24 Hours on a Montana Cattle Ranch

June 7, 2013 | By | Comments (26)

Photojournalist Lynn Donaldson is the woman behind the stunning Big Sky scenes and food images in the Open Range cookbook by Patrick Dillon and Jay Bentley (who developed the recipe for Bison Tri-tip with Chimichurri in our June issue). Here, she shares her stories from the shoot. 

That scene we show on page 101 of Open Range is a day I’ll never forget. We were at J Bar L Ranch, a working cattle ranch that raises grass-fed beef in Montana’s Centennial Valley between Twin Bridges and West Yellowstone, which is very remote. It’s covered with lupine and sagebrush, and every step we took kicked up these amazing scents. It was just an exhilarating, blue ribbon day until…


Cattle in the sagebrush in Montana’s Centennial Valley


Cowboys from the J Bar L Ranch; ranch manager and Yellowstone Grassfed Beef owner Bryan Ulring is in the red shirt.

…a snowstorm hit. It was a raging blizzard with giant, fluffy flakes (which melted upon landing—it was early July!). The cattle were soaking wet and a little freaked out, and the cold water in the Red Rock River didn’t look too appealing, so the cowboys got off their horses and tied their 60-foot lariats together to make a “fence” so the cattle couldn’t turn back. (They jokingly named this the “Patented Hurst Rope Trick” after cowboy Bradeon Hurst, the ranch operations manager, who thought it up.) Eventually, the herd crossed. The cowboys (and cattle!) were soaked through-and-through. Then they started driving them back to a pasture near the main lodge.


The cattle got soaked

Bryan Ulring trailing yearlings on the J Bar L Ranch

Bryan checks on the cattle’s progress back to the ranch.

They got the cattle in the pasture, and the cowboys took off for the barn. Then it was back to the main lodge (I stayed in the room upstairs) for cocktails and dinner. Bryan manned the grill, but they have a chef. The cute girl in the plaid shirt, Joy Hurst (wife of Braedon), was guest manager at the time and she also helped in the kitchen.


Grilling grass-fed steaks for dinner.

Then the guests sat down for a real ranch supper of green beans, steak and potatoes, and berries and angel food cake for dessert.


Our dinner was amazing.

Joy Hurst with a homemade dessert at the J Bar L Ranch

The angel food cake was served with beautiful summer berries.

When dinner was over, I snapped the sun going down on the Centennial Mountains…pink alpenglow.  The only thing you could hear were crickets and frogs. It smelled so good after that wet snow, like after a heavy rain: soil, sage, and lupine. Glorious!

Main Lodge at the J Bar L Ranch

The sun setting behind J Bar L Ranch’s lodge.

P.S. Here’s the scene from my window the next morning. The ranch guys were busy roping calves to vaccinate them. It was another gorgeous day in the Centennial Valley.

Interior of the Brundadage Cabins located on the J Bar L Ranch

The Red Rocks River in the Centennial Valley.


  1. Arizona Legacy Beef is Built on Legacy | Julie's Fresh Air

    […] 24 Hours on a Montana Cattle Ranch (westphoria.sunset.com) […]

    June 26, 2013 at 6:03 am
  2. makedesignscreative

    Lynn.! You’re amazingly talented.

    June 17, 2013 at 11:10 am
  3. Bill

    Great article! and the landscapes look amazing!

    June 12, 2013 at 5:51 am
  4. lynndonaldson

    Ugh. I meant to say, “Thank you for your very kind comments, and thank you for the correction, Thomas!”

    June 11, 2013 at 2:57 pm
  5. carole sullivan

    Great job as always Lynn. Am so excited that you are also the wonderful photographer for my upcoming Montana cookbook.

    June 10, 2013 at 5:14 pm
  6. Thomas McNamee

    It is not the Red River. For the most part, within the Centennial Valley, it is called Red Rock Creek. Farther below, it becomes the Red Rock River. Nowhere along its course is it called the Red River.

    June 9, 2013 at 10:21 pm
    • Aislyn Greene

      Thanks for the note–we’ve updated our post.

      June 10, 2013 at 11:55 am
  7. http://news.discovery.com/animals/dinosaurs/teeth-prehistoric-111117.htm

    Wonderful piece and incredible pictures!

    June 8, 2013 at 8:06 pm
    • Betsy

      My name is actually Betsy!

      June 8, 2013 at 8:46 pm
  8. Claudia Galofre Krevat

    There is a raw beauty about Montana that reminds me of my country, Colombia. There are parts of the Rockies that take me to the Andes. I love living here. Like us, Montanans love their beef and sharing a great meal with family. And who better to capture it all than Lynn Donaldson. I am going to take her to Colombia one day!

    June 8, 2013 at 6:40 am
  9. Amber Jean

    Mmmmm….I can hear the crickets and frogs, smell the air and imagine a bit of that scrumptious looking steak. Thanks for putting us right there with juicy photos and engaging words!

    June 8, 2013 at 5:01 am
  10. Sara Busse

    Beautiful! I live in Montana and I still felt transported!!

    June 7, 2013 at 11:15 pm
  11. Blake

    Such a vivid sense of place painted by these words and pictures. This is such an endearing portrait of the real Montana not born from cowboy movies and their stereotypes but from reality.

    June 7, 2013 at 9:05 pm
  12. Nada Bakos (@nadabakos)

    Ohh this makes me miss Montana! Gorgeous photos!

    June 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm
  13. Jeff Wise

    I was there with Lynn as a writer, the story ultimately ran in the New York Times, though it didn’t look a fraction as good. Beautiful stuff, Lynn.

    June 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm
  14. Shawn s

    Yes the photos are awesome!

    June 7, 2013 at 4:35 pm
  15. Shawn s

    Yep that looks like Montana. A lot of nothing. I remember driving through there, speed limit at the time: reasonable and prudent. After driving nearly 100 mph for miles it gets boring and costly for fuel. Winters too long.

    June 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm
  16. Seabring Davis

    Great pics, Lynn. I think I stayed in the same cabin last September. It was a wonderful place! Thanks for sharing!

    June 7, 2013 at 4:33 pm
  17. Courtney Todaro McKee

    Phenomenal photography! I love Lynn’s ability to make me feel like I’m right there. She engages me on so many levels–and so many senses! She makes Montana look amazing!

    June 7, 2013 at 3:59 pm
  18. Toby Thompson

    Classic Donaldson photographs with an engaging narrative. I want to go there!

    June 7, 2013 at 2:50 pm
  19. lynndonaldson

    Thank you, Sunset, for letting me share this amazing day!

    June 7, 2013 at 2:40 pm
  20. Nate Schweber

    Oh mercy, glorious!

    June 7, 2013 at 2:32 pm
  21. Dan Vermillion

    Awesome photos, great writing, all befitting of a wonderful operation and magnificent valley. Thanks for sharing.

    June 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm
  22. Bryan

    What a great day!

    June 7, 2013 at 1:11 pm
  23. David

    Great piece! Not sure which is more appealing, the wide open spaces or the fantastic looking steaks. Talk about the best of both worlds!

    June 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm

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