Karen Searle, Owner/Manager of Montana
Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations, has the impressive
distinction of creating one of the first agritourism cooperatives
in the United States. Today Montana Bunkhouses includes 20
authentic ranch vacations spread across Montana's remarkable
landscape. Karen plays matchmaker between ranches and guests, and
aims to give great personal thought and attention to pointing
guests to their ideal ranch vacation.
Farm Stay U.S. recently had the pleasure of asking Karen about
her organization, ranching in Montana, all of the great press
Montana Bunkhouses has received, and more. We're excited to share
her answers here. Photo credits for all the photos in this blog go
1. Montana Bunkhouses is a group of 20 working guest
ranches that have teamed up to offer guests a great selection
of authentic cowboy experiences. How and why did the group
Families who want to pass their ranches down to the next
generation are under increasing economic pressure to sell out. To
give ranchers another option, I formed an agritourism cooperative,
modeled after the European Farm Holiday program. The supplementary
income each host ranch receives will hopefully help future
generations to sustain their ranching way of life. We are able to
offer a variety of authentic cowboy experiences, because that is
exactly what we are, authentic. Ranching is a labor of love; we do
not ranch because it is easy, we ranch because it is who we are.
Montana Bunkhouses provides a gateway for others to share and
understand our disappearing way of life.
2. What kinds of experience do your guest ranches
offer? You act as a matchmaker between guests and ranches: how do
you know which ranch is the best for for a particular
I am a native Montanan with ranching roots and I guess you
could say I'm a travel coordinator and matchmaker. I know these
ranchers personally, they are my friends and neighbors, and I
understand what makes each of them unique. I devote myself to
getting to know guests as well, not just as potential customers,
but also as friends. Developing personal connections with our
guests means I am able to match them to a ranch not just based on
their interests, but also based on their personalities. My goal is
to match guests with a ranch that will give them the authentic
ranching experience, with emphasis on the areas they find most
interesting, and introduce them to people who will become "family"
during their visit.
3. There's a cluster of your ranches concentrated east of
Bozeman and west of Billings. What's special about that
The idea for Montana Bunkhouse Working Ranch Vacations
started where I live in southwestern Montana, and the participating
ranches now stretch border to border -- each in dramatic landscapes
-- across the entire state. It is a great benefit for our guests
that the area with the highest concentration of ranches is within
the distance of a day's excursion to Yellowstone National
4. What sets Montana ranch vacations apart from
ranch vacations elsewhere in the U.S.?
"Saddle Up" and experience a part of the Old West that
still exists. We love sharing the ranching way of life and
what comes with it. With over twenty Montana
Cattle Ranches hosting guests, we offer a wide range of
choices. Working ranch vacations offer more than just head to tail
horseback riding. Guests participate in seasonal ranch activities
while learning about conservation practices and sustainable
ranching in the Rocky Mountains. It is traditional for ranch
families to get together during brandings or roundups or cattle
drives and they welcome guests to join them. Guests enjoy the
camaraderie and appreciate the skill involved in the roping and
wrangling. Springtime in the Rockies brings the perfect combination
of nature and nurture. During calving and lambing guests can make a
difference -- watching expecting mothers, reading the weather, and
lending a hand in preserving new life. Something vital fills each
and every day.
5. What's your background? How did you end up with
such an unusual and fascinating job?
Ranching is in my blood. I grew up on a cattle and sheep ranch
in southwestern Montana, and am sympathetic to the challenges of
the family farm. I am the galvanizing force behind the agritourism
cooperative. I was credited by a former director of Cooperation
Works, a national center for cooperative business development, for
having put together the first agritourism cooperative of cattle
ranches in the United States. The co-op was formed after I was
selected as a representative to the 2002 World Congress on Rural
Women and Rural Issues in Spain. I see agritourism as a way to help
preserve family ranches and to narrow the divide between ranch and
city dwellers on land use and wildlife issues. Those objectives
have put Montana Bunkhouses on the forefront of a trend in the
travel industry labeled "geotourism," travel that sustains or
enhances the character of a place, helping to preserve its
heritage, habitats and scenic beauty.
6. Is there a 'typical guest' that you work with? What
kind of folks crave a Montana working ranch vacation, and what are
they looking to do during their stay?
Why do guests come? Montana is a place where myth has long
been in partnership with reality. The kinds of folks who find me on
the internet are searching for "working ranch vacations." They are
not interested in simply traveling to another destination, they are
seeking a life changing experience. Whether they are looking to
connect with their roots, or reconnect with their family members,
or establish a connection with our ranching way of life, it is all
here. We offer the opportunity for them to share the ranching way
of life with people who are tied by birth or choice to a part of
America that to some feels like the country's soul!
With our working ranch vacations, everything on-ranch is
included: comfortable lodging, hearty family style meals and
seasonal ranch activities. Rates vary from $1500 to $1900 per week
depending on the ranch and the hands-on experience they offer.
7. Your group has gotten a lot of good press! Do you have
a favorite article (or two) that you want to share with our
Yes, we have gotten a lot of good press as you can see if
you go to our Montana
Bunkhouses News Page. The USDA/Rural Developments folks told
our story in their national Rural Cooperatives
magazine. We've been featured in newspapers in places a far-flung
as New York, Chicago, and Sidney, Australia. Respected travel
magazines including Condé Nast Traveler and
Sunset Magazine have celebrated our unique vacations,
as well as journalists in China, Taiwan, Japan, Italy and the
United Kingdom. But the one that I'm the most proud of - my
favorite, hands down - is being selected for the National
Geographic Geotourism MapGuide of the Greater Yellowstone area.
Anyone who visits Montana will want to have this map in their back
pocket. You can order a free copy of the map from our website, www.montanaworkingranches.com.
We are the only Montana ranch vacations to have met National
Geographic's criteria for authenticity of experience, culture and
heritage. We're proud of that.
8. What has changed for the ranches since your group
formed? What changes do you foresee in the future?
Change is measured in generations in Montana. Our agritourism
cooperative is just starting its second decade, so we can only
speculate what the longer term impact will be for the ranchers down
the line. Already, the diversified income from agritourism
has provided everything from money to remodel a kitchen right on
down to the money necessary to make the next ranch loan payment. In
some cases it means the difference on whether the ranch family's
son or daughter can return home so they can carry the ranching
traditions on to the next generation. But the benefit is not just
measured in dollars and cents. We enjoy sharing our way of life. It
jogs us off-center so we don't simply take for granted what we've
been born to do because we see our ranching world through our
guest's eyes and it brings us joy.
To contact Karen, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org,
call 406-223-6101, or visit Montana
Bunkhouses Farm Stay U.S. page. Karen likes to warn potential
guests with a wink: "Caution! Working Ranch Vacations may be
Thanks to Montana
Bunkhouse Ranches for the use of the photos in this