Yellowstone Country Maps

Click Photo Above For Yellowstone Country Map!

The sky is enormous. Everyone you meet is your host. All around are the fresh smells of alfalfa, evergreen trees, and a bit of horse manure. Well, that's how I picture Paradise, anyway.

Paradise is what you'll find in "Yellowstone Country," the agricultural valleys of southwestern Montana (info at and With the new "agri-tourism" offerings from Montana Bunkhouses, today visitors have the opportunity to experience the ranching life for a few days (or weeks), arriving as guests and departing as friends.

Click For The Carriage House

The "Cowboy Penthouse" is a
comfortable apartment inside
Carriage House Ranch's
enormous horse barn. (Click photo.)

At Carriage House Ranch, we were served a marvelous pot-luck meal in the kitchen/dining facility built into the huge steel barn. After dinner we were given a quick demonstration of wagon driving by co-owner John Haller. He took a one-horse buggy through a short slalom course of yellow pylons to show us how to maneuver precisely. As these ranch vacations are designed for hands-on enjoyment, I was offered the reins next. I didn't knock any cones over, but my wheels got pretty intimate with one of them. Then young Josh Richert, member of a neighboring ranch family, showed us some fancy moves with a rope lariat. Wow! These skills aren't just for show, as I would see later.

The community pot-luck reminded me of something: do you know your neighbors? The ranch families I met in the Yellowstone River Valley live miles apart, but they know one another. They have to. Ranches here are subject to the vagaries of weather, government policy, the market, and even predator dangers, and they depend on one another for mutual support. They live a challenging but rewarding existence.

Hard-working Ken & Donna
Laubach stop for a photo at
their scenic Yellowstone River ranch.

The next morning, at the Laubach Ranch where I was staying, I helped Ken Laubach adjust the small dams that control irrigation in his pastures. He explained the system of water rights that originated in the 1800s and still exists today: each ranch gets a certain allotment from the Yellowstone River according to its acreage. Water is so important to their hay crops and pastures that violations of others' water rights is a serious matter: "In years past, people have been shot for taking more than their share," said Ken.

Around here, "A.I." stands for artificial insemination, not artificial intelligence. The rancher's smarts are very real and hard-earned. Ken and his son Marvin had recently disassembled and rebuilt the engine on their tractor. Their equipment works as hard as they do and has to last a long time.

Next we drove over to a neighboring ranch. "Matt's out hayin' today," said Ken. Matt, the owners' son, was operating the hay baler. He is an old friend of Ken's son, and he stopped to visit with Ken for a minute: "Is Marvin out stackin'?" You won't hear questions like that in the city. Yes, Marvin was driving the Laubachs' tractor in their hay field, grasping the huge cylindrical bales with a front-end implement and loading them onto a trailer to be stacked until the Laubachs fed them to their cattle in the winter. The rest of us were headed to Cowboy Church.

Let's Bale Hay

Under a summer sun, this is one
church where you keep your hat on.

Most ranches in this area have switched from the older rectangular hay bales to the large cylindrical ones (what, didn't you know that?), but the rectangular ones make great pews. We sat on bales beside the creek and sang "Amazing Grace" as several of our hosts played guitars and violins. Rancher Terry Terland conducted the informal service and compared Christ's protection of his flock of believers to the dedication of today's ranchers. He also read a passage from Jack Terry's "The Great Trail Ride" describing the courage and loyalty of American cowboys, who often risked their own lives to protect their bosses' livestock. "They rode for the brand," Terry said.

Did I mention the ranch stays are a hands-on experience? After church we got a closer look at the hay-baling operation. Guest Miki, from Tokyo, Japan, drove the tractor under Matt's tutelage: she gathered up several rows of mown hay with the towed baler and then released the cylindrical bale behind the tractor. Comparing her creation to sushi, we called it a "Miki roll."

With that, it was time for lunch.

