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April 23, 2008

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Where's Carol?                                          Montana


Welcome to the wild, wild west
A trip to Bozeman, Big Sky and West Yellowstone offers more excitement and adventure than you can imagine!
By Carol Calicchio

It has long been my life's dream to visit a dude ranch in Big Sky, Montana with my children, Amanda and John. My husband Tom is so deathly allergic to horses that even if I leave my riding clothes in our room, his esophagus begins to close up in a matter of minutes. For years, I've been denied the chance to travel to a dude ranch with the kids and so when the opportunity arose, I didn't have to think twice. Never did I know that the trip would transform all of us, especially my son John. He didn't want to leave and wore his cowboy outfit the entire time, except for his daily hot bath, of course.

So come along with us on our fantastic journey to Bozeman, Big Sky and West Yellowstone. We will travel alongside sparkling rivers wrapped around the impressive Rocky Mountains, where moose and bison lumber along the side of twisting country roads. We will see wild flowers, vintage trucks, sunsets like you see in the movies, fences that run for miles and lots of cowboys! When we get to the 320 Guest Ranch, watch out for the wild herd of horses running straight for you at a full gallop! But before we go, we have to get the right gear to look the part on the ranch. Ready? Put on your broken-in chaps and shiny spurs and give your horse a squeeze. Let's persevere and explore what's up ahead! Is that the skull of some large wild animal or could it be that we are getting closer to the Museum of the Rockies?

We left our warm beds at 4:30am and flew from the dreary Erie International Airport (ERI) into Minneapolis' St. Paul International Airport (MSP). The little plane gave us a bumpy ride, yet it seemed like in the blink of an eye, we had arrived.

The airport's dynamic architecture was dramatic and I felt like I was in a small European city. The tram hovered above quietly, like a vignette from Mr. Rogers' neighborhood. As my children and I trekked quickly to our next flight, I kept reminding myself: "Only two more legs of this trip and paradise awaits us." So far, the kids had been too tired to complain. I kept cracking the whip as if my children had harnesses on a dog sled and it worked! We looked like a bunch of sleepyhead pack mules with our laptops and carry-on bags. Suffice it to say, waking up at 5am is not our forte. Next time, we'll rehearse our new mantra: "Travel light, travel right."

Our flight to the regional Bozeman Airport (BZN) in Montana was painless and we slept most of the way, although the seats were tight and the flight attendants were curt. John's enthusiasm made the whole experience an easier one. Our sleepiness soon overrode on-board disturbances as we fell into our peaceful slumber in bizarre positions. It seemed like the whole plane had the same idea with the other passenger window shades down and the lights turned off. Fortunately, there were no babies or barking dogs on the flight.

Our two flights were two hours each and we had one more leg ahead of us, this time by road. It was a long day for us. But we stayed motivated. We kept imagining the picturesque 320 Guest Ranch and being up on those beautiful western horses, climbing those mountains in Montana!

We left the Bozeman Airport in a shuttle that took us to the Thrifty Car Rental, a few miles down the road. It was my first experience renting a car and it was a breeze. We rented a small white Ford and headed directly to the Best Western in Bozeman.

The Best Western is a regular hotel with a modest gym and an indoor pool. The staff was pleasant. The lobby had a nice stone hearth and a continental breakfast was included. The children spent time on their laptops and helping themselves to the free hot cocoa and yogurt. Our room was simple and the bathroom was small. The children enjoyed the pool and I worked out in the gym. Rates start at $139 in season and $94 in off-season. The Best Western City Center Hotel, 507 West Main Street, Bozeman, MT, 59715, Tel: 406-587-3158.

The next day, we met with our tour guide Donnie Sexton and she brought us to one of our favorite destinations of all time: The Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University.

For over 140 million years, dinosaurs ruled the earth. As the Rockies were forming, by creating layers of sediment, these great creatures were dying, making Montana the spot with the largest number of dinosaur discoveries in the United States.

Montana paleontologist Jack Horner made a very important discovery. He proved through his findings of fossil nests, hatchlings, eggs and other nearby nests, that dinosaurs were more like birds than reptiles. This theory has changed the way other leading paleontologists think. The theory that they were cold-blooded beasts could be entirely false. Mr. Horner's theory is that they were in fact warm-blooded and resembled the bird species by protecting their young and traveling together.

