Welcome to the Wilderness by Kit Houghton for Horse and Rider.

This article was written after a visit to the Bitterroot Ranch in June 2003. We really think it captures the essence of the ranch from the perspective of a visitor.

houghton3Written by Kit Houghton for Horse and Rider.

Always wanted to get away from it all- with horses? Kit Houghton found a ranch in Wyoming where the welcome is warm, the horses wonderful, and the wilderness all around.

The herd grazes quietly as the morning sun creeps over the mountains. As the light hits the horses’ paddock, known as The  Bench, it races across the grass to illuminate the 100 horses as they feed. Mostly in pairs or small groups the horses cover the full gamut of colors from grey, bay, chestnut, appaloosa to paint. The heads go up as they hear a pony scrabbling up the steep track to their pasture. A miniscule Icelandic pony hooves into view ridden bareback by a wrangler. The pony circles round the herd with the wrangler hallooing the horses. Slowly they start to move then as the herd gathers momentum the horses merge into a storm of flying manes shot through with the early morning light; teeth are bared, hooves fly as old rivals get too close, then pell-mell the horses shoot out of their paddock and descend to the ranch, passing the duck pond some pause for a quick drink then onto the corral where the horses re-arrange themselves, groups and pairs reconstituting themselves. The day has started for the riding horses of Bitterroot Ranch.

houghton1Bitterroot Ranch is not the sort of place you would idly visit or pass by. Situated at the end of a 17 mile dirt road, its nearest town is Dubois, Wyoming.  Pass by Bitterroot and you are into the Shoshone National forest part of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, covering 6 million acres.

The home of Bayard & Mel Fox for over 30 years, Bitterroot sits at the foot of the Absaroka mountains (Crow in the Indian language). It is a guest ranch meaning it takes visitors who wish to ride horses as opposed to the Dude Ranch, which generally throws in a bit of riding with square dancing, hay rides, cowboy poetry and other spurious activities.

houghton7In those 30 years Mel, who was born in East Africa and educated in England, has formed a herd of over 100 horses giving each guest visiting the ranch 4 horses to ride over their holiday period assuming the ranch has its full quota of guests. These horses are mostly Quarter horses, Arabs, Arab crosses and Mustangs one of which joined the ranch straight from the wild. Mel’s other obsession is breeding pure-bred Arabs to produce a suitable temperament for trail riding. She has two stallions and a number of mares.

Holidays at Bitterroot run from late June until the end of September and the horses who spend the winter at another property at lower altitude (the ranch is at 7,300 feet 2,300 meters) are trucked in for their four months work.  Above the ranch is a plateau known as the Bench covering 120 acres, it is an idyllic area for horses to graze crisscrossed with irrigation ditches, and divided into two paddocks. As the horses come into the farmyard in the mornings, they are greeted by a host of birds ranging from peacocks geese turkeys, ducks and chickens.

In an adjoining paddock two llamas whose job it is to guard a flock of Barbary sheep from the coyotes gaze imperiously at the morning rush.

Once the horses are corralled the wranglers select the horses for the day’s ride the remainder being returned to the Bench. This natural method of keeping horses has produced one of the most amicable, stable and cooperative bunch of horses I have ever encountered. Guests who stay on the ranch in cabins dotted around the property will have breakfasted in the communal dining room of the main ranch house before being introduced to their horses and taken on the morning ride. With such a variety of trails it is  seldom that the same route is taken twice and some visitors who return a second year still discover they are on new rides.

Situated in what can only be called Marlboro country, in fact several commercials for the cigarette have been filmed there, the views are superb. Climb above the ranch and look down onto the east Fork of the Wind River which curls past the ranch and offers great fishing  then up to the mountain ridges, the tortured contours of hills long ago scraped by glaciers, down steep rocky  escarpments and across to the elk refuge a flat area of land teeming with elk in the winter as they escape the winter snows. The place names on the ranch are reminiscent many Western films  such as Buffalo Draw, Bone Lake, John Wayne Gorge and Butch Cassidy’s cabin – the latter being discovered only three years ago by Bayard despite years of searching. Some of the artifacts from the cabin have been carbon dated and fit exactly with the Butch Cassidy era and was assumed to be one of his hideaways. Bone Lake is almost lunar in appearance with strange mounds of volcanic clay called Bentonite, which seem to have burst from the ground and contain many dinosaur bone relics which can be picked up on one of the rides.

