.
What is a "dude ranch," you ask? A dude ranch is a guest ranch that offers traditional ranch-type recreational activities like horseback riding and hiking to vacationing families.
Dude ranches came into existence in the late 1800s, when western ranches began allowing guests from the East Coast and Midwest to experience life on a ranch and "play cowboy" for a time.
In 1890, the land where Circle Bar Ranch is currently located was claimed, and the cattle and horse brand "S Lazy Four Bar" was established as one of the earliest "brands" in Montana. In 1904, the ranch procured a hotel license so that it could offer meals, lodging, and recreational activities. And in 1920, Circle Bar Ranch was officially born.
The two-hour scenic drive from the nearest airport to Circle Bar Ranch in Hobson/Utica, Montana, situated adjacent to the Judith River on 500 acres at the base of the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest, is part of the adventure.
Once there, you are welcomed and shown to your quaint and cozy historic cabin, your home for the duration of your stay. Then, worry about nothing as your all-inclusive vacation in beautiful Montana begins. By the end of your stay, your fellow travelers will feel like family, you and your family will not want to leave, and you will understand why the western cowboy way of life has been so romanticized in our culture.
Here are my top ten reasons why you should book a visit to Circle Bar Ranch!
1. If You Would Love a Stress-Free Vacation Where the Planning is Done for You
Leave your wallet in your suitcase as everything is included at Circle Bar Ranch — all meals, all activities, and all equipment. You can also leave the planning to them — one doesn't have to think about where or what to eat, as every meal is prepared by an excellent chef and you are served with your fellow guests at a long table in the lodge. At dinner, your host will place signup sheets for the next day's activities and you can choose any activities in which you want to participate.
UTV Touring in the Lewis and Clark National Forest
2. If You Want a Fun, Guided, Activity-Filled Vacation for Family Members of All Ages
The guided activities are wonderful and so much fun — no two days are the same! We were able to participate in most activities, as there were multiple choices for everyone in our group. Horseback riding is certainly the focus, and Circle Bar does it right, so plan to spend a lot of time riding if that is your thing! Other activities include guided hikes through nearby forests, mountains, and streams, UTV tours to further scenic locations with a stop at a historically significant cabin from the 1800s, e-bike tours, archery, and shooting.
Activity Sign-Up Time!
MAC KID TIP: Make sure you check the website for packing tips, but from our experience, it is important to bring layers, a lot of pants, and water shoes for the hikes! And the ranch does not have laundry facilities, so plan accordingly.
3. If You Want to Try, or Already Love Horseback Riding
The main focus of any dude ranch is horseback riding. Circle Bar Ranch is home to 60 delightful horses, and the seasoned wranglers are experts at matching guests with a wonderful horse most suitable to one's age and level of experience (during our stay there were children as young as eight years old riding trails along with guests in their 80s), and usually the matched horse will become "yours" during your stay. My kids really bonded with Echo and Big Enuf. And I was ready to take Smiling Jack home with me. Meet at the big red picturesque historic barn at the designated time for your ride.
Echo and Smiling Jack
Circle Bar offers a variety of rides each day so that each ride you choose offers a different experience. In addition to the various scenic rides through graceful pastures, gorgeous mountain trails, and streams, a couple of times a week Circle Bar offers a ride to a ridge with panoramic views where they provide a delicious breakfast outdoors — ours included a nice selection of food including the most delicious and hearty bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast burritos.
Riding through a pasture on our way to breakfast on the ridge
One of the highlights of our trip was a morning cattle drive where we helped the wranglers move the cattle from a far-off pasture into a corral. And for the more advanced riders, a fast ride is also offered. Private lessons are also available for a small fee.
Tubing on the Judith River
4. If You Love Free-Time While Having Plenty of Options for Things to Do
Whether you choose to participate in the morning and/or structured activities or not, you will likely still have some free time in both the mornings and afternoons. Some options to fill that time include:
- Tubing on the slow-moving Judith River (tubes are available for guest use).
- Playing basketball on the top floor of the gigantic red barn.
Shooting hoops in the barn
- Relaxing in a hammock.
- Visiting the resident animals.
- Catching up on reading on your cabin porch.
- Playing a card game, putting together a puzzle, or shooting a game of pool in the lodge.
- Fishing for trout in cascading streams (fishing equipment is available).
