On a cool Sunday afternoon in late September I arrived at Covered Wagon Ranch in the Gallatin Valley. Big Sky country was beginning to experience the fall color change in western Montana. Nelly, the teacup pig, worked the grounds of the ranch like a Hoover vacuum cleaner, eating the grass around her. Cowgirls walked by, leading their horses to the barn. I had arrived in horse heaven at a Big Sky, Montana dude ranch and was ready to go horseback riding in Yellowstone Park at Covered Wagon Ranch.
Montana dude ranch close to Yellowstone Park
Where’s the best horseback riding near the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park? Covered Wagon Ranch, just north of Yellowstone National Park in Big Sky, Montana, is a family-owned guest ranch offering fabulous horseback riding in Gallatin Canyon and Yellowstone Park. Established in 1925, this all-inclusive dude ranch gives guests custom-tailored rides, family-friendly dining and five-star hospitality in Big Sky, Montana.
This was not my first visit to this part of Montana. I love it here, near the northwest corner of Yellowstone. The scenery is magnificent, the air is clean and the ranch crew treats you like family. If you are looking for reasons to visit Big Sky and enjoy a digital detox vacation, Covered Wagon Ranch is for you. Personally, I’m always ready to trade my high heels for cowboy boots and polo shirt for a Carhartt’s fleece vest. Once I put on my cowboy hat, I’m able to disconnect from my computer and re-connect with my cowgirl spirit.
“I believe we ride in some of the most beautiful country put on this earth,” said Covered Wagon Ranch owner Kurt Puckett. “We have the best backyard around and we are blessed to call it our home.”
What to expect at a Big Sky Dude Ranch in Montana
With a river running through it, the ranch features 10 historic log cabins, in addition to the Covered Wagon Ranch lodge. The lodge is where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, family-style, unless you choose to go horseback riding all day long. If you select a day ride, you’ll have a lunch packed for you in the morning and you’ll return to Covered Wagon Ranch in time for appetizers and dinner.
The Covered Wagon Ranch is owned by Kurt and Melissa Puckett, along with their two boys. The Montana guest ranch is open from mid-June to the end of October. Montana weather changes frequently. Please refer to my Dude Ranch Montana packing list below for what to bring on a dude ranch vacation in Big Sky.
“This is my seventh year coming to Covered Wagon Ranch,” said Mary Mike Plough of Anderson, Indiana. “I’ve been coming to dude ranches out West for 20 years with my childhood friend Tony Hepfer. When I found CWR I quit looking for other places to horseback ride. I was so impressed with the care and love they give to their horses. The Covered Wagon Ranch has a string of 75 horses all owned by the ranch. Kurt and Melissa are the owners and they fit each person individually with a horse to match their riding ability.
The trail riding is excellent. I have seen bear, moose, elk, deer and eagles here. I never tire of the views we see on horseback. The cabins are rustic, quiet and peaceful. The fireplace in each cabin is a little different; gas or wood. A roaring fire feels good on cold nights. I love sitting by it!
Comfortable is the best way to describe the cabins. We love the old tubs! You can practically swim in them. Great for soaking the days ride away. Then there is the food and gathering of people at night. The experience is so enjoyable. Fresh coffee is always on and homemade cookies are always out; even for late night raids on the lodge!”
“I feel like I am coming home each time I pull in the drive. I love this place and the people here are wonderful.”
Horseback riding in Yellowstone National Park
Horseback riding in Yellowstone Park with Covered Wagon Ranch was a unique experience. There are only a handful of outfitters that have permits for guided overnight back country trips and Kurt is one of those outfitters. Our Yellowstone Park ride started at Black Butte trailhead, off Highway 191 in Montana. Wrangler Sarah Corning led us on a 6 hour ride to Bighorn Peak, gaining 2,500 feet in elevation with Big Sky country views.
We rode on horseback through fields of foxtail grass, lodgepole pine, aspen, fir and willow trees until we arrived at Bighorn Peak. See the top photo for our Big Sky country views.
