In the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains, in north-west Wyoming, flanking an aspen-fringed creek, lies a collection of wooden cabins and an earthern-floored corral. Over a bridge, along the stream or up the switchbacks from the corral, tracks lead into the high desert. High above lie the fringes of the vast Shoshone National Forest, where several hundred Black Angus cattle spend the summer alongside grizzly bears and wolves.
The infamous Butch Cassidy knew this land, and kept a hideout deep in a wooded ravine nearby, ready for him to escape the wrath of Montana sheriffs after another robbery. He looked out across sagebrush and grassland that is now open to riders from around the world, drawn to this lonely, beautiful stretch of countryside.
This unassuming yet comfortable place is the Bitterroot Ranch, the domain of the Fox family, headed by the venerable patriarch Bayard, whose stories of derring-do in the mountains, not to mention on his country’s service around the world, never fail to entertain. His intrepid wife Mel, son Richard and daughter-in-law Hadley complete the quartet that leads guests on adventures to find errant cattle, mountain-lion tracks or Butch Cassidy’s cabin.
Bitterroot is the cream of the ranch holidays crop. No ride is the same twice, with myriad routes to choose from: up to Lion’s Head rock for a picnic, through steep ravines, to the bentonite mounds for a gallop (ancient volcanic ash, a perfect surface to go up a gear but treacherously slippery when wet), and past lush creeks of aspen and willow, always with spectacular views of the snow-capped Wind River Mountains in the distance.
My cabin was a cosy affair, named Cottonwood after the trees just outside. Toasty warm, with its thick wooden walls, it was snug even when a thunderstorm raged with such force that it sounded as if giants were having a fist fight just outside, sheet lightning illuminating the valley and rain pounding on the roof. In the heat of summer, I read the whole of Game of Thrones sitting on the deck outside with a cool drink after riding, before meandering over to the main lodge for drinks and feasts of ranch-fed beef.
But the horses are the thing at the Bitterroot. On a flat plateau above the ranch, nearly 200 horses graze together amid sparkling irrigation streams, charging down to the corral below for their daily work. Gentle giant Nevada, the white Percheron; flighty, beautiful bay Arab Narok; Richard’s giant ‘purple monster’ Gannet; gentle palomino Aztec, known as the School Bus; ancient paint Injun and his skinny grey Arab girlfriend Baskatrina; spotty trio Lakota, Millie and Marcus; nervous dun Hondo, frequently led astray by his friend Ranger; dozens of glossy chestnut Arabs, whose floating stride is a delight when cantering along the sagebrush paths; and a coterie of cheeky Welsh Mountain ponies.
There are two rides a day, with a picnic ride on Saturdays, and such is the choice of horses that each guest can be matched to one that suits their desire, whether it be for speed or steadiness.
Mel and Hadley are elegant riders whose insightful advice is always welcome, whether you’re using English tack on the cross-country course or competing in team-sorting, a classic cowboy game where teams of four move cattle from one end of an arena to another, one by one and in a particular order. Riotous fun, for competitors and spectators, the latter often including Arab yearlings bred on the ranch, who would poke long, soft, inquisitive noses over the fence in rapt attention.
It doesn’t matter how much riding you’ve done before, the landscape will stir the spirit of adventure in everyone, and for those longing for a true cowboy experience, the spring and fall round-ups offer long days in the saddle and the heartening satisfaction of doing a proper Western job.
If you want to develop your equestrian techniques, clinics are held throughout the summer, and courses in natural horsemanship offer the chance to connect with your horse on a near-mystical level.
The town of Dubois, 45 minutes away down a 17-mile dirt track, has rodeos on Friday nights and square dancing on Tuesdays, there’s excellent fly-fishing and even yoga retreats for people seeking inner and outer peace, but for me, the chief delight was sitting on the plateau above the ranch at dusk, watching the horses graze and the sun set above a landscape barely touched by the hand of Man.
Bitterroot Ranch, Dubois, Wyoming, USA (001 800 545 0019; www.bitterrootranch.com)
Images courtesy of Octavia Pollock