Winter Getaways in Montana: Rainbow Ranch
July 30, 2010
Flurries of snow come from the south, out of Yellowstone National Park, driving hard toward our cabin on the Gallatin River.
Snowshoeing along the Gallatin River near Big Sky, Montana/Laira Fonner photo
The river out front is nearly frozen over, and only black rivulets and pools appear among the broken seams of ice. The flurries turn to a heavy snowfall, but inside our cabin we are protected and secure next to a glowing fireplace. By dawn, the clouds have given way to a brilliant blue sky, and with the departure of the snowstorm comes 20-below temperatures. The new fallen snow crunches as we load our snowshoe gear in the car and our jeans are frozen immediately into stiff stovepipes. We drive south toward Yellowstone National Park, looking for somewhere to snowshoe. Deep snow banks line the highway, and soon we find our quarry: a wide field of snow between us and the Gallatin River, where we trundle along on our webbed feet. After only an hour the bitter cold finally takes its toll on us, so we drive back to Rainbow Ranch, faces rosy, and spend the afternoon reading by the fire, knowing full well that a gourmet dinner this evening is our day’s reward.
We step into the main lodge at Rainbow Ranch and owner Patrick Hurd takes time out from his hosting duties to greet us. We enjoy martinis with a couple from Texas in front of the river rock fireplace, before Hurd seats us in the dining room. It’s elk medallions for me, prepared lean and rare with a rich sauce, while my companion chooses the escolar, a deeply flavored white fillet prepared elegantly.
A native of Vermont, Hurd is an affable gent with long hair, but his casual looks are only the cover to a serious businessman who is in the relentless pursuit of quality — from the food served in the dining room to the accommodations.
“My goal has been the same from the start,” Hurd says. “Not to open the best restaurant and hotel in Montana, but to create one that is on par with anything in the world. We want everyone to walk out of here and say ‘wow.’”
Those are big words, but Hurd seems to be pulling it off at this small but popular resort just a few minutes’ drive from Big Sky.
Part of being able to control quality means knowing what’s in every detail of the guest’s experience. The beef that’s served in the dining room is from a rancher who works directly with Rainbow Ranch. “I know the cow from start to finish,” Hurd says. “I know what he’s feeding it.” The elk comes from Black Canyon Ranch in nearby Idaho, the pork is from Livingston, Montana, and the buffalo comes from Butte. He never serves frozen fish, and although the Gallatin River runs right out the front door, you won’t find trout on the menu because Hurd can’t get it fresh.
The olive oil used for your tapenade appetizer is as fresh as you can get without living in Tuscany. It was pressed only two months before.
In the off-season (which for Rainbow Ranch is getting shorter and shorter), Hurd sends his sous chefs, line cooks and chefs to top restaurants and vineyards around the country, to help keep their skills (and palates) honed.
His pride and joy at Rainbow Ranch is the Bacchus Room, a wine cellar and private dining room downstairs of the main lodge. It’s here among the weeping stone walls that 8,000 bottles of wine rest, waiting to be uncorked. The wine selection of over 850 varieties has helped Rainbow Ranch earn Wine Spectator’s second-highest award several years running.
Hurd has been busy updating the 1953 building that has historic roots in the Gallatin River Valley. (It was once known as the Halfway Inn.) He’s just finished working on an addition below the lodge that will add five upscale suites to the resort, bringing the total to 21, including an elegant three-bedroom suite. The rooms are done in Montana style, with wood flooring, river rock accents and reclaimed barn wood walls. They look out over a pond and old barn, adding to the Montana mystique of the place.
Even on a below-zero winter day, Hurd can be found crunching around in the snow, shoveling off the ice skating pond or making sure the temperature in the large outdoor hot tub is just right. “I’ve never been complacent,” he says. “There’s always one thing more I can do.”