The fate of Montana’s oldest dude ranch hangs in the balance.
BY ELISABETH KWAK-HEFFERAN
Five minutes into our second ride of the day, it was clear my 5-year-old had moved beyond pony rides. We were picking our way up a trail through sagebrush hills just north of the OTO Ranch, Sam sitting comfortably in the saddle on a gentle brown horse named Ginger. “Whoa,” he said when she got too close to the horse in front of her, then, delightedly, “Gee,” a command he must have heard on TV.
What a change from this morning, when Sam hesitantly climbed up on Ginger for his first-ever ride on a full-size horse. I could tell he was nervous, and so could the wranglers. “Let’s stick to the road for a bit,” one of them said, peeling us off from the rest of the group. We walked along the dirt road, practicing reining in and spurring on in the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains. He was smiling by the end of the session. Would he like to do the afternoon ride, too? “Oh, yeah!”
Then the thunderstorm that had been threatening since we left the corral made true on its promise, pelting us with cold drops and spraying lightning across the high country. “Sam, you doing alright?” I yelled.
He turned around, beaming. This was excellent. This was adventure. “Mom! We’re riding horses! In the rain!”
Watching Sam’s newfound confidence on horseback carry him through the rest of the wet, blustery ride, I wondered how many other kids, over how many decades, have had the same experience right here on these trails. And how many more will?
OTO Ranch, a newly revived dude ranch a dozen miles north of Yellowstone National Park in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, faces a turning point. Shuttered for more than eight decades, the 126-year-old property has long been a quiet hiking destination for history buffs and a seasonal corridor for elk and grizzly bears. Some think it should stay that way. Others dream of bringing life back to the creaky buildings and horses back to the stables.
Sam and I visited last July as part of a two-year “pop-up ranch” experiment run by an historic dude ranch company, and its executives are hoping for a permit that will open the OTO to guests again for the long term. If the Forest Service nixes that plan, then Sam and I will be among only a handful of people in living memory to have eaten bacon and eggs in the lodge’s dining room and slept in its simple cabins. A green light, however, would spur a new era at OTO Ranch. What’s clear is that everyone involved wants the best for this unique slice of Montana history. What’s not so clear is exactly what “the best” actually means.
A century before we hopped into the saddle at OTO Ranch, packs of Stetson-wearing travelers flocked here every summer to do the same. Dick and Dora Randall bought the property in 1898, making it Montana’s oldest dude ranch operation. What began with guided wilderness trips out of their homestead in the hills along Cedar Creek evolved into an official dude ranch in 1912—that is, a destination for vacationers to experience Western ranch life—with the addition of a bunkhouse, wall tents and cabins. For decades, the Randalls treated travelers (many of whom arrived from the East on the Northern Pacific Railroad) to chuckwagon dinners, ranch rodeos, fly fishing, bear hunting, and above all, horseback rides. Guests pitched in with branding, milking and gardening chores; galvanized steel tubs hung on the tent walls for bathing in creek water.
The Randalls retired in the early 1930s, and the dude ranch business sputtered to an end by 1939. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a Missoula-based nonprofit, eventually bought the OTO and promptly transferred it to the U.S. Forest Service in 1991, upon which time the ranch’s story took a 30-year pause. Custer Gallatin National Forest officials completed some basic maintenance on the buildings over the years, and the property entered the National Register of Historic Places. The Forest Service installed a few interpretive signs. But the ranch’s remains—a stately main lodge, a smattering of log cabins, and some outbuildings—were mostly left to the bats and mice. OTO had effectively become its own ghost town.
Enter the True Ranch Collection. The dude ranch company, which operates five historic guest ranches in Arizona and Montana, sensed an opportunity with OTO. Jaye Wells, managing partner for the brand’s historic preservation arm, met with Custer Gallatin National Forest District Ranger Mike Thom for a tour in December 2021. “I walked in, and I was just floored,” Wells said in a September 2023 interview. “Here’s a ranch that’s basically the same way it was in 1939. That’s remarkable.” During the tour, Thom asked how True Ranch Collection could help. “I said, ‘I don’t know, but we’re in.’” Wells recalled with a laugh.
The two of them came up with the pop-up idea: True Ranch Collection would spruce up the place on its own dime, and the Forest Service would issue, in return, a temporary event permit. True Ranch also kicked in a 15-percent fee from each guest as a donation back to the OTO. Thom’s attitude was, “Let’s see what it looks like, and what we learn,” he said. “We’ve had this property on behalf of the public for 30-plus years now. What do we do with it?”
