Paws Up, Montana

Toes on the river outside a luxurious glamping tent at Paws Up in Montana.











Camping Butler Wesley Parks helps a young glamper prepare a perfect s’more along the banks of the Blackfoot River at Paws Up resort in Montana.














My daughter and I were strapped into harnesses and facing each other inside a giant beach ball atop a grassy, tree-lined hill in Montana. Our guide called out to hang on tight and then gave a shove. We bounced, rolled, screamed and laughed as we tumbled down the hill to a meadow below. It was 50 seconds of jolting chaos and then utter stillness as our ball finally came to a rest. We giggled with relief and dangled from our straps as we waited for someone to release us.

My daughter had picked this activity when we decided to go on a long “glamping” weekend together. The inflated ball, known as a Zorb, comes to the United States from Australia. I had imagined that we would get in the ball and wander around the prairies of Montana by walking within it. I hadn’t pictured a break-neck roller-coaster ride, and I was sure one try was enough to call myself a Zorbinaut, but my 10-year-old disagreed.

“You can’t say you really did it, Mom, if you don’t go twice!” she challenged.

So in we went again to plummet head over heels down the hill, laughing twice as hard the second time.

Our other activities were more in keeping with what I expected from a Montana dude ranch. We took a trail ride with two young wranglers whose sense of humor and knowledge made my daughter and me feel comfortable on our mounts and free to enjoy the woodsy smell, dappled sunlight and snow-capped mountain views. When the ride was over, we offered to help put the horses away, but this was where the glamping kicked in.

In glamour camping, the guest is queen (or king). If a trail ride is on offer, the horses are saddled and ready to go when the riders arrive and are then cared for after they leave. If a Zorb ball is to be tackled, the ball is ready at the top of the hill and returned there after each ride for guests who want to take multiple tumbles. If a canoe trip sounds fun, guides portage the canoes and paddle guests who prefer not to break a sweat.

I’m a do-it-myself kind of traveler, but the result of being pampered at every turn was an awareness of my surroundings that is often missed when I’m busy lugging gear, cleaning up messes, setting up tents or figuring out the next meal. With people assigned to handle those issues, I was able to play with my daughter, look for geocaching spots in the woods and really sink into the vacation. I especially enjoyed being handed a cold huckleberry lemonade every time I looked a bit parched.

On one afternoon my daughter went to a Kids Camp yurt, where she had lunch with guides who specialized in entertaining children. They helped her find arrowheads and make them into necklaces, and they all painted their faces before heading out on a hike where the saw an elk and two wolves. They returned to the yurt’s petting zoo and romped away the rest of the afternoon.

While she was being entertained, I slipped off to Spa Town to pamper my saddle-sore body with a massage. In a white canvas room I slipped out of grubby trail clothes and into a fluffy white robe. Eric Nygard ushered me into another small tent where I stretched out for my massage. Before he began, Nygard opened the tent’s flaps like a curtain, and I found myself with an unimpeded view across a vast meadow and up into a purple mountain. Strong rains had produced a babbling brook behind our tent that mingled with birdsongs, cricket chirps and the rush of wind through tall grass. As Nygard worked, the pitter-patter of rain began on the canvas and a distant roll of thunder sounded across the valley. The closeness to nature enhanced and relaxed me entirely.

Mealtimes, too, were handed over to guides and wranglers who entertained and cared for us. Christi and Steve Fraker are fifth-generation horse teamsters. They drove two wagons full of glampers down to the banks of the Blackfoot River, where a chuckwagon dinner of baked beans and corn on the cob from cast-iron kettles, meat roasted over an open fire and a steaming Dutch oven filled with cobbler was being prepared. While the adults enjoyed a full bar and a campfire, the kids went with the Frakers to dip their hands in paint and decorate a gentle white horse with a rainbow of handprints and hearts. Later, leathery cowboy Mike Doud taught the children to rope a mock steer head that had been attached to a hay bale.

More than anything else, the overnight accommodations elevated took the vacation to the luxurious level of glamorous camping. Our resort boasted some posh houses with huge kitchens, hot tubs and enough room for an extended family reunion, but it was the camp site where we stayed that finally drove home what it meant to go glamping.

When we arrived, our camping butler, Wesley Parks, greeted us with a smile, took our bags and led us on a leisurely stroll around Pinnacle Camp, one of three camp sites at our resort. Five large canvas tents were scattered around a wood and stone pavilion, where Parks showed us we could have a made-to-order breakfast each morning and a gourmet dinner any evening. We wandered on to our tent where we found wood floors, custom-made beds and a bathroom with a heated floor. A wall of twigs separated the tent into two rooms.

Once we were settled, Parks suggested a hike before dinner was served at the pavilion. He pointed us in the direction of a riverside trail and reminded us to make a lot of noise.

“Interpersonal communication is strongly encouraged here,” he laughed. “If a bear hears you coming, he’ll stay out of your way.”

As my daughter and I walked along the river we talked like magpies. We launched pinecones into the rushing brown flow and tried to imagine it as the clear fishing creek it usually is. We found a tall rock where we laid on our stomachs and tossed pebbles into the frothy water.

“This is a whole new kind of Top of the Rock,” she said to me. “In New York City, it’s surrounded by glitz and glamour, and here it’s just nature and beauty.”

When we got back to camp, the pavilion’s heavy brown and ivory striped curtains were pulled back to let a warm sunset shine on the heavy wood tables where our seared marlin appetizers awaited. My daughter charmed Parks into making another of his “perfect” cocoas, and I enjoyed an equally lovely margarita. We made new friends over dinner and then wandered to a nearby campfire. I snuggled into a chair to listen to a historian who had come to teach us about Louis and Clark and show us artifacts from the area’s history. Without a word, Parks delivered a coffee with just the right amount of cream and a sweet, golden roasted marshmallow he had made with the children. I folded it into a s’more and knew camping would never be the same again.

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Where to go: Glamping experiences are springing up all over the United States. We fell in love with Paws Up in Montana,, but there are other options to explore based on individual interests and desired location: Glayoquot Wilderness Resort in Vancouver,; Costanoa Resort in Northern California,; Storm Creek Outfitters in Idaho, Other glamping ideas can be found at and


How to plan: Paws Up recommends that guests contact a pre-arrival concierge two to three weeks before their visit ranch to discuss activities and create a schedule. Activities can last all day, but most are half-day events that can be separated by a lunch of smoked trout salad and sweet potato fries at the Trough restaurant.


Who will enjoy it:  There are glamping and kids’ camp activities for every age, but remember to ask about specifics for kids under 12.  Zorb, for example, is not meant for the smaller set.


When to go: Paws Up operates in every season. We enjoyed lush, green springtime, but activities continue throughout the summer and into winter. Paws Up celebrates Christmas with sleigh rides, ski trails, snowmobiles and snowy horseback adventures.


How to get there: Paws Up is a half-hour drive out of Missoula, Mont., which is served by several major airlines. A ride to the resort is provided by knowledgeable resort employees who explain the area’s mining and ranching history en route.


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