What to do in Montana...
Imagine discovering the perfect spot to set up camp. Where one step outside your tent places you and your fly rod on the banks of a blue-ribbon trout-filled river and your every thought is synchronized with the babbling of the Madison River. Now, sweeten the deal with the knowledge that you don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting. For those adverse to the thought of roughing it in the backcountry, a new alternative has emerged that will allow even the slickest city dweller to enjoy the Montana wilderness in a less than “wild” way.
Luxury camping, or “glamping” as some refer to this approach to getting back to nature, means you enjoy Montana’s wilds without sweating the details or giving up creature comforts. This is where fishing, five-star dining (no can of pork and beans here) and camping get a major upgrade from the Lewis and Clark era.
Moonlight on the Madison
A small cluster of unimposing white tents and tiny cabins gather directly on the banks of the Madison River. From afar, the camp is reminiscent of pioneer times, but Moonlight on the Madison is an experience far from the hardships of yesteryear’s travelers. The gentle rustling of the giant cottonwoods welcome guests to the magic which is Moonlight on the Madison. Surrounded by the calls of mountain blue birds and golden and bald eagles, the camp is a special place to gather family and friends and exercise your passions.
About 45 minutes from Bozeman near Ennis, Montana, the 8,000-acre track is home to fresh water pelicans, sandhill cranes and of course the brown and rainbow trout who maneuver the Madison River. From late June through early September both day and overnight guests can come take part in what this special part of Montana has to offer.
The camp is an exceptional place to Moonlight Basin founders, Lee Poole and Joe Vujovich, whose history with the land dates back to 1970 when they were ranch hands in Ennis. The two often hiked the area dreaming of a way to protect it. Poole and Vujovich got their opportunity in 1992 and with a third partner, Keith Brown, purchased the 25,000 acre tract from the Plum Creek Lumber Company. Despite being leveraged to the hilt, the team’s goal was to restore the natural magic of the basin. To that end, they hired a team of geologists, wildlife biologists, and forestry and water specialists to help determine how to best manage the land. They made the commitment to protect about 75-80% of the property and immediately placed more than half of their holdings into permanent conservation easements. The team has won awards for its stewardship of the land. Their efforts are evident in Moonlight on the Madison.
“The Madison range is the authentic, quintessential Montana,” says Alan Poole, Moonlight’s membership director.
As families gather, a light breeze carries easy laughter across the meadow. Small children glide on the hammock and enjoy Little Fletcher—the kids’ only tipi with games and dress up outfits. A distinctive sign lets all know the rules: “No Adults Allowed.”
The fly-fishing is literally at your feet. Wading the banks allows you to get lost in those perfect moments gifted by a trout which decides to rise and partake of your fly. The river beckons even the smallest fishermen with success almost guaranteed. Even an overcast, rainy day yields fish and fun. Guided float and rafting trips can also be arranged.
As the sky turns crimson with wisps of white clouds, small groups start to unwind from their day of fishing, relaxing in Adirondack chairs by the water or with a friendly game of horseshoe. Some still can’t quite tear themselves away and remain fishing until the last inch of daylight.
An osprey perched on a nearby post welcomes dinner guests who dine on linen covered tables beside the Madison River. The menu includes as many locally grown ingredients as the chefs can incorporate. Much is hand-picked from the organic garden of an 80-year-old Ennis resident. Everything is prepared at the camp kitchen. The meal rivals any high-end restaurant and is only made sweeter with the added backdrop of the valley’s sights and sounds. On this night, hungry bellies welcome succulent appetizers, a salad with Huckleberry vinaigrette dressing, buffalo tenderloin, and corn succotash with giant fava beans from nearby Belgrade.
An après dinner campfire roars and allows more relaxation, the sharing of the “one that got away” stories, and precious time to pick out the constellations among the multitude of Big Sky stars. If you are lucky enough to have a full moon, the magic is complete.
“It’s a place to reconnect through simple pleasures,” says Alan Poole.
A light rain falls on the cabin and lulls all its occupants to a deep rest. Sleep comes easy in an antique bed thick with the comfort of the softest linens. Nightstands, a dresser and a cowhide leather chair make this lodging feel nothing less than luxurious. A nearby generator-powered restroom and shower assure camp necessities are complete.
The smell of sweet grass fills the morning air. A tray of fresh coffee awaits the first to venture out the zippered tent door, which was left open to enjoy the river’s calls of dawn.
