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  • Dave Philbrick

Montana's Nine Quarter Circle Ranch



Montana's Nine Quarter Circle Ranch Title

Reasons to go

Authentic dude ranch that has been family-run for generations, best location in its own scenic valley far from roads and other ranches but near Yellowstone, a small number of guests on a very large ranch, specializes in well trained Appaloosas which are the spotted ‘horse of the West’.

“It has to be a very special place for us to repeat a vacation, and we have been to this favorite Montana ranch four times.”

The first time we did everything wrong you could do on a ranch vacation: we showed up late at night (it was a miracle we found the ranch in the pitch-black wilderness, and that we didn’t drive off a cliff); we showed up with no hats, boots, or any western clothes besides jeans (fortunately they can lend you hats and boots which are required for riding); we treated it like a hotel showing up a few days later than everyone else and leaving a day early; and we didn’t bring our kids. Once we were enlightened as to how a ranch vacation works, we came back the following year and did it right, and have kept coming back for a vacation that our kids genuinely love even though it’s iPad-free.


Trail riding with Big Sky in the distance
Trail riding with Big Sky in the distance

This ranch stands out from the many other dude ranches in the West, which all look great in the brochure, for many reasons. First of all, its land. At 9,000+ acres it’s one of the largest private ranches in the West (and has access to an adjacent 2 million more). And unlike the majority of ranches it’s not directly facing a major road with all its land in the back – it is in the center of its own picturesque ‘Marlboro Country’ valley. The valley is ringed with mountains, the pretty Taylor Fork River bubbles through it, you can see Lone Mountain (Big Sky ski resort) in the distance which is topped with snow most of the year, and the valley floor is flat so that it is a fly-in ranch with its own grass airstrip. It is the prettiest country you can imagine to ride in, and you will feel you are in a gorgeous movie about the West. For your week you’ll never need to get in a car, see a car, or see any other people outside the ranch, despite going on long rides with miles-long views of hills and mountains in all directions. It offers the standard 2-hour rides in the morning and afternoon, and you will never repeat a trail, as in addition to its own huge ranch it abuts and has access to Yellowstone areas that are extremely difficult for park visitors to reach.

Horses in the corral
Horses in the corral waiting to be saddled
5 people riding horses
Western wear just looks right

The second reason is the people, both the Kelsey family who own and run the ranch and the guests. Most ranches are owned by corporations: the 9QCRanch is one of only a handful in Montana owned by a family and operated by them as well to maintain the quality. Kelly Kelsey is an 8th generation Montanan! The ranch has been run by three generations of the same family, and guests who have been coming to the ranch for decades say that it is virtually unchanged. There is nothing we can think of to improve it, so that seems like a smart strategy! They make everyone feel personally welcome, and as there are few cabins and it’s the same guests all week, the whole feel and atmosphere of the vacation is that you are a guest at a friend’s ranch and that the only people in the wide wilderness are those at the ranch. The quality of the guests is notable, so apparently there’s something about people who are interested in this smaller and more authentic type of dude ranch that makes them especially interesting and friendly. At most ranches they act more like hotels in that they have many cabins and lots of turnover during the week, as many people will come for a single meal, single trail ride, or single night.

Horseback riding on a trail
Trail rides are all through the lush green country.

The third reason is the horses. They are unbelievably well-trained. No one in my family rides or has ever had a lesson, but when we are at the ranch none of us miss a single trail ride, and we are all comfortable ‘loping’ (cantering) on our perfectly behaved horses. Do your best impersonation of a sack of potatoes and you’re all set! I’ve been on trail rides elsewhere, and we’ve had horses that rolled, refused to move, deliberately tried to unseat us with a low branch, or fought with the horse in front. The 9QCR prides itself on its horsemanship and training of their horses. Their Appaloosas are the classic breed of the West used by Native Americans, so it adds much to the atmosphere to be horseback riding in a magnificent Western setting with the familiar tall spotted horses featured in Remington paintings loping beside you.



hot tips

- 01 -

The best dinosaur museum in the world is at the Museum of the Rockies next to Montana State University in Bozeman. Their exhibits are much more interesting and informative than simply skeletons on display, and appeal to all ages. Their planetarium show also is truly excellent. The day we went we had an Astronomy PhD from MSU give the show and his enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge made it fascinating.


- 02 -

Best t-shirts and prices on souvenirs with a great selection in Bozeman is ... the tourist shop inside Walmart. I know, you can’t believe it, but go and you’ll thank us.



- 03 -

Yellowstone National Park. The ranch is only 30 minutes from the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. There are two not-to-be-missed attractions in the town of West Yellowstone: The Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center and the Yellowstone Giant Screen Theatre. Both will get you in the right mood to enter the park, and it is really a thrill to get so close to grizzly bears and wolves which are unusual to see even in the park.


