Oh, now I get it: As the driver speeds me to the glam ranch called Paws Up—37,000 acres of Montana wonderland—I see why they call it “Big Sky.” You know you’re not in Minnesota, Dorothy, when the whole world seems clasped beneath a vast blue dome. At Paws Up, Nature (out here, it deserves a capital N) is boss—the CEO of endless untamed beauty. As Chad, a hired hand, put it to me: “Every morning when you wake up, the mountains give you a hug.”
We wake up, that first morning, under a canvas ceiling in a tent as big as my condo, complete with carpets, heater, AC, and an amenities-rich bathroom—even a claw-footed tub. Hammocks await, too. Paws Up originated this glamping style in the U.S., Managing Director Steve Hurst tells us as we gather for dinner around the vast, stone fireplace of the dining tent that serves our cluster. The Blackfoot River gallivants along, just outside the canvas.
After sampling a huckleberry margarita or a local bourbon, we dine on kale salad, posole stew, venison osso buco and berry-mint Pavlova. The next morning, we wake to the operatic trilling of birds in time for huckleberry-peach pancakes and all the trimmings, prepared by our tent’s butler (no, not Jeeves—a young lady with a sweet smile who orchestrates your choice of eggs). What’s wrong with this picture? Not a darn thing.
Especially if you head out next on a trail ride. I’m seated on blonde-maned Marilyn, who huffs like a stevedore as we cross a bubbling stream. Following wrangler Jackie’s instructions—an equine version of a driver’s permit—I convince Marilyn to plod up paths among the towering Douglas fir and Ponderosa pines. She mercifully takes it easy along fields where the ranch’s head of 500 Black Angus cattle (oh, and 80 bison) graze—for this is, indeed, a working ranch, no mere movie set. We’ll spot wild elk and deer and maybe the wild mustangs who also call this stretch home. Riders of all abilities (or, like me, none) are also invited to participate in a three-hour cattle roundup, wrangling these 300-pounds beasts to where they need to be.
Or we can hike. I did plenty of that, on mile upon mile of private trails, either with a naturalist guide or solo. Ready to rest my feet and work my arms, I also sign on for gentle canoeing along the Blackfoot. If its waters look familiar, you must have seen the film A River Runs Through It, shot along her banks.
Other campers choose the more challenging kayak routes through the rapids. “Were they rough?” I ask. “Oh yeah!” bellowed the 30-something fella who loved every moment. So did his buddy, who’d spent his afternoon fly fishing: “You cannot believe how much fun that was!” Those even braver may sign on for rappelling. If that sounds like a death wish, hit the trails via electric bike instead. Whatever: After an active afternoon, you’re entitled to enjoy a massage in the spa.
Midway through our stay, we moved into log “cabins”—not the term that I’d necessarily apply to these massive, three-bedroom homes: laundry room, kitchenette, rocking chairs on the front porch, and a pea-green Kia for your use parked at the door. Or simply phone for a van pick-up when you decide to head to dinner. We also toured a brand-new enclave called Green-O, slated to open in May 2020: 12 glass-walled, Frank Lloyd Wright-style houses clustered in the midst of a forest—each a romantic retreat for two (no office mates, no in-laws).
Oh, you want more sports? Just add water. Hop into one of those cute little Kias, or phone for the resort’s van, to head 15 minutes down the road to Island Lodge on Salmon Lake, bordering a pristine State Forest, with the Mission Mountains rising in the distance. Swim, jet ski, wake board, whatever: Go for it.
Sundown means time for dinner: At cowboy-formal Pomp, the kitchen’s treats tonight lead off with venison tartare and smoked cauliflower bisque. Dine ultra-locally on steelhead trout, beef or bison steak. Less formal (and a whole lot of fun) are the resort’s chuck wagon dinners, staged beside the galloping Blackwater. As you sip yet-another huckleberry margarita, try your luck at ax-throwing; suck in tips on lassoing techniques; get cozy with a branding iron; or simply sit back and soak in the ballads of the local Cowboy Poet. After feasting on barbecue (beefsteak, ribs, chicken) and the classic trimmings (corn on the cob, beans, coleslaw, baked potatoes), gather close to the campsite to gain the expertise of the S’Mores sommelier (really!). Breakfast, if you can savor another bite after that evening’s feast, involves salmon benedicts, chicken and biscuits, steak and eggs—or pancakes doused in the sweet syrup of you-know-what.
Summertime, the minimum stay is four days; winter, when indoor rodeos are a star attraction, it’s two (but just try to tear yourself away within those limits, I dare you). Many activities are part of the all-inclusive price, while others are add-on options. a variety of themed weekends are on offer, too: culinary, photography, music, and more. Listen to your Inner Wrangler, then visit www.pawsup.com for further info.