By Åsa Björklund. Images: Åsa Björklund. Cattle drive images by Robert Tully and Gerry Jacobs.
The sleepy town of Big Timber, Montana, had seen better days. Cardboard signs with “Closed” scribbled in large letters hung in several shop windows. Only the Family Dollar store and a seedy bar looked like they were still open for business.
As the town closest to Sweet Grass Ranch, Big Timber served as a gentle reminder that my destination was definitely off the beaten track. That was perfect. The same morning I had elbowed my way through a hotel lobby full of tourists headed to the nearby Yellowstone National Park, an experience I did not want to repeat.
An hour’s drive later, mostly on a dirt road, I caught the first glimpse of Sweet Grass Ranch’s majestic surroundings. The snow-clad peaks of the Crazy Mountains towered against the skyline, reaching over 3,400
Yellowstone, the “Crazies” get little attention from tourists.
A motley crew of dogs welcomed us to the ranch, set in a wide, green valley. With rustic log cabins set along a creek and the main house dating back to the
The following morning I met Billy Bob, a large bay Quarter Horse, my date for the week. In a small group, we rode
Despite the steep climb, Billy Bob didn’t even sweat when we reached the lupine covered meadow at the top. In fact, just as I was snapping pictures of the views, Billy Bob suddenly decided to join two other horses that had left the group and set off in a sudden, unexpected gallop. With my heavy SLR camera bobbing on my chest, I frantically tried to hold him back. Mud cakes from the horses in front splattered my face. The lens cap flew into a bush. Billy Bob was set on winning this self-invented horse race that I was not privy to.
Finally, he slowed down and our wrangler, Jacob, caught up with us. In a firm
Even after all the climbing, the horses were so fit that their legs fizzed with energy. On top of that, the wrangler mentioned that Billy Bob was 26 years old. In the human world, this would be the equivalent of a couple of 80-year old retirees climbing a mountain and then sprint for half a mile just for fun—with huge backpacks. I realized that the views were not the only thing that made this ranch exceptional. It was also the horses.
“It’s really incredible to watch them. They will scoop the snow away with their hooves. But hey always have plenty of grass underneath, ” said Laura Carroccia, who regularly checks on the horses from afar.
Older and weaker horses, as well as mares with
“The horses grow really think coats. In winter they look like
Originally from Sheffield, the UK, Laura married into the ranch family and now lives year-round at Sweet Grass with her husband Tony and their children. Laura has settled into the American ranch life and is happy, although she occasionally misses her family back home in England, and one specific thing: “Indian food!” she exclaimed.
After dessert (usually a delicious, decadent cake), Erin would make a tour around the tables to ask guests what they would like to do the following day. This willingness to accommodate
The Swedish couple Lisa and Stefan Agerman chose Sweet Grass Ranch as their destination because they wanted flexibility and a variety of rides so that they could take turns
“I really like that they ask for feedback during the stay, not just at the end on some type of form like at most other ranches. Here they accommodate to your needs and wishes. You just have to be clear and tell them what you want to do because obviously no one is a mind reader,” Lisa said while her baby daughter climbed up on the piano chair in the ranch
house living room.
One morning I crawled out of bed at 3.30 a.m. to join the sunrise ride. It was chilly and pitch black outside. We rode into the darkness in silence, trusting the horses in our blindness. Only the sounds of creaky saddles and soft hoof steps against wet grass could be heard. We climbed steeper and steeper up the mountainside, passing a herd of cows that mooed in sleepy protest to us early visitors. Just as we reached the mountaintop, a sharp sunray hit the sky. Then an orange slice of sun appeared on the horizon and cast its golden rays on the meadows’ million wildflowers. A light gray coyote sneaked by, casting the group of riders and horses a suspicious glance. The horses munched the lupines that glowed in a mix of purple and golden hues. Everyone was silent, in awe of this magical moment in nature.
Many guests keep coming back to Sweet Grass Ranch year after year, like Lisa Vaaler and her family from Georgia.
“The riding is great here because of the variety of trails and the beautiful scenery. It’s remote, which I like because I don’t want to go to a
“This is an authentic, historic ranch house. Some other ranches are beautiful and huge. They have golf courses, tennis courts, and so on, but I didn’t want that. I can do that at home,” Lisa said.
Swimming with the horses was another highlight of the stay. We rode bareback down to the creek, where we kicked off our boots. I coaxed my horse—Victory this time as Billy Bob was not a keen swimmer—into the creek. Ice-cold water hit my thighs. The bottom disappeared under Victory and we sunk into the snowmelt flowing down from the mountain peaks. Victory’s muscles stretched as she swam with long, soft strokes. It was an exhilarating feeling to float above her back, her body warming mine. As my daughter got back up, her face was one huge smile. “This was the best thing I have ever done!” she exclaimed, while our wrangler Connor chuckled.
Sweet Grass Ranch is not for people who seek a cowboy-themed resort where they can play tennis and sip fancy cocktails. It’s remote and rustic—and I can honestly say it’s the most amazing ranch I have ever visited. I had been welcomed into a family that had ranched for generations. I had ridden horses that
For more information and reservations see: www.Sweetgrassranch.com.
Events: The Ranch has several events in 2019, such as a yoga retreat and a photography workshop. More information about the latter: http://www.jakephotos.net/photography-
The Crazy Mountains’ Name
The little known Crazy Mountains are steeped in history of battles between the US Army and Native American tribes. The latter most famously defeated the Army in the battle of Little Bighorn 1876. Legend has it that the mountains were originally named the “Crazy Woman Mountains” after an attack where a pioneer woman went crazy after seeing her family killed by the Native Americans. She fled to the mountains where the tribe left her alone, as sacred spirits possess mentally ill people according to Indian beliefs, explained ranch owner Shelly Carroccia.