Blackfoot Valley ranch being transformed into resort – "The Paws Up Ranch"
One of western Montana’s largest and oldest cattle ranches is preparing to welcome guests next June to an extensive luxury resort hotel in the Blackfoot Valley.
The Paws Up Ranch http://pawsup.com , a 37,000-acre spread about 30 miles east of Missoula and overlapping Highway 200 and seven miles of the Blackfoot River, started development of the resort last year.
By DARYL GADBOW of the Missoulian
When it opens in June, the resort will include 18 "hotel units," which essentially are luxury homes that will provide accommodations for 80 guests; two restaurants; a saddle club/equestrian center with a gigantic, 23,000-square-foot indoor riding arena; a sporting clays course; and a dance hall and retail center. An 8,000-square-foot spa is also planned.
In addition, the Resort at Paws Up will offer outfitted hunting and recreational pack trips in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and guided float trips on the Blackfoot and South Fork of the Flathead rivers, plus 100 miles of trails on the ranch for guided or unguided hiking, mountain biking, horseback and ATV riding, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
The goal of owners Dave and Nadine Lipson is to maintain the cattle-ranching tradition of the property, while creating a world-class resort "so other people can enjoy it with them," said Jamie Holmes, general manager of the Resort at Paws Up.
40060 Paws Up Road
Greenough, MT 59823
"Dave Lipson said if he wanted to do a resort, he wanted to do it to be top-of-the-line and world class," said Holmes. "But he wants to keep it very small scale. The first phase will open with only 18 units, which is relatively small by hotel standards."
The restaurants, spa and sporting clays course will be open to the public, according to Holmes.
"So we’re not building a private enclave that’s totally exclusive," he said. "We hope to get business from Missoula and (University of Montana) alums who come to the games. But we feel most of our clientele will come from back East, California and other areas of the country. It’s such an extraordinary experience for people from the big city. We think they’re going to love the experience of coming to Montana."
One thing Paws Up isn’t doing, Holmes stressed, is basing its resort around a golf course, at least for the time being.
"It may be something we do in the future," he said. "But we feel people will want to do what Montanans do – come out and enjoy nature. That’s what we want to do. With the size of the ranch, you don’t have to leave it to experience a lot of natural Montana. The owners have done their very best to have a beautiful piece of property. They’re working with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to restore Elk Creek (a Blackfoot River tributary on the ranch) as a cutthroat spawning stream."
Dave and Nadine Lipson purchased the Paws Up Ranch eight years ago and live in a circa 1915 farmhouse on the property. Dave Lipson is a venture capitalist, whose company, Knightsbridge Inc., buys and sells other companies. A CPA and licensed attorney, Lipson has been a director of companies such as Frederick’s of Hollywood, the women’s lingerie chain, and Supercuts, a national hair-care supplier.
When she and her husband bought the Paws Up eight years ago, they had "not the remotest idea" of developing a resort, said Nadine Lipson.
They decided to move from their home near Edwards, Colo., she said, because the area was getting crowded.
"It was getting so overdeveloped with houses," she said. "So we moved north, where there’s less people. And we love it. We love the land and the people."
Although the Paws Up logo displayed on the massive gates leading into the ranch are bears’ paws, Nadine said the name was inspired by a happy dog the couple owned.
"When we came here," she said, "we were only interested in cattle, and developing a top registered Angus operation."
Soon after they moved to Montana, Nadine Lipson joined the Blackfoot Challenge, a land-owner-based conservation organization in the valley.
She joined "to do something positive about the environment and work with our neighbors," Lipson said.
The Lipsons purchased the Paws Up – the ranch includes 10,000 deeded acres and 27,000 acres leased from Plum Creek Timber Co. and UM’s Lubrecht Experimental Forest – from Bob Mullendore, a Missoula lawyer, and continued the ranch’s long tradition of raising cattle.
