We stood over the campfire on a cold, blustery summer morning, sipping on authentic cowboy coffee, listening to tales of the cowboy life and gazing at the mountains beyond. This is just a small portion of why we love Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site – it truly embodies the American West.
Still a working ranch, Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS commemorates the cowboy life and the impact cowboys had on American history. It also tells the story of how a German immigrant, Conrad Kohrs, came to the area with very little and eventually became the Cattle King of Montana.
In short, Grant-Kohrs Ranch almost perfectly captures America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
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Our First Visit – July 2012
It is rare that we visit the same place twice. In fact, we could probably count on one hand the places that we have returned to over our years of traveling together. Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS is one of those places.
We first visited the ranch in the summer of 2012. Unfortunately, we arrived within about 30 minutes of closing time. After checking in at the Visitor Center, all we had time for was a quick walk around some of the barns and a brief stop at the chuckwagon, where we caught the tail end of a ranger program.
In our short visit, we could immediately tell that this site was somewhat of a hidden gem. We’ve been trying to fit in a return visit ever since.
Our Second Visit – June 2018
It took us nearly six years, but we finally returned to Grant-Kohrs Ranch on our way to Washington state. The ranch is located just off Interstate 90, in Western Montana, so it is actually fairly easy to get to. Of course, fitting it in on a road trip can still be difficult.
When we started planning our itinerary for this trip, we knew this would be the perfect opportunity to visit again. We made visiting Grant-Kohrs Ranch a priority and basically planned our route west off this stop! Yes, we really wanted to visit again.
The Ranch House
A ranger-guided tour of the ranch house is a must for any visit to Grant-Kohrs Ranch. Tours are limited to 12 people and advanced reservations are not taken. I suggest arriving early in the day, especially in the summer.
I believe tours are offered at the top of each hour, but that might depend on the season and there was no posted schedule we could find. Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center when you arrive to secure your spot on a tour.
The ranch house was originally built in 1862 by Johnny Grant, a French Canadian immigrant who was a well-established trader in the American West.
Grant got his start by realizing the grass in the Deer Lodge Valley was prime for fattening up cattle. In his trades, he had gotten a few cattle here and there. As settlers came through on the Oregon Trail, he began to trade cattle with them… one of his fattened cows for two cows which were in bad shape from the journey. This simple trade made Grant a wealthy man as he was easily able to fatten the worn cattle, but he did begin to have difficulties with language.
Most of Grant’s contracts were verbal, due to his limited proficiency in writing and reading English. This ultimately led to his downfall as folks eventually took advantage of his trusting nature with written contracts he couldn’t read.
Just four years later, Conrad Kohrs, a trusted business associate, bought the house and ranch from Grant, thus becoming the Grant-Kohrs Ranch. As the ranger tells the story, Kohrs came back to Grant to finish paying him for a transaction. Grant was so impressed with Kohrs’ honestly, he offered to sell the ranch to him.
The tour not only takes you through the house, but provides a history of the ranch and the Kohr’s family, both of which are interesting. Highlights of the ranch house are the formal parlor, extremely modern (for the time) plumbing and electricity and Kohrs’ office desk.
The house is definitely more formal and upscale than many ranch houses. This is due in part to Kohrs’ wife being a “city girl” at heart. Additionally, Kohrs eventually rose in the political ranks and hosted many dinner parties. All of this is evident as you tour the house.
In the Bunkhouse Row, directly across from the Ranch House, you can view an exhibit on the history of the ranch, but the information provided on the house tour will be much more interesting and in-depth. Still, this exhibit is a great starting place for visiting the ranch.
During our house tour, the ranger provided details of how Grant started the ranch and Kohrs’ ultimately grew it to a whopping 10 million acres spread across the West. We also learned how the ranch came into the hands of Kohrs’ grandson and eventually on to the National Park Service.
On your own, you can wander through the working ranch where you will find traditional ranch buildings such as several different barns, the granary, a tack room and a blacksmith shop. Many of the buildings have exhibits and informational signs set up. You may even have the chance to see a blacksmith at work.
Rangers and volunteers often provide talks at the Chuck Wagon behind the house. We found ourselves here on both of our visits.
As you wander the ranch, you will find horses and cows. But, remember, this is a working farm, not a petting zoo.
Planning Your Visit
If you want to ensure a tour of the Ranch House, I suggest arriving early in the day, especially if you are visiting in the summer.
How much time you spend touring the grounds is completely up to you. The house tour lasts about 30 minutes. I would budget at least another 30 minutes to an hour for wandering around the ranch and viewing exhibits. More time may be needed if there are any special events or demonstrations.
Where to Stay
If you decide to stay in the small town of Deer Lodge, where the ranch is located, TripAdvisor lists only two hotels in town. Of course, there are several other small towns nearby. The larger towns of Butte and Bozeman, to the east, and Missoula, to the west, have a lot more to offer.
In 2018, we stayed in Deer Lodge at the Indian Creek RV Park. The campground was well-maintained and offered all pull-through sites. A few of the sites were a little close, but the driveways were nice and wide and easy to navigate.
This campground is located right off I-90, which makes it easy to get to, but the highway noise was noticeable. If you are staying in an RV, though, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue.
Where to Eat
Being such a small town, the restaurant options in Deer Lodge are not plentiful. We chose Elk Ridge Brewing Company, which is located right in the small downtown area. While the brewery itself does not serve food, you can order from Timber Eatery right next door. They’ll even deliver the food to your table!
Grant enjoyed the beer, especially the presentation of the flight. We can honestly say that we’ve never seen beer served with an antler as a centerpiece! The only downside is they do not offer wine or cider for the non-beer drinkers. You can get soda or coffee, though.
Menus for the next door restaurant were on our table when we arrived. To order, we just called and they delivered the food within about 15-20 minutes – and even brought the iPad and card reader with them! I had a Southwest Salad and Grant had a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich. Both had a great taste and enough of a twist on the traditional dish to make it interesting.
This was the only place we ate while we were in town. Honestly, nothing else really looked like it was worth the effort of going out.
If you want to stock your pantry, refrigerator or cooler, there is a small grocery store near the ranch.
Final Thoughts on Grant-Kohrs Ranch
If you are traveling through western Montana, Grant-Kohrs Ranch is worth at least a short stop. Most anyone can find something interesting at a ranch, even if you are not excited about the smell of the stock!
The house is nicely appointed and certainly much nicer than many ranch houses. It seems that the Kohrs’ spared no expense when it came to decorating the house and showing off their wealth! Even those visitors not interested in traipsing through the dirt to see the barns will enjoy the house tour.
Those more interested in touring an actual ranch will find most everything you could expect. Some days will be busier than others, so check the schedule ahead of time if you have some flexibility and are looking for something interesting. Some of their special events include branding the calves, historic haying demonstrations and special activities at the holidays.
It took just a quick 30-minute visit for us to fall in love with Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS. We even included it on our list of Five Hidden Gems of the National Park Service after that short first visit. Returning for a full tour was even better.
And, honestly, I could see us returning again in the future. While we had the time on this last visit, the weather just wasn’t that great. Hopefully one day we’ll have the opportunity to fully explore the ranch on a warm, sunny summer day!