EUREKA, Montana - It looks like any old pile of dirt.
But to Brian Ehlert, it's his vision slowly coming to life. Ehlert, the managing partner at The Wilderness Club, has toiled for more than a decade to keep his dream alive at this remote development 70 miles northwest of the Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell. There've been plenty of lean years and worrisome nights wondering if things would ever truly get off the ground.
Even with a stellar Nick Faldo-designed golf course, The remoteness of the Wilderness Club's 550-acres has always been a burden. In an evolving pandemic world, it's now a blessing. Once people started fleeing cities and working from anywhere, lot sales surged.
Flush with new momentum, The Wilderness Club is finally ready to embark on a major expansion, adding first-class amenities to complement its first-class golf course, pool complex and accommodations. It's already good with the potential to be great. The property borders Lake Koocanusa, a 90-mile-long, narrow body of water adjacent to the Kootenai National Forest.
"This is a long-haul deal," Ehlert said of the club's journey. "(We figured) someday it could be a home run for us, but things were slow back in 2011, especially real-estate wise. ... (I love) the vastness of it, and the location. I think it's beautiful. We don't have any air traffic noise or road noise or city noise. We make our own noise with the construction, but usually all you hear is the birds and the wind whistling through the trees. That's really attractive."
Expansion at The Wilderness Club
Ehlert comes from a Canadian golfing family who bought The Wilderness Club from the original developer in 2011. His father, Ron, has been building courses and golf communities surrounding Calgary for decades. His brother, Barry, is spearheading Mickelson National, a private club in Calgary designed by its controversial namesake. Brian moved to The Wilderness Club permanently in 2015 once he bought out his family members to become majority owner.
The Wilderness Club is so close to the Canadian border, roughly six miles, that my cell phone pinged off a Canadian cell tower, trying to activate international rates. It's just far enough off the grid for many Americans to attract interest in purchasing a vacation property that can be rented out for extra return on investment. Elhert said he sold 6-7 lots a year until 2020, when he began selling an average of 45 a year. He's sold 200 of the 320 planned lots thus far. Home construction is picking up, too.
He has taken a hands-on approach by shaping almost every detail of the club, from the unique floor plans he co-designs to picking out the furniture and decor in the suites, cozy cabins and luxury cottages being built. I stayed in a luxury two-bedroom cottage with a modern kitchen, fireplace and deck. Outside, I could soak away my double bogeys in a cedar hot tub while watching deer feed at dusk.
Construction will start this summer to convert that aforementioned pile of dirt into a village center where a main lodge will eventually house a pro shop, grocery store, fine-dining restaurant, game room and movie theater with an outdoor courtyard and adults-only pool, all overlooking the beach on Wilderness Lake and the dramatic 18th hole. Building an adjacent events center to host conferences, weddings and yoga and educational retreats and a separate spa and fitness center should help attract business during the slower fall and winter seasons. Phase 1 of this expansion could be ready by May 2023.
Ehlert wants the first impression to be special. He said a stay at the Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita in Mexico inspired him to create a one-of-a-kind lobby view of the lake and snow-capped mountains. "I want to give them a nice welcome in case they're wondering: 'Why did we get up so early?' and 'Why did we come so far?'" he explained.
The club's current hub is a cozy clubhouse with a pro shop and the Wilderness Grille. Although everything on the menu is tasty, nobody leaves without trying a staple of the Montana diet: The huckleberry. It's creatively mixed into the yogurt parfait (breakfast), glaze covering the riblets (lunch-dinner) and ice cream served on a brownie (dessert).
A nearby Sports Park, which will be revamped, already features a grassy playing field, basketball court, disc golf and sand volleyball court. Real estate around a new Garden Center being created is selling quickly. The Water Park dazzles all ages with two saltwater pools, a hot tub, splash pad and 250-foot waterslide tumbling down the hillside. Beachgoers have complimentary access to canoes, kayaks and paddleboards on the 21-acre lake, which Ehlert hopes to eventually line with plastic to keep water levels consistent during the West's ongoing drought. There's also a Horse Park and miles of trails within the national forest for riding and hiking.
"My vision, more than anything, is being a family resort," Ehlert emphasized.
Golf at The Wilderness Club
Without a doubt, the biggest draw of The Wilderness Club is its 7,207-yard golf course. Faldo's design (with an assist to Brian Curley and Lee Schmidt) is annually ranked the best public/resort course in Montana, including on our Golfers' Choice state lists in 2020 and 2021. Troon Golf has been brought in this year to manage the operation and take it to the next level. Despite a chilly spring, the course was already in peak shape. The daylight seems to last forever here, which allowed for nine glorious holes in the gloaming after dinner on arrival day.
The routing is very good with a strong mix of scoring opportunities complemented by plenty of gutcheck moments. Water hazards and rugged bunkering take turns demanding your attention. Water is introduced on the par-3 fifth and par-5 eighth before hijacking the inward nine.
The short 320-yard 10th boomerangs left around a pond to a devilish green. The 456-yard 16th whips left over a tree and around a waste bunker to reveal a diagonal green pinched by water on the left. Both back-nine par 5s are extraordinary, again with water guarding the left side of their fairways and greens. The 557-yard 12th drops significantly off a shelf where most drives end up to a winding fairway, setting up a short iron into an elevated green. The 593-yard 18th can be reached in two if golfers nail a fairway wood or hybrid that crests a hill, which funnels balls onto a massive two-tiered green.
Watch out for a few crazy greens - good luck if the flag is tucked back right below a ski slope on the wild fourth. A pair of dramatic elevation drops, notably on the 12th and the approach on no. 9, are insanely fun. Toss in the stunning mountain backdrops for a round that feels like an adventurous trek through the backcountry.
"Wilderness Club is an absolutely fabulous golf experience," reads a 2020 GolfPass review from 'Chris1703425'. "The course is in immaculate condition. The fairways are perfect. The ball sits up nicely. The rough is tough but fair and the greens are first rate - lots of undulations but they read well and roll true."
Ehlert swears his property boasts two other advantages golfers will appreciate: a drier climate unique to the region and no mosquitoes. Our forecast looked dire all week, but we barely got wet over three days of play. For golfers who frequent other northern summer golf destinations in Michigan or Minnesota, no itchy bug bites sounds almost too good to be true.
"We love to be outdoors," Ehlert said.
Golfers couldn't agree more. Mother Nature and Montana sure make a dynamic duo, don't they?