Are you looking for the best family dude ranch Montana has to offer? Look no further because this post has what you need! Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, located in the Gallatin Gateway, Montana is the best family dude ranch for so many reasons.
It offers a quiet simplicity, authentic dude ranch experience that brings families back year after year. In fact, our family first visited this family-owned ranch in the summer of 2020 on a three-week road trip that included stops at Glacier National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Vail, Colorado.
While I had always wanted to visit a dude ranch, I thought this would be a “one-time” experience. None of us had ever been on horses before, and we are self-declared “city slickers.”
But to all our surprise, it was one of the most memorable, special, and unique experiential vacations our family has ever had. The warm western hospitality was beyond our expectations with lasting memories for our family.
Electronic free, with limited wifi, no TV, and limited cell service, it was an old-fashioned vacation with only the ranch and other guests to focus on. This family dude ranch in Montana was deemed by our kids “the best vacation they had ever had.”
In fact, not only did we return in 2021, we are already booked for 2023!
Read this Nine Quarter Circle Dude Ranch review to find out what makes this Montana dude ranch one you don't want to miss!
This post contains affiliate links which means I receive a small commission at no cost to you if you make a purchase using this link. See my disclosures.
About Family Dude Ranches
Whenever I tell someone about our phenomenal dude ranch vacation, some people ask “What's a dude ranch?” All I ever knew was what I saw on the movie “City Slickers.”
But dude ranches offer so much more than that. In its broadest definition, dude ranch vacations are all-inclusive stays at a working cattle or guest ranch. Some are a bit more simple, like Nine Quarter Circle Ranch which offers horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, and guest activities.
Dude ranches can offer a wide variety of activities from horseback riding and working with the cattle to learning about the local area and culture, to enjoying the great outdoors. Many dude ranches are located in the western United States, but they can be found in other locations as well.
Most people are familiar with Wyoming and Montana dude ranches, especially with the popularity of the TV show Yellowstone. And if you want to embrace your inner Dutton family spirit, then Montana dude ranches are the way to go!
Why Families Love Dude Ranch Montana Vacations
There are many reasons why dude ranch vacations are popular with families. First and foremost, it offers a chance to slow down from the hectic pace of everyday life and connect with nature – and each other.
Dude ranches are also a great opportunity to learn new skills or improve upon existing ones, enjoy an outdoor adventure, and discover a different way of life. At Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, our family learned how to ride horses, went fly fishing, and enjoyed many other outdoor activities we wouldn't have otherwise had the chance to do. We even learned how to square dance!
It is also a very communal experience. During our week stay both years, we got to meet so many wonderful people from around the world. You spend time together on rides, chatting at family-style meals, at happy hour, and during activities.
It's also a great way to explore different parts of the country – or the world. In Big Sky country in Montana, you can see all kinds of wildlife watching, enjoy outdoor activities, fly fish, enjoy bird watching, and many are near some of the world's best national parks. It is a true experiential American West vacation the whole family can enjoy.
Because dude ranch vacations are typically all-inclusive, it's easy to budget for your trip. And, most importantly, it's a great opportunity to disconnect from technology and electronic devices and just enjoy quality family time.
Guest Ranch VS Dude Ranch
There is some confusion about the difference between a dude ranch and a guest ranch. And while there are some similarities, there are also key differences.
A dude ranch vacation is typically all-inclusive with food, lodging, and activities included in the price of your stay. Meals are often served family style in a common dining area.
At a dude ranch, you will likely enjoy learning a lot about ranch life including learning and caring for the horses. And, typically, dude ranch dates are week to week.
A guest ranch is similar to a dude ranch in that it's a working horse or cattle ranch that offers lodging, food, and activities for guests. However, a guest ranch is not all-inclusive – meaning you would pay separately for your food and activities or you may be able to book for a single or few nights' stay.
Guest ranches also typically have more high-end amenities than dude ranches and the activities offered are often geared more towards adults. And, a guest ranch is likely to have a variety of non-ranch activities like tennis courts, mountain biking, spa treatments, etc.
About Nine Quarter Circle Ranch: The Best Dude Ranch in Montana for Families
Now there are so many great locations when you are looking for a Montana dude ranch. And if you talk to anyone who has been to one before they are different.
As noted above, some are more guest ranch style, with a range of amenities, from spa treatments to glamping to indoor riding and more. Others are traditional or even have cattle drives. Typically horseback riding is offered at all of them.