As we drove up the long driveway, the first thing we saw was J. Dolan's massive horse sculpture, which was spectacular in person. The Real Life Museum is a must-see for children and adults alike. It takes you back to a time when life was simpler, free of technology and dependent on handmade tools and living off the fat of the land. Local volunteers dress up as early settlers from a century ago and play the roles of working farmers. My children enjoyed picking apples in the orchard and washing them using the outside water pump under the large maple tree. The day couldn't have been more beautiful. The mountains were purple and majestic. I was snapping my camera in awe and breathing in the fresh, fragrant mountain air. Montana was everything I had ever dreamed it would be and much, much more!

We took a beautiful winding path with towering sunflowers in the garden and headed towards the Museum of the Rockies. The gift shop was outrageous! We could have spent hours in there, but we were tired and anxious to see the largest dinosaur exhibit in the world! It was nothing short of spectacular. Our host was just as excited as we were even though she had seen it dozens of times. I can still picture those flesh eating jaws gaping at every corner and large claws draping above us in the low-lit corridors. My kids were mesmerized by the drama and stayed close to me as we took in the most fascinating sights. The games were very creative. There was a dinosaur dig that Johnny loved. He came out of this rubberized sand pit with toys that he had unearthed, with a huge grin on his face. I noticed that Steven Spielberg was one of the many major donors to the museum. It was a fabulous exhibit from the lighting and layout to the educational vignettes. We also watched a 30-minute presentation on stars in the planetarium, which was also extremely educational. We ended our day with a picture in front of Tyrannosaurus Rex. And then, at last, we headed back to our hotel for a good night's sleep. Admission rates: Adults, $9.50; Children ages 5 to 18, $6.50; Children 4 and under, Free; Adults 65 and over, $8.50. The Museum of the Rockies, 600 W. Kayg Blvd., Bozeman, MT 59717, Tel: 406-994-DINO.

We ordered room service. The steaks and fries hit the spot. In the morning, we all worked on our laptops and sipped quietly on hot beverages. You could smell the smoke from the forest fires burning outside. The lobby had a cozy fireplace and the staff was so friendly. John had to have eggs Benedict so we stayed at the restaurant in the hotel for breakfast. It was so good that he ordered another. He loved the glass "boots" that the drinks came in. But there was no time to dawdle. When I asked Donnie the previous day, who could outfit us for the ranch, she said the best place is Murdoch's.

We piled into the rental car and headed down the road a few miles to Murdoch's Ranch and Equine supply store. When the kids and I walked into the store, we realized this was the Home Depot for horses! We went crazy. Our delightful saleswomen Betsey took us right to the hat and boot aisle and fixed us up in the latest styles. She was familiar with the 320 Guest Ranch and told us all about it. John was so excited that he ran from one aisle to the next until he had the whole cowboy outfit including cap guns! He looked snappy in his new western attire and was anxious to get to the ranch. Amanda looked so sweet in her pink ensemble. I left feeling so good about the first leg of our adventure! Murdoch's Ranch and Home Supply, 2275 N. 7th Ave, Bozeman, MT 59715, Tel: 406-586-8466.

After a pleasant one-hour drive, we pulled into the 320 Guest Ranch. We turned left over a rapid river and ventured over an old wooden bridge, where the sign 320 revealed our destination. We settled into our log cabin by the river and immediately headed out to the office to rent fishing poles. My children love to fish and the ranch has a stocked trout pond, conveniently located right next to our cabin. What we didn't see coming was this: 60 wild horses at a full gallop! A handsome young cowboy with a cleft chin and leather chaps yelled for us to run. He motioned for us to quickly take cover by the campfire pit. We all felt a little discombobulated in our new cowboy gear and didn't realize what was happening. He said, "Hey, I don't know about you guys, but I don't feel like getting run over by a herd of wild horses today, so move it!" So we just ran and followed the young cowboy, heading for shelter. My camera was around my neck. I swung my hands around the kids, made sure they made it to safety and then got on my knees and shot away! Yee haw, this was cowboy bliss! Dust flew everywhere! There were neighs and bucks and kicks and whinnies. Their thunderous hooves came sweeping by in a matter of seconds. We knew from the start that this was going to be an action-packed stay at the ranch and it was ... The 320 Guest Ranch is the real thing indeed!

