Peggy Dulany, a New York philanthropist and daughter of David Rockefeller, bought J Bar L to protect the 620-square-mile Centennial Valley, a former Native American hunting ground settled by a few cattle-ranching families in the late 19th century—and which still has no towns, let alone paved roads, gas stations, shops, or subdivisions. To conserve the rangeland way of life, she hired locals to run a holistic grass-fed cattle business on the principles of rotational grazing and natural stockmanship. To share the landscape with nature-loving travelers and to keep the valley looking as it was, Dulany restored several abandoned 19th- and early 20th-century homesteads. These self-contained vacation rental homes range from a Sears Roebuck family house, now solar-powered, to isolated cabins on a bend of the Red Rock River. All come with fully-equipped kitchens and are tastefully filled with Western-themed furnishings and antiques; some have outdoor hot tubs.
J Bar L no longer offers working weeks for would-be cowboys but will match guests with geologists as well as with hiking, bird-watching, and fly-fishing guides. Horse lovers can hire ranch mounts for guided daily rides on rangeland that is home to pronghorn, elk, and Black Angus cattle, or up the slopes of the 10,000-foot Gravelly Mountains where wolves, grizzly bears, and bald eagles roam.
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The valley is home to fewer than 50 permanent residents, mainly cattle-ranching families. It’s a scenic, 85-mile drive to Dillon, the nearest town, which has a cowboy supply shop, grocery and liquor store, gas station, and big August and Labor Day rodeos. Rodeos also take place in the towns of Ennis and Virginia City on July 4. The ranch is within day-trip distance of Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park, and a short drive from the Red Rock Lakes Wildlife Refuge, which has 232 recorded bird species, including sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans. But many guests stay put to enjoy the ethereally beautiful landscape: mile after mile of sagebrush prairie, trout-filled oxbow streams, and mountains framed by cornflower skies. The environment suits loners, but friendly ranch staff welcome the chance to engage guests interested in issues of modern ranching, environmental protection, and food sustainability.
Need to Know
Rooms: 8 homesteads dotted across the valley have one to three bedrooms. From $700 for a three-night minimum stay. Check-in: 11 a.m.; check-out: 3 p.m. Dining options: There is no restaurant on property, but the ranch sells grass-fed beef cuts for guests to cook themselves and will cater group meals on special request in a beautifully restored barn. Spa and gym details: There is no gym, spa, or pool, but some cabins have outdoor hot tubs, and massages can be arranged with advance notice.
Who’s it for: Self-driving, self-sufficient travelers who want to immerse themselves in nature rather than have a cowboy theme vacation. Our favorite rooms: The homesteads are so widely separated, and the valley has so few residents, that guests easily feel as if they’ve stepped back in time and have the landscape to themselves. The one-story Brundage Cabins, on a rise above the snaking Red Rock River, have amazing, restorative views. Plan ahead: Go in August for wildflowers; in June for mating trumpeter swans, dancing sage grouse, and bugling elk. Ask the guest relations manager to arrange a meal with J Bar L staff cowboys, who happily discuss the grass-fed beef business and the modern ranching life. Cars should have spare tires and a can of Tire Fix flat spray in case of a puncture on gravel roads.