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CASCADE - Joe Tripp is a big advocate of multiple use. He lives what he preaches.

Tripp mixes hiking, horseback riding, fishing, motorcycle and all-terrain vehicle trail riding on his Bull Run Outfitting and Guest Ranch southwest of Great Falls.

This is a guest ranch that breaks the mold.

After all, there are plenty of dude ranches in the West that offer the traditional horseback riding experience and chuckwagon dinners. But Tripp claims his is the only guest ranch in America that offers motorized trail riding excursions.

Tripp revved up the motorized end of the business about three years ago.

"This ranch had a history of motorized recreation through a network of friends of the family," he said. "So it was a natural niche for us to get into."

Allowing motorcyclists and ATVers onto the ranch was one more way to diversify. And on ranches these days, with cattle and grain prices in the cellar, being diversified is the difference between hanging on to a ranch or subdividing.

A story on Tripp's ranch on Speedvision's Bike Week television show, now Fox's Speed Channel, helped the ranch attract customers initially. Tripp said after the story aired the ranch logged about 1,000 telephone calls. He now generates interest by advertising mostly in motorcycle and ATV magazines and by relying on his Web site and word of mouth to attract customers.

Consequently, it is no surprise that most of Tripp's clients are from out of state.

"There are lots of folks with ATVs who don't have a place to go," he said.

Many come from the Midwest, Southern California, Florida and Vermont.

"They travel hundreds of miles looking for a place to ride."

Most of his patrons are 40 to 55 years old, with above-average incomes. Many ride road bikes now, but started out on dirt bikes. Tripp said they see his ranch as an opportunity to introduce their families to the fun of trail riding.

Tripp's cattle ranch at the base of the Big Belt Mountains is criss-crossed by about 100 miles of trails and roads open to motorized rigs. The trails range in difficulty from beginner to expert.

"The majority is accessible for average weekend riders," Tripp said. "Our target market is really the family who goes out and recreates together. Eighty percent of our trails the average Joe can handle, no problem."

For those riders a bit unsure of their skills, the ranch offers authorized ATV and motorcycle riding instruction. All riders, on their first visit, must pay for a half-day guided orientation to learn the layout of the ranch and to allow the guest ranch staff a chance to assess riders' skill levels.

"It's also an opportunity for us to educate our guests about the ethics of the sport, about treading lightly," Tripp said.

Rental ATVs and trail bikes are available. The ranch won't rent to children, but they can bring their own cycles and four-wheelers.

Most rental riders are checking out ATVs because the learning curve is so much quicker.

"We can put a beginner on an ATV, run them through a half-day course, take them on a trail ride and have a blast," Tripp said.

The guest ranch opened its doors in 1994, starting out with big game hunters. Since then, it has expanded to accommodate other guests who enjoy hiking, camping and fishing nearby Sheep Creek or the Missouri River. In addition to a small lodge there are five rental cabins and campsites available.

"Motorized recreation is an important aspect and a growing aspect, but it's just part of what we do," Tripp said.

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Although most of the guests are out-of-staters, Tripp also caters to local riders through a membership plan. For $100 a year, riders can access the ranch trails almost year-round. Chinook winds keep the slopes dry - what Tripp calls 45/45, 45 degree temperatures and 45 mph winds - giving ATVers and motorcyclists a place to go before the mountains shed their snow.

"It's almost a year-around season," Tripp said.

So far, there are about 50 members in the Rock Pile Club, most of them trail bike riders, all from the Great Falls area.

Steve Howard has been a member since the club first started. He said the ranch is an "awesome" off-season place to ride his KTM 450 dirt bike.

"There are unique trails, everything from easy going cow trails to the nastiest, rockiest trails you can find," he said.

Just as impressive as the trails is the variety of wildlife, Howard said. Everything from bighorn sheep, to mountain lions and black bears.

Tripp is optimistic. He's added new cabins hoping that the motorized end of the business will grow. And if national figures are any indication, he could be right.

Off-road riding is a growth industry. According to Forest Service information, the number of off-highway recreationists in the United States has jumped from 5 million in 1972 to 36 million in 2000.

According to a January report, annual ATV sales rose 124 percent last year to 825,000 units while off-highway motorcycle sales hit 300,000.

So although the phone has been slow to ring this spring, Tripp expects business to be double what it was last year.

"There are so many opportunities in Montana for recreation and we're trying to fill a niche nobody else is filling," Tripp said.

Brett French can be reached at 657-1387, or at french@billingsgazette.com

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