Mullendore bought the ranch in 1991 from Bill Moore of the Kelly Moore Paint Co. Moore acquired the property in 1986 from brothers Land and Jon Lindbergh, sons of the celebrated aviator. The Lindberghs owned the ranch for 21 years.
One of the original owners of the ranch was Paul Greenough, who gave his name to the tiny community that grew up there.
"The town of Greenough is basically us," said Holmes.
Agriculture will continue to be an important part of the Paws Up, he said.
The Lipsons raise 400 head of Angus cows and their calves, as well as 100 head of quarter horses that they breed and sell. Nadine Lipson is an avid horsewoman who rides and shows her championship quarter horses, according to Holmes.
When they first started their cattle operation, the Lipsons had one of the top registered Angus breeding operations in the United States, according to Holmes. But they shifted their emphasis to raising commercial beef.
"But you know," said Holmes, "in this day and age, ranching is not paying the rent for the larger properties. The goal was to find an additional funding source so the ranch can stay intact. So having a resort is an alternative income source so the ranch can stay viable. The service industry is the wave of the future. And resorts are the No. 1 growth industry among service businesses."
The owners also wanted to find a way to produce additional income with a low environmental impact and provide employment in Montana year-round, according to Holmes.
"The ranch would probably only have 20 or 25 employees," he added. "But we’ll put another 100 employees on for the resort. When the resort opens, we expect 60 to 80 guests staying here at a time, with a staff of 100. The owners just know they have such a beautiful piece of property that’s so natural. They have the whole valley. And they feel people really want to get to know Montana, which is an area that’s somewhat undiscovered, and want to come discover Montana’s natural beauty."
Nadine Lipson, who has taken an active role in the planning, design and decoration of the resort’s hotel homes, said she’s proud of the development.
"I feel really good that it will be a complement to the area," she said. "That’s why we’re taking our time to do it right."
The Lipsons have assembled an experienced team to manage the resort, Holmes said.
"The people they’re bringing together have all managed world-class hotels, he said.
Before coming to the Paws Up, Holmes was the general manager of the Ritz-Carlton in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and at Biras Creek and Peter Island resorts in the British Virgin Islands.
"Those are some of the best resorts in the Caribbean," Holmes said. "So that’s the league we hope to be in."
Bryan Kindred, the resort’s assistant general manager, was formerly lodging director at Robert Redford’s Sundance Resort in Utah.
Christopher Bentley, director of sales at Paws Up, was the director of sales and marketing at the T-Lazy-7 Ranch in Aspen, Colo.
The Lipsons also found some top-notch local talent to help them operate the resort.
Ray Killian, the ranch manager, has many years of experience managing large ranches in the area.
Retired outfitter Smoke Elser of Missoula, who spent most of his life packing into the Bob Marshall Wilderness and operates a renowned stock packing school, is the main consultant for the Paws Up outfitting operation.
The Paws Up is doing things right, according to Elser.
"It’s excellent," he said. "They’re getting a good start at a time in the cycle of recreation where the outfitting business will be a big part of the state of Montana. One of the good things here is the owners of the ranch are successfully hiring the right kind of people. Dave and Nadine have a vision of what the property should be."
The Resort at Paws Up will not be like a typical Montana guest or dude ranch, said Holmes.
"We wanted a world-class hotel experience that represents Montana, with flexibility on meals, lodging, activities and length of stay that allows travelers to create their own vacation," he said.
Guests will have the option of eating at two restaurants, one – The Cook Shack – will feature "fine dining with a continental flair," according to Holmes. The other – The Tank and Trough – will have a more casual atmosphere, with a restaurant and bar.
Both will be open to the public for special occasions and regular Sunday brunch, Holmes said.
The Cook Shack is already built – it’s an impressive stone, castle-like structure – and currently serves as an office and employee cafeteria.
The 18 units of the hotel – individual two- and three-bedroom luxuriously appointed homes – are 80 to 90 percent completed, tucked into the forest for privacy and widely spaced over 75 acres of the ranch and a short distance from most of the resort facilities. Each unit looks out on a scenic natural meadow with minimal landscaping surrounding it.