After the dust settled, we had fishing lessons with Bob and unfortunately, did not catch a trout. Better luck next time! Back at the ranch, the dining hall was decorated with oversized Adirondack-styled furniture that was very inviting. The log timbers, huge stone hearth and large oil paintings of cowboy scenes and animal heads fit the look. Eventually, my children gravitated towards the pool table. The waiter informed us before we were seated for dinner that the most dangerous animal on the wall was the moose ... that it could take down a bear! I ordered the meatloaf, which was very gamey. It was made with beef, elk and bison. I liked it and loved the gravy and mashed potatoes. Amanda and John enjoyed their delicious pasta marinara meal as well.

What's interesting about the guest ranch is that it was originally two homesteads combined, which equaled 320 acres. It was originally a post office and then owned by Montana's first female pathologist and still houses many of her antiques. It's situated on the Gallatin River Canyon and is within an hour of America's oldest national park, Yellowstone. It's extremely family-friendly. And one thing that's unique about it is that at 7am and 5pm each day, they stop the highway traffic to move their herd of horses to and from the pasture for grazing purposes. What a sight to see!

Breakfast is served between 7am and 9am. We were up early and the air was cool. We put on our western attire and headed up to the breakfast hall. The decor consisted of heavy wooden western furniture and red-checkered tablecloths, lots of animal heads and very large windows overlooking the mountains. It was so great to be there! Their continental breakfast consisted of assorted freshly-baked muffins, toast, peanut butter, honey, jam, assorted juices, coffee, fresh fruit, cereal and oatmeal. We were scheduled for a two-hour ride at 11am and I couldn't wait to go. Outside, you could see the first trail riders heading out toward the mountain for the all-day ride. You could see elk and bobcats in the distance. The trail ride looked like fun. The riders had their lunches packed on the back of their saddles and everyone was smiling. I wanted to go, but Amanda and John are still a little young. Perhaps next year!

The barn had a true western flair and the horses were tied with feedbags, ready to go. The head wrangler, Marcel, introduced us to Andrew who would be our guide. He gave us some important tips and instructions regarding the "parking brake", turning your horse, etc. We hopped on our horses and off we went to the trail by the river. Another perfect day to be in Montana! The rush of the flowing river was loud but still tranquil. I felt like I was on top of the world, set in my comfortable saddle with my children, watching the fly fisherman next to us in their waders. There were songbirds up in the trees and curious squirrels with nuts in their mouths peering down at us. I felt as though I had stepped into their living room and was interrupting their breakfast. Once in a while, everyone deserves a special retreat with their children, away from all of the chaos that can dominate our everyday lives. Dreaded math tests, piano lessons and soccer practice all floated down the river during this relaxing journey. After our ride, we had a "sack lunch" (sandwich, drink, cookies, Hershey bar), which is only provided if you have an all-day ride or by special request. Most of the guests go exploring or rafting during lunchtime if they're not already on horseback. Before dinner, the children took a swim in the river and pretended to build their own homes. The cabins were beautifully built and situated alongside the river overlooking the mountains. It included a small living room with a fireplace, cable TV, full bath, one bedroom with a queen-sized bed and one with a double and a twin. There's also a pullout sofa in the living room.

It's located just north of West Yellowstone and just South of Big Sky Ski Resort. It's situated on the Gallatin River under tall pine trees, rocky mountains and crystal blue skies. The ranch offers snowmobiling, horseback riding, hiking, fishing, sightseeing, white water rafting and old-fashioned barbecues. This is a classic western guest ranch. It's geared towards family vacations but people also plan weddings here.

The cabins are affordable. Our cabin, the two-bedroom riverfront log cabin, features a small living room with a fireplace, an efficiency-style kitchen and one full bath. This cabin sleeps five. It costs $269 a week in high season. 320 Guest Ranch, located at Mile Marker 36 on Route 191, Tel: 800-243-0320.

Our river log cabin was very cozy and comfortable. At 6:45am I awoke and dressed, reaching spontaneously for my Nikon D50 camera. Glancing out the window, I caught a glimpse of the herd making their way down the steep tree-lined mountainside towards the ranch. I opened the door and could feel the cold air rush in. I shut it quickly, returning to the kids' room. They lay sleeping heavily. I nudged them and told them that I was going to photograph the herd and would be back in fifteen minutes. Then I dashed out the door.