Horseback riding by Taylor Fork River in Gallatin National Forest
Our second day of our horseback riding vacation had us riding in Gallatin National Forest, a recreation area northwest of Yellowstone National Park. As I mentioned above, guests of Covered Wagon Ranch are very fortunate to have the flexibility to wake up and discuss with Kurt where you’d like to ride, all while eating breakfast fit for a hard working cowboy. Only guests don’t have to wake up early, unless they want to. They certainly don’t have to jingle horses – that’s cowboy slang for rounding up the horses and bringing them back to the barn.
On our trail ride I rode out to Meadow Lake with Wrangler Tirzah Cadacamo, Mary Mike Plough and Tony Hepfer. Both Mary Mike and Tony had been horseback riding in Yellowstone Park and coming to Covered Wagon Ranch for over seven years. They book their horseback riding holiday two years in advance.
We spotted fresh cougar tracks in the wet mud by the shore of the lake and interrupted a beaver at work on the lake. He let us know he was not happy with our presence with an angry slap of his tail on the water.
Meals at Covered Wagon Ranch
Meals at Covered Wagon Ranch are served family-style breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is served from 7:30-8:30 a.m. with horseback rides typically departing at 9 a.m. Breakfast is cooked to order with rotating weekly specials.
A guest application is sent before your horseback riding vacation to access your riding ability and list any dietary restrictions. On my visit, the Covered Wagon Ranch had a jar full of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies, in addition to regular fresh baked cookies. Don’t get me started on the bottomless cookie jars! Kurt caught me with my hand in the cookie jar on more than one occasion.
Guests typically stay Sunday to Sunday, but dates are flexible. The ranch offers Friday night cookouts with live music. Monday nights feature Blues and Brews with locally brewed beers offered complimentary. There’s also an option to attend the West Yellowstone Rodeo, offered nightly Wednesday-Saturday from mid June to the end of August starting at 8:00 p.m.
Be advised that Covered Wagon Ranch is bring your own beverage (byob) except Monday nights. Of course, lemonade, sweet tea, tea, orange juice, hot chocolate and coffee are always available in the lodge.
Plated dinners include offers such as pulled-pork served with brown sugar glazed carrots, macaroni and cheese, homemade rolls and salad or fried chicken with roasted Brussel sprouts, fresh cut French fries and corn on the cob or steak, fish and hamburgers. Desserts include fresh baked pie or cake and don’t forget s’mores around the campfire.
“An absolutely amazing place,” said Lacy Alexander of Lampasas, Texas. “The mountain and canyon views are breathtaking. All of the staff are wonderful. You truly do comes as guests and leave as family. We will definitely be returning in the future.”
Covered Wagon Ranch Molasses Cookie Recipe
¾ cup shortening
¼ cup molasses
2 ¼ cup flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ginger
½ tsp cloves
¼ tsp salt
Mix first three ingredients, then add they dry ingredients. Ball the cookie dough and roll in sugar. Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes.
Kirsten West Covered Wagon Ranch pastry chef. This recipe for molasses cookies is from my family’s cookbook. My aunt Mindy submitted the recipe.
Covered Wagon Ranch activities for non-riders
In addition to horseback riding, Covered Wagon Ranch offers plenty of things to see and do in Big Sky for the non-rider. Benson Point hikes offer canyon views. There’s a hot tub on the ranch and a recreation hall with a pool table, board games, fireplace and library, in addition to an outside play area with swings and teeter-totter.
Don’t forget to purchase your Montana fishing license if you want to go fly fishing for trout on the Taylor Fork creek running through the ranch. The Taylor Fork River, Gallatin River and Madison River also offer blue ribbon trout fishing. Those interested in a cooking class may schedule one in advance. I’ve included the Coverage Wagon Ranch molasses cookie recipe to get you started.
“My wife loves to ride horses, but for the most part, I’m not a rider,” says Scott Myrick of Indian Land, South Carolina. “I may go out one time during the week. Each day as my wife heads out for her daily horseback rides, I have my own excursions. Covered Wagon Ranch is only about 10 miles to Big Sky and only 35 miles to the town of West Yellowstone and the Western entrance into Yellowstone National Park in Montana. This is where I spend most of my time.”