Cultural History Photo Tour

Click photo For A Grand Hotel Time

The Grand Hotel offers historic small-town charm, and great food.
(Click photo for the Grand Hotel.)

For a Big Timber Photo
Tour Click Here

The historic Grand Hotel was built in 1890 in the nearby town of Big Timber. Before enjoying a delicious lunch in the dining room, we looked at some wonderful black-and-white photographs by local artist Barbara Van Cleve. At the Crazy Mountain Museum, lifelong resident Betty Jarrett gave us a sense of the area's family history. How many places have sixth- and seventh-generation ranches and businesses? The museum featured lots of old photos, many showing ancestors of the folks we were meeting on our visit. Rancher Leo Cremer showed me his great-grandfather's ornate saddle from his days as a rodeo producer. "I feel like a newcomer, since I'm only fourth generation," Leo grinned.

Is it okay to yell "Play!" in a crowded firehouse? In the nearby town of Livingston, we saw an old-fashioned Vaudeville performance at the Firehouse 5 Playhouse. Re-established here in 1990, it featured eight enthusiastic singers, many of them local kids from the university in Bozeman. Their musical skits ranged from moderately serious (four ladies harmonizing "Don't Fence Me In") to hilariously absurd (an English dungeon scene with really bad Cockney accents). This theater survives in the rural area because so many people, from Bozeman to Billings, know the performers personally.

The boys regale us with an Irish
drinking song. Click images below
for Firehouse 5 photo tour.

The Troupe Culture Discovered
The Firehouse Plays Seasonally
"Livingston: 14 Galleries, 3 Stoplights." So said a flyer promoting the latest art exhibit. The downtown district is a delight for window shoppers. We dined at Rumours after getting a nice walking tour from Saundra, daughter of rancher Karen Searle. Saundra gave me an idea of the extensive training required for horses: "A show horse needs to move slowly and keep its head down. Our ranch horses like to put their heads up and just go." At age 14, this capable young lady has broken her own horse. That's the rural equivalent of your son's dismantling the family car and reassembling it without any extra parts left over.

Remember those rope tricks? Around here, they aren't just tricks. Next morning, Marvin got a lasso around a calf's ankles on the first try, while Leo Cremer got his around the same animal's neck. While they held the ailing calf in place, Ken injected medicine. Most of the Laubachs' calves had been born in February, but they had three April calves that still needed to be branded. One by one, the lassos grabbed the animals, and I took a turn with the hot iron. The smell of singed beef was making me hungry. It was time to eat again, but only after a pickup tour of the Cremers' sprawling cattle ranch in the hills. We discussed the plight of American family agriculture in today's global economy as the truck bounced over the bumps. Out here, people buy four-wheel-drives for a reason!

Crazy Mountain Photo Tour

The show saddle of Leo Cremer I
is on display at the Crazy Mountain
Museum in Big Timber.

Ken and Donna Laubach live on a delightful ranch of hay fields and cow pastures beside the Yellowstone River. They operate Cottonwood Meadows, a river-front camping area available to guests. Our group had a nice picnic there while local resident Helen Pedula told us of Lewis and Clark's historic journey, which began in 1803 and brought them through this valley in 1806. William Clark detoured from the main route of the return journey to explore this area. I suspect it was he who coined the real-estate phrase "location, location, location."

Okay, so not everything is old-fashioned here. At the Crazy Mountain Cattle Company, we herded a flock of sheep to new pastures on "Japanese quarterhorses." (Hint: they had four wheels and read "Kawasaki" on the sides.) What fun! Since saddling a horse takes time, these four-wheelers are better for short trips. The ranch is owned by Karen Searle and Rick Jarrett. Rick's grandchildren, aged seven and four, rode horses during the drive, as did Saundra. Rick had gotten a bit choked up with pride while telling me of the kids' ability to ride and help move livestock: "They learn early on that they are valued and needed, and they build strong self-esteem." He was much more stoic in describing the problem of wolves threatening their beloved Great Pyrenees sheepdogs. The dogs faithfully protect the flock from coyotes, but wolves are now moving beyond the confines of Yellowstone National Park, where they were recently reintroduced and are doing far better than anyone expected. Over a delicious lamb dinner that evenin
g, Rick explained the situation quite matter-of-factly: "When the wolves come, and they will, they will kill the Pyrenees."