As I bolted out of the cabin I could see that they had made it close to the road and I had to really haul it to make it to the bridge. Could I actually beat this massive herd traveling between 15 to 20 mph? Impossible. I ran as fast as my new boots and tight jeans could carry me. The cold air and high altitude attacked my lungs like a cold winter day on a ski lift. After passing the tenth cabin, I realized that I was completely out of breath and being an asthmatic, had done one of the stupidest things ever; I had left the house without my inhaler. Great! So I'm going to keel over and the staff will find me later that day by the bridge with my camera hoisted around my neck.

What a fool. It was too late to try and make it back since an attack was already coming on. I could come flailing out in front of the herd and hopefully some handsome cowboy could lift me up on his mount and ride me to the nearest hospital in Bozeman ... not! OK, just breathe deeply and let it pass. I have had only two attacks in my life and I was not going to wreck this photo op! Here comes the herd, trotting along the bridge and breaking into a slow canter. The wranglers are trying to contain them. Their strange yips and hollers are unfamiliar on this early morning. I look to the west and notice the sun just peering up above the mountains. What a glorious sight. So much excitement! I'm next to a tree the width of my 8-year-old son's torso. If the horses decide to come on either side of me, I'm cooked. Boy, I'm striking out big time this morning. Perhaps, some coffee would have helped to kick-start my brain. OK, I have five seconds to make my move; either chance the 60 horses coming straight at me or run for cover at the bridge. You can bet your last dollar I ran for the bridge. What was I thinking? The thunderous hooves beat by me and so do the wranglers in their colorful outfits, red handkerchiefs around their necks, traditional western shirts and the fringe on their chaps flying up in the clouds of dust.

The horses are fierce and whirl in fury as they rebel against the long hard day that lies ahead of them, leaving their serene pastures up in the mountainside. They kick and buck recklessly as I kneel down to get better shots of them. The herd is massive, commanding the grounds of the 320 Guest Ranch. This is the way it has been done for decades, perhaps centuries. I feel so vulnerable.

Our last full day at the ranch was special because we had signed up for a two-hour horseback ride. John rode second behind wrangler Andy and led twenty of us for an exhilarating mountain tour. At one point, we were going straight up and then across a waist-high field overlooking a breathtaking valley. On the way down, my kids got a kick out of watching my facial expressions since it was at least a 45-degree angle of rocks and streams. The good news is that we all made it safely and there were bartenders waiting and an old-fashioned riverside BBQ. The sun was setting and there was a covered wagon, which housed the feast. That night, we dined on corn on the cob, steaks, chicken, baked beans and mashed potatoes. The kids had hot dogs and hamburgers. My legs were so sore that when we dismounted and they took our horses, I asked, "Do we have to ride back?" and thankfully, the wrangler said, "No ma'am. There's a horse-drawn wagon that will bring you all back after dinner." Thank God. Dinner was divine. Everyone made friends and ate and drank happily. What more could you ask for?

The next morning, I was woken by my son, who was fully dressed in his cowboy gear and ready to move on to West Yellowstone. Montana offers many winter recreational sports and skiing is a huge attraction. Big Sky for instance, one of Montana's top destination resorts, boasts the highest vertical drop (4,350 feet) in the nation. It has three mountains and 150 trails. There's also superb cross-country skiing.

The drive to West Yellowstone was only an hour and extremely scenic. Our hotel, The Yellowstone Park Hotel, was brand new. The kids were thrilled because it was right in town, located directly across from The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. The center has been here since 1993. My kids could not contain themselves! There were so many educational vignettes describing the life of bears and everything you needed to know about safety, their diet and hunting laws. We also took some fun photographs of us on moose and bison and a steer (oh my!), at Big Sky Rides. The kids and I had a blast getting dressed up and posing in front of backdrops of the Wild West on these giant animals. You can get a 5x7 photo for $20; the price includes Western wear for a family of up to six.

One of the highlights of our trip was a tour of Yellowstone Park given by Randy Robertson, the owner of Yellowstone Vacations Buffalo Bus Tours at Yellowstone National Park. There's a fee of $25 per vehicle. This family-run business has been operating for 27 years.

DID YOU KNOW? 96% of Yellowstone is in Wyoming, 3% is in Montana and 1% is in Idaho.

