When someone mentions the Darwin Ranch, people often turn in the direction of the utterance to chime in, “You know the Darwin? That place is magical.” And it is.
Nestled in the Upper Gros Ventre River Valley along the river’s edge is an idyllic rustic lodge, 100-year-old cabins, and a woodfired hot tub and sauna that border the Gros Ventre Wilderness and the Bridger-Teton National Forest. A herd of adopted mustangs gallop through the meadow, pigs and chickens wander around the yard, and fine-spotted cutthroat trout leap from the clear waters along the confluence of Kinky Creek and the Gros Ventre River. It looks and feels like a setting out of a fairy tale — a mix of Wild West and mystical mountain wilderness retreat.
A day at the Darwin Ranch begins with steaming hot coffee and freshly baked granola and homemade yogurt topped with locally harvested elderberries, or piping hot shakshuka and sourdough bread. Guests gather around community tables and discuss their plans for the day. Horseback riding through the Gros Ventre Wilderness, a hike to the top of Strawberry Butte, fly-fishing along the banks of the Gros Ventre River, or reading a book on the back deck.
The Darwin is the launch pad for any adventure one might dream up, but it’s also more than that. It is the place to return to after the day’s adventure for good food and stimulating conversation. As owner and operations ranch manager Oliver Klingenstein describes, “People come to the Darwin for an authentic Western adventure, but they return for the conversations. That’s what Darwin has always been about, since way before me.”
As the most remote guest ranch in the lower 48, the Darwin Ranch offers an authentic experience that goes beyond a typical Western summer vacation. When asked how the Darwin is different than a traditional guest ranch, Oliver says, “We are a guest ranch in our day-to-day operations, but we think like an eco-lodge and our experience is most similar to a safari lodge in its remoteness. It’s Western, but there is an intellectual portion of our experience that you can engage with if you want that is more similar to a safari lodge.”
Farm-to-table fare and a commitment to reducing waste
The food at the Darwin is immaculate. Many of the meats and vegetables you’ll find on your plate are sourced from the Darwin’s sister ranch, Ishawooa Mesa Ranch, on the South Fork of the Shoshone River. And the Darwin tries to source all other ingredients, such as dairy and pantry items, from within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. “We are a scratch kitchen — nothing is pre-made including things like crackers — and our budget for food is probably twice as much as other comparable guest ranches,” says Oliver.
When people decide to visit the Darwin, they are paying for someone to pickle the vegetables and hand-pick every single piece of arugula they’ll enjoy on the trip.
Oliver also notes that being a scratch kitchen helps the Darwin move toward its zero-waste goal. Growing much of their own produce, raising their own stock, and buying basic ingredients in bulk means less packaging. “We consider it our responsibility to source local ingredients and work with local craftsmen in order to demonstrate the bounties of the Greater Yellowstone.”
Education and intellectual stimulation
While at the Darwin, guests are encouraged to engage with the intellectual side of the mountain West. In the evenings, people gather on the deck for sunset cocktails and conversation that range from the inner workings of the ranch’s renewable energy system and the challenges of sourcing and storing food in such a remote location to local issues surrounding cattle and Native American land rights.
The Darwin gives guests the opportunity to go for spectacular hikes and horseback rides, but also encourages people to ask questions and participate in a more cerebral experience. “If anyone wants to learn to ride a horse or fly-fish, they can absolutely do that in a world-class venue. But also, if they want to learn to run a chain saw or understand how Wyoming’s only wetland sceptic system works, they can do that too,” says Oliver.
The Darwin Ranch somehow effortlessly melds traditional Western ranch culture with a modern environmentally aware mindset to provide guests with an experience that is stimulating on all levels.