Bluebird days, fresh snowfall, chic digs, lush forest, fantastic food, an ATV — and a horse of course. Could you ask for anything more during a wonderful winter getaway at Montana's Green O?
What’ll it be on this cold winter’s night way out on the rugged range of Big Sky country? The pizza? Or the 8-course tasting menu — opening with a playful fish stick amuse-bouche, followed by a page-long pageantry of small plates including scallop & saffron, waygu & caviar, venison & maillard, salmon & kohlrabi, and so on … before closing with a pair of flirty desserts called quince & sunchoke and chocolate & smoke?
Arriving in the dark less than 10 minutes ago at the snow-swirled gates of the green o—a new luxury hideaway tucked in the woods at one of western Montana’s most storied guest and cattle ranches—it can take an extra moment for this weighty decision to fully thaw. Especially if you’ve just flown in from tepid Los Angeles.
Two quick flights and one parallel universe ago, I was stuck in L.A. gridlock on a 76-degree late December day — then crammed inside LAX’s notorious Terminal 6 with throngs of dour folks in T-shirts and pandemic masks.
Now, suddenly, I’m in boot-crunching, breath-viewing, pine-surrounding real-deal winter, way out in a sweeping valley about 30 miles from Missoula but otherwise sufficiently off the grid. Peeling off thermal layers and warming up inside the green o’s Social Haus — a cozy-chic dining rotunda decked out in charred Japanese shou sugi ban wood with a showpiece central fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a silhouetted forest seasoned heavily with snow — I’m still playing catch-up with the present moment.
Ten feet from my table is an open kitchen staffed with James Beard-caliber chefs at the ready. Later, I’ll check into a sleek, private abode hidden in the trees, bask in a steaming, private outdoor hot tub under a confetti shower of Montana-size snowflakes, sip syrah by the fire, and slumber under a skylighted roof of constellations. Over the next few days, winter conditions depending, I’ll be further provisioned with an assortment of cold-season activities that might include snowshoeing and dogsledding.
But back to tonight’s opening question: pizza or 10-course fantasy meal? This will be my first of many real-tough decisions during 72 hours of deep winter escape at the green o.
“You can’t go wrong with either. The pizza is out of this world, too,” assures Buck, my server, bartender, concierge, and difficult-decision-facilitator, handing me a local Scepter IPA to ease the, uh, stress. “Really, the only mistake you can make is leaving without trying both.”
Buck smiles reassuringly.
“And we won’t let that happen here.”
Nestled on a 37,000-acre luxury resort and working cattle property in the heart of Montana’s Blackfoot River Valley, the green o is one of those formula-defying places you need to just gratefully go along with to get a delicious handle on.
Opened in June 2021 by the folks behind the family-oriented Resort at Paws Up just down the road, this new, adults-only retreat sequestered on its own forested corner of the ranch shares the same vast river-valley landscape as its larger sister property. Otherwise, the green o is very much its own brand and concept.
“The main thing I’ve been hearing from guests at the green o is that it’s just so unexpected to have a design-forward resort with cutting-edge architecture and world-class cuisine in the middle of a remote forest in Montana,” says Laurence Lipson, co-owner and managing director of both resorts.
“Guests who come to either of our properties appreciate the finer things in life, but they also aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and try new things, whether it’s rappelling, flyfishing, sporting clays, or something else that could end up becoming a life passion,” Lipson adds, before drawing distinctions between the two places. “Paws Up has a lot of rough-hewn, big-timber architecture and is more in keeping with a cabin-type Montana product with all the bells and whistles and a culinary style viewed as more ‘refined rustic ranch.’ What we felt like we needed for the green o was much more of an architecture- and design-forward project with cuisine that sometimes verges on the experimental.”
Privacy (celebs like Rihanna have been known to show up for a quiet, anonymous stay), refinement (think Mother Nature’s penthouse), and adventure (outdoor and gustatory). However you care to approach that trifecta, it awaits in myriad combinations at the green o, whether you’re sharing this unique spot with a special someone or hogging it all to yourself.
During my own solo stay here in early winter shortly before the Christmas holidays, the resort will be a revolving door of peaceful refuge, culinary thrills, and Western-style winter fun and adventure, all wrapped inside a rustically sleek (or is it sleekly rustic?) hideaway designed for the ultimate escapist yin-yang: full engagement and blissful disengagement.
