Historic Montana dude ranches

Montana is one of the cradles of the dude ranch industry, with a number of historic dude ranches. The 63 Ranch history dates from 1863 (hence its name) and it became a dude ranch in 1930; it was the first dude ranch in Montana declared a National Historic Site (in 1982).

The 63 Ranch is still owned/ operated by members of the original 1930s owners, the Christensen family, so it’s one of the oldest family-owned and operated dude ranches around. It all began with an original homestead, but now has expanded to nearly twenty-five hundred deeded acres. Jeff Cahill and his family has owned and operated the 63 continuously since 1929.

We asked Jeff Cahill: Why do guests choose a historic ranch? “I think they’re interested in roots—their and ours,” says Cahill. “And staying at a ranch like this helps put their lives in perspective. We’ve got legitimacy—we’ve been in business for 79 summers,” Cahill notes.

And choosing a historic ranch can be comforting. “It’s a daunting task to find the right ranch,” Cahill explains, “and a long-time operation like ours carries a lot of credence, which is one way to select a ranch,” he says.

How 63 Ranch has changed— hasn’t changed—could fill a book.
“I’m third generation,” Cahill offers, “and Mom, at age 72, is still involved in the ranch.”

“In the 1940s-50s, guests would stay all summer; her folks would meet ‘em at the railroad depot in Livingston and they’d have steamer trunks!” One of the biggest changes is that now guests want to pack more into a shorter stay. Also, they’re booking later, often at the last minute, Cahill explains.

“Ranch activities have changed,” he points out, “and some want to do as many things as possible. Women (who do most of the vacation planning) don’t want their husband or sons to get bored.” Horses are the focus of this ranch, but that’s not all there is to do: there’s billiards, cards, horseshoes, nature walks, square dancing, softball, volleyball games or reading from their library on western life and natural history. Although they don’t offer a formal children’s program, children are included in ranch activities like horseback riding.

And did we mention fishing? Fat, wild trout run for 3 miles through the ranch in Mission Creek.

One thing hasn’t changed: The view of the nearby peaks of the Absaroka Range Mountains probably looks no different than it would have when they first homesteaded here. It is a truly unspoiled countryside. “I’ve been on a lifelong crusade in keeping the viewscape the way it is,” Cahill explains.

Best Deal: First 2 weeks of the season, 63 Ranch offers a 15% discount (June 14-28).

More historic Montana ranches: check out Elkhorn Ranch, Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, and Sweetgrass Ranch. Sweet Grass is a working cattle ranch high in the Crazy Mountains (40 miles from Big Timber), sitting at 6100 feet on the Sweet Grass Creek. Their family ranching tradition dates to 1880.  Elkhorn was founded some ninety years ago by legendary Montana guide Ernest Miller and his wife Grace; today, Elkhorn is managed by their granddaughter, Linda; it sits near the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park,  surrounded by the Gallatin National Forest. Nine Quarter Circle rests at 7,000 feet, surrounded by national forest lands containing a million acres of primitive wilderness.  It dates to the 1800’s, when it was first homesteaded.


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