A fourth-generation family ranch in the Big Horn Mountains offers guests a recreational sanctuary, along with historic ties to British aristocracy and northern Wyoming’s polo heritage.
In the spring, the hills and meadows of Canyon Ranch in Big Horn, Wyoming, burst into color. The snow blanketing the ground melts, giving rise to emerald pastures dotted with a rainbow of wildflowers. The streams thaw and fill with cool mountain runoff, while a new crop of calves and wildlife hit the ground. It’s a humble, hidden outdoor recreation paradise that has been passed down through four generations of the Wallop family, which has ties to British royalty and was influential in the start of Wyoming’s rich polo heritage.
Nestled at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, the 3,000-acre ranch is owned and operated by Paul and Sandra Wallop. The couple offers three vacation homes on the property: the Lodge at Canyon Ranch, a rustic two-story log home that can accommodate large groups; the Hay Meadow House, a newly built two-story home overlooking the lush hay meadow; and the quaint Foreman’s House, which was home to decades of ranch foremen and their families on the ranch.
Guests have freedom to roam the ranch and escape the pressures of technology, work and town, and partake in bird watching, photographing wildflowers and wildlife, hiking and fishing. Paul is an excellent fly fisherman and knows the best spots. There are limited opportunities for guests to haul in horses and explore the canyons that attracted the ranch’s founder, Oliver Henry “O.H.” Wallop, in the late 1880s.
O.H. was the youngest son of Isaac Newton Wallop, the fifth Earl of Portsmouth in Great Britain. He was one of many “remittance men,” the youngest sons in English aristocratic families who wouldn’t inherit a title or land, so they left home and were given remittance from their families.
“In the English royal families, the oldest son becomes the heir, the second son is sent to the military and the third son enters the clergy,” explains Sandra “The youngest sons become ‘remittance sons.’ ”
O.H. bought a ranch in southern Montana in the early 1880s and brought some of the first Thoroughbred horses into the area. In 1889 he expanded his horizons and moved south to a secluded ranch tucked in the mountains of Big Horn, Wyoming, where he married and raised two sons.
By the turn of the 20th century, O.H. was making a good living in the Army remount horse business with his partner, a Scottish emigrant named Malcolm Moncrieff, who was married to O.H.’s sister-in-law and owned the nearby Polo Ranch.
“O.H. and Malcolm would ride to Miles City, find cowboys to ride west with them, [and] they would buy horses and trail them back to the ranch and have the cowboys ride them and play polo on them,” explains Paul. “The horses were then sold to the British Army as remount horses for the Boer War and World War I. More than 20,000 horses were shipped from Big Horn to South Africa for the Boer War.”
O.H. went on to be elected to serve two terms in the Wyoming House of Representatives. He then renounced his American citizenship in 1925 to take his seat in the House of Lords as the eighth Earl of Portsmouth after his older bothers, the sixth and seventh Earls, and their male children had died.
O.H. died in 1943 and was buried in Sheridan. He passed the ranch to his son, Oliver, while his other son, Gerard, became the ninth Earl of Portsmouth.
Oliver, who is Paul’s grandfather, became a successful rancher and sustained the ranch raising Hereford cattle. That continued into the early 1980s after Paul’s father, Malcolm, had taken over the ranch when Oliver died in 1980. Malcolm—a Yale graduate, accomplished collegiate polo player and entrepreneur—served three terms as a Wyoming senator from 1977 to 1995. His political career required him to spend much of his time in Washington, D.C., so he sold the cattle and leased Canyon Ranch, as well as Polo Ranch and Badger Creek Ranch, to other ranchers.
Paul grew up riding with his grandfather and father on the ranch. Until the 1980s, the family ran three ranches encompassing more than 10,000 acres, including the Polo Ranch that Malcolm inherited from the Moncrieff family. The family later sold the other ranches and kept Canyon Ranch.
After graduating from the University of Wyoming with a degree in microbiology, Paul opted to not pursue his dream of going to veterinary school and returned to the ranch in the mid-1980s. He developed year-round hunting and Orvis-endorsed fly-fishing operations to supplement the ranch’s income.
Paul and Sandra, his wife of 20 years, managed the ranch’s hunting and fishing programs, ran an Orvis store in Big Horn, had a herd of registered Black Angus cattle, coordinated special events on the ranch and guided horseback trail rides.
Feeling the pressures of keeping so many operations going, and having less time to spend with each other and their families, the Wallops decided in 2011 to focus on renting vacation homes on the ranch, as well as leasing pasture to local ranchers and hunters.
“We’re no longer considered traditional ranchers in some respects,” says Paul. “But we are fourth-generation ranch owners and this ranch won’t support itself on raising cattle in this time. We had to find other ways to make it sustainable.
“It made me realize that no matter what you do in the ranching business, your inventory is grass and water. You can sell it to graze cattle, make hay or create a habitat for wildlife and recreationalists to explore. To me that still makes us traditional ranchers.”
Through the years, the ranch has evolved to meet the era, from horses to cattle to outdoor recreation and tourism. Paul and Sandra have no intentions of leaving, even though they have traveled to Great Britain to visit family and to see Highclere Castle, owned by Paul’s cousins, Lord and Lady Carnarvon. The castle is where the PBS series Downton Abbey was filmed.
“Canyon Ranch is the jewel of the Big Horns,” says Sandra, who is an avid horsewoman and aspiring reiner. “We do this because we’re passionate about this ground and see it as a responsibility and privilege to have God give us the opportunity to be the caregivers of Canyon Ranch.”
This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of Western Horseman.