Bar W guests think they are miles away from civilization when they finally reach the lodge located on Spencer Lake after the beautiful drive into the ranch. Mountains and rolling ridges in all directions surround this cozy ranch with 3,000 acres for riding and all sorts of wilderness activities. First-time visitors are often surprised to learn that just 3.5 miles away from the ranch’s confines is Whitefish, once an old logging and railroad town that has transitioned to an upscale resort community because of its proximity to Big Mountain, Glacier National Park (23 miles to the east), and world-class golf courses.
The Bar W opened this past summer under the direction of Managing Partner Dave Leishman and Bill Beck, the Ranch Manager, who operated the Bear Creek Guest Ranch in East Glacier for 21 years. It is new compared to other Montana lodges. Leishman, an entrepreneur with experience in the hospitality industry, hopes to position the Bar W at the heart of what’s rapidly becoming known as a four-season vacation playground in northwest Montana.
Leishman’s partners include his wife Janet; his brother Greg; Phil Dukes, owner of the Double D Guest Ranch in Blairstown, N.J.; and Beck. The combination of strong business savvy, a knowledgeable and experienced staff, and a ranch that really has it all for both summer and winter seasons, is the Bar W’s solid foundation.
“We truly have something for everyone year-round here. In the summer, you can come for the trail riding, the fishing, the golf. In winter, it’s a skier’s paradise and more,” Leishman said.
The options for outdoor activity are manifold at the family-friendly Bar W. Guests are encouraged to explore all the areas of the ranch and observe the deer, moose, geese, bears, eagles, coyotes and other abundant wildlife. But what clearly sets this ranch apart from others is that guests can choose to have the true Montana wilderness experience and yet be close enough to a vibrant town to take advantage of great shopping, fine dining, theater, and nightlife.
Leishman and Beck have assembled a friendly and experienced 0staff that offers riding lessons for novices all the way up to those who may have cowboy ambitions and might want to team pen, sort cattle, and even rope. “Even the most hardened of city slickers will feel at home in the saddle after a few sessions with The Bar W’s wranglers,” Beck said. And once that happens, the entire million or so acres where the Bar W holds permits becomes available for the guests’ riding pleasure.
In the colder months, skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers head for the adventure of Big Mountain, one of the 10 largest ski resorts in the country. In addition, the Bar W has partnered with Valhalla Adventures for a backcountry skiing experience of epic proportions in untracked Montana powder on Stryker Ridge. The Bar W is also working with snowmobile and dogsled adventure outfitters just down the road from the ranch.
Right from the back door, guests can take sleigh rides, go cross-country skiing, hike in snowshoes, bird watch, ice fish and much more than other Montana lodges. All the options comprise what the staff at the Bar W likes to call “The Montana Experience.” An experience Leishman hopes will keep people coming back the way he has since his first trip to Montana five years ago.
Leishman is the President of two other businesses, which he started from the ground up. He admits that while working long hours to get the companies off the ground, he rarely made the time to escape the rigors of the office.
In the summer of 2000, Leishman was looking for a way to stave off an attack of burnout and finally take his two elder, yet still young daughters, on a father-daughter vacation. But he didn’t want to wait in lines at the theme parks or lie on a crowded beach somewhere, surrounded by the chaos he longed to escape.
Phil Dukes, Leishman’s long-time friend and now partner in the ranch, persuaded him to try Bear Creek Ranch operated by Bill Beck. “We really hadn’t had much riding experience at all and I was a bit nervous about a week of full-day riding,” said Leishman.
In the spirit of Montana hospitality, Beck worked with Leishman and the girls on their horsemanship skills, and in no time they all were riding to the top of ridges, where they could gaze at the Big Sky countryside for 130 miles in every direction.
“We went up ridges and down ridges that I never imagined a horse could go” said Leishman.
It turned out to be a vacation for the ages – one of those life-changing, priority-altering experiences many people wait a lifetime for. Leishman was hooked.
So much so that the former excellent skier and outdoorsman decided after a few more visits that an annual excursion to Montana was not enough for him. He wanted a ranch of his own, a place where he could help people live the same experience he did on his first visit. He knew that Beck had left his ranch after two decades and approached him about this new venture.
“Our initial Montana experience with Phil and Bill was one that will last a lifetime and it lived up to everything that Phil represented it would be,” Leishman said. “My girls and I drew a lot closer and it created an adventure for us to share year after year. The girls looked forward to it every summer.
“Now every year, our crowd gets bigger: my wife Jan and my youngest daughter, more family, more friends, our daughters’ friends,” Leishman continued. “Our goal at the Bar W is to help people fall in love with Montana the same way we did.”
