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Tony Capecchi

Woodbury, Minn.

A Mountain Hideaway: Part 1

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series on Capecchi’s adventures at Triple Creek Ranch in Western Montana. To read Part Two––including a float fishing trip down the Bitterroot River and a mountain hike to an alpine lake in the Bitterroot Mountains––visit next Sunday.

The No. 1 hotel in the world is not in Hawaii, Europe or some island in the South Pacific. It’s in the middle of rural Montana. Triple Creek Ranch (TCR) is tucked away in Western Montana’s Rocky Mountains, and despite its remote location it received the top honor from Travel & Leisure in the magazine’s 2014 reader vote.

From a distance the ranch appears a collection of contradictions: extreme luxury on a mountain’s edge; world-class dining removed from major cities; unique art alongside forests and wildlife; rugged adventures coupled with 5-star service and plush accommodations. Our curiosity piqued by the hotel’s endless list of awards and cult-like “best-place-ever” TripAdvisor reviews, my wife and I decided to head to Big Sky Country and experience Triple Creek for ourselves.

We immediately discovered what all the hype is about.

Montana is, in my opinion, the most scenic state in the lower 48, and the anticipation and scenery built up as we approached Triple Creek through the open vistas and mountain views of the Bitterroot Valley. The ranch is an easy 80-mile jaunt from Missoula International Airport, and when you turn off Highway 473 at the big “Triple Creek Ranch” sign, you enter sacred ground. 

The hideaway resort clings to the base of Trapper Peak, the tallest point in the Bitterroot Mountains, and is covered by a canopy of ponderosa pines. We saw a half-dozen elk during our quarter-mile drive up the mountain’s base to the main lodge, then parked the car and drew a deep breath of the fresh mountain air before walking into the lodge and being embraced by the hospitality for which Triple Creek is famous. 

“Welcome to Triple Creek Ranch!” said Jennifer O’Donohue, the Marketing and Sales Director whom I’d spoken with in advance of our trip. O’Donohue is an East Coast native who decided she’d rather be a cowgirl than a business exec, and with a wide-brim hat and ear-to-ear smile, she promptly took us in like we were out-of-town relatives. “You guys must be hungry. I just checked, and we have our poolside BBQ ready for you. Would you like me to walk you to lunch? After you’ve eaten we can bring you to your cabin, help get you unloaded and settled in, then if you’d like I can give you a property tour.”

The couple dozen steps we took to the outdoor pool marked the last moments during our time in Montana that we’d feel the slightest trace of hunger. Several days later when my wife and I sadly left TCR to return to reality, we did so with a carefully packed to-go lunch of bison sandwiches, grilled chicken wraps, veggies with hummus and oatmeal raisin cookies for us to enjoy at the airport and on our flight home.

At the moment, some five minutes into our arrival at paradise, we found ourselves sitting alongside a spotless pool lined by pine trees, drinking beer and lemonade, and devouring shrimp, squash, salad and smoked ribs that had been marinated for 24 hours. Life at Triple Creek is good. 

And the service, well, it doesn’t get any better than this. A surprise welcome gift was waiting for us in our one-bedroom luxury cabin: a pair of TCR hats and matching bandanas, a tray of cookies and a bottle of champagne adorned with a “Happy Anniversary” note (in my pre-visit questionnaire I mentioned our trip coincided with our wedding anniversary). 

The cookies and wine both proved superfluous due to TCR’s all-inclusive nature––think round-the-clock gourmet meals, a wine cellar of +700 vintages, a rooftop bar lounge and a fully stocked liquor cabinet in every cabin–––but it was a kind gesture that showed Jodie and me we were in the hands of hospitality wizards.

“We have an intimate, serene setting here, and guests often say they feel as though they are staying with a friend who has this fantastic Montana mountain home,” O’Donohue said, noting that TCR owners, Barbara and Craig Barrett, open their private home on-ranch to host cocktail hours with guests and provide tours of their personal art collection. “The ethos and spirit of hospitality lived out by Barbara and Craig infuses the rest of the staff. At large luxury hotels you usually don’t see this type of warm, hands-on ownership.”

Craig is the former CEO of Intel. Barbara was the U.S. Ambassador to Finland for two years, taught leadership courses at Harvard and has served on the board of a half dozen companies ranging from Mayo Clinic to Piper Aircraft. The couple fell in love with Triple Creek as guests, and bought the place in 1993.

Two years later TCR became an official Relais & Châteaux destination, and in the two decades since the Barretts have meticulously and methodically upgraded all aspects of the ranch experience. Accolades and awards piled up, culminating with last year’s distinction as the “No. 1 Hotel in the World” according to Travel & Leisure. 

