An email popped up in my inbox a few weeks ago from Kim at JJJ Wilderness Ranch near Augusta, Montana. The question – could I join them and some friends at the ranch for dinner? Well yes, double yes, I’d love to!
There are parts of my job that are so fun I hesitate to call them work. This would definitely be in the “fun” category.
For starters, the drive from Great Falls to Augusta and then up to JJJ is gorgeous – one of those “photo ops every mile” kinds of drives. Fall foliage would be lining parts of my drive, the skies had cleared of smoke from fires in the northwest and, if I timed things right, I’d be arriving at JJJ in that golden hour of light.
My car didn’t make it past the Fort Shaw-Simms area without stopping for a photo. A band of sheep, a guard llama (another llama was on the other side of some vegetation) and a moody sky were lined up just waiting for me to take a photo.
From Highway 200 I turned onto MT Highway 21 which I call the Augusta highway. When I reached Augusta I wanted to stop at a couple of local places and then I decided I had just better keep going.
The elevation begins to change about 15 minutes beyond Augusta. I stopped at the entrance to the Sun River Wildlife Management Area, a popular wintering place for elk. In fact, locals I know refer to it as the elk game range. I love the views here with incredibly rugged mountains named Sawtooth and Castle Reef looming in the background, and rolling terrain in front.
My next stop was just along the Sun River after it flows downstream from Gibson Dam. There are places where I’m sure you can hop across the Sun River – this is not one of them! Rocky Mountain crags surround the river and create some stunning contrasts.
My car began some serious climbing uphill now and I wished I had started earlier to allow more time for photos. There certainly wasn’t much traffic, maybe a couple cars, and I felt like I owned this mountain road!
My eyes were watching for the JJJ Wilderness Ranch entrance on the right side of the road as I ascended. I know the way to this ranch
but it’s always reassuring when that sign appears! The lane into JJJ, which is probably about a mile, is a slow drive and slower yet when I am there because I kept stopping to take photos!
The main log lodge appeared and, as usual, it looked impeccable – expansive green lawn, flowers blooming – what a beautiful setting against the rugged mountains and Mortimer Gulch. Kim must have seen me drive in and she came over to meet me. I was eager to see any changes they had made since I was there the last time and asked for a quick tour before dinner. New laundry facilities had their own building now and, as Kim and I walked along the boardwalk, we met three guests heading over to the hot tub. They were prepared to soak in the hot tub, try their luck at fly fishing and maybe have a sip of
wine before dinner. They had done a horseback ride earlier in the day and reported to me that it was excellent. I was envious.
We walked up to the corrals and I commented on the big white horses. Kim kindly said, those are actually mules. Well, they are huge mules! I always figure if the ears look too big on what might be a horse or a mule, just assume it is a mule. In this case I was wrong! Further explanation – Kim said they breed to draft horses and end up with much larger mules for their pack trips. I’m pretty sure the mules’ ears looked just the right size for their bodies and I still thought they looked more like horses. Good thing I’m not in charge of the pack string.
Food has a way of making it in to many of my travels and this trip was no exception. I was hungry as lunch had been some snacks hastily packed to eat on the way. At JJJ Wilderness Ranch everyone gathers inside the main lodge for meals and they are served family-style. As I entered the lodge wonderful food aromas were wafting through the log dining room, guests were all swapping stories of their day’s activities and it felt like one big happy family. Tables were set and the chef started bringing out food. Oh. My. Gosh. Beautifully plated blackened chicken and parmesan crusted cod, a salad so pretty I hated to disturb it, and key lime pie that I won’t even begin to talk about because I will seriously want another piece of it! The night before, the chef had served ribs, the following night was going to be steak and the meal I had was a specialty of the chef who was from Florida. What a treat and now my mouth is watering.
Guests stay in individual cozy log cabins at JJJ Wilderness Ranch. Firewood for the wood burning stoves is delivered to your cabin and the one we visited was occupied by a guest who had been coming to the ranch for so many years that everyone referred to her as Grandma. There were only adults at the ranch (I visited in September) but they do have many families come. Special riding programs for kids are offered along with other activities to appeal to variety of ages. A trout pond is used for casting skills, or in my case, for realizing that you don’t have casting skills! There are plenty of things to do but some people simply like to kick back, perhaps read a book, and enjoy the peace and quiet.
It was tough to leave JJJ after dinner. Guests were making their way in to a common sitting area in the lodge where a local cowboy was strumming his guitar and singing. Everyone seemed so relaxed. The mix of guests, some international, some from the US, some older, some not so old – all seemed like they were having a family reunion.
As I made my way down the mountain, into Augusta and then finally Great Falls, I thought about my short visit at JJJ and the memories I would have. Warm and wonderful memories of strangers who, in four short days seemed like family. That’s what life is like at JJJ Wilderness Ranch.