On check-in day last July, I took a hard left off U.S. Highway 89 in the Paradise Valley and bumped up a dirt road to the Cedar Creek Trailhead. A True Ranch Collection van arrived less than 10 minutes later to shuttle Sam and me the rest of the way to the ranch. We traced Cedar Creek through a seam between hillsides, passing the stables before coming up to the stone-and-log lodge. Inside, a taxidermied moose head hung on a log crossbeam; a wolf pelt had been tacked up on one wall. Antique-looking couches flanked a grand stone fireplace, decked, of course, with more antlers. The ranch’s original billiard table, newly restored, anchored the open bar room down the hall. The whole thing was meant to evoke the OTO’s dude ranch heyday, and—to my eyes, anyway—it worked.
Our one-room cabin felt equally rustic—simple beds, a water jug on the dresser and Navajo rugs on the walls. But extension cords snaked through a hole in the logs to power a couple of dim lamps, and I doubt original guests had bear spray and headlamps waiting in their cabins. In a huge upgrade from galvanized bathtubs on the wall, we had a private bathroom “pod” complete with a flush toilet and hot shower out back. A sign sternly warned us not to leave the strawberry-scented shampoo in the pod, lest we attract bears that regularly roam around these parts.
The Yellowstone Pop-Up Ranch (as True Ranch Collection called it) featured a few other modern touches. Staff ferried guests on field trips like whitewater rafting the nearby Yellowstone River and soaking in Yellowstone Hot Springs, and satellite wi-fi let us give my husband a video tour of the place. But in other ways, the experience was remarkably like how I imagine the OTO Ranch of old. We told stories around the campfire with the wranglers, gathered for three group meals a day (dining on the likes of pheasant sausage and strawberry cheesecake), practiced archery and saddled up for mountain trail rides.
True Ranch Collection spent $317,000 getting the ranch back up to hospitality standards, including the cost of building the pod bathrooms. “We weren’t allowed to do anything beyond putting it back to how it should have been,” Wells said, citing historic preservation rules. That meant fixing broken windows, chinking gaps between logs and deep cleaning buildings that had been home to untold generations of critters. Employees installed a spring box treatment system in the creek to supply water, and trucked in furniture, décor and all those taxidermied animal heads to match old photos of OTO. It all felt like stepping into the past, just a bit cleaner and more convenient—even if I did catch a bold mouse raiding our cabin’s garbage can each night.
The Yellowstone Pop-Up Ranch experiment started slowly, with just 27 guests in the summer of 2022—far fewer than expected, due to historic flooding in the national park that shut down Yellowstone’s North Entrance for months and shook up the tourism season for the whole region. But the ranch galloped through a busy nine-week season in 2023, serving 115 guests, plus hosting a specialty camp from Wisconsin for one week and a group of biology students from Montana State University for another. Come September, True Ranch Collection hauled its décor, bathrooms, and infrastructure back out, leaving the ranch a cleaned-up version of what it was. Now, as the dust settles, the Forest Service faces a decision.
As of fall 2023, True Ranch Collection was preparing to submit a formal proposal to the Forest Service requesting a short-term permit to continue running the dude ranch in the summers through its nonprofit arm, Ranch Preservation Foundation. Anything beyond a few years would likely require significant upgrades to the facilities, and a much longer-term special-use permit for any outfitter willing
to make the investment. Various bureaucratic hurdles lie between now and a hypothetical then, so the earliest anything could begin at OTO would be the summer of 2025, according to Custer Gallatin ranger Thom.
“It’s really that question, ‘What do we do with it?’” Thom told me in an August 2023 interview. “Do we just interpret it? Let it fall to the ground? Full-scale commercial operations? We know what True Ranch would like to do up there, but is their goal the best goal for the agency on the behalf of the public?” Dude ranches on public lands aren’t exactly rare, but those outfits have generally been grandfathered in for years, Wells says. A new one would be a different story.
For one thing, even a seasonal operation would be a marked departure from the recent status quo. “It’s a quiet place,” Thom said, “and the dude ranch has changed that, with traffic, and guests doing trail rides and shooting .22s.” And with visitors come additional disturbances, like weekly food deliveries and sewage truck visits. Others have raised eyebrows at the idea of an exclusive commercial business taking over a public amenity. Though the pop-up was hardly a ritzy resort, costs for the all-inclusive stay ranged from $1,635 per person for three nights to $3,975 per person for six nights.