“The announcement was exciting to us because it was a reader survey, so it’s a very genuine honor––you can’t pay for that award or game that system at all,” O’Donohue said. “There was also a feeling of David vs. Goliath here because typically a much larger operation with many times as many guests as us wins that award, so for this remote 24-cabin ranch in Montana to be named No. 1 in the world was really powerful.” 

TCR has received #1 for small inns and lodges in the U.S. for five consecutive years, O’Donohue said, but this worldwide honor has piqued interest in travelers from Spain to Argentina while simultaneously raising the profile of luxury ranches as a whole.

“Ranchers in Montana are some of the hardest working folks you’ll ever meet and a stay at one of Montana’s luxury ranches helps introduce parts of that lifestyle to people who are not familiar with it,” said Tia Troy, Communication Manager at Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission. “Guests get to actively participate in some of the work and activities that are done on a regular basis by working cowboys, things like roping cattle, riding across a meadow on horseback or rounding up cows on a cattle drive, while still having a very comfortable stay with nice, higher-end touches.”

For Day One at Triple Creek, my wife and I indulged in those higher-end touches, saving the more active adventures of a river float fly fishing trip, mountain hiking at 8,000 feet, and a self-guided wildlife safari for Days Two and Three. 

The beauty of Triple Creek, however, is that its famous 5-star service and gourmet food is served on the mountainside, surrounded by breathtaking scenery and heart-thumping encounters with Mother Nature. Hence, even our “lazy day” at the ranch was infused with awe-inspiring elements of Montana’s great outdoors.

For example, our post-lunch property tour was stunning not only for the immaculate cabins with mountain views and outdoor hot tubs under the trees, but also because the instant after O’Donohue mentioned elk were often spotted near a particular cabin a large bull presented himself to us. 

When Jodie and I then went to the plush rooftop lounge for a mid-day happy hour (hey, the bartender starts serving at 3pm), we enjoyed not only fancy, colorful cocktails but also friendly, colorful birds. The lounge interior was exquisite, and taking our drinks out to the deck was akin to having a drink in the world’s nicest treehouse.

Several drinks and two hours later found it time to think about our next meal, so while Jodie prepared for dinner I took our golf cart to one of the stocked trout ponds on property; TCR gives each group their own golf cart to use during their stay. Once again, it occurred to me what a world of contradictions Triple Creek is, as I caught an 18-inch brown trout on a dry fly while Jodie primped and prepped for dinner in our cabin’s luxury bathroom complete with a steam shower.

Had I wanted, the staff would have cleaned and cooked my trout for dinner, but I went out on a limb and figured the wild mushroom and game stew, grilled curried chicken, watercress and red crab salads, pan seared beef tenderloin, fresh Hawaiian au fish, pecan butter cake and ice cream would suffice. Besides, I reasoned, we still had that untouched tray of anniversary cookies––not to mention s’mores by the campfire should starvation threaten. 

Dinner was sublime, amplified by a warm dining room atmosphere enhanced by a massive fireplace and a high ceiling showcasing wonderful mounts of moose, elk, bison, deer and even mountain lions. Each meal, in fact, was a highlight in itself. I must say that while Jodie and I have been quite fortunate to dine at many award-winning, 5-star restaurants around the world, we have never been anywhere with better food than Triple Creek. 

Executive Chef Jacob Leatherman continues TCR’s theme of delightful contradictions; the highly decorated chef received top training at New York City’s prestigious French Culinary Institute and worked at big-city French restaurants before following his love of fly fishing west to the Rocky Mountains. This season marks his 10th at Triple Creek, where he is surrounded by a talented crew committed to delighting guests. 

“We keep meticulous notes on our guests’ preferences,” O’Donohue said. “We had a couple stay with us five years prior and in their file we noted the wife preferred bib lettuce on her salad. When they came back five years later, on their first evening dining with us we presented her salad with bib lettuce and she was amazed.” 

Our first dinner at Triple Creek was capped off with a surprise anniversary treat delivered with a “Happy Anniversary” note artfully etched out in chocolate. 

Delighted with our dinner and first day at the hideaway resort, Jodie and I lingered briefly at the campfire outside the main lodge before retiring to start our own fire in our cabin’s wood-burning fireplace. It is profoundly quiet up in the mountains at Triple Creek. Serenity abounds, and with our bellies full and our minds anticipating the adventures ahead, we fell quickly to sleep. 

