THERE’S A NEW TYPE OF DUDE RANCH IN TOWN. AND IT’S IN BIGFORK, MONTANA AT FLATHEAD LAKE LODGE.
When Lydia and I decided to celebrate my 40th birthday with our three boys — ages 12, 9, and 5 — I knew I wanted to do something different, preferably something that was on my extensive bucket list. I grew up riding horses off the Central Coast of California and also have a love for boating, so when a friend told me about Flathead Lake Lodge in Bigfork, Montana, I immediately checked it out. It’s the only all-inclusive lakefront dude ranch in the U.S., and I knew it would be an experience that my family and I would never forget, so I booked us a full week. Happy birthday to me!
The rich history of Flathead Lake Lodge is a testament to the hard work and love of family and wilderness of the lodge’s founder, Les Averill. In 1945, he saw the potential of Flathead Lake Lodge, and through the generations, the lodge has evolved into the exquisite property it is today. Upon check-in, we immediately felt welcome, as if we were part of the Averill family.
Besides its beautiful setting on the edge of Flathead Lake, one of the things that drew us to the lodge was the long list of all-inclusive activities available to our family. The unlimited horseback riding was absolutely one of our favorites. Lydia even took a horseback riding lesson on the first day so we could spend the rest of our week exploring the 2,000-acre property. My favorite was riding through the 500-acre elk preserve, while Lydia loved the breakfast rides. Crisp bacon and cool mountain air? Yes, please!
Roman, our youngest, loved the pony rides but then quickly graduated to riding solo by day 3. And best of all, when we were off doing adult rides, he was content doing supervised arts-and-crafts activities in the barn. My older sons loved the aptly named “Little Buckaroos” trail rides, but their favorite activity by far was the Junior Wrangler Program. Through the Junior Wrangler Program my boys were able to learn the basics of handling a horse and the essentials of horse care. They became comfortable quickly, learning to brush them, saddle them, and more. In just a few days’ time, it was almost as if they’d grown up riding like I did. They also learned some rodeo techniques, and at the end of our week, our buckaroos participated in a kids’ rodeo! YEE-HAW!
With the Flathead Lake Lodge situated on the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, water activities were everywhere! As a lifelong boater, I appreciated all that the lake had to offer. Water skiing and wakeboarding are part of the all- inclusive activity package, and I loved showing off my skills to my kids (and my wife) each afternoon. All the equipment was provided, so all we had to do was show up at the dock. I also took sailing lessons — another lifelong dream of mine. The sailboats at the lodge range from 14 to 27 feet in length, but they also have two incredible 51 foot historic racing sloops from 1928. Going for a sail on this was unlike anything I have experienced. My sons loved competing in the canoe races, and my wife became a rock star on the stand-up paddleboard. I think my kids loved jumping off the dock the best — Maverick, my 9 year old even conquered jumping from the upper structure called “The Tower.” But the boat cruises were a favorite for all of us. Lydia and I particularly enjoyed the happy hour boat cruises. Give me an ice cold Negroni and a view any day!
We chilled out at the heated pool at the edge of the lake each afternoon. It was the perfect way for Lydia and me to have some downtime while the kids burned off what was left of any energy they had. We’d often spend some evenings fishing in the pond or the lake. I even took fly- fishing lessons, which crossed another thing off my bucket list! (40 isn’t so bad after all) Mountain biking, tennis, laser tag — there was something for everyone at all times.
After playing so hard throughout the day, I was happy that meals were no-brainers. Made from scratch with local ingredients by the beloved Chef Rob, the meals were never disappointing. My 9-year old couldn’t get enough of the huckleberry pancakes! The kids loved the fact that their dinner buffet had foods that they actually liked. And as adults, we enjoyed every bite of our dinner, which was separate from the kids’ buffet. Plus, we never missed a happy hour in the Saddlesore Saloon — unless, of course, we were on a happy hour boat cruise.
On Wednesday evening, we participated in the mountain steak fry. I rode horseback, while Lydia and the boys headed up to the woods in a vintage fire truck. There was live entertainment and a bonfire that had my kids mesmerized. We ate around the campfire and listened to cowboy songs, and Lydia and I enjoyed a cold adult beverage. Perfection!
With all the activities and the amazing food, it’s easy to overlook the lodging, but it did not disappoint. The three lodges and the cabins each fit in with the rustic, mountain-inspired vibe. From log furnishings to cozy quilts, we felt right at home, and we loved that we were able to rent a cabin that comfortably fit our family of five. With no TV, our kids kept active in the great outdoors, and they said they didn’t miss it one bit. Parenting score!
Coming to Flathead Lake Lodge as a family has been an experience we will never forget. Lydia and I can’t wait to get back again, and we are even planning an adults-only getaway there next fall. Food and wine pairings, yoga, onsite massages, and a limit of 50 guests for the 2,000-acre property during the fall — you can bet we’ll be there!
WRITTEN BY DOUG MCLAUGHLIN