The rustic appearance of the hotel lodges are "done to look like they’ve been here forever," Holmes said. "Each one is built with huge beams, left with a rough-cut finish on the outside."
Each of the units is furnished with a classic cabin-style flavor of handmade wood, leather, antiques, etched glass and copper. The smaller units have wood stoves; the larger ones have massive fireplaces. All have spacious living rooms.
"You can see we’ve spared no expense in decorating," Holmes said.
Each "cabin" is equipped with large, flat-screen TVs, high-speed Internet connections, hot tubs, full refrigerators, microwaves, cordless phones and Jacuzzi tubs. Many have showers that feature full outside windows, with etched glass scenes that allow an outside view, but not inside.
The Resort at Paws Up is the only facility in Montana to be included in the registry of the prestigious Small Luxury Hotels of the World, according to Holmes. Hotels selected for the listing, he added, must be independently owned, not part of a chain, have 100 rooms or less, and "set the stage for the luxury market in the area."
Lodging rates at the Resort at Paws Up will definitely reflect the luxury market – ranging from $695 to $995 per night for the larger units with six- to 10-person occupancy, to $495 per night for the smaller cabins with four-person occupancy.
For its grand opening in June, Paws up will offer special rates through Sept. 6 – $348 to $498 for the larger cabins; smaller units starting at $248 per night.
The Paws Up outfitting options for wilderness hunting and pack trips and river float trips also will be luxurious, according to Holmes.
"We call it roughing it redefined," he said.
Guests will sleep in feather beds and enjoy hot showers, tents with floors, and private restrooms on the trail or river, and savor chef-prepared gourmet meals in the backcountry.
Head outfitter John Way has 10 years experience guiding in Montana, is a member of the board of directors of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, a member of the Blackfoot Challenge, and holds a degree in wildlife biology and a minor in fisheries from the University of Montana.
Steve Hawkens, the Paws Up river outfitter on the South Fork of the Flathead, has been guiding in western Montana for a quarter-century and holds one of only three outfitter permits for float trips on the South Fork in the Bob Marshall.
The Paws Up sporting clays course, which opened this year and will be open to the public as well as resort guests, was designed by 12-time U.S. sporting clays champion Andy Duffy of Polson and three-time Australian champion Damien Bergen. The course is located on ranch property on the Ninemile Prairie. Duffy will be in charge of the resort’s shooting sports activities.
Resort guests also will be able to enjoy the Saddle Club at Paws Up, which was formerly known as the Paws Up Equestrian Center and was used exclusively by the Lipson family and their private guests. The imposing complex is visible to the east of Highway 200 just past the Blackfoot River bridge at Ninemile Prairie.
The facility includes a cavernous, 105-by-210-foot lighted indoor arena, surfaced with sand and crushed tires to be easy on horses’ hooves.
The Lipsons have provided use of the arena to the Seeley Lake 4-H Club, whose young members ride there every Wednesday night, according to Linda Hancock, manager of the Paws Up Horse Ranch.
The Saddle Club also features 52 stalls in its stable, each with its own closed-circuit TV camera that allows the staff to monitor all the horses from a central office. There’s also a huge room for giving horses a shower, a breeding room, a spacious tack room, and an artificial insemination lab – from which Paws Up ships semen from its championship studs all over the country.
In addition to the resort development, Paws Up is constructing employee housing at three separate locations on the ranch, Holmes said.
"This will be a wonderful opportunity for people from Montana to join us and parlay it into a trade that will allow them to work at luxury hotels anywhere in the world," he said.
The Paws Up "still looks like a ranch," Holmes added. "And that’s what we’re hoping to sell – a true ranch experience at a very high-end resort. We’re all really jazzed about this place. We’re really excited about it and we love to share it."
Reporter Daryl Gadbow can be reached at 523-5264 or at [email protected]
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