“This is within elk winter range. A lot of them pour through there. That’s
another reason we want to limit the scope and scale [of use at OTO]. It’s surrounded by public land on all sides, but sometimes securing that little piece of private land to allow elk to move between summer and winter range is vital.” – Josh Hemenway, Custer Gallatin wildlife program manager
The Forest Service would also have to take a hard look at how a more permanent dude ranch would affect area wildlife, especially the endangered grizzly bear. “Grizzly bears do occupy the area,” said Josh Hemenway, wildlife program manager for the Custer Gallatin. “One of the primary concerns [with guests at OTO] is attractant storage and managing food to minimize potential for a grizzly to be lured in and receive any kind of food reward, thereby habituating that bear.”
Hemenway and other Forest Service biologists worked closely with True Ranch Collection to ensure proper food storage during the pop-up, even erecting an electric fence around the lodge kitchen. Still, after the 2022 season, a grizzly got into unsecured garbage at the ranch; rangers suspect it was the same bear that later had to be euthanized for breaking into cabins in the region. Hemenway adds that displacing bears from their habitat is another concern, noting that the Forest Service already limits overnight use at the OTO site in spring and fall, when grizzlies are more likely to seek food in the area. Given grizzlies’ federally protected status, any dude ranch proposal would have to pass muster with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Forest Service.
Increased traffic at the OTO could also affect the Northern Yellowstone elk herd, which migrates through the Cedar Creek zone—indeed, that’s why the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation bought the land in the first place. “This is within elk winter range,” Hemenway said. “A lot of them pour through there. That’s another reason we want to limit the scope and scale [of use at OTO]. It’s surrounded by public land on all sides, but sometimes securing that little piece of private land to allow elk to move between summer and winter range is vital.”
Any new programs at OTO Ranch would have to line up with the latest Custer Gallatin Forest Management Plan, which spells out the agency’s priorities for the site: seeking partnerships “to provide a venue for conservation education, stewardship, and innovative opportunities,” as well as preserving its historic value. “Education is really a driver for the agency’s desires up there,” Thom said. “And how do we get that environmental piece in there, that stewardship?”
True Ranch Collection has a few ideas. In Wells’ vision for a revived OTO dude ranch, guests would get a lot more than a classic Western vacation. Suppose the ranch houses scientific researchers too, who would then present their work to recreational guests over chili. A naturalist could teach visitors how to identify native wildflowers on the trails. Specialists in anthropology or history could give public lectures on-site. “We envision it as being the OTO Ranch and Research Station,” Wells said. “It’s not just shooting a gun, not just riding a horse. That educational part of it is something people want to see.”
One thing everyone seems to agree on is how special OTO Ranch is—and the desire to keep this relic of Montana history in decent shape. Trouble is, the Forest Service acknowledges how difficult that would be without outside help. “We don’t have the time and resources to put the effort into OTO,” Thom said. “We need a partner out there who can help paint that picture.”
A private partner is one way of bringing in critical funding. Wells estimates that True Ranch Collection has already donated almost $90,000 worth of TLC to the ranch, which is in addition to the roughly $42,300 in donations generated through guest fees. “The work they have done to that place for just maintenance, it’s amazing,” Thom said. “It’s stuff we surely couldn’t do ourselves. We can replace shingles on roofs. But [maintaining OTO] for another 100 years—it’s going to take a huge investment to do that.”
The Forest Service commissioned an engineering analysis in 2018, which estimated it would take $2 million to complete historically appropriate foundation work and roof stabilization on the lodge. More extensive renovation—like adding electrical, plumbing and fire safety systems, as True Ranch Collection would propose to do for any long-term permit—would cost significantly more. “We think it’s a $5 million project,” Wells said. It’s hard to imagine the Forest Service handling that level of financial lift on its own.
I can’t say our OTO visit was completely in line with its historic nature—Sam did get to play some games on our tablet so I could shower in peace. But mostly, we kept things unplugged. We explored the trails and practiced roping a fake steer and played round after round of Connect 4 in the lodge. At sunset, we read Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator snuggled up on our cabin’s porch. “My favorite part about the ranch was the rustic part,” Sam later said. “It makes you feel good. That’s just part of how it used to be.”
How the OTO will be in the future, however, is still a question unanswered, a fate that will involve public opinion, informally and perhaps even through an official public comment period. Wells remains excited about the prospect of resurrecting the dude ranch, but in his mind, his company has already done some good. “People are talking about the future of the OTO,” Wells said. “Let’s get the conversation started. If this is all we ever did, what a treat.”
Inside Mountain Outlaw
In this interview, Mountain Outlaw Managing Editor Bella Butler talks with author Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan about her experience reporting and writing about the OTO, and what’s at stake.
Listen to the full interview:
Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan is a Montana-based writer and editor who focuses on climate solutions, sustainability and public lands. She is only slightly more skilled on horseback than a 5-year-old.