Review: Montana’s Resort at Paws Up Remains the Gold Standard in Luxury Outdoor Living
Set on nearly 40,000 acres of ranch land, the American West's greatest all-inclusive is a paradise for hikers, fishermen and adventurers of all ages
Flying into Missoula Airport, you’re struck by how small it is. Seven gates in all. You’re out in a matter of minutes and hurtling into the surrounding mountains, where nothing is small. This is Big Sky country, where the wilderness is vast, towering, unknowable.
I’m in the area to explore that wilderness through the lens of luxury that is The Resort at Paws Up, a sprawling 37,000-acre property about 40 minutes east of Missoula. A man named Christian is holding up a sign with my name on it; he walks me to one of the Lexus SUVs he and a squadron of other Paws Up valets use to ferry guests to and from the property.
While there is a long history in the area of exploring, prospecting, herding and all that other good old Western fun, the history of the current establishment dates back to 1997, when the Lipson family purchased the land to be a working cattle ranch with more than 300 head of black angus cattle. In 2003, the Lipsons decided to charter a hospitality venue alongside their cattle business, and it has grown mightily since then, becoming a mainstay on countless lists rounding up the best wilderness lodges, resorts, stays or whatever other SEO-friendly language you can dream up to describe a place where you can rent an absurdly opulent accommodation in the heart of the American West.
Option 1: Homes
They call these “Luxury Ranch Homes” and there are 28 in total that come in four separate formats suitable for two to eight guests: Wilderness Estates, Big Timber Homes, Meadow Homes and The Blackfoot River Lodge.
I stayed in a Wilderness Estate (The Meriwether Lewis home, if you care to follow in my footsteps) that featured two huge bedrooms with king beds, each with spacious ensuite bathrooms, a large living area and kitchen with vaulted ceilings, and a giant loft complete with another living room, bedroom and bathroom. There were five or six televisions in the home, a washer/dryer and a wine fridge; outside, two porches (one with a hot tub) gave way to a conifer forest and views of sprawling ranch land with mountains in the distance.
The homes all feature Western ranch decor and plenty of timber vibes, but all in a tactful and non-kitschy way. Another additional perk of staying in a “Luxury Ranch Home” is that you get your own Lexus NX to navigate the property at your leisure. However, if you don’t want to drive (or have had one too many drinks at the all-inclusive bars), there are always a handful of drivers on property to shuttle folks around to wherever they need to go. All of these properties are close — some of them, like mine, more or less walking distance — to most of the important centers on property.
Options 2: Tents
If you are a couple, you’ll more likely be staying in the glamping resort. This area, slightly more removed but not to the point of inconvenience, is divided into six separate camps, all featuring six accommodations. Each camp resembles a safari-style setup, with a handful of luxury tents surrounding a central mess hall. Each camp also offers a “butler” who is in charge of preparing food, serving drinks, running errands and making sure camp members are having an enjoyable stay. The camps all vary in vibe; a few are right on the water’s edge, some overlook the river, some are deeper in the woods. The resorts runs frequent shuttles to and from the main dining/activity area, and guests can call cars on demand or they ride over on electric-assisted bicycles that are abundant throughout the camps.
Bonus Option: The Green O
If you are looking for a more romantic option, this is your spot. The Green O is a private, adults-only property that is part of Paws Up. No kids allowed, and all accommodations are only for two. Four different home types (12 homes in total), all different takes on uber-modern wilderness cabins dot the property. Think lots of wood and glass among the trees in a secluded grove. Guests staying at The Green O have access to all the Paws Up facilities and activities, but not vice versa. While I didn’t stay there, I did get to eat at the on-site restaurant (a perk thanks to my writing assignment; Paws Up guests don’t have access) known as The Social Haus. Many Paws Up staff expressed their admiration for the dining experience here and it did not disappoint — it was the best meal I had on property, despite exceptional standards throughout. Social Haus is the most gastronomically driven of the eateries, and their dinner service is a show in and of itself — I cooked my own wagyu on the steaming hot river rock upon which it was served.
What aren’t you going to do is really the question. The activities page on their website lists more than 60 adventures, from classic Western disciplines like shooting and horseback riding to more niche pursuits like geocaching, nature painting and drum circles.
I partook in some of the water activities on offer: a peaceful canoe trip down the Clearwater River as well as a more active fly-fishing trip down the Blackfoot River with a guide who really knew his shit. I had never been before, and although it was rather windy when we went out, my guide was informative and affable (we drank some beers) as he guided us down the river.
