Lodges in Montana...
In Montana, nearly any place worth visiting means driving on a gravel road. Bumps, jolts and a cloud of dust show you’re getting somewhere special. Lost Horse Creek Lodge is such a destination.
The Lodge is located on the edge of the growing and beautiful Bitterroot Valley, tucked a few miles off the highway but seemingly far from civilization. The location takes advantage of one of the best features of the Bitterroot: proximity to wilderness. The small creek that the Lodge is named after forms one of the longer corridors into the wilderness on the Bitterroot’s west side. In fact, drive the dirt road 18 miles past the Lodge, and you’ll not only be surrounded on three sides by the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but you’ll also be near the crest of the Bitterroot Mountains and nearly into Idaho.
The Lodge has been turned into a destination resort consisting of several cabins, a restaurant, corrals, bar and dance floor. The owner, Robert Johnstone, bought the place in 1996 with the idea of giving customers a special rustic Montana experience.
Johnstone, a lawyer in Oregon, saw an opportunity with Lost Horse Creek Lodge to provide something rare in today’s busy world -– rest and silence. Although only 20 miles from Hamilton, quietude and a wilderness experience draw his customers. “That’s the most important thing,” says Johnstone.
His manager and executive chef, Carolyn Born, believes the resort’s ability to provide a variety of different ways to entertain add to its attraction. Trail rides can take guests into the wilderness; there’s fly-fishing on the Bitterroot River, snowmobiling and cross-country skiing in the winter, along with hiking and rock climbing - it offers more activities year-round than most other lodges in montana.
“We have the ability to set up any activity,” Born says. “Here you create your own schedule.”
None of the cabins are equipped with phone or television. A recent customer poll revealed that people were overwhelmingly against the modern amenities. “Once they got a taste of life away from all the worldly trappings, they liked it,” Johnstone says.
Born agrees. “Business leaders, who have held corporate retreats at the Lodge, have talked about how the peace has let them get to know their co-workers for the first time.” The atmosphere Born and Johnstone both want to facilitate is a warm, friendly, inviting place.
But the Lodge didn’t originate out of peace and quiet. “This was a real true, rip-roarin’ cowboy bar in the woods,” Born says.
The Lodge began in 1971 as a handful of historic cabins plopped onto 13 acres of private land, surrounded on three sides by the Bitterroot National Forest. The log cabins and Lodge were built in Virginia City, Montana, in the 1890s and moved up Lost Horse Creek by the Lodge’s founder, Bob Cameron.
John Foust, a life-long Bitterrooter, fly-fishing guide and outfitter, remembers the way it used to be. Foust now guides fishing trips for the resort’s guests when needed, but in the early days he sold the Lodge the meat they served at the bar. He’d often hang around for dinner after his weekly delivery. The bar was known for its roasted chicken and jojos.
“But things could get pretty rowdy,” says Foust. He remembers the old bar had a few bullet holes in the ceiling. “One time all the ceiling was covered with memorabilia. There was everything from bed pans, to old pieces of guns.” A tradition was to sign a dollar bill and hang it from the ceiling. “They had dollar bills signed from people all over the world,” Foust says. Quirks like this make it one of the most authentic lodges in Montana.
Initially, the place was busiest during the winter, with annual snowmobile and dog sled races. During the events the place would get crowded with people dancing, drinking and raising hell, he says.
Another tradition was carving your name in the top of the old bar. The thick, heavy top was made from of a single piece of pine, about 10-feet long and four inches thick. The origin of the graffiti tradition is unknown, but by the time the Health Department made them replace the bar few years ago, it had thousands of names, dates, and various other things carved in the top.
The new top is a shiny, thick pine slab and the old bar top hangs on the wall as a reminder of the wilder days. There are other reminders too.
On any given day, Keal, a long-time patron and Bitterrooter, sits on his stool at the end of the bar. The seat’s ownership is confirmed by a plate on the back bearing his name.
Keal first came to the bar in the mid-70s. The memory which rests most prominently in his mind from that era was an ornery, long-horned billygoat that had the run of the place. “When you’d get out of your truck, you didn’t know whether that sucker’d take you or not,” Keal says, grinning. “The door to the bar was often open and the goat would wander in and butt someone sitting at the bar.”
“Although those were fun years, the resort end of the business got little attention,” Johnstone says, reflecting back on the condition of the place when he bought it. A few different people had the resort between the original owner and Johnstone, but the real change came after he took control.
In the past nine years, Johnstone’s added several cabins, most with running water and Jacuzzi tubs, the various activities and fine dining. But a few cabins still have no running water, and share a common bathroom and showers. “A couple of these cabins are the originals from Virginia City. They provide customers with a true historic experience,” Born says.
Another aspect Born and Johnstone have been working hard to change is the public perception of the resort. The wild and wooly days when it was just a hole-in-the-wall cowboy bar are over. “Now the focus is on entertaining families and visitors from all over the country and the world,” Johnstone says.
The Lodge has expanded to add a large dining area. The bar has been remodeled a couple of times and the ceiling is no longer decorated with bed pans and dollar bills. Now instead of roasted chicken and jojos, customers are treated to a gourmet menu, which is either prepared or supervised by Born. She describes the dining room’s ambiance as “rustic elegance.”
“We’re starting to be a destination location not only for other Montanans, but for people out of state,” she says. “Consistency is the key. As long as you’re consistent, people know what they’re getting. I teach that constantly.”
Born and her staff do everything themselves, from making salad dressings to cutting steaks. “It’s not fancy food,” she says. “It’s just good, what I call, Montana fare.” Because the restaurant provides about 65 percent of the resort’s business, quality is essential. But so are traditions and in keeping with the local spirit of the place, Born has weekly specials: Friday is all you can eat shrimp and Saturday is prime rib night.
On summer weekends, the bar hosts a live local band and dancing.
But with all their offerings, Born and Johnstone are still attentive to the costs.
“The mission is to be affordable to everyone,” Born says. A night in one of the cabins can range from $55 to $125 and a dinner for two with drinks, appetizers and dessert is around $60. And although tourists are a big part of their customer base, the resort is being used more and more for weddings and rehearsal dinners. The Lodge is also host to more business retreats than other lodges in Montana.
For Born, who hails from West Virginia, the Bitterroot Mountains are the perfect back-drop for a low-key resort. Walking around the grounds, she muses on how the elk feed on this section of grass in winter or a mountain lion ran through here last week. It’s the kind of thing you expect from a lodges in Montana and its just that kind of wild character that sits just on the resort’s doorstep.
For more information on Lost Horse Creek Lodge, www.losthorsecreekLodge.com.
~ Greg Lemon is a reporter and freelance journalist in Hamilton.