Grey Cliffs Ranch: Montana’s Rustic, Boutique Adventure
Touching down into the Bozeman Yellowstone Airport isn’t much different from other mountain-scaped tarmacs, but the terminal itself is an absolute darling, offering a warm and artful welcome.
My wife and I drove straight to Grey Cliffs Ranch in the Three Forks area, about forty-five minutes away. Not much is open on Sundays, let alone Christmas Day. The only place to buy an over-the-counter cow elk tag and upland bird license for Monday morning was Casey’s Corner gas station at Four Points outside of town. Luckily it was right on our way, and those girls will walk you through the process.
To see this property in her summer sundress of bright greens and delicate wildflower patterns would be unmistakably impressive. Taking her to the fall dance in that burnt orange shawl of foliage would be intoxicating. Online photos of snow-white elegance blanketing her imperfections created anticipation for this holiday trip that wasn’t to be. Meandering up that lengthy gravel lane would seem almost forgettable if it weren’t for the natural beauty of goldenrod hues painting that never-ending, wind-chapped landscape ahead. Even death and dormancy command their rightful place amongst the 5,200 acres of rolling hills and canyons in this lower Madison Valley spread.
Minutes into the ranch drive, we soon met with blacktop when the lodge presented in rustic, stately elegance. No gimmickry, just an architectural beauty set in the middle of nowhere.
Grey Cliff’s expanse of picturesque grasslands might seem pretentious until considering the vastness of Ted Turner’s 120,000 adjacent acres. Herds of elk, mule deer, and whitetail shared the same rolling terrain we viewed from the seven-bedroom, 8,000 square-foot boutique lodge during our three-day stay.
Inside, the pastoral residence softened with a rich décor of eclectic furniture, exquisite artwork, colorful textiles, textures, and balanced with a tasteful taxidermy collection mimicking the passion and lifestyle of the western experience. We found ample gathering spots between the primary and lower levels, and a full wrap-around deck allowed for stargazing while enjoying that long-awaited cigar and bourbon toast.
This hotel’s real intention is simple relaxation and rejuvenation in activities like fly fishing, clay shooting, horseback riding, spa treatments, or just reading your favorite flair by the fireside. Lodge manager Chris Pfadt’s demeanor makes it easy to unwind, and his wife Licia offers therapeutic art and pottery lessons in her barn studio on campus. We spotted her plate wares and mugs throughout the residence.
There is a native tribal presence for several miles around the area, and Buffalo Jump State Park is a quick jaunt up the road. If hiking is your thing, you might want to investigate some abandoned gold mining shafts on the ranch property if you’re feeling courageous.
Any bedroom here guarantees a restful sleep, appointed with high-end mattresses, luxurious bedding, and high thread count sheets. While we stayed in the spacious presidential suite, every room was furnished like a dignified home. Mood lighting and motorized shades can be controlled from multiple wall locations. Adjacent bathrooms offer sprawling vanities and walk-in showers suited with high-caliber jet heads, easing your sore muscles and tired eyes from the day’s adventures.
Table fare at the lodge will exceed your expectations. Chef McCulloch will hold a pleasant conversation while serving up appetizers and making dinner in an open kitchen concept that feels like home. Expect to learn something new as he loves to dish on history, music, archeological finds, and of course, delicious culinary reductions. During the holiday stay, our exact menu scripted out as follows: 12/25 Dinner: Oven-roasted free-range organic turkey with dressing, maple roasted yams, creamy mash, Brussel sprouts braised with bacon and cream, fresh cranberry sauce.
12/26 Breakfast: Huevos Rancheros – Black beans, chorizo, white cheddar, two over-easy eggs, salsa ranchero, sour cream, and fresh avocado. 12/26 Lunch (In the Field): Almond-cranberry turkey salad sandwich, vegetable bag, and chips.
12/26 Dinner: Bison stuffed quail – chopped bison with roasted sweet pepper, garlic, fresh herbs, and pistachios roasted inside a semi-boneless quail, served on cheddar grits with a huckleberry demi gloss. Fresh mozzarella salad with winter garden preserves and balsamic vinaigrette. Pan served Wagyu New York strip with cheddar grits and wilted kale. Baked cream of broccoli soup with white cheddar.
