Passion Points: Active/Adventure
“How was Montana?” A friend asked about my most recent family adventure. “I discovered the Singita of America,” I replied, referring to the game lodge in South Africa that is consistently named the world’s best hotel. And to another, I said, “Remember A River Runs Through It? Well, that river runs right through Paws Up, the 37,000-acre ranch that’s reserved for fewer than 100 guests.” (There were no more than 30 there when we visited.) Some stay in glamorous tents or charming cabins; we had a 3,500-acre timber estate house with three master suites, a hot tub and our own electric car. We could have s’mores after dinner around the campfire or order a basket of the fixings sent up to prepare in the fireplace of our own great room, as we watched mythic movies of the west like Butch Cassidy or Lonesome Dove. But as civilized as the accommodations were, what really wowed us were the activities (see below) and the wilderness.
Montana is the fourth largest state in the U.S. and one of the least inhabited. There are fewer than 1 million residents, and the vast open spaces inspire wonder at what untouched nature is left in our backyard. Called “the last best place” and “high, wide and handsome” (two book titles), Montana still looks much as it did when Lewis and Clark came through. On our first day, the kids joined the Nature Day at Kids Corps of Discovery, and we went for a hike. Our guide was a woman in her 20s, who grew up in the mountains (her parents panned for gold), and was studying geology at university. Attractive with pale blue eyes, blond hair and a fit physique, she could have been cast on Baywatch but despite her feminine looks, she turned out to be seriously outdoorsy. As we followed a trail through fields of wildflowers and towering lodge pole pines (some of which were 500 years old), she allowed that she often set out for weeks at a time into the woods. On those jaunts, she carried a pistol, had been stalked by a mountain lion and covered herself in bobcat urine to repel bears.
In fact, the night before she had pitched her tent a few miles up the mountain from our house and slept out. We asked about the wilderness along the path, and many sights led to stories. On one hike, she had found a fossil of an immature dinosaur that she brought to the museum in Bozeman where it is now on display. By the time, we reached Lookout Rock, a formation high over the Blackfoot River and is where Clark said to have stopped, I had one of those pinch-yourself moments. The view was extraordinary; the peace and space immense. The kids, meanwhile, had been visiting the baby cows in the Cowpoke Corral, feeding the chickens in the coop, doing a nature walk to a creek full of frogs to collect plankton, petting rabbits and billy goats, and ending with a water-gun fight. The theme that day was Wild about Montana, but each weekday is different, with one focusing on art, another on horses and another on lake activities. The ranch animals are worked in every day in some form.
The current owners of the ranch bought the place, which belonged to Charles Lindbergh’s grandsons for thirty years, for themselves and ran it as a cattle ranch for few years before deciding to open it to guests in 2005. The accommodations range from the famous tents and simpler cabins to spare-no-expense estate homes and a few private lodges tucked on their own along the river, even a restored historic farmhouse, said to be haunted (see detailed descriptions below). The activities revolve around the ranch—there are two horse barns, including one with a first-class indoor ring—and the wilderness. So, we went trail riding, white-water rafting, visited a ghost town up in the mountains and had a chuck wagon dinner on the edge of the river. Everything is beautifully organized; you show up for rafting, and they have wet suits, slickers, booties and life jackets and half-way through the ride you stop for a campfire and snacks. They even have a photographer to shoot you along the way. We didn’t have time to do everything so will have to go back for ATV rides, skeet shooting and paint ball and more. The highlights for the kids were probably the rafting and the easy access to animals everywhere. For me, it was riding with kids, (and yes, the tent massage) and the solitude and wilderness and how that cast a spell over everything we did. As another guest said, “There is something so gentle and nurturing about the landscape that it does make you want to roll over—paws up—like a dog and surrender.”
Note: Many of the most memorable places that I have ever visited were built this way—as a private retreat for a discerning owner who then decided to share it. These others fit that bill: Hacienda San Antonio, Cuixmala, Kauri Cliffs, Blanket Bay, Villa Feltrinelli, Necker, Singita Grumeti.
Tents: There are two tented camps (and rumors of a third one coming) each with only six tents. River Camp has become the more popular of the two since some of the tents sit feet from the river and you can hear it rushing by at night. One to request: There’s one family tent with two sleeping “rooms” at River Camp and Clark Fork is closest to the river. At Tent City, Longhaired Owens is the farthest from the dining tent and bathrooms, so has the most privacy. All book up really quickly, so plan now for next summer. They are only available June through the end of September. Rates from $725 to $915 per night. (See Tents at Paws Up and Best Glamping for more details.)
Meadow Homes: These two-bedroom cabins, between the main reception barn and the Wilderness Outpost, have small kitchens and hot-tubs on their decks but the furnishings are not fancy. Think comfortable ski condo. You come for what’s outside, though, not what’s inside. They begin at $1280 in summer and $905 in fall.
Big Timber Homes: These cozy houses tucked in the woods have lots of Western details like rough-hewn logs, wood-burning stoves and cow hide rugs. There is a sleeping loft upstairs but it does not have an upstairs bathroom, so occupants need to share with one of the guests in a room downstairs. Great choice for families.
Wilderness Estates: The newest accommodations at Paws Up are state-of-the-art mountain homes that would satisfy the choosiest Aspen resident. Simple from the outside, they feature full gourmet kitchens, a great room with an enormous stone fireplace, three master suites with marble bathrooms, even a media room outfitted with Wii, Nintendo and a western-themed DVDs. They also come with an electric car. Rates from $1810 to $2690.
Private homes: There are a number of private lodges, including the Bunkhouse, a converted hayloft that is great for a big family or bonding trip since it has an enormous great room and bunkroom for six. For maximum privacy, the Blackfoot River Lodge is set on an isolated patch of river far from the rest of the ranch buildings.
Remember: Rates include three meals daily, and the food is excellent; activities are additional.
Tip: If you are doing a combination of a few nights in a tent and then a few nights in one of the accommodations with bathrooms attached, start with the tent and then move to the sturdier home. It’s better to go from roughing it (sort of) to pampering, then the reverse. If you are staying in one of the homes with children, you may want to order breakfast and even dinner to your house (it’s no additional charge) as the dining room wait can be long.
Read a postcard by Liz Lange on her western adventure and stay at Paws Up
Read another member postcard about a family trip to Paws Up
Read our list of places for Glamping: glamorous camping
Coming soon: Our Montana reading list, tips for getting the most out of a first-time visit to Yellowstone and reviews of more of Montana’s best dude ranches.
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