Yellowstone National Park guide

Waterfalls, bison, and geysers: plan the ultimate trip through Montana and Wyoming

Unforgettable Yellowstone family vacation

Waterfalls, bison, and geysers: an ultimate family trip through Montana and Wyoming

Montana Wyoming road trip

A view to marvel at: Lower Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Brown Cannon III

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Here we are, sitting cross-legged on a bluff overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The bluff slopes down to the canyon rim, where, hundreds of feet below, the Yellowstone River churns, blurred by mist.

We have watercolors, paper, and brushes, which we daub into small cups. I'm hoping to capture the grandeur of the view but worry that combined artistic fervor and clumsiness will send me rolling down the slope over the edge of the canyon.

My wife and 8-year-old son sit uphill, painting, unaware of the danger. My wife contemplates a picturesquely twisted pine. My son gazes out at the canyon with a look of grave concentration.

He asks me, "Do you think Tony Hawk could skateboard down this?"

He lifts his brush, ready to add a skateboarding Tony to his landscape. Then he reconsiders.

"There are a lot of obstacles," he says. "It would be pretty hard."

A delusion of parenthood is that you can instill your own passions in your offspring. In fact, it's often a doomed battle, but you keep trying. We had been spending too much time in crowded, confined, urban places. I wanted us to see something big.

I mapped a summer vacation. I drew a 600-mile route centered around Yellowstone National Park. Two big states ― Wyoming and Montana ― with big mountains, big rivers, big geysers, big skies. My son watched, then went back to his Japanese cartoon show, where spiky-haired kids threatened to destroy one another's life force.

Well, never mind. Soon enough we are driving a big car down a big highway in Montana, headed for two weeks of vacation, starting at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Emigrant, Montana.

Many people believe they aren't "guest ranch" people in the same way they insist they aren't "dance the Electric Slide at weddings" people. That is true of my wife, whose previous horse encounters have been limited to riding ponies around in circles at children's birthday parties. She sits in the front seat, glancing nervously at Mountain Sky's welcome letter: "Micki, our head wrangler, will spend some time with each of you to talk about your riding ability and past encounters."

She throws the letter down on the car seat. "I don't want to talk with Micki about my past riding experiences."

Then we arrive. The best way to describe Mountain Sky is that it is how God would design a guest ranch if he had the money. High up in the Gallatin Range, warmly elegant cabins and a sprawling log lodge are set among regal pines. The guests are sophisticated, accomplished lawyers and doctors and investment bankers who have been riding for years, who live to ride.

Oh, and us.

The get-acquainted meeting is like the first day at summer camp. How long, I wonder, will it take before everyone realizes we are dorks?

But we have a wonderful time. We love everything: the riding, the food, the kids' programs, the other guests. The great thing about a guest ranch is that all the hard choices are made for you, leaving you all the easy, fun decisions. Yoga or fly-fishing lesson? Afternoon ride or nap?

As for the riding instruction, from wranglers Micki Cleary and Mark Rose, it is phenomenal. We are matched to three fine horses, Connie, Miss Ellie, and Amigo, who are gentle with us beginners but who can be encouraged to trot stirringly up mountain meadows. By the second day, my wife is spurring Connie expertly across fast-flowing streams and my son, on Amigo, is trotting along, cackling, "This is fun! Isn't this fun? Did you ever think it would be this fun?"

On our last morning, we ride along Big Creek and can see, to the west, Windy Pass high in the Gallatins. If there is a nicer place to be on a summer morning we cannot, at that moment, imagine what it could be.


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