Dude ranches: Roping, riding and karaoke
Nearly two decades have passed since tough-as- nails trail boss Curly Washburn hurled insults at the three "City Slickers" who invaded his turf, a Colorado cattle ranch, in search of a Wild West adventure.

The 1991 movie, which earned Jack Palance a supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Curly, the crusty cattleman, spurred an increase in dude ranch vacations as urban and suburban cowboys tried their hands at riding, roping and herding cattle.

I thought I might like riding the range too. But my interest waned when I realized I'd have to sleep in the dirt — and pay for the privilege.

Fast-forward to 2010: Dude ranches have come a long way.


Planning your trip

IF YOU GO

The Ranch at Rock Creek, 79 Carriage House Lane, Philipsburg, Mont., 59858; (877) 786-1545, http://www.theranchatrockcreek.com. Lodge, cabins or luxury tents on Rock Creek. Rates from $800 per person per night, including all activities, meals and most beverages.

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Can you imagine what Curly would say about a sunset wine and cheese party on the ranch lawn? Or basking in the Jacuzzi after a five-course gourmet dinner?

"Guest ranches have changed a lot in the past 10 years," said Colleen Hodson, executive director of the Dude Ranchers Assn., which represents more than 100 longtime U.S. guest ranches.

"A decade ago, it was all about riding. Now a dude ranch can be a place to hold a destination wedding, have an adults-only birthday party or go to an afternoon wine tasting. Some of the ranches have added spas and other amenities that were unheard of a few years ago."

Now we're talking about my kind of dude ranch. So a couple of months ago, I headed to Montana to sample one of the newest, the Ranch at Rock Creek on a 10-square-mile patch of unspoiled forest and pastureland about a 90-minute drive from Missoula, in the western half of the state.

The ranch, which opened earlier this year, is a boyhood dream-come-true for banker Jim Manley, who said he searched for the property for 20 years. His goal? To find ranchland that would fulfill a nine-point laundry list of desires.

"I didn't want poisonous snakes [or] highway noise," he said. "I wanted a ski resort nearby; I wanted the elevation to be low enough so people wouldn't get altitude sickness like they do in Aspen and some other resorts. It had to be working cattle ranch. And it had to have a river running through it."

He found his dream location about three years ago. The Ranch at Rock Creek is named for a crystal-clear stream that bubbles through the pines and grasslands, bisecting the property and offering excellent spots for fly fishermen and scenic views for the cabins along its banks.

Manley and his family used the ranch as a getaway for a couple of years before he added accommodations — suites, cabins, houses, a lodge and luxury trappers tents — and opened it to the public.

There are traditional dude ranch activities, such as riding, shooting and fishing, and some nontraditional fun and games: mountain biking, swimming, a spa, bowling, paintball and karaoke, sort of like a luxury camp for grown-ups.

At this camp, however, guests don't have to worry about sleeping in the dirt: The four-poster in my room featured Frette linens and a down comforter that was 4 inches thick.

Of course, not all dude ranch visitors seek this kind of experience. And industry spokesperson Hodson is the first to acknowledge it.