For an uncharted vacation, look no further than the American West, where vintage views and orchestrated activities in the great outdoors can be all yours. Fathom co-founder Jeralyn Gerba roams from mountain to prairie at Montana's Paws Up ranch resort.
MONTANA — "I am much pleased at having arrived at this long wished for spot," wrote Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark fame), on his expedition through what became the American West.
I read that line on a plane to Big Sky Country, more specifically, The Resort at Paws Up, a ranch resort in the northwest pocket of Blackfoot Valley, 30 miles from Missoula, Montana. Paws Up is one of those photo-perfect, we've-thought-of-everything fantasy vacation spots — the kind where corporate retreats and fancy family vacays are taken to the next level with kitted-out teepees and barnyard dances and personal butlers who cater to your woodsy whims.
The ranch is celebrating its tenth year in the business of deluxe hospitality. Before that, the family estate was a working cattle farm from the homesteading era. Lewis was the area's first celeb visitor (these days, they mostly hail from Hollywood). I am a city girl in country clothing reading the journals of the explorer in order to get "the gist" of the noble Indian trails I was intent on walking during my weekend away.
I want an Americana experience. The resort delivers on the spot. They're not kidding about purple mountains majesty. The sky, too, is magnificent — a blueish, pinkish, yellowish hue. And there's so much of it.
Let loose on the 37,000 acre estate, I listen for the sounds of thundering hooves, a crackling fire, a hammock creaking by the side of a stream. I find them all in different pockets of the estate — in creekside camps, in walking paths nestled in the woods, in a one-room schoolhouse for the ranchhand kids who live on the property.
The resort caters to those who want a dose of adventure served on a silver platter. The high-end timber homes, wilderness estates, and glamorous tents have fine linens, jetted tubs, and staff to tend the fire. The day begins with a quiet sunrise and maybe a run on the Grizzly Man trail, an obstacle course in the forest constructed from tree logs. A hearty breakfast is served in intimate, open-air dining pavilions. Nature's playground is open for kids and adults alike: horseback riding through coniferous forests, mountain biking dusty trails, cattle driving through prairie grasses. And more: ATV riding, skeet shooting, animal petting, rock rappelling, or walking a hundred miles of paths.
I opt for the swivel seat in a small rowboat and spend the afternoon practicing the meditative art of dry fly fishing in the Blackfoot River. We paddle toward the tall grasses looking for trout, navigating backward currents while taking in tall pines, low shrubs, and stately bald eagles. I spend another day walking with a guide up Sentinel Rock, where Lewis reportedly climbed on his return from the Pacific Ocean.
The Pinnacle Camp, my favorite lodging site, is situated on a bluff overlooking the confluence of the Blackfoot River and Elk Creek and offers one of the most breathtaking views on the property. It features six safari-style tent suites with bathrooms, feather beds, western decor, and a plush dining room without walls (cue the crackling fire and campground chef). Whole groups can rent the mini campsites or book a number of other accommodations to suit their needs. Over yonder, crisp canvas tent structures are assembled in a semicircle referred to (somewhat mawkishly) as Spa Town. But the treatments are serious and the scents are a concoction of local herbs and foraged plants.
The air is crisp and there's a slight breeze. Bluffs of sand and clay. Ground squirrels. Red cedar. And those pale blue mountains on the horizon. Summer brings endless days (night begins around 11 p.m.), s'mores, and swims in Harper's Lake. But winter is when Paws Up amps up the coziness. Lodges are decorated with Christmas trees, the whiskey is brought next to the fire, and the days are spent snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, dogsledding, ice skating, and taking sleigh rides through the snow.
Out here, there are expeditions for every season and new frontiers for the well-traveled soul.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Think of Paws Up as an American safari experience. This is the trip of a lifetime. The ranch caters wonderfully and seamlessly to large groups and can accommodate all age ranges and levels of fitness — so tell Granny to pack her chaps. There's an array of lodging types, meal plans, kids programs, meeting rooms, and excursions and endless possibilities for customizing a killer holiday.
HOW TO GET THERE
Travelers fly into Missoula International Airport (35 miles from the resort) via direct flights from LA, SF, Seattle, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, Vegas, Minneapolis, and Salt Lake City. The resort is 35 miles northwest of Missoula, and round-trip transportation between the airport and Paws Up is included in the fee.
The Resort at Paws Up
40060 Paws Up Road
Greenough, Montana 59823
Nightly rates start from $1155 and go up from there. Here's a full breakdown.