The only sound was the crackling fire. 

The website for Triple Creek Ranch is For more information, call 800-654-2943 or email 

A Mountain Hideaway: Part 2

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on Capecchi’s adventures at Triple Creek Ranch in Western Montana. Part One was published last week; click here to read it online.

“I see it!” I exclaim to my wife before scurrying up the final ridge of slab-like boulders. She follows quickly, and together we take in our reward for climbing to 8,000 feet elevation along the highest peak in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains: a panoramic view of Baker Lake.

There is no one around, save for perhaps an unseen moose or bear, but the serenity of the alpine lake inspires us to speak in hushed tones. The summit of Trapper Peak towers above, completing the cathedral’s jagged ceiling. A cutthroat trout surfaces a dozen yards away. The fish brings my mind back to this morning’s excursion, my first-ever fly fishing float trip down the Bitterroot River. 

When I released the last of the 13 trout I caught before breaking for lunch, I was struck by how a float fishing trip in paradise can be both relaxing and exciting at the same time. 

Now, a half-dozen hours later on an altogether different adventure to Baker Lake, the same thought crosses my mind: how bizarre that this hike in Montana’s Rocky Mountains can be simultaneously soothing and invigorating. It is an intoxicating combination of emotions, delivered in this stunningly beautiful landscape in a manner that captivates me completely. 

I peer into the crystal water of the alpine lake and see, quite clearly, why Montana is hailed as “The Last Best Place.” 

As fantastic as the fly fishing and mountain hiking adventures were, they were simply par for course at Triple Creek Ranch (TCR) in Western Montana. The all-inclusive, Relais & Chateaux resort boasts daily adventures, five-star service, gourmet dining and rustic-yet-elegant cabins on a mountain blanketed by ponderosa pines. 

My wife and I quickly discovered during our three-day stay this fall just how Triple Creek’s unique location in the mountains provides lucky guests with easy access to all sorts of exciting activities such as cattle drives, whitewater rafting, archery, trap shooting, skiing, mountain biking, snowmobiling, nature safaris and dog sledding. 

We took it easy on Day One at the mountain hideaway, but on Day Two we managed to tear ourselves away from the delightful leisure of the main ranch to partake in the float fishing trip and mountain hike. Of course, we did start our day by indulging in a massive breakfast at TCR’s beautiful dining room. 

Breakfast featured a buffet of fruit, muffins, croissants, yogurt and granola, as well as made-to-order pancakes, French toast, bacon and hash browns. We knew we’d be eating again in a few hours, but that didn’t stop us from going all out––besides, Jodie loves breakfast and she was blown away by the quality of the food at TCR. 

As delicious as breakfast was, I was excited to finish the meal and begin our fishing trip. Fishing is my favorite hobby, but before this Montana adventure I had never tried my hand at fly fishing. Back home, I took all the customary steps to prepare for this opportunity. That is to say, I borrowed a buddy’s fly rod, watched a YouTube video on how to cast, then went out back and flailed my arms around in vain for half an hour. I then switched preparation tactics by going inside and watching A River Runs Through It

It all looked great, but I didn’t realize what a treat I was in for, especially with this setup. All we had to do was walk down a flight of stairs from breakfast to the activity center and from there we were set. Our guide, Rick Thomas, was waiting for us and equipped us with the waders, boots and other gear Triple Creek provides its guests. 

We jumped into his truck with Bodee, his trusty dog, and zipped off to the scenic Bitterroot River, though I should note part of the appeal of the whole float trip was that we never once seemed in the slightest rush. It was immediately apparent why Triple Creek––a 5-star resort with an impeccable reputation for customer service––uses Fly Fishing Always as its fishing outfitter. 

Thomas was terrific in every regard. He’s been at it for several decades, and his knowledge on the river shows. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but he made it incredibly easy on me by positioning the raft, providing me instruction I could handle and praising me without being patronizing.

Thomas grew up tying flies at his step-dad’s fly shop. In fact, Thomas’ step-dad was the technical director for the fishing scenes in A River Runs Through It and even constructed the mechanical trout used in the famous scene in which Brad Pitt’s character catches a monster fish that pulls him down the river. 

Thomas has an endless supply of interesting and amusing stories, but he’s got a sense of when you want to talk and when you want to fish––or simply float––in silence. Having fished with more than a few guides who think they’re the main attraction, I appreciated Thomas’ modesty and quietly pleasant personality. Not to mention his uncanny ability to put us on fish. 

