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Glamping in Montana at Paws Up Resort

Paws Up is the working ranch that pioneered the concept of ‘glamping,’ but reveling in its Montana location remains the ultimate luxury.

Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

“It’s a special place,” our driver, Jason, said as he drove us the 20 minutes from the Missoula airport to the Paws-Up resort. He had relocated from New Jersey several years ago and lived just a few miles off the property. It was a throw-away line, almost too generic to note, but I heard it repeatedly during my short stay at the ranch from both staff and guests. As luxurious and indulgent as the Paws Up experience is, it still pales compared to the land itself.

“There’s nothing quite like glamping in Montana,” says Laurence Lipson, a resort co-owner. “It’s literally the perfect location for the whole concept, with rivers, lakes, mountains and meadows nearby and luxury accommodations easily reachable after enjoying rugged, outdoorsy activities.”

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Nestled in the heart of the untamed, dramatic landscapes of Missoula, Montana, The Resort at Paws Up presents a unique blend of raw wilderness and refined luxury. Over the years, this 37,000-acre working cattle ranch has been evolving, pioneering the concept of Glamping—a fusion of glamour and camping. Today, Paws Up is recognized worldwide as the birthplace of glamping, and while it stands as a symbol of luxury, its roots are deeply embedded in the spirit of outdoor adventure and exploration.

Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

The first thing that strikes you at Paws Up is the sheer size of it; it is a small resort with a collection of camps and experiences. The base camp has a collection of restaurants and is the starting point for many activities, but it is a 15-minute drive from the North camp where I stayed. Guests move around the resort shuttled by a seemingly endless number of vans that arrive un-bidden based on your itinerary. You can also call them on demand via an iPhone app, text message, or phone call.

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Make no mistake; this is not camping. The Green O portion of the resort is an adults-only enclave of cabins that would make the Duttons blush. I stayed in a traditional glamping compound called North Camp which is more family-friendly. Technically, it was a tent set high on the banks of the Blackfoot River. Unzip all the windows, listen to the sound of the running waters, and you will feel like you are alone in the woods. But it was also a tent with two combination AC/Heaters, dual bathroom sinks, a full shower, and, wait for it, a heated bathroom floor. This is not roughing it.

The Green O, Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

Lest there be any doubt, each camp is staffed by a collection of “butlers,” whose responsibilities include serving meals, arranging transportation, making cocktails, assembling smores boards for the evening bonfires, and generally attending to every guest’s needs.

The Birthplace of Glamping

Glamping at Paws Up started in the late 90s and early 2000s, when the Lipson family-owned company, Paws Up Outfitters, led guests into the untouched Bob Marshall Wilderness. Spanning over a million acres, this is the largest protected wilderness area in the United States, offering backcountry adventures that would stir the soul of even the most seasoned explorer. With fly-fishing trips on the Flathead River and pack trips to the Chinese Wall in the Wilderness, guests were ushered into the heart of nature, only to retire under the starlit sky, cocooned in large wall tents equipped with spacious cots, feather bedding, and lanterns. Steaks sizzled on the open fire, paired with fresh vegetables and fine wine—an elevated nature experience that served as the catalyst for Glamping at Paws Up.

In 2003, the spark to elevate wilderness camping to unparalleled heights of luxury was lit. Resort co-owner Laurence Lipson collaborated with artist Pieter De Liagre Bohl to photograph a wall tent for an Outfitters brochure. The resulting image became the blueprint for the iconic Glamping tents at Paws Up today.

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Lipson sought to recreate the spirit of exploration and curiosity in guests while instilling a sense of profound respect for the wilderness. He was inspired by the classic safari tents used in Africa and aimed to recreate a similar experience in Montana, thereby pioneering the concept of an ‘American Safari’. He believed that one did not need to traverse the globe to witness extraordinary wildlife and spectacular landscapes—it was all waiting to be discovered right here in Montana.

Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

In 2004, Lipson presented this concept of luxury camping to his family with the proposition of augmenting the existing resort facilities, including luxury homes, restaurants, an activity center, a kids’ camp, and more. His proposal was met with enthusiasm, marking the beginning of designing and planning logistics to make the dream a reality. But the novelty of this experience warranted a catchy name that resonated with the essence of luxury and wilderness. Laurence conjured a perfect blend of the words ‘glamorous’ and ‘camping’, coining the globally recognized term “Glamping.”

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With a vision as expansive as the Montana skies, the Lipson family embarked on the design and development of the physical camp. They began with “Tent City,” the original Glamping site on the Paws Up Ranch. Ensuring comfort without compromising the rustic essence, the tents were meticulously designed. With an external log framing structure and a concrete foundation for stability, each tent was built with a combination bedroom and living area. To further elevate the experience, the tents were supplied with underground power for lighting, electric heaters, lamps, ceiling lights, and fans, ensuring a luxurious experience for guests.

Glamping at Paws Up went from strength to strength. All new camps were built to cater to the rising demand. Today, Paws Up boasts six luxurious camps and 36 tents, each representing the evolution of Glamping at the resort.

The Paws Up Experience

Paws Up is an all-inclusive resort, with a few exceptions for things like Hot Air Ballooning. There is no tipping, which simplifies things considerably. The Paws Up staff outnumbers guests by two to one, depending on the season. and they were all incredibly attentive. Although you can always add activities, the spread-out nature of the location will reward some advance planning. Paws Up is super family-friendly, so expect to see many kids around the campfire at night. At the same time, the resort offers some daycare activities, so parents can escape to the spa for yoga and forest bathing.

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Feeling a little spoiled by the rustic luxury, I spent my time on the most outdoorsy pursuits possible. I also had my 28-year-old stepson along for the ride, and he was disinterested in sound bathing with crystal bowls. I heartily recommend the ATV tour, a great way to cover a lot of ground and see vistas that reveal the entire valley. If you are partial to shooting, the resort offers both .22 sharpshooting for kids and 12-gauge clay shooting for adults. After testing your skill at base camp, you can walk through a series of clay target ranges with various aerial target presentations. This was my first time shooting, but I found the experience both comfortable and satisfying. We went through a lot of shells.

Courtesy of Stuart Thurlkill

Paws Up also allowed me to scratch an item off my bucket list: fly-fishing the Blackfoot river. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It hit me hard when I read it in college, and making this trek has been on my life list ever since. I always imagined myself wading into the running waters, casting a line across the transom, and catching the bite of a big Rainbow trout. Maybe sharing a beer with Brad Pitt on the bank afterward. In reality, I was bouncing at the front of a swiftly-moving inflatable boat, casting as best I could under the urgent demands of Cas, our guide, shouting, “Lead, Lead, Big Lead!” (Leading is throwing a little loop in your line so it doesn’t cross your lure, and it isn’t easy for novices.) And that was before we hit the rapids.

It was something. I caught two small Rainbows and lost three big ones. I haven’t put in the time Maclean did to be “haunted by waters,” but rolling down that river with banks of pines on either side will stay with me.

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“It’s a special place,” Robert told me later that night. Robert was staying in the tent with his family, so we saw him during the evening campfires. He brought his kids to Paws Up to experience the unsettled wilderness. A safe place where the kids could run wild around the bonfire, sugar-rushing on s’mores while parents sipped expertly-crafted old fashioneds. (Robert would later wake me after midnight by gently shaking my foot before offering a somewhat guilty, “wrong tent,” then quietly leaving and locking up behind himself)

Paws Up is the ultimate high-low experience. You should do the Chuck Wagon dinner, which involves ax throwing, lasso roping, and big ‘ol Tomahawk steaks grilled to perfection. But you should also make time for dinner at the Social Haus, the base for the adults-only Green O, which was one of the best meals I have ever had: diced kohlrabi and apple salad, poached cod with pureed fava beans, a chocolate and sesame seed taco. Truly world-class.

When we first dropped off at camp, our driver told us to try to get off the resort at some point. He even offered to give us the “redneck tour” of Missoula. We didn’t make it, and that is a shame. There was too much to do and too little time, as always.

But I will be back. The American frontier doesn’t end.

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