But here is what makes Nine Quarter Circle Ranch stand out in my opinion.
Authentic Montana Dude Ranch
Nine Quarter Circle Ranch has been exactly the same for over 100 years. It has been in the same Kelsey family for over 75 years. Currently, it is being run by the third generation.
Located only about 30 minutes from the West Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, in Big Sky country, Nine Quarter Circle Dude Ranch in Montana is surrounded by over 2,000,000 acres of National Forrest and mountain ranges. That means that some of those breathtaking views you will see on your rides are part of the rocky mountains, which are jaw-dropping beautiful on horseback.
Its location also makes it ideal for adding a national park stay before or after your rance vacation. And, you could also visit Glacier National Park before or afterward as it is only a six-hour drive. Bozeman is about 90 minutes drive and Big Sky Ski Resort is under one hour.
Acres of Breathtaking Views
The Kelsey family owns all of the lands on which you will be riding. There are several Montana dude ranches in the area that have to transport guests to other locations for the rides.
But at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, all of the rides are on trails directly from the ranch to see glorious mountain views. The ranch is surrounded by over 2 million acres of the national forest giving it a unique natural setting and epic wildlife viewing.
Warm Western Hospitality
At the ranch, you enjoy some of the most welcoming western hospitality you can hope for. Lodging in rustic cabins with quilts handmade by Kelly Kelsey on the cozy beds, with individual fireplaces, you get a great night's sleep in cozy cabins under the Montana stars.
Meals of fine dining and homemade cuisine by gourmet chefs are ready when the bell is rung, where you can enjoy talking about your day of horseback riding, fly fishing, hiking, or visiting nearby Yellowstone National Park.
After dinner in the main lodge, guests and wranglers participate in ranch activities which range from softball to wagon rides, a ride in a 1930's Yellowstone Tour Bus, to square dancing. Hosting guests has been a family business for over 75 years, and the Kelsey family knows how to do it right.
You very much feel like a welcomed guest in their home, which is their ranch. They go above and beyond to ensure every ranch guest feels welcomed and taken care of, dining with you, riding with you, and inviting you to their home.
Diverse Horseback Riding Program
Whether you are a kid or adult, new to riding, or very experienced, Nine Quarter Circle ranch offers diverse horseback riding program for all guests. All rides are led by experienced wranglers.
Prior to your arrival, you can complete some information about your level, the type of horse you like, and the types of rides you enjoy. You will be assigned a horse based on these criteria and your size, ensuring you are appropriately matched.
Kids ages 6 to 9 join the “Kiddie Wranglers” on rides where they can learn to ride and control the horse. Typically kids are paired with older horses and ride on simple trails in small groups.
Guests can sign up for morning and afternoon rides, and at the level they are comfortable. There are a few special rides, including an evening dinner ride to a picnic meal, an overnight pack trip, to a more advanced ride led by either Kim or Kam Kelsey (father or sun) to much higher and advanced terrain. It is an all-day ride designed for highly experienced riders but is said to be magnificent.
My kids learned so much from riding with kiddie wranglers that they were able to participate in Gym Khanna (rodeo games) at the end of the week the first time we visited. Our son and my husband took part in the overnight pack trip, which included horseback riding to a campsite, setting up camp, enjoying an evening under Montana stars, and riding home the next day.
You Become Family At This Montana Dude Ranch
A week at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch is enough time to become like family. In fact, you get to know the Kelsey family members and Wranglers, and they get to know you. The guests come together with a common interest in experiences on the rides.
Many families return to Nine Quarter Circle Ranch year after year, it is that special. And about midway through the year after your visit, the kids receive a letter and a horseshoe souvenir from their horse. It is such a wonderful touch and truly solidifies that at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch, you aren't just a guest – you are family.
Housing At Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
As noted above, guests of the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch are housed in lovely rustic cabins depending on your party size. These range from smaller to larger, with many able to accommodate a multigenerational family.
Our cabin included three bedrooms plus two lofts with bunk beds and two bathrooms. We could easily fit 12 people into our cabin. But it was nice and spacious.
The doors remain unlocked, which our kids loved. As their rides would end, they would run into and out of the cabin as they needed. Most of the time they wanted to hang out on the playground with the other kids.
Dining At Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Guests are treated to three meals a day, included in your stay. Breakfast and lunch are served family-style in the lodge, with dinner being served family-style at tables at the guest ranch house.