I caught a beautiful cutthroat trout less than 10 minutes into fishing, at the first hole we tried. That turned out to be a good indication of how the morning would unfold, as it seemed I caught a fish or had a bite at just about every spot Thomas suggested I cast. The float trip was perfect for a novice such as myself because Thomas masterfully positioned the boat to accommodate for my lack of casting ability, and when I did make a single cast we could let it float for long stretches rather than constantly needing to re-cast. 

It was also perfect for Jodie, who sat comfortably in the back––never casting a line––and had a ball. We both commented how relaxing and scenic it was. Unlike the busy St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers we’re accustomed to back home, we never saw another boat on this picture-perfect autumn morning, and we floated by several deer on the bank getting a drink.

I was genuinely amazed how many fish––a baker’s dozen––I caught in just a couple hours. When we reached the end of the float my only consolation with the trip being over was that I knew we had a delicious lunch and exciting mountain hike awaiting us. 

Lunch back at the lodge was wonderful. We dined outside and soaked up the sun while savoring each delicious bite.

The most surprising part of lunch was that several waiters and waitresses asked us how our fishing was.

It blew us away that TCR’s staff was calling us by name after less than 24 hours in paradise, but now to take it to the next level by asking about our specific activity was amazing. The staff credits TCR owners, Barbara and Craig Barrett, with infusing the entire team with a spirit of hospitality that translates to more than just 5-star customer service. 

“As Barbara so aptly puts it, Triple Creek Ranch seeks to hire people who have an instinct for hospitality,” said Jennifer O’Donohue, Marketing and Sales Director at TCR. “We hire people who have a natural inclination to help others. Staff can be trained for their roles, but that instinct has to be there.”  

TCR, for its part, is clearly skilled at cultivating the innate hospitality instinct of its employees. For example, the staff has regular meetings to review new guests and what activities they will be participating in each day, specifically so that staff can go the extra mile to inquire about Bob’s first-time whitewater rafting or Sue’s debut cattle drive.

“One evening upon delivering the petit fours following dinner a server overheard a guest say, ‘Wow, my mother would love those truffles!’ The next day at check-out there was a gift box of truffles packed up for her to bring back to her mom,” O’Donohue recalled. “Another couple was on a horseback ride and saw a large turkey feather next to the trail. The trail was too steep to safely stop the horses and dismount to collect the feather, so the wrangler who was with them went back up the trail after their ride was over, found the feather, and surprised the guests with it at dinner.” 

Our fly fishing trip was phenomenal, so naturally I was thrilled staffers were asking me about it and interested in my stories. TCR provides that camaraderie, not only with staff but also fellow guests. 

We enjoyed swapping tales with several guests in the rooftop lounge and at meal times, and even got hiking tips from several vacationers for our afternoon adventure to Baker Lake. 

Before we departed for our afternoon hike, we went back to the activity center and got equipped with everything from hiking sticks to Gatorade to walkie-talkie radios should we want to call the staff at any point during our climb. 

Here again, TCR’s location in the mountains proved invaluable. In fact, that’s what made it possible for us to fish in the morning, stop for lunch and still have time for this incredible afternoon hike; the turnoff to Baker Lake trailhead is only a mile or so away from the lodge.

The views we witnessed along the hike brought to mind a comment made by Tia Troy, PR and Communication Manager at Glacier Country Regional Tourism Commission, as she helped me with info before my trip west. 

“My friend visited Montana for the first time this year and she said, ‘Montana looks fake, but it’s totally real,’” Troy said. “I love that analogy because Montana is truly one of the most stunningly beautiful places in North America. From glacial-carved peaks in Glacier National Park to ripple marks on the mountains around Missoula to teal-colored rivers, the scenery here is diverse, serene and jaw-dropping.”

To me, this photo of Jodie on the way to Baker Lake totally fits that description. The background practically looks fake, but it’s real as rock. 

Later that night––as we feasted on oven roasted Alaskan halibut, grilled venison loin and seared Texas quail breast––I thought again of Troy’s comment. Had we really floated the famed Bitterroot River this morning and caught fish after fish? Had we dined like royalty and hiked like mountain goats on the same day, alternately consuming mouth-watering cuisine and jaw-dropping scenery? 

As our waitress brought us a chocolate martini and a maple oatmeal mousse dessert we most definitely didn’t need, I shook my head in amused disbelief. 

Triple Creek Ranch looks fake, but, thankfully, it’s totally real. 

The website for Triple Creek Ranch is For more information, call 800-654-2943 or email 

The website for Fly Fishing Always is For more information, call 406-360-4346 or email 

For more information on area attractions and Montana adventures, go to

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