Since The Ranch at Rock Creek opened in 2010, we’ve centered our guest experience around the Montana traditions of outdoor adventure and family ranching. Guests discover a still-pristine natural world through a spirit of play.
What is Experiential Travel?
As a dedicated experiential travel destination, we want to share our hard-won expertise. Immersion is a passion that reaches every Ranch staff member and department. Some of us grew up here and carry on the traditions of ranching through our work. Others of us came for a season and found such a deep connection to Southwest Montana that it changed how we wanted to live our lives.
Over the past seven years, we’ve also spoken to our guests about what they take away from their visits. So often we hear about a life-changing moment, an unforgettable vacation or a once-in-a-lifetime event. Here, we’ve distilled the criteria that we believe are essential in making a vacation a life-changing experience. We hope you’ll take time to ensure these elements are included before you journey to a culinary class in Italy, the hot springs near Machu Picchu or a ranch vacation in Montana.
1. Immersion is included, not extra.
An experiential vacation is designed to be an inroad into a destination and its people.
As Anaïs Nin said, “We travel, some of us forever, to seek other states, other lives, other souls.”
To visit the frontier West is to seek the land of cowboys, pioneers and adventurers. Guests connect with the natural wonders of our mountain ranges, the diversity of our ecosystem and the bounty of the pastureland. Immersion travel should achieve a true sense of place through a well-designed, guided and bespoke experience.
Activities are also essential. If a hotel or resort offers a room, but not local experiences with expert guidance, then you are likely going to spend more time with Google or your travel agent than with locals. Included in an immersion stay is the peace of mind that you won’t spend your entire vacation researching local favorites, while being perpetually guided into tourist traps or spending extra money on excursions to fill your days. An experiential stay does not have to be entirely all-inclusive, but it must be inclusive of the cultural experience.
The Ranch at Rock Creek is an experiential travel destination and an all-inclusive luxury resort. We find that these two concepts enhance each other. Everything from meals to artisan cocktails to barn dances and outdoor activities are based on Montana ranch culture. It only makes sense to us that each guest experiences all aspects of the legendary Western lifestyle. From an organizational perspective, this means each department strives to deliver homestead hospitality, tradition and connection with rural Montana. The Ranch was recently listed as the #1 US All-Inclusive resort by the New York Post. We were in good company with other Relais & Châteaux properties, Blackberry Farm and Twin Farms, who also merge these two concepts.
Larry Olmsted writes in a Forbes travel article, “Part of the appeal of experiential travel is multi-tasking, the idea that you can roll several vacations into one (i.e., golf and safari), making the most of your limited vacation time.”
2. Connection to local culture
Well designed experiential trips promise deep connection to local culture. In the West, it’s easy to see why this is compelling, because it’s been part of the agritourism industry for years. Dude ranch vacations were the original American experiential travel adventure. In the early 20th century, dude ranches arose in response to the romanticism of the frontier West. Over the last century, they’ve remained a compelling way to experience and connect with a Western lifestyle. Ranchers remind those of us who tap on the keyboard all day that there is another way to work with your hands. Furthermore, after a trail ride or arena lesson it’s easy to be inspired by their deep love for the land and the animals they train.
Barn Manager Joe Demers hitches the horses during the Friday summer cowboy breakfast.
Horseback riding, summer rodeos, barn dances, roping, arena games and stagecoach rides are guest favorites. They fold in with other aspects of the modern Montana lifestyle, like shooting sports, snowshoeing, archery, hiking and fly fishing. At The Ranch, we have over two dozen year-round activities and they are all led by expert guides who have grown up riding, fishing and exploring. Local guides don’t just explain the culture, they explain and show you why it’s important. Experienced, committed staff are the crux of the immersion experience.
AFAR creator Joe Diaz explained to Fast Company why experiential travel inspired them to start their brand, “Our way of traveling is getting beneath the surface and connecting to a destination by finding the most interesting people.”
3. Custom travel experiences over cookie cutter trips
You can’t expect a husband and wife, nor father and son to seek the same travel experience. Does this mean that experiential travel isn’t right for family travel? No. Cultural experiences at The Ranch are as diverse as Montanans. A teenager might prefer an equestrian itinerary, while a grandfather might want to maximize time fly fishing on our Blue Ribbon creek. Small children and those who love to try new things can try a little of everything until they find an inspiring connection to Montana pursuits.
Our Ranch Ambassadors design custom itineraries for all guests, with the aim in mind that each person should connect and make memories. We believe this is one of the reasons we’ve been nominated by AFAR, a travel brand that emphasizes local culture and experience, as Best Family Getaway in their Travelers’ Choice Awards. The Little Grizzlies Kids Club encourages children aged 4 to 12 to learn new hobbies in a safe environment, always with a focus on natural play. Multi-generational trips offer people a chance to explore their interests and come together for experiences like glamping breakfasts by a waterfall, Saturday barn dances, roasting s’mores and bowling tournaments in the Silver Dollar Saloon. The overarching goal of experiential travel is to make indelible memories.
Jamie Wong, CEO of Vayable, says in the Skift + Peak report, “People want to reclaim what’s real. Mass tourism is no longer sufficient.”
4. Travel as a feast for the senses
As more and more aspects of our lives are ruled by the digital world, we become ever more visual. Experiential travel has the power to awaken our other senses by immersing them in an entirely new environment. It is no wonder that many experiential trips have cooking classes, tastings and farm-to-table experiences. Taste and smell strengthen connection to a place, as well as to the memory of the experience.
Dutch ovens sit ready to serve up farm-to-table delights at our summer glamping breakfast ride.
The feel of the snow gliding under your cross-country skis, your feet in stirrups, or the velvety sagebrush as you rub it between your fingertips are much richer experiences than tapping a smart phone screen. The clip-clop of horses on a stagecoach ride or the sound of an eagle’s screech can awaken your ears to the subtleties of a wilder world. Even our new photography classes, taught using the methods of National Geographic photographer Jay Dickman, help to connect the visual world with the broader moment that you are experiencing when you take a picture.
As Activities Director Patrick Little explains, “Our photography classes favor moments in time over snapshots. One photograph that tells a story of the sights, sounds, smells and texture of a place is worth more than a snapshot of a few people standing atop a vista. Both have their place in the travel experience, but one will take you back to that moment and how it made you feel.”
These trips allow you to live in the moment — a moment that has the ability to change how you see the world. If you can view our Ranch lands as they might have looked during the last ice age with the help of a master naturalist, see how ranch hands developed rodeo as a way to perfect their on-the-job skills or learn to survive off the land through fishing or archery, then you’re unlikely to see the West the same way again.
Our seasonal celebrations are another great way to tune into a special facet of our Ranch experience. This fall, we’re hosting our inaugural Whiskey & Water Fly Fishing Celebration and our fifth annual Autumn Harvest Weekend – focused on Montana’s bountiful slow food and live music, including a special performance by LeAnn Rimes.