Kids often sit together, often with the Kiddie Wrangler managing the meal. This way adults can enjoy conversation and talk about their day.
You start each morning with a hearty breakfast, often eggs cooked to order, pancakes or french toast, bacon or sausage, oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, cereal, pastries, muffins, juice, coffee, and tea.
Lunch is a lighter meal, often a soup or salad starter with a main course of sandwiches, burgers, or hot dogs off the grill, grilled chicken, or fish. There are always side dishes and dessert.
Dinner each night is a little more formal, with a starter, salad, main course, and dessert. One night we had Thanksgiving dinner, another night we had lasagna, another night chicken cordon bleu
The food is all delicious, and there is always more than enough. If you have any dietary restrictions or preferences, just let them know in advance and they will be happy to accommodate you.
Activities For Families At Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
In addition to horseback riding, there are many activities for families at the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch.
The kids loved the playground, which included a swing set, slide, and a seesaw. They also enjoyed going on hayrides, seeing the baby horses, playing tag on the property, or just hanging out at the main guest ranch house. Each guest is known by name, and often the kids get to “ring the meal bell!”
Adults can enjoy fishing, hiking, or just relaxing and enjoying the scenery. You can sign up for a fly fishing course as a group and then enjoy world class fly fishing in blue ribbon fishing streams in lieu of one of the rides if you choose.
Some guests opt to visit Yellowstone National Park, hike in the National Forest, go whitewater rafting in the Gallatin river, or book scenic river rafting. These activities are not part of the ranch, but they can help you with where and how to book them.
Evening group activities include a dinner ride and picnic meal, square dancing, softball, and a ride in a 1930's Yellowstone Park tourist car.
Sample Weekly Schedule at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
- 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. Breakfast
- 9:00 a.m. Morning Ride
- 12:00 p.m. Lunch
- 2:00 p.m. Afternoon Ride/Fly Fishing
- 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Happy Hour for adults (kids enjoy the playground with Kiddie Wrangler)
- 5:45 p.m. Youth Dinner with Kiddie Wrangler
- 6:30 p.m. Adult Dinner
Sample Weekly Activities at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
- Sunday: Arrival Day
- Monday: Guest and Crew Softball Game
- Tuesday: Optional Half Day Ride for Intermediate/Advanced Riders & Family Evening Ride and Picnic
- Wednesday: Optional Overnight Pack Trip & Remaining Guests Enjoy Kelsey House Reception/Ride in 1932 Yellowstone Tour Bus
- Thursday: Optional Full Day Ride Intermediate/Advanced Riders & Kids Enjoy All Day Picnic
- Friday: Gym Khana Rodeo Games with Awards in Day & Square Dancing in Hayloft Barn in the Evening
What Makes Nine Quarter Circle Ranch Family Friendly
In addition to what I have mentioned above, this ranch is structured with family in mind. The cabins are large and comfortable, with plenty of room to spread out.
Meals are family-style, and kids become like cousins with the other kids staying at the ranch. They WANT to eat with the Kiddie Wrangler and other kids. And as soon as they are done, they run to the playground!
There are many amenities for families, including:
- Daycare/babysitting for kids too young to ride
- Onsite laundry
- High Chairs/Cribs
- Kiddie Wrangler
- Rides for kids ages 6-9 and a full day picnic for kids
- Kid-friendly meals
Additional Montana Dude Ranches To Consider
I love Nine Quarter Circle Ranch and I recommend it to my friends and family. But each guest ranch and Montana dude ranch is different.
Some Montana dude ranches are family owned, while others are owned by corporations, and many are historic places. What guest ranch works best for you will depend a lot on what you have in mind. If you want to compare and contrast the best dude ranch or guest ranch for your family, here are a few in Montana you may want to also consider:
Mountain Sky Guest Ranch
Located in the foothills of the Big Belt Mountains, starting at Paradise Valley, this dude ranch is perfect for families who love horseback riding and the great outdoors. Mountain Sky Guest Ranch also offers kids' programs, so your little ones will be entertained while you enjoy the ranch's amenities. In addition to traditional ranch activities, at Mountain Sky Guest Ranch you can enjoy some luxuries like yoga, golf, skeet shooting, white water rafting, and more.
