Glamping taming Utah’s great outdoors for luxury lovers

The high-end camping offers an outdoor experience for those who don’t like roughing it. But not everyone loves the trend.

St. George • For years, Paul Campbell thought it was his love of outdoor adventure that drove him to hike the Appalachian Trail, canoe down Arkansas’ Buffalo River and backpack in Glacier National Park.

But after he and his girlfriend severed their relationship several years ago, while weathering a heavy downpour trudging solo up a trail in New Mexico’s Carson National Forest, the Arkansas native had a revelatory experience.

“I suddenly realized how miserable I was,” said Campbell, who now lives in West Jordan. “It also dawned on me that the reason I was so driven to the backcountry was not a love of solitude or wilderness but a desire to escape from an unhappy relationship.”

That understanding was further underscored when he stayed at an upscale resort in California and discovered the joys of glamping — a term that combines the words camping and glamour and describes the luxury outdoor trend captivating campers.

“I stayed in a tent with a king-sized bed, hot and cold running water, and a luxurious shower,” Campbell recalled. “I loved it, and I have steered clear of roughing it ever since.”

Campbell is not alone.

Glamping was a $2.35 billion global industry in 2021. An estimated 17 million households in the United States enjoyed at least one glamping excursion in 2021, a 155% increase over 2019. Moreover, the number of glamping resorts across the country has soared from 91 in 2015 to 230 in 2022, according to The North American Glamping Report.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) The entrance to Under Canvas camping resort near Zion National Park, Jan. 27, 2023.

While luxury camping has been on the upswing for a decade, industry experts say COVID-19 greatly accelerated its growth.

“When the pandemic hit, luxury camping checked a lot of boxes for people who had been isolating in their apartments or homes,” said Reuben Martinez, executive director and the founder of the American Glamping Association. “Once that [isolation] started to lift, nobody wanted to stay in a hotel because it was too similar to what they had been doing for months.”

A generation looking for unique experiences

Millennials are also driving the trend.

“There are all sorts of numbers out there, but the one that sticks out is that millennials will save for experiential-based travel over paying off student debt or saving for a house. They want something unique” Martinez said, adding they prefer outdoor adventure and the extras glamping resorts provide to a stay in a traditional hotel.

Utah has an ever-widening selection of luxury camping sites, with nightly stays ranging from about $100 to $9,000 or more. In Washington County, for example, there are currently seven glamping resorts and another two on the way — an AutoCamp featuring luxury Airstream trailers that is springing up alongside the Virgin River and Zion Utah Jellystone Park, a $50 million resort taking shape just outside Hurricane.

Outdoor resorts can also be lucrative — for the government as well as owners. Washington and Garfield counties, for example, levy a 4.25% transient room tax on all glamping, just as they do on hotels. Moreover, some cities also collect resort taxes. It adds up, officials in both counties say, although they haven’t broken down precisely how much tax money is coming from glamping resorts.

Far from conventional tents, the accommodations glamping resorts offer vary from spacious and luxuriously appointed canvas tents, Conestoga-like wagons, geodesic homes, yurts and tipis. Many resorts have concierges who help guests book white-water river trips, fishing excursions, Hummer safaris and other outdoor adventures. Some even have personal chefs for hire.

Zion White Bison and Glamping Resort, a $30 million destination on 80 acres off State Route 9 in Virgin, features 36 glamping alternatives — 11 replica Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, five tipis and 20 Conestoga wagons. An RV campground is also under construction.

That said, its accommodations little resemble those used by Utah’s Indigenous people and early pioneers. The insulated Conestogas feature heating and air-conditioning, refrigerators, king- or queen-size beds, and bathrooms with flush toilets and showers.

Tipis come with similar appointments but further include personal hot tubs, an outdoor kitchen, grills, dishwashers, refrigerators, coffee and ice makers and fire pits. Among the cliff dwellings’ accouterments are rooftop decks for stargazing. Many units have smart TVs.

Moreover, the resort has free Wi-Fi, and there are plans to add a restaurant, hotel and develop two miles of walkable trails. There are even a few rare white buffalo roaming the resort.

For all the resort offers, Leeds business owner Jared Westhood, who is working with principal investor Duane Mund to develop the site, recognizes it isn’t for everyone

“If you are the type of person who wants to pitch your tent and do everything on your own, we’re probably not the place for you,” he said. “But if you want to drive up, take your luggage into your unit and start enjoying time with your family. I’d say we are the place for you.”

