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  Experiences >> Cowboy Country


Wyoming, Idaho and Montana offer spectacular scenery, uncrowded slopes and an impressive level of luxury. So saddle up, ‘cause there’s nothing quite like skiing in the Wild West.

WORDS Hilary Doling

t the Million Dollar Saloon in Jackson, Wyoming, they use saddles instead of seats and serve steaks the size of half a buffalo. This is cowboy country with a capital ‘C’. Look at Jackson on a map and it’s a hole carved out of mountains thick with pine trees. The kind of place you imagine outlaws hiding to avoid the sheriff in Wyoming’s wilder days. Australian skiers heading to the US have traditionally sought out Colorado but there is a lot to be said for the lesser known delights of Cowboy Country in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming – especially when in most cases the ski slopes are only a one-flight, short hop from LA.

Our whole family is in love with Sun Valley. Skiing here is like skiing at your own exclusive ski club because the Sun Valley ski facilities are so luxurious.

Adventurous skiers and boarders head to Bald Mountain. One evening I took a tour on the giant snowcat groomers so I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that these are some of the finest groomed slopes in the world. As well as perfect corduroy, the steep slopes (“our blues are navy, our blacks are blacker”) also have a consistent pitch. As my snowboarding son put it: “no flat bits, Hurrah!” The lifts are impressively high speed, so no waiting in line either, but frankly there wouldn’t be anyway – Idaho has one of the smallest populations of any US state, so there aren’t exactly hoards of locals storming the slopes.

However, luxury-lovers in the know do come here, and have since the days of old Hollywood glamour when Sun Valley was THE place to be seen, long before that upstart Aspen got a look in. Sun Valley even featured the world’s very first chairlift when it opened in 1936. A sense of history is everywhere. One evening we take the chairlift up to the iconic octagonal Roundhouse Restaurant, built in 1939, and enjoy a brisk sleigh ride to the Trail Creek log cabin.

All the mountains and base lodges are beautiful with open fires, comfortable chairs and exposed wooden beams but Seattle Ridge, atop Bald Mountain, also has mesmerising views across the wild Pioneer and Sawtooth Mountains.

Learners even have their own area over on Dollar Mountain, the other side of town, where gentler slopes encourage confidence. Lack of crowds means that ski classes are small and your child may well end up having a private lesson by default. Either way our son votes Sun Valley instructors the best of any he had during the trip.

Getting around is so easy that my 13-year- old enjoyed boarding the shuttle bus by himself to get from Dollar to Bald Mountain and was disappointed when we met him at the bus stop because it meant he couldn’t sneak off and spend the last of his holiday dollars on “the world’s best hot chocolate” at the À la Mode Icecream & Cocoa bar in the Sun Valley Resort village. The best place to stay is the swanky and elegant Sun Valley Lodge where Hemingway wrote ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and Gretchen’s restaurant serves the heartiest ski breakfast imaginable. The adjoining condominiums have plenty of space for five star families complete with plush kitchens. And just in case you wondered, the resort is indeed known for its sunny days – the sun shone every day of our January visit, except one, when it snowed. Perfect.


Lead image: Snow cowboy
Above top: The beautiful view from inside Sun Valley lodge
Above bottom: Old poster from Sun Valley

Of the three ski resorts we visit, Jackson Hole is the name that has the most recognition back home. Just south of Yellowstone National Park on the edge of the mighty Teton Range, Jackson Hole definitely has the steeps; it is one of the birthplaces of extreme skiing in the US. On our first day we ride the ten-person tram to the top of Rendezvous Mountain just to see the view and watch the experts plummeting through the bowls and shutes and down the legendary – and terrifying – Corbet’s Couloir. Wisely my son opts to take the tram back down rather than ski.

Luckily we find plenty of runs we do want to experience and the family loved the variety of terrain parks, the tracks through the trees, as well as the wide open higher slopes.

Downtown Jackson, with its wooden sidewalks and frontier feel, is 19 kilometres (12 miles) down the mountain and a fun place to visit but we stayed at the luxurious Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa right in the mountain village. As we check-in a little boy wanders into the lobby in a whole Sheriff Woody from ‘Toy Story’ cowboy outfit but most kids are swathed in warmer gear, clunking around in their mini ski boots and helmets. The views from the lodge’s rooftop hot tub are stunning and the Spur Restaurant & Bar is a favourite hangout for locals who know good food when they taste it. Not to be missed is a visit to the Elk Sanctuary just outside the town of Jackson – a magical experience for children, where horse-drawn sleighs will take them right into the middle of herds of wild, antlered elk.


Above: Break time at Jackson Hole

From top: Kids getting instruction at Jackson Hole
Snowy horses and scenic mountains at
Jackson Hole.

As we drive up the winding pass, Lone Mountain at Big Sky, Montana, looks exactly like a child’s drawing; a perfect triangular peak with an ice-cream dollop of snow on the top. Big Sky is aptly named. Not only because of its wide blue skies but because it is, well, big with 150 trails and over 1200 skiable hectares. Twin it with the connecting slopes of Moonlight Basin next door and it rivals the mighty Vail for size. We stay slope-side at the 10-storey condominium hotel, The Summit, where you can see the ski trails right outside your window.

Big Sky’s blues are mellow, its trails meandering and enjoyable for families to ski, while off the lone peak tram (built with the aid of 3000 helicopter flights and hundreds of specialist high-altitude workers) there is enough tricky terrain for the most advanced skier.