- 04 -

In 3 trips to Yellowstone we have never seen wolves, and mostly just elk and bison. We booked Yellowstone Wolf Trackers on advice, and boy, are we glad we did. In ONE MORNING with our guide Jamie we saw 9 wolves playing, and then different combinations of those wolves in different settings, a grizzly, a black bear with her 2 adorable cubs, a mountain goat and her baby, a dozen big horn sheep, two dozen pronghorn antelopes (second fastest animal in the world), innumerable bison during rutting season, cute ground squirrels, and just missed a badger. Their super high-powered telescopes were critical for being able to clearly see the animals in action. Amazing!


People looking through telescopes
Yellowstone Wolf Tracker telescopes were key


- 05 -

There is fun whitewater rafting on the Yellowstone River, especially through Yankee Jim’s Canyon. The Gallatin River is much tamer and busier both in the river and with a road beside it. We’ve been whitewater rafting many places around the world and can highly recommend Wild West Whitewater Rafting who we went with. You will get great photo souvenirs of your ride!


group of people white water rafting
Adrian “riding the bull” in Yankee Jim Canyon on Yellowstone
group of people white water rafting
And falling off the bull!





your intinerary

This is our recommended schedule that has served us well over the years:

SUNDAY Upon arriving in Bozeman admire the view of mountains and the big M on the mountain side for Montana State University, and pick up your SUV. You could rent a car, but in a place with a cattleman culture and such wide-open spaces, only an SUV feels appropriate. Also, the 5-mile unpaved road to the ranch is a lot easier and faster in an SUV vs. car, as we discovered on our first clueless visit!


The first thing we do is stop to buy western wear at both Murdoch’s Ranch & Home Supply which is a very fun place to browse and has beautiful but pricey western clothes, and Boot Barn which will surprise you with their very good and reasonably priced selection.


Boy looking at a wall of cowboy boots
Murdoch's boot section just for kids

There are lots of boutiques in downtown Bozeman, but those two are consistently the ones we prefer. You will need boots with a heel for riding, but could skip wearing western clothes except you will regret it. You will want to fit into the setting, and we learned that the hard way too with our rookie trip. Watching fellow riders with cowboy hats and plaid shirts or plain shirts with snap pockets and jeans adds to the scenery.


Since it only takes about two hours to drive to the ranch, on your way to or from the ranch is the time to explore Bozeman. For much of the drive to the ranch you will be alongside the Gallatin River where the Robert Redford movie “A River Runs Through It” was filmed. Look for Castle Rock looming over the highway, and Big Sky is worth a stop and you can pick up a few bottles of wine to bring to the happy hour at the ranch. That evening you will settle into your cabin, sit down to a Thanksgiving-style dinner, and all guests play a relaxed and icebreaking game of softball with tennis balls.


kids standing by the entrance of Nine Quarter Circle Ranch
Our kids at the entrance

MONDAY through FRIDAY Monday is the anticipated morning when you’ll meet your horse for the week and get a brief tutorial on riding.

family dressed in western wear
Waiting to mount up

The horse will seem to grow taller every day as your legs get sore and it’s harder to get up! Each day has a 2-hour morning and afternoon ride to new places, and you will find yourself looking forward to everyone. My kids would go out in the pouring rain not to miss a ride, and when we took an afternoon off to see Yellowstone our kids begged us the whole time to go back to the ranch!


Boy riding a horse
Son ready to head out on the trail
group of people square dancing
Square dancing night!

Every night before dinner there is a ‘happy hour’ where guests get together over drinks and appetizers and relax and get to know each other some more. For dinner you’ll need to look for your name card which will be next to different guests each night. Without fail everyone is friendly and talkative and the conversation flows easily despite very varied backgrounds. While there is wifi, it’s only in the main lodge, so without phones or laptops as a distraction, guests entertain themselves. There is a ride to a picnic dinner one night, but the two highlights of the week are the square dance and gymkata (lighthearted riding competition including riding while carrying an egg on a spoon, around barrels, etc.) which are both hilarious and fun times.

SATURDAY After a hearty breakfast, you will be sent on your way back home. It is highly likely that you will have made long-term friends with some fellow guests. The atmosphere of the ranch has that effect!


Photo Gallery

two men on horseback with a mountain view in the background
Souvenir photo!

view from a horse on a mountain trail
Trail rides never get old

two kids on horseback with a mountain view behind them
Our kids enjoying their ride

View from cabin at Ranch
The front porch of your cabin is a great place to relax and enjoy watching the bunnies who live under it!


Riding at Ranch
Riding at Ranch

Riding at Ranch
Riding at Ranch


Family in life jackets and paddles
3 people on horseback with mountain view in backgound
More riding at the ranch

mountain view on horseback
The scenery never gets old

Five kids wearing cowboy hats standing on a fence
Kids make friends quickly!

Four kids playing basketball on a grass court
Kids playing at ranch
Visiting this year’s foals
Even as teens our kids are always up for a trail ride
Brother and Sister standing together in a field
Families get along better at the ranch!



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