MOSTLY, I CAME for the dogsledding. I was lured by the ice-blue eyes of a black Alaskan husky in the snow — an image on the Instagram page of the Resort at Paws Up that stopped me in my tracks. Having said goodbye to my own beloved dog the week before, a loyal friend of 15 years, I was drawn to the image of that beautiful canine face, and to the idea of going someplace far away. I wanted to commune with these sled dogs and watch them work.
It took two flights and 10 hours to get to Missoula, Montana, from my home in California, and another 35 minutes or so to be driven east to the 37,000-acre resort in nearby Greenough. I craned my neck during the drive, but because we arrived at night, I could only make out the faint outline of the mountains from the van window. As we entered the resort, I could see that the wooden fence surrounding the reception building was strung densely with lights, as was a massive tree along the road. It all looked grand and festive, lit up like a party scene from “Frozen.”
That I was not able to see the mountainous landscape at night only made the following morning more dazzling. I awoke in one of Paws Up’s Wilderness Estates homes, a luxury log cabin with a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains just beyond the trees. When I woke around 7 a.m., the sky was still late-dawn blue, casting a violet hue on the fallen snow. Sipping tea, I sat and watched as the morning light arrived slowly, like a gentle-wake alarm clock, brightening over time into a crystalline winter day. By 9 a.m., the sun had climbed and the snow and ice sparkled like diamonds.
Dogsledding was the first activity we did, and it did not disappoint. We pet the dogs, all Alaskan huskies, as the musher wrangled them one by one to hook them up for the ride. They barked and whined as she worked, as if to say, Pick me! Pick me! “Are they just excited to go?” I asked. “They want to run,” she said. “They’re bred to pull.”
I sat with my son in the sled in front of the musher and was carried through the stunning countryside at an impressive clip. Tiny flecks of ice kicked up by the dogs’ racing paws flew back toward us as we went, landing like snowflakes on my face. The musher stopped a couple times to let us take turns riding on the back behind her, a sensation not unlike riding a bike along somewhat unpredictable terrain. I beamed throughout the entire 3-mile ride, asking our fearless driver about her 30-plus years raising sled dogs and the 19 times she has raced in the Iditarod, finishing third for the last three years. (The most astonishing detail she shared was that during the four-hour breaks she takes along the 1,000-mile Alaskan trail route, she gets only 20 minutes to nap; the rest of the time is spent feeding and caring for her athlete dogs.)
Like many of the experiences I had at Paws Up, the dogsled ride felt like it could have taken place in another time, another century. Except for the iPhone in my pocket, which I used to take only a single video for posterity, the experience felt detached from my everyday life to a thrilling degree. Being there, outdoors in the snow, I promptly forgot about many of the constraints of the last couple years, especially the anxieties brought about by navigating risk in a densely populated city. In Montana, the expanse of placid snowy plain seemed almost endless. The resort is so big that it feels like a self-contained town, and it’s possible that one might encounter only a few other humans across an entire stay.
It isn’t just the welcome sense of removal from daily life that makes Paws Up such a magical place to visit. It’s also the storybook quality of the sweeping landscape, the low fog that clings to the ground in the morning, the hoarfrost that encases each branch and blade of grass, the twinkling icicles hanging from every structure, and the kinds of Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs that Bob Ross would have called “happy little trees.” Add to that the indoor pleasures like a roaring fireplace, overstuffed armchairs with ample reading light, hot cocoa, and a jacuzzi bathtub — it all combines to lend a deeply relaxing fairy-tale quality to any trip here.
The fairy tale was further enhanced by a sleigh ride through the snow, during which we sat beneath fur blankets while listening to the jingle bells on the Norwegian draft horses’ saddles — an especially Disney-like experience for the toddler in our group. The sleigh driver, Steve, gave us the backstory on the bells, telling us that in northern states where the winter days are short, people would deliver goods (and passengers) by sleigh before cars were invented. But they were so quiet moving across snow that it caused traffic accidents. So bells were put on the horses to give others notice that a sleigh was incoming; eventually, drivers customized the bells so you might be able to tell not just that someone was coming, but who it was.
Other winter activities at the resort include tubing — which elicited shrieks of happiness that could be heard for miles from the children — as well as horseback riding with stunning scenic views, snowmobiling, and horse whispering (a blend of equine training and therapy). All are led by kind, expert staff who are determined to make guests feel a sense of both adventure and comfort.
Paws Up guests are given a Lexus to drive while “on property,” proving very useful, especially in winter, as it makes the short journey to one of the resort’s restaurants a snap. We had most of our meals at Trough, which boasts robust breakfast and lunch menus featuring the kind of food that fuels outdoor adventure — dry-aged bison steak and eggs, biscuits and gravy, and hearty burgers — alongside the typical items on a twenty-first-century hotel menu, like truffle mac and cheese and toast points with caviar. Bruce Springsteen was playing on the stereo during one morning meal, and as I took in the rustic decor — a perfect complement to the elevated cowboy aesthetic of the house we were staying in — I thought about the particularly American flavor of the place. Equal parts rugged and relaxed, Paws Up imparts the unique feeling of expansiveness promised by Big Sky Country. Though I, too, live in America, it was a departure from the one I knew.
If you’re feeling lazy (or just cold), it’s also possible to order in food — a driver will bring anything from the menu to your house — or pizza can be delivered. Dinner is served at Pomp, a fancier eatery on the property, where the menu changes daily. The offerings while we were there included a New York strip steak au poivre with hasselback potatoes and roasted baby carrots, orecchiette with chorizo, rapini, pistachio, and pecorino, and a miso black cod in a burnt ginger broth with bok choy, radish, and scallion relish.
In the summer, Paws Up transforms into a verdant warm-weather getaway. Luxury tents for glamping are set up around the property. Each site has six tents along with a cook and a butler, and rather than sleigh rides, guests can enjoy a zip line, ATV riding, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, paintball, rafting, rappelling, and more. By summer, the bright white stretch of snow I saw each morning as I drove down to the Wilderness Outpost in a parka, hat, and gloves, will be vibrant green grass and wildflowers — I just might have to return.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Skye Parrott Photographer
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.