The fireplaces at The Resort at Paws Up in Montana require logs the size of a barbell. So, when the fire in the dining room’s mammoth stone fireplace dimmed to flicker rather than roar, my friends and I (encouraged by staff) got up from the dinner table and clean and jerked a WOD-worth of giant logs across the hearth and manhandled a 6’ wrought-iron poker to bring the flames back to life.
Back at the table, we were rewarded with a five-course meal fit for an Olympic champ (with a refined palate). The stand out was the elk tenderloin with juniper berry, celery root puree, braised fennel, apple, and red wine bordelaise — likely all the tastier since we plucked the plump purple juniper berries ourselves that afternoon while snowshoeing along the banks of the Blackfoot River with Chef Sunny Jin. He had corralled us after lunch, between snowmobiling and electric biking, and like magic, a Paws Up van loaded with our snowshoes and all the gear met us at the river and we clambered through the deep powdery snow trying to keep up with the energetic Jin, acting more like an excitable child on Christmas morning than the accomplished culinary king that he is.
This level of energy and enthusiasm for Montana and all it offers runs deep at The Resort at Paws Up, across 37,000 acres of pristine wilderness, snowy this time of year. Once the snow melts (mid-March or so), the dude ranch, a working cattle ranch explodes with even more activity - trail rides, cattle drives, chuckwagon dinners, fly-fishing on the Blackfoot River (10 miles flow through the Ranch), rappelling down cliffs first charted by Lewis and Clark, 16 stations of sporting clays, white-water rafting, ATV tours and a host of kids activities to make Sonny Jin jealous. All this with the highest level of service (you dream it, they make it happen), luxurious accommodations and five-star amenities that draw Hollywood celebs as well as families returning annually.
The beauty at Paws Up is more than skin deep, with careful land management, sustainable farming and an equestrian program that rescues wild mustangs bringing young wranglers into the ring for education, not just recreation. “Wild mustangs have been roaming the plains and kicking up dust for centuries. Here at Paws Up, we’re privileged to have the resources and facilities to not only welcome them into our hearts and our herd, but also to spend countless hours ‘gentling,’ or desensitizing and training them. It’s something most cattle ranches won’t consider taking on—and unlike anything any other resort offers, says Equestrian Manager Jackie Kecskes. “It’s a humbling experience to watch an animal transform from skittish to socialized, and we consider it an honor to share it with our guests.”
Jackie worked with we three city slickers in the beautiful indoor arena for two hours “cow horsing” - corralling calves and mama cows while on horseback, first clockwise, then counterclockwise before moving them gently through gates. She and her team (beautifully clad and friendly as can be) patiently and professionally queued us on how to work WITH our horse toward a common goal. I channeled my great grandmother, a ranch owner in South Dakota and climbed off my horse feeling confident and curious, falling more in love with Montana every minute.
Driving back to our guesthouse (where a wood fire lay at the ready and a path to the hot tub on the deck shoveled) our Kia Soul (each guest group gets one) we wondered what could possibly top that experience with Jackie.
That night after another stunning dinner at Pomp, we retired to the cozy lodge bar, Tank, with yet another fireplace the size of a walk-in closet and were treated to an intimate show with three Nashville giants who were at Paws Up for a songwriter’s weekend. By the end of the evening, we were all trading phone numbers promising to keep in touch like kids leaving summer camp.
Falling asleep after a day at Paws Up was easy, nestled among plump pillows and high thread count bedding, happily exhausted from basking in Montana’s fresh air, never-ending sky and the conviviality of the cowboys, cowgirls, and new friends.
1 - Dogsledding along the Blackfoot River, sitting low in the sled behind eight excited Alaskan Huskies will be a highlight of your winter trip to Montana. One and two hour trips are available with pup meet-and-greets and a chance to drive the sled with Jessie Royer and “The J Team.
2 - The resort has a carefully curated calendar of events throughout the year. Winterfest - February 14 - 17. Culinary weekend featuring some of the country’s hottest independent winemakers plus hot Los Angeles chefs. Spring Break, Montana Style - March 12- 18 and April 6 - 19. Sporting clays, fly fishing, ATV trails, wilderness workshops. Plus the Spring Songwriter Weekend, trunk shows, a cowgirl spring roundup, Montana Master Grillers.
3 - Glamping (a trend coined by Paws Up in 2004) - From mid-May through mid-October, guests “camp” on the Blackfoot River under the stars in a luxe safari-style tent with a butler. Campfire Chefs and Campfire Stars are booked throughout the summer. Big-name talent comes to your campfire and a James Beard Award finalist or Top Chef competitor cook for you outdoors.
4 - Pomp, the restaurant has a refined lodge vibe, with massive polished (but not shiny) wood slab tables with brass inlays, perfect succulent centerpieces, distressed copper chargers, white linen napkins and all the right knives and glassware. Executive Chef Sunny Jin has a vision for the food served at Paws Up that is foremost local and refined but not too fussy. Plating is divine, but the food is the star. Sunny took us foraging for juniper berries for that night's dinner.