By Joseph T. O’Connor Explorebigsky.com Editor
BIG SKY – There are few things more romantic than riding in a horse-drawn sleigh beneath snow-laden pines, huddling with your valentine under a wool blanket as snow falls. Add a softly lit cabin and a piping-hot prime rib dinner with wine, and you have a Valentine’s Day that’s tough to beat.
Lone Mountain Ranch’s horse teams pull guests to the North Fork log cabin, a 20-minute trip from the main grounds, and a 32-year-old tradition with a reputation that speaks for itself.
Even though the ranch offers more than 50 miles of cross-country ski trails, the sleigh ride dinners keep people returning – brought back in time to a family-style feast lit by kerosene lanterns.
“It’s something magical,” said owner Bob Foster who, along with his wife Karen, took over LMR in July after handing down their own family guest ranch in Colorado, which they ran for 38 years. “I knew about [LMR] because of the sleigh rides.”
The sleighs drop bundled riders off at the cabin, where a 125-year-old woodstove heats the room and the smell of slow-roasted prime rib wafts from the kitchen. Live performances by Bruce Anfinson, Rick Steinke or Adam Pople (aka Tiny) give visitors a taste of local bluegrass music and Montana cowboy poetry.
The friendly LMR staff works like, well, ranch hands – seamlessly, doing whatever is required, and often wearing many hats.
“We get to live this [Montana lifestyle] every day and we want our guests to experience that,” said P.J. Wirchansky, director of sales and marketing at LMR. “It’s all part of being on a ranch, and it’s definitely a team effort to get the job done.”
When he’s not performing, Tiny drives a team of horses for the sleigh rides. He fell in love with Big Sky Country and his job after moving here six years ago to attend Montana State University.
“The great thing about horses is they’re kind of like people,” he said, adjusting his wide-brimmed Stetson. “Each one is a little different.”
Among the ranch’s six teams of draft horses are Blue and Bell, Larry and Curly, Ted and Charlie and Pepsi and Rum. Although they have distinct personalities, they all respond to the same commands, Tiny says.
With four drivers per night hauling 10-12 sleigh-goers, dinner is an event and more like a family meal than an intimate couple’s retreat. Up to 46 people can eat together in the cabin, and most would have it no other way.
John and Suzanne Pate from Virginia Beach, Va. came with friends Mark and Kelly Hansen to LMR six years ago for the sleigh-ride dinner. This past December, they returned, soaking up one of the best ranches Montana has to offer.
“This place is magical,” said Mark, between sips of red wine. The group vows to make this trip an annual one, as the chef calls for the room’s attention.
Rick Reed, the LMR chef for 14 years, who’s also one of the ranch’s fly fishing guides, addressed diners in true Montana style, with a quick wit, humor and savory delivery: “Vegetables are what food eats,” he announced, introducing the meal he’s prepared. “Our vegetarian option is prime rib.” Of course Reed will make a vegetarian dish, he just needs a heads up.
Hostess Elise Crisafulli brings around rice sopa, maple rolls, steaming baked potatoes and thick slabs of Montana-grown prime rib sided with onion and bacon. The kitchen has perfected this menu – it’s been the same for 30 years.
As the group enjoys a wild huckleberry cobbler for desert, Anfinson closes his set with a Western melody as smooth as cowboy coffee.
“I am bound to ramble/ Yes, I’m bound to roll/ When I’m in off the road now boys/ Montana is my home,” he croons.
The forest above Lone Mountain Ranch is quiet in the evenings, save for a few snow-muffled laughs and the sound of big horseshoes falling on powder. Pepsi and Rum, the two huge draft horses pulling the sleigh, snort occasionally, steam blasting from their nostrils.
“Between Walt Whitman’s poems, and ‘Over the River and through the Wood,’ there’s a nostalgia to [sleigh rides],” Foster said. “The ranch could stop [operating], and as long as the sleigh rides continued, we’d be just fine.”
Lone Mountain Ranch offers sleigh ride dinners all winter, but for the perfect Valentine’s Day, make a reservation now, before you end up re-gifting the chocolates your sweetheart didn’t eat last year. More at lonemountainranch.com.