(<<< Click Ken, left, for a fish yarn.) Fly-fishing! That beautiful river beside the Laubach Ranch isn't just for scenery. Ken and I teased the trout for a couple hours the next morning as the sun warmed the valley. The fish weren't really biting, but I was happy just to learn that I hadn't forgotten how to roll-cast. Ken hooked one fish, but I never got a bite. That was okay; I mostly wanted some exercise before we headed into Big Timber for a healthy breakfast of Montana huckleberry milkshakes at Cole's Drugstore and Fountain.

Cooney Ranch Photo Tour

The K-W Mill serves the Yellowstone
Valley from its historic
building in Big Timber.

Our bellies full, we did what most people do after a meal - we headed for the hardware store. There we visited with the owner and gained further insight into the interdependence of the ranchers and local businesses. Later, at the K-W Mill, owner Paula showed us the old building dating from 1910, its thick timber walls designed to hold tons of grain brought from nearby farms. Her antique rolling-mill machines grind, blend, and bag the grains to provide animal feed for the local ranches. She said other mills in western Montana had closed and that if her old equipment breaks and can't be repaired, her mill will have to close as well, since the cost of replacement would be prohibitive.

Next we visited the local wool warehouse beside the railroad tracks. Once the busiest wool shipping point in the country, this warehouse moved as much as a million pounds of wool per year, but with cheaper imported wool dominating today's market, it currently ships about 80,000 pounds. The brick walls are adorned with the painted names of employees dating back to 1908. Cinnabar Creek, a nearby gift shop, had local crafts, clothing, and books about Montana and ranch life. I was struck by one title in particular: "Too Poor to Move, but Still Rich." Given that the wealth of ranchers and businesses is tied up in their property, this described their life pretty well.

The LC Catle Company Tour
Click Photo Above For LC Cattle
Company Tour, and Photo
Below For Cayuse Ranch Tour.

The Cayuse Ranch Tour
Click Below To See The Sheepherders Wagons At The Cooney Ranch!

Stay In A Chuckwagon
Your stay at one (or more) of these ranches is neither a bed-and-breakfast vacation nor a dude ranch holiday. There is a range of lodging choices, from the ranchers' own guest rooms to secluded cabins in the hills. Eating with the ranch families is an option, or you can cook your own vittles. All the ranches are real-life operations, and you can partake in as much or as little ranching activity as you like. Dress for work and/or play, but leave the fancy clothes at home. Prices are quite reasonable - especially considering the view from your room.

If you're an avid fish-teaser, a stay in the Laubachs' RV (or your own) by the river at Cottonwood Meadows or in a cabin at Cayuse Livestock Company may be the perfect choice. If chasing cows on horseback is your thing, the Range Riders Ranch may be just the ticket. If horse training interests you, check out Carriage House Ranch. Or try Crazy Mountain Cattle Company for riding or the annual spring lambing season. LC Cattle Company offers feeding, branding, and calving, as well as autumn hunting near their rustic cabins (hunting info at Or enjoy a genuine chuck-wagon dinner and sleep under the stars at the Richert Ranch. These activities are subject to the weather, so come prepared to change plans and clothing. This list is by no means all-inclusive; call 406/932-6719 or check out for more information. By the way, the 7% "bed tax" levied on rooms in the state goes to the non-profit organization that provides information to the public about these ranch stays. No one likes such taxes, but this one is put to good use.

Montana is a paradise to hunters,
but you'll need a big rifle.