Hanging with the Barn Cats
5. If You Love Perfect Weather, Spending Family Time in the Great Outdoors, and Bountiful Wildlife
At 5000 feet in elevation, Circle Bar Ranch offers the best of Montana’s weather, with warm days and perfectly crisp nights, ideal for all of the time we spent having fun outdoors enjoying the stunning scenery, and engaging in the many activities offered. And, in addition to the horses, cows, and barn cats who live on the ranch (with whom my children were obsessed), we encountered antelope, foxes, coyotes, chipmunks, and many other small critters — the kids were delighted!
Hiking in the mountains
6. No Crowds! No Stores!
Circle Bar Ranch has a 34-guest limit, so there are never crowds or lines to contend with. There is also nowhere to shop on or near the ranch, but your family will be so busy no one will notice.
MAC KID TIP: BRING SOMETHING LEATHER for the wranglers to “brand” with the Circle Bar brand! We branded our old cowboy boots and it is the best souvenir ever!
The ranch does have great denim cowboy-style shirts and baseball caps available for purchase if you desire ranch souvenirs, but if you need to purchase gifts or supplies, your best bet is at the airport or in the town where you choose to fly in/out. There is one very small market/bar somewhat nearby, but the selection of items is very limited, so do not rely on this.
Exploring and being silly
7. If You’ve Always Dreamed of a (Mostly) "Unplugged" Vacation Where Your Kids Can Play in Wide Open Spaces and Explore Streams and Trails Without Worry
Leave the devices at home, or don’t! There is no cell service, and Wi-Fi is available only in the cabins and in the lodge, so if you need to connect, you can, but it is easy to forget about your devices and just enjoy the ranch together.
We each connected for only about 5 -10 minutes each night before succumbing to the most restful, fresh air-induced sleep. And, because there is nothing nearby (and I mean nothing — the closest town is about 45 minutes away!), only ranch and guest vehicles (which were rarely driven), and a limited number of guests, we felt very comfortable and safe with the kids roaming around and exploring, within earshot of course, which was magical.
Sunset by the campfire
8. If You Want to Make New Friends Over Meals and Nightly Campfires
If you so desire, this is a vacation where your family will bond with fellow travelers of all ages (from families to retired couples) and make new friends during activities, meal times in the lodge, and during the nightly campfires. We were lucky enough to make some lovely new friends from England who we plan to see again next year!
MAC KID TIP: Bring marshmallows for roasting!
Lunch, Ranch style!
9. And Speaking of Food...
When the chef rings the meal bell, it’s time to gather in the lodge for a truly delicious meal (breakfast, lunch, and dinner are provided) where you will eat like a cowboy while getting to know your fellow travelers.
The food is varied and incredible with healthful and hearty options, as you will have quite the appetite after your day outdoors. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style, and dinner is served plated. The ranch also provides snacks (and sometimes fresh baked cookies), coffee, and cold drinks in the lodge in between meal times.
MAC KID TIP: The ranch does not serve alcohol, so if you are partial to a glass of wine or a beer with dinner or for enjoying around the campfire, be sure to stop and purchase some when you arrive in Montana.
Home for the week
10. If You Have Always Dreamed of Staying in a Cozy Historic Cabin
Circle Bar Ranch offers a variety of lodging options from comfortable lodge rooms to cozy, free-standing historic log cabins of all sizes, all of which are unique. Because we were traveling with extended family, we stayed in the wonderful and well-equipped Ranch House that included a small kitchen with a refrigerator and sink, and a wood pellet burning stove. Other cabins offer fireplaces and a variety of sleeping options.
MAC KID TIP: While more food than you would need is offered, it was nice to have a few of the kids’ preferred snacks in the cabin refrigerator for downtime, so again, be sure to stop in the town where you fly in to purchase a few items if you so desire.
You have to put Circle Bar Ranch on your family's travel list!
The ranch is open from late May through September and can be busy, so make sure you book early (and tell them you read about them on Macaroni KID!). Late August-September slows down a bit, so if your kids don't return to school until mid-September, this is a great time to go!
My family truly had one of our best vacations ever at the Circle Bar Ranch — it was perfect!
Part of The Dude Ranchers' Association, Circle Bar Ranch is one of over 90 dude ranches across the western U.S. and Canada offering an all-inclusive vacation experience like no other destination. Member ranches endure a rigorous inspection and approval process that ensures guests are treated to genuine western hospitality combined with the lodging industry’s highest standards.