Searching for a way to combine kid-friendly fun with top-class amenities? Look no further than Paws Up, the Montana resort that pampers the campers.
I don’t like camping. I married a guy who doesn’t like camping. We’d like to enjoy the benefits of camping—waking to an unspoiled natural vista, being lulled to sleep by the sound of a rushing river—without the hassle. Hauling gear. Pitching a tent. Cooking over an open fire. Cleaning up. That’s not a vacation, that’s a punishment.
But clearly, little boys have “when are we going camping?” hardwired into their DNA. And we have an 8-year-old who started this mantra when he was 5. This summer, we capitulated.
Still, we’re not idiots.
So we went “glamping,” thanks to The Resort at Paws Up, a 37,000-acre resort located 30 minutes from Missoula in western Montana, what many in the state call “the last best place.” Glamping means the tent is spacious and well-appointed. Glamping means your encampment has a butler and a cook. Glamping means the bonfire and S’mores are made for you. Glamping means your kid goes camping and you go glamorous.
The Sound of Music Meets Mad Max
There’s nothing like family time on vacation, by which I mean every member of the family enjoys their stay. For us, with a child under 12, that means a kid’s camp: a few hours a day for our 8-year-old to do what he wants, a few hours a day for us to do what we want.
We checked our son in to the Paws Up “Kids Corps of Discovery” (whose supplies and entertainment options were vastly superior to those of Lewis and Clark’s Corps’) so that my husband and I could take an ATV tour of the Garnet Mountain Range. The resort offers guided 90-minute, three-hour, or five-hour tours. We chose the longest one because it took us 7,000 feet up to Elevation Mountain and included a stop at Garnet Ghost Town.
I try to be as green as I can, so part of me wished we were doing a horseback expedition: The resort offers equestrian tours for every level and there’s even a three-day, two-night horseback excursion to a luxury campsite at Bull Creek. The resort also has an awe-inspiring equestrian center, with a ring for rodeos and a tack room that can be turned into a candlelit dinner for groups.
But once Roy, our ATV guide, decked us out in helmets, goggles, and bandanas, and invited us to mount the cushy seats of our all-terrain vehicles, there was no going back. We roared through meadows, down back roads, and up logging trails to our picnic at 7,000 feet overlooking nothing but forest and mountains. We stopped often and killed the engines so we could appreciate the mountain vistas, explored an abandoned miners’ camp, and toured Garnet, a beautifully preserved and evocative mining ghost town.
We covered 40 miles of breathtaking backcountry in five hours without breaking a sweat. Thank you, Roy. To cap the day off, we picked up our very happy son from kid’s camp and checked into our reason for being at Paws Up: our tent at Creekside, the newest and third encampment to grace the resort.
It was magical.
Our two-bedroom tent had a king-sized bed with a thick, heated comforter and a luxurious ensuite bathroom, unique to this camp. The other two, River Camp and Tent City, have nearby bathhouses with individual bathrooms assigned to each tent. Each camp has only six tents. Also unique to Creekside is the dining pavilion. All the camp pavilions are open-air on the sides, but Creekside’s is three times the size of the others, with a comfy lounge area and a large fireplace. Billowing orange and brown drapes enclose the pavilion when it rains, which it did that evening. But between the new friends we were making over dinner and the kids running down to the creek or through the woods during breaks in the rain, the weather hardly mattered. The evening finished with S’mores by the fireplace and a stroll back to our tent, gazing upward at a sky big with thousands of stars. We were glamping.
A River Runs Through It
No one was happy to check out of Creekside the next morning, least of all my husband, who had a 6:30 wake-up call to make his fly-fishing expedition. Our son had Kids Corps and I was headed to Spa Town, an encampment of canvas tents closer to the resort’s vacation homes and the Paws Up
village, which includes a general store, two restaurants, and a bar.
The setting was lovely. My masseuse was wonderful. I could only fault the drizzly weather for the fact my spa tent couldn’t be opened for the view of the meadow and the mountains of the distant Bob Marshall Wilderness. But the highlight of the day was checking in for our two-night stay at River Camp, a spectacular setting on the banks of the Blackfoot River. While it didn’t have the aforementioned glam pavilion and ensuite bathroom, it did have the same luxury tent, plus the expansive view of the Blackfoot from the dining pavilion and a sizeable beach from which to swim or fly-fish.
Our tent was only 20 feet from the river. We could sit on our porch relaxing, then fly-fish at a moment’s notice. A path through the woods, a feature my son loved, led us to our bathroom.
Dinner that night at the rustic but charming pavilion was perfection. The setting sun turned the river from steel blue to pewter to inky black. An eagle soared from the river to its nest in a tree not 20 yards away. Morgan, our butler, refilled our wine glasses and asked us if we wanted huckleberry cobbler before S’mores by the fire. Of course, we all said yes. We were glamping.
The River Wild Meets The Lucille Ball Show
Remember that Meryl Streep movie where she’s the white-water expert who takes her husband and son on vacation down the river, only the fun turns to terror when the psychopathic stalker played by Kevin Bacon shows up? Well, that’s sort of what happened to us.
Only in this case, it was our charming Paws Up cavation planner, Eric, taking on the Kevin Bacon role, when he told us that two families had already filled up the guided rafts for the five-hour family float on the Blackfoot River. "With rafting you are simply a passenger on a scenic float," he wrote in an email. "But in the duckies you have the opportunity to get a little more action in the low rapids, etc."
More on that "etc." in a moment.
Duckies are inflatable kayaks you pilot yourself. Two days away from arriving at Paws Up, I responded, “Sure, fine, we’ll do the duckies.” Two minutes away from stepping into my duckie, while my husband took our son in his, I not only balked, I pleaded to go in a raft. Our guide Scott insisted I give the ducky a chance. He pointed to the very mild-looking rapids a few hundred yards away and said, “That’s the worst it will get. You can do this. Just remember: Don’t panic.”
You know what? He was right. Not about the rapids, because they got worse, though nothing above Class 2, which I renamed Class Holy Shit! And there were rocks I was supposed to navigate around. (That must be what Eric meant by “etc.”)
But our guide was right that I could do it. I got stuck on rocks. And I didn’t panic. I got off the rocks. I thirsted. And I didn’t panic. I cadged an ice-cold Bud Light from some fishermen. (It’s the Montana way.) My family and I floated down a glorious river on a sunny day in August, getting very wet and very happy, secure in the knowledge that relaxation and pampering awaited us.
Later that evening, our last night at Paws Up, as the sun set on the Blackfoot River, my husband fished in the river, my son panned for gold nearby, and I realized I still didn’t like camping. But I love glamping.
There are three tent encampments on the property, open late May through September. All rates are per night and include breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two adults. (The chuck wagon dinner with wagon ride is an add-on of $75 for adults and $35 for kids.) Each camp has six tents; a fourth camp is in the works and may open by next summer.
Activities can be pricey, so always check in advance before making a reservation. If you don’t cancel 24 hours in advance, you’re on the hook for it. For more information, visit pawsup.com.