Paws Up Resort
This luxury dude ranch is perfect for families who are looking for a high-end experience, about 35 minutes from Missoula. Paws Up Resort offers 70,000 acres of land for you to explore, as well as a variety of activities and amenities including glamping and cattle drives, fishing in mountain streams, and more. You can also find accommodations here that include a private hot tub, television, and working wi fi, unlike some of the other ranches that are more off the grid.
JJJ Wilderness Ranch
If you're looking for a dude ranch that offers a little bit of everything, JJJ Wilderness Ranch in Central Montana is a great option. This all-inclusive dude ranch offers horseback riding, world class fishing, hiking, and more.
Hawley Mountain Guest Ranch
This dude ranch is perfect for families who love to spend time in the great outdoors just north of Yellowstone National Park. In addition to horseback riding, Hawley Mountain Guest Ranch also offers fishing, hunting, and hiking.
This historic guest ranch, also in the Gallatin Gateway is known for its delicious food! A smaller ranch accommodating about 40 guests, Elkhorn Ranch is also known for hikes in the national forest, blue ribbon fly fishing, and cozy cabins with Western hospitality and style. If you are looking for a small, intimate guest ranch, Elkhorn Ranch is one to check out.
Bar W Dude Ranch
This dude ranch is located in Whitefish, Montana, just below two pine covered ridges, at the base of Spencer Mountain. It offers a unique western experience with modern amenities.
Near Glacier National Park and Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, this location is ideal if you want to enjoy more of what Northern Montana has to offer. Bar W Dude Ranch even offers a cattle drive on the East Side of Glacier National Park, so it is one to consider if you have a City Slickers-style vacation in mind!
This is also a great place to enjoy white water rafting, especially near Glacier National Park.
Because this area is near the Whitefish Mountain Ski Resort, it offers winter stays where you can enjoy nearby world class Nordic trails, cross country skiing, sleigh rides, and more.
Circle Bar Guest Ranch
This historic guest ranch is located in Central Montana, and is located at the base of the Helena Lews and Clark National Forest. It is full of Western hospitality and offers a range of activities, from horseback riding to skeet shooting to archery, fishing, and more.
What To Pack For A Dude Ranch Vacation
For a complete packing list for your dude ranch vacation, see my Road Trip Packing List. You will definitely want layers as it can get both chilly and hot. But important items you will need include:
- Cowboy Boots (without ridges)
- Jeans/Long Pants
- Cowboy Hat (with a stampede String)
- Western Wear (shirts, pants, belt)
- Longsleeve sweat-wicking shirts (and short sleeve sweat wicking shirts)
- Boot Socks
- Riding Gloves
- Evening Wear/Western Chic (for Square Dance)
- Warm Jacket
- Rain Jacket
- Sunscreen/lip balm/sunglasses
Booking Your Nine Quarter Circle Ranch Stay
Ranch dates are typically one week in duration. But if you can only come for a few days, Nine Quarter Circle definitely tries to accommodate.
Note that many people book their dates a year in advance, so you should try to book yours early.
The season runs from June through September, with early season, peak season, and late season pricing.
2022 All Inclusive WEEKLY Prices Per Season:
Single: $3100 (early); $3565 (peak); $3100 (late)
Double: $2575 (early) ; $2975 (peak); $2575 (late)
Kids (6-14 with parents): $2195 (early); $2520 (peak) $2195 (late
Kids (0-5 with parents): $815 (early); $910 (peak); $815 (late)
To book, contact the ranch.
Getting To Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Flying: Bozeman (BZN) is the closest airport or West Yellowstone (WYS)
Driving: Salt Lake City is 6-hour drive; Glacier NP/Kalispel is 6-hour drive; Missoula is 3 hours drive; Helena is 2-hour drive; Bozeman is 90 minutes
Final Thoughts On Montana Dude Ranches: Nine Quarter Circle Ranch Review
For an authentic, affordable Western dude ranch experience, in a historical setting, few places offer what you can find at Nine Quarter Circle Ranch. Not only is it family-friendly, but it is also mostly electronic-free. There is limited wi fi and cell service (enough if you need it but not enough to distract you.)
This spot offers the chance to disconnect from everyday life. The focus on family and the quiet simplicity of the property makes it perfect for family time.
Kids get to enjoy what vacation is truly about – experiences, family, and memories. I highly recommend Nine Quarter Circle Ranch to any family looking for an authentic, unique, and fantastic family vacation.