To keep visitors coming back, Leishman and Beck know they have to get them to the Bar W first. In addition to locating the ranch in an area that has it all, one of the biggest aspects of the Bar W’s appeal is the horses. The ranch emphasizes its stable of trained equines and its riding instruction for all levels of experience as its main attraction.
The full-week vacation on horseback begins with the proper matching of each guest to one of the Bar W’s well-trained ranch horses, followed by a morning horsemanship clinic. The clinic is designed to help each guest begin to get their “seat.” Emphasis is always placed on the safety of the guests and the welfare of the horses. By the end of the first morning, Beck says guests will be doing barrel patterns in the arena and be ready to start “putting on the miles.”
Rides during the course of the week can incorporate a variety of horses. Or if a guest finds a horse, they like and want to request it for the entire week, trainers at the Bar W are happy to oblige.
Riding in the mountains is normally more deliberate, with attention paid to moving up and down in elevation while keeping an eye open for wildlife and the next spectacular view of the Rockies just ahead. Riding the foothills is generally a more aggressive, faster ride moving through more open country in a trot or lope.
Guests will begin to recognize names like the Flathead, Swisher Lake, Trumble Canyon, Two Medicine, Tally Lake and the Marias Rivers. Finally, if guests go for the Bar W “adventure in an adventure,” they will ride the wide-open prairie of the Blackfeet Reservation where they will think they have arrived at heaven on earth as they take in a true glimpse of “purple mountains majesty.” Furthermore, if during the ride there are cattle to be moved that week, guests will have the opportunity to feel like they have jumped back in time to an era when life was difficult, but simple - no cell phones, faxes, e-mails or personal data assistants.
The Bar W offers plenty of other options for those interested in more than horses. Spencer Lake, located on the ranch itself, is “loaded with great perch and big pike,” Beck said. Other nearby rivers and streams contain “the trout you’ve been dreaming about catching,” he added. Fishing season peaks in the fall season.
Nearby Whitefish Lake (just 2 miles down the road) or Flathead Lake (a 30-mile drive from the ranch) offer visitors the option of an all-day trip for boating, fishing, sailing or just a change of scenery. Staff at the Bar W offer to organize such side trips for their visitors, and can even put them in touch with area guides who can accompany them on adventures in any unfamiliar territory.
The Bar W’s robust portfolio of warm-weather outdoor activities also includes nearby options for whitewater rafting, hot air ballooning, walking in the tree tops (yes, in the tree tops), golfing and more.
As the mercury drops and the flakes begin to fall, a whole new playground awaits visitors as skiers and snowboarders can delight in the area’s signature slopes. Big Mountain Ski Resort is just a seven-mile drive away. Having skied and competed at some of the very best ski areas in the world, Leishman rates the terrain and snow at Big Mountain and with Valhalla Back Country Adventures right at the top. “Guests will be pleased,” he says.
Even as winter approaches, the horse-riding activities continue thanks to the Bar W’s state-of-the-art heated indoor arena. The ranch’s barn and arena can stall up to 30 horses and many of the local Flathead County residents board their horses at the Bar W while also utilizing the indoor and outdoor arenas.
The ranch has been a temporary home to quarter horses, Thoroughbreds, Appalloosas, Tennessee walkers, Ponies, Warmbloods, and others. The locals in the area ride and train their respective mounts and often use the in-house trainers at the ranch to improve their own riding skills.
When the weather is too cool for visitors to ride comfortably outside, the arena takes the chill off and provides a perfect antidote for the winter doldrums. The Bar W also rents out the arena as a venue for special events like dances, meals, auctions, corporate events – even weddings.
The Bar W ranch packages include accommodations, incredible meals, maid service, all ranch activities and facilities, horse and tack, guided trail riding, rodeo action, cookouts, use of boats, hiking wilderness areas, fishing on the lake – essentially the run of the property. They also offer overnight accommodations with a hearty breakfast for those just passing through.
“We were elated with how our first year turned out and the number of guests that came to stay and ride with us” Beck said.
He went on to say that “when the guests see the ranch, they fall in love with it. We treat each guest with typical Western hospitality. Our goal is to make guests feel at home from the minute they arrive to long after they have left. It is easy to get here – it’s leaving here that is hard.”
Coming up for 2006, to complement the 6,200-square-foot lodge that sleeps 18 to 22, the Bar W is building new cabins. In addition, the ranch has expanded the amount of terrain for riding, developed theme weeks such as cattle drives and overnight campouts, and partnered with local outfitters to provide guests with a vacation they will remember fondly for a long time to come. Contact the Bar W Guest Ranch at 866-828-2900.