Mel Fox assess the riders each week and creates groups according to abilities. There is an opportunity for lessons on two mornings each week where the riders can brush up on skills or get familiar with Western riding. These lessons are videoed and are viewed after dinner causing some mirth amongst the viewers. There are two rides a day with a break for lunch back at the ranch. There is also an all day ride where packed lunches are carried. Riding pace will depend on the riders’ abilities, and the stocky sure-footed quarter horses carry their burdens with little effort. There are plenty of areas to canter but also areas where the only way is nose to tail due to the rugged terrain.

houghton4Bitterroot derives it name from a small plant which blooms in early July. For the botanically minded Lewisia Redviva or Purslane. This creeping plant is a mass of pink flowers and covers the pastures along with many other alpine flowers. Most of the land which is too stony to cultivate is covered in sage brush, a pungent version of its culinary cousin and all but inedible to grazing animals except in times of dire shortage. To contain the stock buck & pole fencing is used. This type of fencing resembles giant saw-horses laid end to end and is peculiar to this part of the mid-West. The advantage of buck & pole is that as the fencing sits on the ground there is little trouble from rotting and for the more salient reason that a lot of Wyoming is so rocky it would be nigh on impossible to drive in fencing posts. Wildlife is abundant in the mountains with elk, deer, bear, coyotes and many bird species including the mountain Blue Bird who flashes past in a streak of iridescent color. The occasional bear has been known to visit the ranch causing some consternation amongst the guests. Wild horses are not common in this area being further across the range on the Indian reservation home to the Shoshone and Arapahoe Nations.

As mentioned before one of these wild horses joined the herd at Bitterroot of her own accord. Three Spot as she became known, was first seen when she would come galloping up to some of the rides before taking off into the hills again. It became obvious that she had lost her herd. Later when some young horses were turned away to the hill she joined them and came back to the corral when they were rounded up again. She was quite happy living with the herd as long as no humans came within eight feet of her. One day she became involved in a scrap over a salt lick and suffered a punctured esophagus. This had to be treated with drugs and started to heal, but she suffered a relapse which left her unable to drink even water without whinnying in pain. The decision was reluctantly taken to destroy her. On the morning the vet came Mel tried one last time to feed her with some fresh cut grass. She took this and was able to swallow. A stay of execution was called and Three Spot never looked back.  She is now a regular mount for guests and aged around seven.

Rides are led by the wranglers. These are not leathery tobacco chewing cowboys but mostly very attractive college graduates brought up on ranches. For all their charm and informed commentary on the rides, beware their wrath if a rider should commit the cardinal sin of getting ahead of the wrangler. Safety is taken seriously at Bitterroot and all guests are required to wear hard hats.

Three meals are served a day in the main ranch house, with wine before and during dinner. There is a pool room and TV den. For those wishing to soak away the aches of a day’s riding hot tubs are available outside the cabins.  Amongst the menagerie of animals, deer hounds and Labradors greet guests enthusiastically on the lawn in front of the ranch house and the dogs can be seen accompanying Mel as she makes her feeding rounds in Archie a very ancient Chevrolet truck.

houghton6Bayard who is 74 and the master of several languages, busies himself with many tasks around the property helped by son Richard who will take over the ranch in due course. Richard is in charge of the lower property where the horses over-winter, and Bayard pursues his other business interest Equitours, the American Horse Riding Travel Company based in Dubois, and much of the winter is taken with Mel and Bayard trying out rides in far flung locations.

For an opportunity to sample western riding, see some spectacular country and just revel in the solitude and calm of the wilderness Bitterroot Ranch is hard to beat. The ranch can be accessed from Jackson Hole airport (2 hour drive) or Riverton via Denver (1 hour drive). The direct drive from Denver takes 8 hours. A taxi service is available from Riverton and Jackson or a rental car can be taken.