Spread seamlessly across a thickly timbered hillside, the green o’s dozen ultramodern, open-concept two-person homes — or hauses (so dubbed in a nod to the European/Scandinavian-influenced architecture) — are accurately enough described by the resort as “sanctuaries in the trees.” The most arresting of them is the Tree Haus. Perched 15 feet above the ground with more than 1,000 square feet of living space, the lofty two-story cabin’s interior spiral staircase leads to a fully windowed master bedroom suite overlooking the forest like a crow’s nest. When I take a peek inside, a family of white-tailed deer are traipsing through the snowy woods directly below.
“You don’t have to wait very long before it turns into a total Disney movie here,” says Jeff Severini, the resort manager, an avid fly fisherman drawn out to these parts from the D.C. area, while touring me through the green o’s signature haus in the pines.
My own cozy digs, the Green Haus, are graced with a broad, double-sided gas fireplace to also be enjoyed outside on a wooden deck equipped with an on-demand 104-degree hot tub. Inside, the whole pad is bathed in warm earth tones and cool vibes, from the pitch-ceilinged living room with an entire windowed wall overlooking the forest to a slightly sunken bedroom area fitted with a large skylight thoughtfully lining up with exactly where your head hits the pillow for sleepy stargazing. Touch-screen controls are everywhere, for everything. And, no, they didn’t forget the rainfall shower, stylish trough sink, oversize soaking tub, and heated commode seat.
Folksy details are also everywhere, softening the chic factor. A French bulldog statue playfully stands guard near the “eco-kitchen.” A painting of a sheep branded with a large green “O” on its back hangs on the wall (the livestock brand used by the ranch’s original jocular owner, Paul Greenough, a century ago). There’s a coffee table book entitled The Architecture of Trees, and Scrabble and Twister are accommodatingly stashed on an upper shelf if you need them.
You’d be hard-pressed to ever leave this haus if it weren’t for a broad lineup of enticing winter activities hosted by the adjacent Resort at Paws Up.
On tap for today: a private horse-whispering clinic with Paws Up’s equestrian manager, Jackie Kecskes. And there’s no doubt I could use one.
“I’d like to feel more comfortable around horses,” I tell Jackie when she asks me what I want to get out of this session. “I don’t feel like they take me all that seriously.”
She nods understandingly, but she can’t help pondering aloud how this intel jibes with her assumption about the riding chops of a longtime writer for Cowboys & Indians. After I humbly explain that I’m a longtime Angeleno with more time hiking on the coast than bushwhacking in the saddle, Jackie establishes something right off the bat about today’s “horse whispering” clinic: There will be no whispering involved. In fact, she doesn’t much care for that term at all.
“It gives it this whole ‘magical’ quality, which it’s not,” says Jackie, who worked with Buck Brannaman (the iconic horseman who Robert Redford’s character is based on in The Horse Whisperer) during her formative wrangling years in Colorado. Brannaman wasn’t a big fan of the term either, she tells me. “It’s not woo-woo we’re talking about here. It’s about energy, communication, and education — on both sides of the fence.”
Between her many years working with horses in Colorado and now Montana, Jackie worked in childhood education. That’s handy right now, too, because when it comes to horses I’ve been stuck for decades in arrested childhood.
“The ones who are the most stuck are the people who think they know everything about horses,” my straight-talking horse educator assures me, leading me to a large herd of them idling in the cold beside the resort’s massive private equestrian center, the largest of its kind in Montana. “I remember Buck could be especially blunt with those sorts of folks.”
We wander among the horses, every giant gentle eyeball fixed on the lumbering stranger in their midst, while Jackie and her 4-year-old border collie, Duke, make their rounds like old friends.
“Horse body language is subtle, so it’s the little things you’re looking for,” says Jackie, introducing me to my equestrian colleague this morning, an 11-year-old mare named Bacardi. “It’s in the ears. A lean on one foot. A slightly lowered head. See how Bacardi is moving her lips? That’s a good sign.”
The four of us — teacher, student, Duke the dog, and Hot Lips Bacardi — head into Paws Up’s 34,000-square-foot riding arena that’s seen many a rodeo and pro equestrian performance for large crowds. Today it’s just Bacardi and me entering a small circular pen. After a quick demo from Jackie, who instantly gets her trotting in a steady circle around the perimeter, telepathically it seems, it’s my turn.