I also sampled a few vehicular activities, including an ATV tour of the property that hit some beautiful vistas as well as a backcountry tour in a Polaris General (or side-by-side, as they’re known) through the Garnet Mountains that ended in the ghost town of Garnet, an intact-but-deserted mining depot from the 1800s. The side-by-sides were a treat: I was going through the woods at 30+ mph, which might as well be Formula 1 on a narrow path in the Rockies (I should note here that my extremely responsible and capable guides were extolling the virtues of driving safe and not killing yourself throughout).
As mentioned, the two other primary activity genres I skipped were gun and horse related (I don’t think there are any that combine the two, unfortunately for all you Spaghetti Western fans). You can do everything from learning the fundamentals of horse riding to participating in actual cattle drives (remember, this is still a working cattle ranch) to skijoring in the winter (think water skiing, but with a horse instead of a boat). As far as the guns go, they have ranges, clay pigeon shooting and more.
They also offer hot air balloon rides, an aerial adventure park, rappelling, paintballing and plenty of kid-friendly activities. There are too many to name, so if there’s something else you’re into, they probably have it, including plenty of winter specific ones.
Paws Up is included in the growing sector of high-end resorts running on an all-inclusive model. Two always open properties, Tank and Trough, are the on-site bar and restaurant, respectively. Here you can get standard, locally inspired dishes like country breakfast, huckleberry pancakes, burgers, sandwiches, bowls and more. I got a wild game sausage one morning that was phenomenal. The bar features cocktails, wines and beers and features a casual, almost après-ski vibe.
Pomp is a reservation-only dinner spot that’s still included in the dining program. It features daily pre-fixe menus; when I was there, I got to try two first courses (butter lettuce salad and hand-rolled tagliatelle) followed by two second courses (butternut squash and steelhead trout). I sat outside and watched the sunset over the mountains as I ate.
Paws Up also does a handful of special pop-up meals each week. I was there for the Chuck Wagon dinner, in which they shuttle all the guests to a location on the river where a band plays while food is served barbecue-style, complete with tomahawk steaks. Everyone was seated at picnic tables, so it was a great way to mingle with other guests. They do countless other family style-type meals in the evenings depending on what day you’re there.
The vibe of the place is greatly impacted by the season. I went in mid-September, when school was back in session, so there were only a handful of knee-highs running around. But during the summer months and holidays you’re far more likely to run into families. Outside of that, the clientele is fairly mixed depending on the week you go. I saw guests of all ages, but it did skew slightly older, as you might expect out of an expensive destination.
Given the price point, you might expect Paws Up and its guests to come off a bit stodgy and pretentious, and yet that could not be further from the truth. Most guests are very cordial and more than willing to engage in the sort of “hi neighbor” conversation you expect when you get out of big coastal cities.
Also, like most things in the 21st century, Paws Up operates via their own proprietary app. Using this, you will communicate with the front desk about activities and organize any shuttle access you may need to get around the property. It is pretty barebones but gets the job done. And you can of course always just call the front desk if you’re more of a Luddite.
There is no getting around the expense of a stay at Paws Up. The low-season (fall) single-night rate starts at around $1,500 (two adults, one bedroom) and goes up to around $4,000 for a larger lodge home (four adults, two children). Your initial activity stipend will cover one, maybe two activities, but if you’re there for an extended stay, additional costs for that can also stack up.
It is also a wilderness experience in addition to a luxury experience, so if you’re not prepared to be outdoors and maybe get a little dirty (before returning to a commodious shower or — if you so choose — a spa treatment), you might have some issues.
Finally, the Missoula airport is rather small and doesn’t have a ton of flights, so you may have to fly at inconvenient times and/or have layovers, especially if you’re coming from the East Coast or points further afoot.
This is one of those places that you stay and acknowledge that, while expensive, everything is well worth the cost. The grounds are beautifully maintained. The accommodations are large, luxurious and well appointed. The activities are accessible, fun and incredibly well-guided. The food is local, delicious and made with care. And the setting truly can’t be beat: rivers, mountains, fields and wildlife. It is large enough to be as private as you want it to be. With a huge property like this it can be easy to get lost amid the shuffle, but possibly the best thing about Paws Up is the attention to detail. The staff-to-guest ratio is high enough that you never have to wait long for anything despite being on a property that is larger than some national parks. As a guest, you’ll truly feel valued and important, which when combined with some “holy smokes, this is beautiful” scenery, makes for the stay of a lifetime.
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