“The Covered Wagon Ranch is very family oriented and the staff are very helpful and courteous. At the ranch the guests are treated like family. The food is great and the family-style seating at meals gives guests the opportunity to meet and talk with one another. We met some great people from all across the United States, as well as other countries. My experience here has been very pleasant and I feel sure that we will return in the future.”
What to expect at Covered Wagon Ranch
There are 10 historic log cabins at Covered Wagon Ranch, each with a private bathroom. Five log cabins have two bedrooms with a queen bed in the front room and two twin beds in the back room. These are ideal for family-friendly vacations, multi-generational travel or girlfriend getaways. Three of the cabins offer propane stoves and seven are heated with wood-burning stoves.
Each morning Kurt meets with the guests during breakfast to determine what type of ride they are expecting. Guests ranch vacations are a minimum of three days, with most guests staying a week or longer. Be advised that Covered Wagon Ranch is a small, family-run guest ranch with a huge percentage of returning guests. The ladies I spoke with book their favorite cabin two years in advance.
The water at Covered Wagon Ranch comes from the Taylor Fork of the Gallatin River. The ranch has a sophisticated filtration system which allows them to provide pure drinking water for guest to consume.
Be aware that Covered Wagon Ranch is in one of the most highly concentrated grizzly bear territories in the state of Montana. In addition to owning the guest ranch, Kurt was a former backcountry outfitter and hunting guide. Consider scheduling a pack trip or overnight excursion through the ranch. You might see elk, white-tailed deer, moose, mule deer, black beer, Grizzly bear, Gray wolf, Bald or Golden Eagles.
Fellow guests from Poland left for an overnight backcountry trip in Big Sky on my last day. The adventure-seeking couple from Warsaw said the trip was well worth the travel time. The ranch came highly recommended to them.
“It was worth flying from Poland to Salt Lake, Utah and driving to Montana.”
What to pack for a Dude Ranch Montana horseback riding vacation
You have decided to go horseback riding in Yellowstone Park at Covered Wagon Ranch. The next question is what to pack for a horseback riding vacation in Big Sky, Montana? Let’s start with a basic dude ranch packing list.
There are two types of riding boots; English boots and Western cowboy boots. Covered Wagon Ranch is a Western dude ranch; you’ll want to pack cowboy boots. I like these boots. It’s important that you leave enough time to properly break in a pair of riding boots, be they English or Western. While hiking boots will do in a pinch, you want a cowboy boot with a heel so that your boot does not slip through the stirrup.
Montana weather changes by the minute; pack layers.
Long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, tank top
Bring a swim suit for the hot tub or jumping in the surrounding lakes and rivers. I’m told that one of the wranglers knows a lot about high mountain lakes in Big Sky country.
Pack jeans, shorts and leggings if you want to do a little yoga or you need stretchy pants from eating one too many cookies. Pointing finger back at self!
Bring a cowboy hat, borrow one from the Covered Wagon Ranch or head into Big Sky or Bozeman for a little retail therapy.
Pack a vest, jean jacket and/or winter jacket. Covered Wagon Ranch supplies rain slickers, a water bottle and saddle bags for your use during your stay. The water bottle is yours to keep.
The Covered Wagon tack shop sells t-shirts, leather riding gloves and rents leather chinks – great for protecting your legs from tree trunks, limbs and bushes when horseback riding in Yellowstone Park or Gallatin Canyon.
There’s also laundry facilities on the ranch; you’ll want to bring your own detergent or pick some up in their shop.
Covered Wagon Ranch is a family-owned and operated guest ranch in Big Sky with only 10 log cabins. From my visit, it was clear that the ranch gets a large percentage of its business from return guests. You’ll want to book early if you plan to come with several families or friends. Try and get some saddle time in before you depart for Montana if you plan to enjoy several all-day trail rides. For additional insider tips follow luxury travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown
If You Go:
Covered Wagon Ranch (800) 995-4237 or (406) 995-4237 www.coveredwagonranch.com
Gallatin Canyon, Montana
Review of Covered Wagon dude ranch, Montana, YouTube video and photography by equestrian travel expert Nancy D. Brown. Note: thank you to Visit Big Sky for arranging my stay. All views above are, as always, my own.