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lodging at Zion Wildflower Resort near Virgin, Jan. 27, 2023.

Under Canvas, a Montana-based glamping operation that has four lavish resorts in Utah and will soon be adding an even more luxurious resort in the Moab area, doesn’t have TVs or Wi-Fi, but it touts a wide array of top-notch services, wilderness ambiance and lavishly appointed canvas tents.

“What we’re about is building quality hospitality experiences in these remote locations …,” said Under Canvas CEO Matt Gaghen. “[Our resorts] are upscale, but we are not divorcing you from nature.”

A middle ground for adventure

Luxury camping conflicts with outdoor writer Chadd VanZanten’s inner wilderness ethos. An avid outdoors enthusiast who has written several books on backpacking and fly fishing, he has nonetheless developed a relationship — if not outright fondness — for glamping.

“Nobody was more disappointed or dismayed with the human race upon finding out about glamping than I was,” the Smithfield resident said. “I was very dismissive and snobbish about it.”

But after remarrying eight years ago, he found his wife Amanda Luzzader wasn’t as stoked as he was about “sleeping on the ground, getting filthy and coming home exhausted and stiff.”

“She’s got a morbid fear of bats, and she doesn’t think very highly of mice, snakes, insects, spiders or anything else like that,” VanZanten said.

Fortunately, the couple has found middle ground — a glamping resort near Bear Lake where there is Wi-Fi, a restaurant and the children can play games and watch videos.

Another selling point glamping advocates pitch is the notion that luxury camping resorts have a lighter environmental footprint than brick-and-mortar hotels. For example, Gaghen notes, Under Canvas Bryce Canyon is fully solar-powered. He said the company’s resorts are also built with water conservation measures in mind such as pull-chain showers.

(Mark Eddington | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wagon huts at Zion White Bison Resort in Virgin, Jan. 27, 2023.

In addition, some luxury camping sites are situated on land leased from the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, better known as SITLA. The state agency currently leases land to five glamping resorts, which generates a combined $1 million per year that goes to help fund public education in Utah, according to SITLA officials.

‘Glamping exploits wild landscapes’

Not everyone is sold on glamping. Garfield County officials say they were overrun several years ago by “fly-by-night” operators trying to buy land or get a SITLA lease to open resorts, often at the expense of public safety.

“If the county doesn’t have a good ordinance, they basically buy and pitch a tent somewhere and charge 200 bucks a night,” said Garfield County Commissioner Leland Pollock. “Some of the original plans we received from these fly-by-nights basically amounted to a tent in the middle of nowhere with a Porta-Potty and no running water.”

Aside from the fire and other threats the substandard resorts posed to public safety, Pollock added, they also created an unlevel playing field for hotels, which had to pay extra to comply with safety and other regulations that didn’t apply or were ignored by some glamping resorts.

To rein in such abuses, Pollock said, Garfield was the first county in Utah to pass a glamping ordinance. Adopted in 2019, the ordinance requires glamping resorts to have a permanent potable water source and an approved wastewater system.

For her part, lifelong Moab resident Dailey Haren scoffs at the notion that glamping resorts are better for the environment than traditional hotels.

“Glamping exploits wild landscapes, introduces commercial sprawl into open spaces, and does not truly connect people to nature,” said Haren, who led an unsuccessful petition drive to thwart a ULUM luxury resort Under Canvas is building at Looking Glass Rock, a popular rock climbing and recreation area 25 miles south of Moab.

Under Canvas secured a 30-year lease from SITLA for the resort, which is slated to open March 30. Haren calls it a horrifying development, “akin to putting a sprawling Hilton resort at the base of Delicate Arch.” She also decries the relationship between Under Canvas and SITLA, which she said is too cozy and illustrates the serious need to reform the state agency.

SITLA spokesperson Marla Kennedy argues otherwise.

“It’s a shame folks don’t understand the process better,” she said. “SITLA advertises several parcels available for lease each year. Any member of the public or any business may apply for a lease. In this case, Under Canvas submitted a proposal for the parcel near Moab and met all the criteria required to operate on Trust Lands. We feel good about the revenue this lease will bring to the Permanent Trust, especially at a time when public funding for schools is front and center.”

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