Skiing and boarding aside, Base Camp in the Mountain Village is kids’ central when it comes to other activities. There is a zipline, high ropes course, laser tag, bungee trampoline, climbing wall, giant swing and tube park; which should keep everyone happy. Too cold for outdoor fun? The slope-side Huntley Lodge has free family movies most nights.

Bordering Big Sky is the Yellowstone Club, a private ski hill serving the needs of its fabulously wealthy residents including Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake and Ted Turner who has a ranch in the state. On our last day we ski along the fence line and dream of holidaying in a zillion-dollar private lodge.

We chose to drive between the three resorts we skied which was one of the most memorable parts of our trip. With the car radio serenading us with Country and Western songs, we drove through the flat snow-blanketed plains of Idaho, across the pass into the hole of Jackson and skirted Yellowstone National Park on our way to the vast mountain-ringed wonderland of Montana. The scenery, as much as the skiing, was a highlight of the holiday. What’s more, the kids didn’t say “are we there yet?” once. A minor Montana miracle in itself.

Sun Valley Lodge 
Teton Mountain Lodge & Spa
The Summit
Jackson Hole
Big Sky


If skiing isn’t quite your thing, there is another quintessentially American way to experience cowboy country. ‘Dude’ ranches have been enticing eastside city slickers to marvel at the great outdoors for over a century. Modern ranches now welcome visitors from the world over and feature luxury interiors, fine dining and even spas. Here are five of the best family-friendly ranches in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana for a five-star (or million-star) Wild West holiday.

The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch, Shell, Wyoming

If you want a true Western experience, you can’t go past the working ranch that is The Hideout Lodge & Guest Ranch. Whether you’ve ridden horses every day since childhood or only once in your life, you’ll be welcome at the Flitners’ ranch. Set on over 60,000 hectares of stunning scenery in the Big Horn Mountains, guests are encouraged to get in and help with the cattle work; with just 25 guests staying at one time, there is a lot to be done. During school holidays, children are welcome and cherished at The Hideout but you won’t find any kids’ programs here. This is a chance for junior to ride with mum and dad from the canyons to the mountains. At night, gather round for the ranch’s famous cookouts or enjoy a hearty meal after a relaxing spa treatment to prepare yourself for the coming day’s ride.    

The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch, Saratoga, Wyoming

Luxury is just a part of the package at The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch. Cattle work takes a back seat to relaxation and recreation, whilst still bathing guests in stunning natural surrounds. Join the trail rides to follow in the footsteps (and hoof prints) of the frontier’s legendary pioneers or let the kids take to the treetops with an on-site zip line and ropes course. Young cowboys and cowgirls can brush up on their skills with the special Lil’ Wrangler programs for kids aged four to eight, educating them about things such as Western ways and pioneers, history and local wildlife. The Trailhead Spa is the perfect place to unwind under the wide Wyoming sky with a rejuvenating treatment or outdoor yoga session. Dine and sleep among the rustic surrounds of an antique ranch, where the focus is on hospitality and a retreat from the everyday.

Red Horse Mountain Ranch, Harrison, Idaho

For an all-inclusive activity-filled guest ranch stay, you can’t go past northern Idaho’s Red Horse Mountain Ranch. Between May and October, this is the ideal destination for families keen to test out their frontier skills. With over 120,000 hectares to roam free, kids are welcome to be kids, while mum and dad have the choice of lapping up a little luxury alone or joining the youngsters on their adventures. The Red Horse Mountain Ranch kids’ program is adored by littlies over three, with rock climbing, kayaking, archery, bike riding and, of course, horseback riding just a small sample of what’s on offer. The focus is on family-friendly adventure, but that doesn’t mean the cuisine and wine list has been put on the backburner; freshly baked bread and fine dining are all included, while the log cabins are a picture of luxe cosiness from a bygone era.

The Resort at Paws Up, Greenough, Montana

Escape the beaten path with ‘glamping’ (glamorous camping) at the Resort at Paws Up. Combining all the outdoor activities that make guest ranches such an iconic American stay, Paws Up adds to the luxury quotient with their large, multi-bedroom tents. Complete with king-sized beds, wall art, ensuites and electricity, these deluxe tents welcome both seasoned camping families and die-hard citysiders and cosmopolites. Your camp butlers will advise you on camp activities, and all your culinary needs are in the care of the camp chef. If the kids can’t live without the TV, however, you may wish to opt for a log cabin home with loft games room and private deck. This is an unlikely situation though, given the wide range of activities available. Even the youngest travellers can enjoy the Wild West with wagon and carriage rides around this beautiful resort, while the kids up to 12 years old can enjoy special programs with the Kids Corps of Discovery running each day.

Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, Emigrant, Montana

Long-time favourite Mountain Sky Guest Ranch has been entertaining visitors since 1929, so they’re evidently doing something right. Inspired by their idyllic location in Paradise Valley, Montana, Mountain Sky has earned itself a reputation as a paradise for luxury-loving families with an outdoor adventure bent. All ages can get their cowboy and cowgirl fix with plenty of trail rides, tailored for all abilities. Parents are encouraged to let the kids roam across the 3200 hectares of the ranch under the guidance of experienced guides, while they tackle the landscape with a ride or fishing trip of their own. Meet up again in time to gather round and cosy up by the stone fireplace in your cabin. With tennis courts, a heated pool and a golf course, as well as massages and yoga available, guests are spoilt for choice, although it is just as easy to admire the pine-studded view from your cabin and just take it all in.

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