The Resort at Paws Up in Greenough, Montana, might be best-known for summertime “glamping.” But it’s also the perfect place to enjoy dog-sledding, skijoring and horse-drawn sleigh rides in the snow.
By Caroline Portillo
Visiting a snow-laden Montana in the middle of the winter wasn’t on this summer-loving Southern girl’s bucket list. But an offer to visit the legendary Resort at Paws Up, a luxury wilderness retreat beloved by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwenyth Paltrow and the Rolling Stones?
Hey, I’ll bundle up for that.
So I dug out my gloves. I bought a pair of sherpa-lined winter boots. And I asked my sister if I could borrow her long, puffy down coat for the weekend. After all, if you’re visiting a place that gets 40 inches of snow a year, you’d better pack more than a Charlotte-chic wool coat without a hood that ends at your waist.
On the flight to Missoula, Mont., the cityscapes gave way to snowy landscapes. At the small airport, I was greeted by a driver at baggage claim; the resort offers complimentary round-trip transportation for the 35-mile ride to Greenough. My driver, a lifelong local with a penchant for hanging out at the area’s mountaintop lakes, proved to be the perfect escort: one who knew when to weave the story of the land into conversation and when to let you soak in its majesty in silence.
And majestic it was. The Resort at Paws Up stretches across 37,000 acres of wilderness at the foothills of the Garnet Mountains in Blackfoot Valley. That’s about 60 square miles, or nearly three times the size of Manhattan. And in the middle of winter, its hills, dappled with Ponderosa and Aspen pines, undulate across a blanket of white as far as the eye can see. In the background are snow-capped peaks, and in the foreground is everything from a herd of grazing buffalo to families of elk. Meandering through the property is 10 miles of the Blackfoot River, famous for its fly-fishing and for being a stopping point on Lewis and Clark’s legendary expedition more than 200 years ago. More recently, the Blackfoot was featured as the setting in A River Runs Through It, the 1976 novella by Norman MacLean that was later turned into a hit movie starring Brad Pitt.
After opening in 2005, Paws Up developed a reputation as one of the nation’s premier destinations for “glamping,” or outdoor living with five-star amenities (think: camping butlers, heated and air-conditioned tents, chic rustic furnishings, and en suite bathrooms with rain showers and heated floors).
But if you’re headed to Paws Up outside of the May-to-October glamping window, you’ll need to stay indoors, officially. The resort offers a number of accommodations for parties of all sizes, from 1,100-square-foot two-bedroom Meadow Homes to 3,250-square-foot Wilderness Estates that sleep up to eight. My favorite feature: Every home is equipped with heated granite-tile floors and showers, so the winter chill stays far away from your home-spa experience.
When you check in at the visitor center, you’ll be given the keys to a green Kia Soul that’s yours for the duration of your trip — an absolute necessity for activities, considering the size of the property. If driving in snow makes you nervous, though, trust me: The roads are well-maintained, and if this Southerner who’s never driven in more than a couple of inches could handle it, you probably can. If you’re still not comfortable, you can always call for a ride or use the Paws Up app and a staffer will pick you up.
A renowned chef once called Paws Up “the Disneyland of nature.” And that pretty much sums it up. There are nearly two dozen activities available to winter visitors, from trail rides (the resort boasts the largest equestrian center west of the Mississippi River) to horse-drawn sleigh rides, ice skating to downhill skiing. But there are a few bucket-list experiences you must try.
First up: dog-sledding. With a name like the Resort at Paws Up — named by owners Dave and Nadine Lipson after a dog’s jovial “paws up” greeting — it’s no surprise that one of the resort’s signature winter activities involves man’s best friend. Iditarod champion Alaskan huskies pull you along as a professional musher steers the sled at the foot of the beautiful Garnet Mountains. Pro tip: Bundle up. Check out a balaclava (better known as a ski mask) from the activities center to protect your face, and don’t be afraid to layer up on gloves and coats. The dogs often run around 30 miles per hour, and in the brisk Montana morning air, you’re going to want every bit of coverage you can get.
Not into canine power? Try a private snowmobiling adventure. After a trial run in an open field so you can get the feel for the 500cc Polaris snowmobile, you and a guide will traverse snow-packed hills and trails. The sights here are spectacular, with 360-degree views of mountain ranges and a thick Ponderosa forest. Paws Up supplies the helmet, goggles, protective coveralls and a set of hand-warmers and foot-warmers.
For the avid skier, the must-try activity at Paws Up is skijoring, a classic Scandinavian sport. It’s similar to water-skiing, but instead of hanging onto a line attached to a boat, you’re tethered to the saddle of a horse that’s about to break into a gallop. It’s the perfect way to earn some bragging rights.
On press trips, there are usually a couple of nights where you’re expected to dress up for dinner, so I packed a pair of heels. But I was relieved to discover that at the Resort at Paws Up, there’s no such pretense: Why would you dress as if you didn’t walk across a sidewalk of snow to get there? Whether you’re getting a bison French dip sandwich with fries at Trough (the resort’s casual dining spot for breakfast and lunch) or enjoying a Rocky Mountain trout sauteed with fresh herbs at Pomp (the fine-dining option for dinner), trudge in with your winter boots and down puffer. Everyone else will, too.
The two restaurants are housed within the same building, and both boast expansive mountain views. Pomp is named for one of the youngest members of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the infant son of the legendary Native American Sacagawea: Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, affectionately nicknamed “Pomp” or “Pompey” by William Clark. Each dish is packed with local ingredients, from the freshest Montana meat and produce to herbs and berries picked from the surrounding mountains. In one of the most memorable culinary experiences I’ve ever had, we got to put on snowshoes and help Executive Chef Sunny Jin forage juniper berries and sagebrush from the foot of the Blackfoot River.
No Paws Up evening would be complete without a drink at Tank, a full-service bar serving up craft cocktails and cozy warm beverages. My favorite indoor pastime: grabbing a spot on the leather sofas by the crackling fire, a spiked huckleberry hot chocolate with homemade whipped cream in hand. SP
The closest direct flight to Missoula, Mont., is from Atlanta, but a number of connecting flights with one stop are available out of Charlotte. Upon arriving at Missoula, the resort offers complimentary round-trip ground transportation to Greenough.
Mark your calendar
The Resort at Paws Up is known for having a full slate of high-profile events for guests. (My weekend included some of Nashville’s finest songwriters.) For a romantic getaway, book your stay during the Winterfest Food & Wine Weekend Feb. 14-17, a three-day weekend featuring some of the country’s hottest independent winemakers and visionary chefs. Enjoy hands-on cooking classes and demonstrations; wine, beer and spirits tastings; live entertainment; curling matches; and, of course, gourmet, winter-themed feasts and wine pairings. Rates start at $2,320 per night for 4 people (includes accommodations, airport transfers, a $400 activity credit per person, all daily meals, culinary classes, tastings and more.) pawsup.com