Randy drove our car and gave us a magnificent tour of Yellowstone. He is a native of Yellowstone and his family has lived here for generations. It was so interesting to hear his take on Yellowstone. I couldn't write quickly enough. He is nice and informative. While going through the gates of Yellowstone, our eyes were as wide as tennis balls. When we saw the first buffalo on the side of the road, Amanda and John started screaming! They grabbed my camera and shot away! The buffalo was a foot from our car and just gave us a dumbfounded look and then ate some grass on the side of the road. Randy told us that every year, tourists get out of their cars to get close-up photos of buffalos and are badly injured when the animals charge. The kids quickly hid under their seats.

As we drove down the winding roads of Yellowstone, the scenery looked exactly like a black and white Ansel Adams poster. Amanda spotted a bald eagle in a nest. Randy gave them a sheet of paper with a checklist of all the animals they would see in the next four hours. The kids were ecstatic I could feel their adrenaline rushing through them! All the fussing to get here was worth this. Yellowstone was surely one of the highlights! One by one, the squares were checked off: Elk, bison, moose, bald eagle ... you name it, we saw it! This was more than a tour. It was an adventure! I highly recommend Randy as a tour guide! He showed us all of the exciting sights and gave us in depth explanations of everything. For more information call: 800-426-7669 or visit:

The Old Faithful Inn is the largest log cabin that is standing today. We went in for lunch and then watched the Old Faithful geyser go off, just when it was supposed to. I couldn't get over the architecture. I loved it! It hurtled us right back in time. I love that era, the Old West! We visited the falls, took photographs and saw more geysers. We walked until the kids couldn't walk anymore.

Our Wild West adventure was coming to a close. We drove from Yellowstone up to Belgrade, near the airport so we could catch an early flight home in the morning. We stayed the night at the Holiday Inn Express in Belgrade, MT. It was a nice hotel with a great staff, who actually offered to pick us up from the car rental company. The foyer was large with lots of animal heads and the usual amenities: hot and cold beverages, snacks and a computer with a large hearth nearby. We ate at the Madison River Italian Restaurant, which had fun young servers. The food was only OK but the music was great and the restaurant had a pleasing decor. Everyone was cheerful and the kids were happy, drawing on their placemats.

The best part about Montana is the people. They are all so warm and friendly. Everyone was so willing to help, and all with a big smile. I found them to be more laidback than people in most cities. I was sad to leave in the morning, when we hopped on a plane, ready to head back to our modest home in Pennsylvania. I wasn't ready to leave this wonderful paradise behind but we were fortunate enough to create a lifetime's worth of memories and already, I'm looking forward to returning to this beautiful patch of God's country, sometime very soon.

Carol Calicchio has been traveling for over 25 years and has a background in photography. Her passions are her family and traveling. She is a mother of two and has been married to Tom Calicchio for 17 years. Carol graduated from the New York School of Interior Design. She is an Allied member of the American Society of Interior Design (ASID) and is a board member at the Delray Beach Sandoway House. Carol loves to read and enjoys many outdoor sports including tennis, golf, skiing and horseback riding. Carol loves animals and has been an active member of the Humane Society. In the past, she has also helped find homes for many homeless animals on her Adopt-A-Pet TV segment.

Note: This trip was sponsored by the State of Montana.

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All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Pictures From

The Trip


Big Sky Montana


Ready to Ride!


Family Fun


I'm a Cowboy


Montana License Plate


Look Out, John Wayne!


Quiet Morning in Big Sky


Elk in Yellowstone


Traditional Cowboy on a Paint Horse


Marcel and His Son




Our Tour Guide Donnie Sexton


Bald Eagle


J. Dolan Sculpture


Real Life Museum


Firewater Falls in Yellowstone


Real Life Museum


Museum of the Rockies




Tourist with a Bison


T Rex With Kids


320 Guest Ranch


The Herd




Trail Ride Big Sky




Big Sky Trail Ride


Our Cabin


Our Kitchen at the Ranch


Dining Hall at the 320 Ranch


Trail Ride at the 320 Ranch


Trout Fishing


Getting Ready for the Ride


Holding up Traffic For the Herd to Cross


Faux Fur is In!


Baked Beans at the Farewell BBQ


Horses in Mountains 7am


Cowboys Herding Horses from Pasture




Amanda Jean


Draft Horses for Hay Ride


Cowboy on Mountain


Old Faithful


Up Close To Nature


Amanda and Johnny


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