Like Native Americans before them, the Moonlight camp leaves no footprint on the land. At season’s end, the entire camp is packed up and the land left bare for its winter visitors. The river gorges and eight inches of ice cover the camp keeping precious next spring’s promise of an unforgettable day on the river.
To reserve your spot on the river, visit www.moonlightonthemadison.com or call 888- 370-6619.
The Resort at Paws Up - Encampment at Bull Creek
The horse’s steady gait carries its rider deeper into the forest along Monture Creek past a crystal clear waterfall and sweeping meadows as not-so-distant mountains of the Swan and Scapegoat Ranges beckon. The deep musk of lodgepole pines awaken the senses and assure wildlife is around—if not yet spotted. This is part of the pleasure of an adventure that begins with a 12-mile horseback ride into the backcountry in which guests of The Resort at Paws Up can partake without concerns for any pesky provisions.
Paws Up, located about 30 miles northeast of Missoula in Greenough, Montana, has approximately 37,000 acres it calls its backyard—the “big backyard” to be precise. In the heart of the Blackfoot Valley, Paws Up Outfitters offers guests a rare opportunity to experience part of Montana’s true backcountry without worries of when they’ll get their next hot shower.
The Encampment at Bull Creek is a luxury base camp set up for the season in the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a more than million-acre wilderness area and one of Montana’s treasures. The camp leaves no worldly need unmet. His and her bathrooms provide a solar-heated shower to wash off the day’s dust. The cook tent dispenses gourmet meals and fine wine.
Each tent is made extra homey with sophisticated touches such as framed art on the canvas walls. Upscale cots laden with real feather beds and down comforters provide the uninterrupted sleep needed after a long day’s ride.
“People love the encampment because it gets them into the wilderness. These are people who normally wouldn’t get out in the backcountry,” says John Way, head outfitter.
Once in camp, guests can explore trails by foot or ride to high mountain lakes to picnic, fish, or swim. For recreation, the Encampment at Bull Creek provides a horseshoe pit and archery. High-tech amenities include a combined GPS and radio unit in case anyone would like to hike on their own but would like to take along some peace of mind. As Paws Up Outfitters likes to point out, this is “roughing it redefined.”
At day’s end everyone relaxes around the glow of the campfire with a favorite cognac or fine wine in hand. Stories of the day flow easily. The multitude of stars light up the night sky causing all to ponder what reasons are sufficient enough to return to the real world. The three day/two night excursion seems to be the right amount of nature for most guests, says Way, who graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in wildlife biology and has been guiding for nearly 20 years. The experienced guides of Paws Up Outfitters can answer almost any question about the area, such as the names of flowers and foliage and why lodgepole pines are called such. Riding experience is not required. “We’ve taken people who’ve never even touched a horse,” Way said.
Tent City & River Camp
The Resort at Paws Up has another camping option for those not willing to wander too far. The resort’s Tent City is an elegant camp nestled among tall pines. Each of the six tents has a luxury bed with 300-thread-count sheets, full western furnishings, and even electricity. A private master bathhouse pampers with heated floors. The camping butler caters to your daily needs whether it be stoking the fire or educating you on the local lore. The dining tent provides a sumptuous meal with breathtaking views of Lookout Rock.
This summer, Paws Up has erected another canvas tent “campground” which snuggles up to the banks of the Blackfoot River. Six luxurious canvas tents are available along with two “tent-suites” that can accommodate a family of four. Guests enjoy the same amenities as tent city. Translation: the camp butler can clean your catch.
The Encampment at Bull Creek is operational June 15-September and becomes a hunting camp in the winter. The backcountry trips are limited to eight guests. The two night/three day trip is $1,200 per person, including meals. For more information, visit www.pawsup.com or call 866-894-7969.
Paws Up Tent City is available from June through September. A two-night minimum is required. Rates range from $595 to $670 per night based on double occupancy and include three meals daily. River Camp rates start at $670 per night and include three meals daily. The “Tent Suites” start at $710, double occupancy, and can accommodate up to four people. Additional fees are $110 (ages 12-16), $65/night per child (ages 4-11), including meals. For more information, email [email protected] or call 800-473-0601.
~ Kimberley Yablonski is a freelance writer and outdoor enthusiast who will gladly welcome a feather bed over a bedroll on any hiking and fishing excursion. She can be reached at [email protected].