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Along with hunting, fly-fishing for trout is the ranch's biggest attraction.

Go Big

by Matt Lee | Men's Book Chicago magazine | July 10, 2012

“Would you like another spa service tomorrow?” asks Jenn Brenneman, the affable manager of Three Forks Ranch Lodge.

I sip my thigh-sized cranberry and vodka, gaze at the roaring fire and seriously consider it. On one hand, I think, my eyes drifting across the den, over the frontier paintings dotting its walls and beautifully finished woods, I’m not a huge spa person. Plus, I already had one massage today. On the other hand—I mean, yes, of course I do.

“Sure,” I say, feeling a little guilty.

“OK, we’ll book you one for tomorrow.”

And that pretty much sums up the way things work at the ultra-luxurious Lodge and Spa at Three Forks Ranch—you ask, they deliver. Smack-dab on the Colorado-Wyoming border, everything you could possibly want from a world-class ranch, hunting lodge and spa is on offer, everything is done on your time, and everything is big—as in 312 square miles big. No, that’s not a typo: Three Forks, founded by Gander Mountain sporting goods store magnate David Pratt in 1998, actually boasts this acreage and more, making it geographically larger than the city of Chicago by 30 square miles.

Makes sense, I think, sinking into the oversize leather couch, given that the reason most people come to Three Forks is its amazing private hunting and fly-fishing in summer—for those seeking an epically wide canvas on which to stalk elk and angle for rainbow trout in the Little Snake River, this place is hard to beat. Come winter, there’s downhill and cross-country skiing, plus snowmobiling.

Before you too can enjoy a gigantic cocktail fireside en route to retiring to a Three Forks suite, though, you must first find your way to this out-west utopia. Summer bids farewell to the direct flights to Steamboat-Hayden available during winter, but regardless of when you visit and how you get here, a driver from Three Forks will be waiting to pick you up upon arrival at the tiny airport. Go with him—it’s a long, treacherous ride through the mountains to the ranch, and trying to navigate it solo is not recommended.

When my driver and I finally pull up to the 35,000-square-foot rustic American lodge we’re met by a half-dozen staff members who greet us warmly, take my bags and whisk me into an enormous foyer—an impossibly spacious cathedral-ceilinged great room chock-full of oriental rugs, ornate European-carved wood and Western statuary, complete with breathtaking floor-to-ceiling windows imported from England.

The Lodge, I’m told, while escorted to my suite, opened in 2008 with only 15 rooms. So, at any given time, guests share the property with, at most, 15 other parties. Clearly, Gander Mountain-style volume is not the aim at Three Forks. Rather, the lodge caters to a clientele with exceptional means and expectations—packages range from $4,100 per person for a three-night stay to $7,000 per person for a six-night stopover. The price tag, though, includes almost everything, from airfare to meals and beverages to spa treatments to guided activities and more.

The attraction comes ever more into focus when I’m shown my King Suite. With an enormous bed dressed in Italian linens, a private outdoor whirlpool, more floor-to-ceiling windows (this set opening up to the wilderness) and one of the deepest bathtubs I’ve ever seen, Three Forks is anything but “rustic.”

I crack open a bottle of the privately labeled Three Forks Napa Valley Cab Sauv left for me with a welcome note and sit down for a drink, but am shortly squired away for a quick lunch so I can make my first spa appointment—priorities! Sitting in the dining room chatting with my fellow guests I opt for a roast beef sandwich with peppers. Like everything at Three Forks, the cuisine is world-class, but utterly without pretense. The food philosophy here is simple: Only the best, freshest ingredients are expertly prepared into wonderful comfort recipes. The sandwich is delicious, exactly what you want after a long journey.

After lunch it’s off for a massage in the Roaring Fork Spa. Mr. Pratt, I’m told, is “a man who knows what he likes.” This becomes clearer the longer I stay at Three Forks and begin to understand just how much thought and resources went into creating the experience. Upon entering the 6,000-square-foot spa I’m floored by the stunning indoor-outdoor infinite pool. When I head into the locker room the situation actually improves—facilities are first-class. And, most importantly, the hour-long massage adds years to my life. The spa may be remote in the extreme but it’s on par with the best in America’s most booming metropolises.

As I’m floating back to my room, a tour guide asks if I’d like to participate in any outdoor activities that afternoon. That’s how it works here: When you want to do something, a quick nod to a guide signaling “I’m ready to go,” and he or she takes you out personally, or arranges for someone else to accompany you. It couldn’t be more hassle-free, and, again, on your time.

While winter activities are gaining traction with visitors, hunting and fishing are still the most popular pursuits at Three Forks. Fishing season, which lasts from early June to early October, hooks guests to angle for, far and away, rainbow trout, but also Colorado river trout, brook trout, brown trout and tiger trout. Most fishermen are experienced, but novices are more than welcome, and it would be hard to find better experts to learn from than the pros at Three Forks. “The coolest thing about fishing here is the amount of private water we have,” says guide Dave Clements. “We have 16 miles of river, 30 ponds, two lakes. You can come and spend four or six days, or longer, and do something a little different every day.” The fishing experience is greatly abetted by Pratt’s 1998 restoration of the ranch’s river—the largest privately funded river restoration in U.S. history.

During hunting season, which runs from Sept. 1 through Oct. 25, there is never more than a 2-1 guest-to-guide ratio, with all hunts being five days long. “We do way more elk hunts than anything else,” says Clements, though guests can also stalk mule deer and pronghorn. And when asked what distinguishes hunting at the ranch, he confidently adds: “The level of service we have can’t be beat. And this is a big place; it’s a zoo. We have more animals than you’re going to find anywhere.” To that end, hunters are guaranteed an encounter with the animal they’re after. The rest is up to them.

Back at the spa, I wake up from a post-massage nap just in time for my next cocktail hour. Held in the bar area every night at 5:30, this is no small event around these parts. It’s not only where guests are offered the aforementioned ranch-sized libation, it’s also where they can really get to know the staff, who also gather in the den for drinks and laughs. Our group lucks out when we’re offered a tour of the lodge, when we learn about the architecture, artwork and design of the property.

Heading back to my suite for a dip in the outdoor hot tub, followed by a long, restful sleep, the windows revealing the blackest night I’ve ever seen, life in the Wild West has never been so calm.