12/27 Breakfast: Blueberry buttermilk pancakes with butter and pure maple syrup, fresh fruits. House-cured back bacon and pork loin slices. 12/27 Dinner: Duck Risotto – Boneless breast of duck on saffron-scented risotto with peas and comte.
A Sporting, Conservationist’s Dream
Convincing acquaintances my trip was about business when partridge hunting the hills out back, elk tracking a neighboring BLM parcel, or dining on three squares of five-star indulgence was a bit rich to hear. Downright haughty, I suggest. But someone had to do it; I willfully labored through the experiences and proudly distributed the evidence.
Pleasures aside, every opportunity on like properties comes with a grand vision, backbreaking sweat equity, a sobering price tag, and the weighty responsibility to judiciously manage and not squander it. The generous and unseen efforts, then, are as beautiful a story as the finished work.
The owners of Grey Cliffs wanted to leave a more natural, conservation legacy in trust. In 2006, Pfadt hired in and started the habitat restoration project, now paying dividends for local wildlife species. He began removing some dryland grain farming areas and cattle livestock. Grasslands and shrubs by the thousands, like caragana, buffaloberry, and spruce, were planted. Native basin wild rye became a favorite tall bunchgrass planting. Within three years, a transformation was realized. Once a novelty in sighting an elk is almost a daily occurrence today.
Glassing a herd a mile away, we devised our plan on day two. Cow elk hunting wasn’t nearly as dangerous as bird hunting a rockslide. But, hiking a mile of incline to reach a ridge where we could cut off the herd get a fantastic shot opportunity? That was a heart pounder. Cervid droppings were scattered every couple feet, so crawling the last fifty yards to avoid detection was a necessary bane I’d endure for the cause. Some two-hundred cow headed back towards Turner’s ranch, and we had one chance at success.
When pursuing and conquering big game, the only equipment better than a 300 Win. Mag. rifle is the winched ATV that gets you out of the predicaments you elected after morning coffee. But, even then, it’s work.
Chris Pfadt is a licensed hunting guide with Montana Wilderness Outfitters and showed me a side of upland birding I hadn’t experienced on day three. Traversing those hills had me sliding through loose rock and grasping shrub vegetation to anchor myself. Pointers Arlo and Hunter infiltrated those crags and crevices until hunkered coveys of Hungarian partridge exploded like fireworks. To hit even one without losing balance on those chippy ledges took total concentration.
We spent the afternoon combing miles of farm crop and ditch beds for ringneck pheasant and chukar. Wearing an orange cap or vest is as good as holding a sign “Will Work for Food.” And we did.
Chris is also the fishing guide for the ranch itself, and the Pennsylvania transplant relishes in the abundance of opportunity for anglers. This fly-fishing mecca was most notably advertised in the 1992 movie, “A River Runs Through It.” Named by Meriwether Lewis in 1805, the lower Madison River holds large specimens of Brown, Rainbow, and Cutthroat Trout, and the Grey Cliffs Ranch ponds are stocked full of massive Rainbows. If only one more day could be shoehorned into our loaded itinerary.
A stay at Grey Cliffs isn’t cheap, even pricier during the spring-summer trout season. But then, this isn’t like any other hotel in the Gallatin Valley region. The breathtaking panoramic views, ample game, luxurious and comfortable accommodations, and attentive service will permeate your heart like only a love letter from the West can. And you’ll vow to revisit her.
If world-class snow skiing is your passion, Big Sky Resort is a thirty-minute drive as we hit that day four. Pretty unbelievable.
And then there’s downtown Bozeman. The eclectic shopping and upscale eateries are diverse, and the art galleries are legit for the visual connoisseur. Artists craft a blend of contemporary takes while paying homage to the wild west that put this place on the map.
Our experiences are for the moment. Our memories are on a timer. But our photos and written words last forever. Montana offers a lot for your scrapbook. Come and get it.
Grey Cliffs Ranch
1915 Lakota Dr.,
Three Forks, MT 59752 406-285-6512