No whispering involved. Just body language. “Focus on the hips,” Jackie instructs. “The less arms, the better.”
It’s not going well. “I think the problem is I don’t like telling anyone what to do, even with my hips,” I tell Jackie, who tells me what to do about that.
“Think of it more as teaching instead of telling. Yes, it’s about earning respect, but it’s essentially about effective communication and developing a relationship. All the yelling and yanking in the world won’t do it if the energy isn’t right,” she says.
Might this apply to human relationships one wonders while trying this over and over again with a spectacular being named after a fine rum. After several sloppy attempts at effective communication with my patient partner, something gives, and she actually latches on to our little exercise, dutifully trotting around the perimeter of the pen. Now how about that? It’s happy hour with Bacardi after all.
Then, when I ease back on the hips, the arms, whatever I’m doing, Bacardi reapproaches. Why would she ever want to return to me after this testy workout, I wonder? Like woo-woo, my instructor reads my mind.
“Horse aren’t treat animals,” explains Jackie, who introduces me to negative reinforcement theory. “Negative doesn’t mean negative here. It means removal of stimulus as the reward. Pressure and release. Push and pull.”
We continue to practice: Jackie providing positive reinforcement to me (“Good. Establish your personal bubble. Be accountable for your body language. Don’t let her decide when it’s time to stop; that’s your decision.”). Me providing positive negative reinforcement to Bacardi, and Bacardi taking me seriously, or doing an awesome job pretending. No whispering involved.
When my teacher steps in to demo with Bacardi again for a few last laps, it looks like she’s doing absolutely nothing. Just standing there.
“A lot is happening here,” says Jackie quietly, in almost a whisper. “It’s all about attention and focus and ultimately, trust. It’s a process.”
What I suspect will be the most memorable breakfast I’ve eaten in the last 51½ years is minutes away from being placed in front of me at the Social Haus on a bluebird snow-covered morning. The breakfast menu includes eight “larger plate” options and six “smaller plate” options. The problem is, there are 14 things on this menu that I can’t live without trying.
Will it be the Dungeness crab frittata with tamagoyaki egg, daikon, togarashi, and yuzu hollandaise or the homemade apple fritters drizzled in honey caramel, spiced brown sugar, and walnut nougatine or the chamomile yogurt panna cotta with fresh berries, honeycomb, and pistachio or the duck & foie gras sausage or the … ? You get the idea.
I’ve also been informed that the soufflé omelet with foraged mushrooms and sheep’s cheddar will shatter my entire preconception of omelets. “It’s quite an omelet,” says then morning sous chef (now executive chef of outdoor dining) Shannan Wages, standing in the open kitchen across from where I’m seated at the counter beside a giant slab of fresh honeycomb. “The country-fried steak [wagyu beef with miso-red eye gravy and sunny-side-up egg] is pretty special, too.”
Wages, a soft-spoken powerhouse of a chef with a warm smile, earned his cooking stripes at impressive places like The Venetian in Las Vegas and three-star general’s tables at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California. Last June, he arrived at the green o with a team of top toques, including executive chef Brandon Cunningham and James Beard Award-nominated pastry chef Krystle Swenson.
“One thing we really take a lot of pride in here is taking familiar dishes everyone knows and then just running with them, pushing them somewhere you’ve never been before,” says Wages, who makes me promise I’ll try the root vegetable Reuben sandwich (featuring braised celery root treated to a pastrami spice rub) when I return for lunch in a few hours. “I think we really knocked that one out of the park, too.”
I’ve never eaten a steak for breakfast — let alone country-fried wagyu — but something tells me this is the time and place. Plus, I can work off the calories during my 60-minute deep-tissue massage appointment between now and my Reuben sandwich. On second thought, how can I pass up on the fried chicken & chickpea waffles with golden raisin chutney and coconut syrup? On third thought, where else am I going to get chamomile panna cotta? What a dilemma. Why is life so hard?
“Would it be okay if I made all three for you?” asks Wages, solving everything in 11 words like I’d be doing him a favor. “I just love to cook,” he says, which he does just a feet away like a private master class. “We’ll do the omelet tomorrow,” he promises.
And the fritters.
The green o provides guests with their own Lexus hybrid to scoot around the resort, but it’ll only get you so far in this place. If you really want to experience the property’s beauty, immensity, and wildness, hopping on a Polaris Sportsman 570 ATV is a good way to go. Thankfully there’s a long row of them parked outside Paws Up’s Wilderness Outpost, where a long-haired, stubbled, beaming blond in a one-piecer named Erik assures his bald, bundled-up client we won’t get too lost out there.
