The camping options at Utah’s state parks can be as colorful as the terrain they’re set in. In addition to loops with standard tent or recreational vehicle spaces, campers can choose more creative ways to sleep near pink sandstone cliffs or thick green forests. Tepees, covered wagons and even hammock structures — from which up to eight people can sway each night — are on the menu.
“We in Utah state parks, we like to be on the cutting edge of state parks,” said Mike Long, the concessions program manager for Utah’s state parks. “We like to try to offer things other states aren’t offering and adopting.”
This year, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources is experimenting with yet another option, one that may be perfect for conscientious social distancers.
Starting this week, five of Utah’s state parks will install a total of 48 canvas tents at new, often remote, sites. The tents will sit on a raised platform. Inside, campers will find a queen bed frame with a memory foam mattress and a heater. Another six-person pop-up tent will be provided for extra guests, along with Adirondack chairs, a fire pit, grill, picnic table with storage, benches, sun shower, and a camp toilet.
Tentrr, a New York-based company that has sprung up as the Airbnb of camping, will furnish and oversee the tents and equipment. Tentrr has made a business of installing similar setups on private land since 2015. It approached Utah’s division of parks and recreation last fall about putting its tents in the state’s parks in part because of the state’s reputation for being open to ideas as untamed as the lands it manages.
“We were told Utah is ready to try new things and excited to try new things,” Tentrr spokesperson Anna Sides said. “So we said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Parks carving out space for the tents include Fred Hayes at Starvation, Steinaker, Red Fleet, East Canyon and Wasatch Mountain State Park. Utah will be the second state to experiment with the ready-made sites. Maine first placed some on its public lands last year.
The sites originally were intended to be a gateway camping option for people who otherwise would stay in hotels either because they don’t have camping gear or don’t want to hassle with hauling in and setting up the equipment they do have. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, however, they may find a different clientele: those dedicated to sheltering in place but weary of looking at their own walls.
For tent campers, traditional campgrounds can contain a host of coronavirus pitfalls. The distance between sites is often minimal and containing kids into one can feel near impossible. In addition, they typically require the use of communal bathrooms and showers. Such high-touch areas are proven hotspots for spreading the highly contagious virus.
Though they are rudimentary — the shower is a solar-heated bag of water that can be hung from a tree and the toilet is a stylized seat connected to a compostable waste bag — the Tentrr sites give campers private facilities. Most of the new sites are also billed as more remote, though camp managers in Steinaker near Vernal and East Canyon near Ogden said they are better described as an extension of existing campground loops (which could make those showers really interesting).
In addition, Tentrr is hiring someone at each park to manage the sites and clean them thoroughly, Sides said, from the zipper pulls to the bedposts. She said the tents will sit empty for a day between groups of visitors as an added precaution.
Long said all state park campgrounds are undergoing extra cleanings. Otherwise, now that residency restrictions have been lifted, it’s business as usual.
“As far as actual campgrounds, we haven’t seen the need yet to make any actual adjustments. Most places are spaced so there is some room,” he said. “It depends on the new normal going forward, we may have to make some adjustments.
“But If people can come, we want to welcome them to.”
In the current climate, that’s a rare invitation.
Utah is one of just 15 states allowing camping in its state parks, according to the camping website Campendium. Of the six states that border Utah, only Arizona is also welcoming campers. Just five national parks are allowing camping, the Beehive campground at Glen Canyon being the nearest exception. In addition all Army Corp of Engineer campgrounds, nationwide, are closed.
In total, Campendium estimates 40% of all its listed campgrounds, which include many in chain campgrounds, national forests and on BLM lands, have shuttered or delayed opening. That’s down from a high of 46% on April 20.
Last weekend at Red Fleet and Steinaker, revenues were 3.5 times greater than during the same week in 2019, according to Josh Hansen, manager of the two parks. Both campgrounds were at or near capacity and day-users were turned away for a few hours at Red Fleet to comply with restrictions implemented late last month to address high visitation.
“This year it was [packed],” Hansen said. “People wanted to get out. They’d already been home.”
He estimated at least half the people who visited the parks, located about 20 miles from the Colorado border near Dinosaur National Monument, had come from out of state.
Utah will likely continue to see crowds at its parks until other states begin lifting their quarantine orders, or even afterward. Demand for campsites has been on the rise over at least the past five years, increasing 6% between 2017 and 2019. So even if the new ready-made campsites don’t provide a secluded getaway, they will at very least relieve some of the pressure.
Long said the tents will be evaluated in 2021. If they’ve proved popular, other state parks may install them. If they aren’t, they will be removed.
The tents can be booked through Tentrr or via the state park’s website. With a $140-per-night price tag, compared with $35 for a tepee and $15 for a basic tent site at Red Fleet, though, campers who book them will be paying for the novelty.
Adam Tobey, a co-founder of Arcadia Guided Outdoor Education, which often provides guided excursions to children from lower income families, is skeptical they will make camping more accessible.
“I think the idea behind it is in the right area. I am just not sure if it will actually increase access,” he said. “I feel like most people who can go outside, in terms of having the financial ability to recreate in an outdoor setting, if they want to do it they’ll just go to Walmart and buy the tent and sleeping bag and Coleman stove.”