Twisting south from Interstate 90 west of Billings, Bridger Creek Road cuts through sand-rock foothills studded with ponderosa pines as it follows a creek laced by cottonwoods...

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BILLINGS, Mont. — Twisting south from Interstate 90 west of Billings, Bridger Creek Road cuts through sand-rock foothills studded with ponderosa pines as it follows a creek laced by cottonwoods and chokecherry bushes.

Compared with the postcard perfection of the nearby Boulder and Stillwater drainages, Bridger Creek is a plain-Jane stepsister. The area’s small-scale, family-run tourist operations seem to share some common threads.

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Two were forged by ranch families looking to supplement their income and remain on the land. Two grew from families that chose to settle along Bridger and West Bridger creeks and turned to tourism to make ends meet.

Each operation started on a shoestring with a build-it-yourself attitude. Each relies on family members to do what needs to be done — from wrangling dudes to cleaning cabins or cooking home-style meals.

Two miles off I-90, Bridger Creek Road rises beside a hay field. Cottonwoods curl along the creek bank, hugging a pair of ranch houses. One house, a tidy two-story, was built by Terry Terland’s grandfather, who homesteaded along the creek in 1907.

Four generations of Terlands have lived on the 11,000-acre Range Riders Ranch. Terry’s father, Telmar, who is 81, lives in the house in which he was born. Terry’s house sits a few yards away.

Squeezed in around Terry and Wyoma Terland’s breakfast table are Steve Churchill, a government employee from New Jersey, and his horse-loving 12-year-old daughter, who lives in Maryland. The working ranch kitchen sits just off a mud-room entryway, filled with dusty boots, hats and chaps.

“We can ride horses where we live, but I wanted an adventure,” Churchill said.

‘Blessed to live here’

Guests savor the Terlands’ horseback rides for what they can and cannot see — a wide-open view of three mountain ranges, a chunk of scenery undiminished by telephone poles or cars.

“We are blessed to live here,” Wyoma Terland said. “We feel like this is a gift God has given us, that we manage for a while.”

Sarah Churchill of Annapolis, Md. heads out on a trail ride at the Range Riders Ranch.

She started doing the rides at the Range Riders Ranch nearly a decade ago to supplement their income. She also saw it as a way to educate city folk about the realities of ranch life. After each ride, she sits guests down for lemonade, home-baked cookies and a chance to talk.

“Pretty soon, they’re asking us all kinds of questions,” she said. Frequently the conversation turns to stewardship of the land and the work involved in raising cattle.

“It’s a chance for them to see it from our perspective,” she said.

During her first summer, in 1994, she took 67 guests on rides. This summer, more than 300 riders will see a portion of the ranch from the back of a horse. Nearly two-thirds of them will come back again. This summer, the Terlands added a weeklong cattle drive. They’re planning two drives next year.

Crunch time often hits during haying season.

“The hard part is taking the time to give them what they want, which is sometimes the conversation, when sometimes you’ve got things to do on the ranch,” Terry said.

His wife has a knack for socializing and putting people at ease. The couple, married since 1979, started dating with the help of matchmaking neighbors. When she came to the ranch as a newlywed, the area seemed more remote.

“If a vehicle went down the road, you stopped to see who it was,” she said. “Traffic has gone from a few cars a day to a few cars an hour.”

Do-it-herself dude decor

About a mile from the Terlands sits the hand-hewn log house built by Janis and Rod Maclean. Although it was finished in 1990, it looks as if it might have been on the place for several generations. Their property, less than 50 acres, was a small chunk of a larger ranch sold by Rod’s parents.

Since they never intended to do a bed and breakfast, the Macleans’ one-room, log guest cabin was originally built as a storage cabin. Rod works as a woodworker for a custom stair company in Big Timber. Janis was working as waitress in Big Timber when an accident made them re-examine their lifestyle.

“There was not one day of the week we had time together as a family,” said Janis, a talkative woman who possesses a seemingly inexhaustible supply of energy and good humor.

By 1995, the family had put together the Bunkhouse Bed and Breakfast as a full-time seasonal business, turning the storage cabin a few yards from their home into a bunkhouse. Janis pampers guests with a gourmet breakfast in the sun room of her home, a place where guests are apt to see deer browsing near the creek or spot black bears when the chokecherries ripen in the fall.

The furnishings in the cabin and in their own home emulate the dude ranch-style leather and stick furniture of Thomas Molesworth. Much of it was built by Janis.

“I liked a style of Western furnishing that I was unable to afford,” Janis said. “If I hoped to have my home decorated in the dude-ranch Western furniture that appealed to me, then I had to do it myself.”

She is already working on a sofa for the unfinished cabin, which is tucked in the trees less than 100 yards from their house. The cabin will sleep six and have a screened porch overlooking the creek and an outdoor hot tub. They have done nearly all the work themselves and plan to have the roof on by the end of this fall.

The Holler

Along West Bridger Creek Road, Pat and Craig Whitlock opened a cluster of year-round cabins in 1999. They named their place The Holler, harking back to the tradition of Southern hospitality. Pat Whitlock is constantly amazed by how often she has to explain the name’s roots.

“Don’t they listen to country music?” she asked rhetorically. Country singer Loretta Lynn’s backwoods birthplace, Butcher Holler, was immortalized in the movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Their operation includes seven furnished cabins, all with running water, but some with outhouses.

“It’s a mountain cabin retreat that’s a cut above a Forest Service cabin,” she said.

The Whitlocks’ three teens take folks out on trail rides and help clean cabins. About three-quarters of their business is in summer, but the Whitlocks also offer winter activities, including ice skating on their pond.

At the Stoney Lonesome Ranch, 15 miles south of the interstate, the busy season stretches through the fall hunting season. Corky Hedrick became an outfitter 30 years ago to help supplement the ranch income. In 1992, he and his wife, Clarice, started offering working ranch vacations and horseback rides.

“Everybody wants to be a Montana cowboy for just a little bit,” Clarice said.

Corky, who is 70, still leads summer rides, while Clarice doesn’t flinch at the thought of fixing supper for a passing wagon train carrying more than a hundred guests and wranglers.