“I love it here in the summer, too,” says Erik, who guides flyfishing trips on the Blackfoot River during the resort’s warmer, busier season. “But right now is one of the best times to come,” he adds, lowering his goggles, cranking the engine, and flashing the first of many thumbs-ups during a midafternoon’s winter backcountry ATV tour. “Y’ready?”
We blast off, throttling up a bumpy trail of sorts that leads up into the broad hills straddling the giant Blackfoot Valley. Earlier this morning, it was a cloudless blue sky. Now, in true Montana wait-five-minutes fashion, the flakes are starting to fall again. That’s good news for future skijorers and for an ATVer grinning like a 10-year-old in the snow while trying to keep up with my awesome new buddy, Erik.
Pulling up to a vista stop at a craggy point called Lookout Rock where summer guests rappel off a 170-foot cliff to the Blackfoot River below, we clamber to the top for a quick panorama of the sprawling, frosty valley sprinkled with little dots (fully grown elk) poaching a snack from the ranch’s faraway alfalfa fields.
“I’ve been told that Lewis and Clark stood right here in this very spot,” says Erik, with at least half a grain of salt in his voice. “Actually, I think it was just one of them,” he self-corrects. “I’m not sure which, but I can check.”
Motoring down toward the river along a winding back route, we brake periodically to examine snow prints. Not Lewis or Clark’s, it turns out, but every other tread mark around here turns up. Red squirrels. Coyotes. Bull elk …
“These ones here just happened,” says Erik, pointing out some fresh deer tracks and peering around for the hoofs. And as if on cue, there they are: a couple of four-point bucks trotting up the hill, stopping briefly to stare back at us before disappearing over the back side.
Our turnaround point is the Blackfoot River, which winds for miles through the Paws Up property and is home to some of the finest summer glamping sites and flyfishing tours in the state. Right now, the water is rolling along frigidly. It’s not that deep at the moment, but it’s cold enough to turn your ankles into blue popsicles.
We walk over the stony bank and onto some shallow river ice that cracks a little ominously. Directly above us just upriver and dwarfing the giant pine trees is Lookout Rock, where we (and it was Meriwether Lewis) stood earlier. Standing on the frozen-ish river, Erik mentions that we’ve technically entered public land with these few precarious steps. According to the state’s Stream Access Law (1984), rivers in Montana can’t be privately owned. They flow for everyone.
“People in Montana disagree about a whole bunch of things, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is the importance of public land,” Erik says. As the sun slowly sinks over this idyllic riverine setting and the snowfall picks up another notch, he turns to me and flashes a thumbs-up. “So this is your river, dude.”
Even if I’m flying back to L.A. tomorrow morning?
“Well, it’s yours until then.”
My final ride before reluctantly checking out of the green o is on a horse, of course. This one is named Buckshot.
“I think he’ll be good for you,” says my mentor, Jackie, betraying just a bit of mischief in her tone as she sets me up for the ride.
There are over 100 miles of riding trails on the Paws Up property. My adios journey along the resort’s signature “Winter Loop” with this 21-year-old buckskin is bound to be a pretty one — meaning pretty challenging.
“He’s a fantastic horse,” Jackie says, “but he fancies himself king of the herd, so you’ll have to set some clear terms with him right off the bat.”
Right, or else Buckshot won’t take me the least bit seriously. No problem. I got this.
I hop on Buckshot and give him a gentle little kick, then a slightly harder one, and another. He doesn’t budge. When he finally takes a few token steps, I direct him left and he turns right. Then he starts to graze.
“C’mon Buckshot,” I say. “Please stop eating and listen to me. Pretty please?”
When Buckshot sneers, tells me where to stick it, and starts grazing again, something kicks in.
Gently but firmly lifting Buckshot’s head, I lean forward and whisper to him. What do I say? That’s our little secret, and Buckshot will never, ever tell. But his ears adjust ever so slightly, and I do believe he might be moving his lips. That’s a good sign.
Any moment now we should be getting on our way again.
Learn more about the green o:
Experiencing the Green O in the Summertime
Green O's Uniquely Artistic Architecture
A Paws Up Holiday
Some Green O Recipes
Find out more at thegreeno.com.