Big Timber is home to C. Sharps Arms, Inc., manufacturer of high-quality replicas of the famous Sharps rifles from the 1870s. These guns are gorgeous, with polished walnut stocks and blued steel octagonal barrels. They reportedly are excellent hunting rifles for horseback trips, but I wouldn't carry them a long way on foot; the heaviest model weighs about eighteen pounds.

What's a ranch vacation without a few saddle sores? We had a blast moving a herd of heifers from the Terlands' Range Riders Ranch up the Bridger Creek Valley to the proverbial greener pastures. As my steed galloped across the meadows and climbed sure-footedly up and down the dusty hillside trails, I had the "Magnificent Seven" theme playing in my head. My humming must not have been good, because the horse deliberately went under some very low tree branches. Steve and Sheryl Richert's ranch is nearby, and at day's end Sheryl served dinner outdoors from a real chuckwagon built by Steve. That night some of us slept in the cozy ranch house, while the rest "roughed it" on cots around the fire pit. If you're not sleeping under the stars once in a while, you're missing out.

Cooney Brothers Ranch has
a comfortable guest house big
enough for a large family.

The Cooney Brothers Ranch is a sprawling hay and cattle ranch with the area's last remaining "cookhouse" for ranch hands. Guests can stay in the ranch house or in a large, modern home at the far side of the property. The only "roughing it" aspect to this guest house is the bumpy gravel access road. (Try it in the back of a pickup for extra "character points.") The seclusion is wonderful, and the view is spectacular in all directions.

Ever seen a triple-length picnic table? I hadn't either until I visited the WD Ranch. Their kitchen feeds a large number of ranch hands, whose help they share with the nearby Cooney and Green ranches. Their neighbor, Carolyn Green, still runs a one-woman business in high-grade wool ( and registered Targhee sheep breeding stock.

After a great outdoor lunch prepared by co-owners Paul and Ellie Hawks, we heard some great ranching stories from WD co-owner Bill Donald, Ellie's brother. He told us a joke about a struggling wheat farmer forced by his banker to grow watermelons, since wheat prices were so awful: the farmer reluctantly switched, made a ton of cash on the melon crop, and gleefully exclaimed, "With all this money I can afford to grow wheat again next year!" Bill chuckled over his jibe at Montana farmers: "We don't cotton to change too good." I wonder if they ever change to cotton...

People from miles around attend
services and community activities
at the old Melville Church.

The historic Melville Church houses the oldest Lutheran congregation in Montana, dating to 1885. The current church, built in 1914, sits among hay fields far from anyone's home, and despite its seclusion in the sparsely populated area, it is a center of gravity for the community. Another meeting place is Big Sky Corner, a store and lunch counter along the nearest highway. It was made famous, so the story goes, when Robert Redford used its pay phone in the movie "The Horse Whisperer." The phone didn't work when I tried to make a call, but inside at the lunch counter, the cherry turnovers worked just fine.

Our final dinner was held at the Sanders Ranch, where host Lynn Sanders prepared "pitchfork fondue" from his wife Julie's recipe. The steaks, cooked in a huge pot of canola oil over a fire, were delicious, if not overly dietetic. Oh well, we'd been working hard all day, right? Neighbors from all over the valley attended, and we all mingled in the lovely old ranch house and outside in the large yard. Time really flew, and soon I would have to as well. After nightfall, we guests reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed back to our host ranches for one more peaceful night's sleep in Paradise.

Book A Bunk In a Bunkhouse
The rancher's way of life may be a dying one, depending on what the future brings to these warm and hospitable people. It was a treat to see their traditions, appreciate their hard work, and be part of their families for a brief spell. Next time your kids (or anyone else) ask you, "Where does hamburger come from?" you have the opportunity to show them, not just tell them. After you return to your modern, urban life, you'll long remember that for a few fun-filled days, you rode for the brand in Yellowstone Country.

By Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.

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