Glamping — a hybrid word for “glamour camping,” offers modern comforts to the Great Outdoors experience. Flushing toilets. A shower. A real bed with a comfy mattress, and fresh clean sheets that you won’t have to wash later. “Roughing it” the easy way!
When I was invited to experience a night of glamping at the Conestoga Ranch at Bear Lake, it sounded like my kind of camping! When I was growing up, our family vacations almost always meant camping, and I loved LDS girl’s camp as a teen. But as I got older, camping became more of a chore.
I always love that first evening — cooking up a savory Dutch oven stew, or grilling chicken and corn on the cob. I could swear that even roasted hot dogs taste better in the mountains! And I love the whole campfire scene — roasting marshmallows, singing songs and telling spooky stories. I love gazing at the stars that shine more brightly away from the big city lights.
But sleeping is another story. I hate rolling around in a sleeping bag on the hard ground, when it feels like a tree is growing under your back. I don’t like stumbling through the dark in the middle of the night to take a child to the smelly outdoor bathroom. I am usually sniffling all night due to allergies. And there’s that sweaty, grimy feeling you get after a day or two without a shower.
There are tents to pitch, gear to haul in and lug out; pots and pans to try to wash with no hot water. Vacation? I usually go home feeling exhausted instead of recharged.
And yet, you can’t experience an outdoor adventure sitting in some hotel room.
Enter the Conestoga Ranch, which offers sleeping choices of a covered wagon or a high-end tent, outfitted with mattresses, bedding, and towels. Sounds kinda hipster, right?
The accommodations vary in size, amenities and price.
For instance, the Grand Tents can sleep up to 8 people, with a bathroom with shower, electricity, a mini-fridge, a safe for valuables, a fan to cool off in hot summer days, and a heater to stave off night time chills. But luxury doesn’t come cheap — you can expect to pay around $300 a night. (Like hotels, rates go up on weekends and at the peak of the season.)
The less-expensive wagons and “traditional tents” start at around $150 — and guests have the use of any of the main lodge’s 14 bathrooms, each equipped with a flushing toilet, sink and a hot-water shower. Yes, it’s a far cry from the dorm-like, everyone-sharing-the-same-shower-stalls that you find in a lot of campgrounds.
When I drove up to the resort in Garden City, it looked like the Western movie backdrop, with covered wagons nestled in fields of wildflowers, and a large rustic-looking lodge. There were groups of tents spread out on the hill, and fire pits circled by wooden Adirondack chairs.
At check-in time — 4 p.m. — things were pretty quiet. It was a hot Thursday afternoon, and I figured most of the guests were hanging out on the lake. Everyone parks in a lot next to the main lodge, and they are transported with their luggage by golf cart to their tent or wagon. (No driving on the campground trails!) After I checked in with Cassie Birch at the front desk, she drove me up the hillside to get acquainted with my new digs. Kim, who was traveling from Idaho, was going to arrive a later.
Wow! We were treated to the Joshua Tree Royal Tent Suite, that has a king-size bed an an actual bathroom with a flushing toilet, hot shower, and an old-fashioned claw foot soaking tub. Outside, we enjoyed a wooden porch with a picnic table, lounge chairs, fire pit and wooden Adirondack chairs for sitting around the fire.
It also was nicely decked out with antique furniture, a mini-fridge, and his ‘n’ her bathrobes. In case we got really cold during the night, we could use the electric blankets stored in the chest at the foot of the bed, or turn on the electric heater. The hot day turned surprisingly chilly after dark, so we did end up using the heater during the night. That’s my idea of roughing it easy.
But the best part was the view of beautiful blue Bear Lake! With our net flaps and netting pulled back, we could lie on our bed and look right out at this scene below.
Although there were electrical outlets in our tent, I decided to leave my laptop home. At check-in, Cassie gave me a “s’mores kit,” and said we could call the front desk for a “fire valet” to light and extinguish our fire for us. I envisioned happy families sitting around the fire, toasting marshmallows, holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” That’s the kind of magic that money can’t buy. But it sure does help, especially when it pays for a personal valet to light and put out your fire!
A history primer: the Conestoga wagon was a heavy, covered wagon used in the 1700s and 1800s. It was named after the Conestoga River or “Conestoga Township” in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and the Conestoga Native American tribe in that area.
Spending the night in one of these modernized wagons would, I imagine, appeal to city slickers looking for an “Old West” vibe. But they look pretty modern inside, with a king size bed and sets of bunk beds.
The wagons can be moved into bigger or smaller groups to accommodate a family reunion or a company retreat (Don’t they always shout, “Circle the wagons, boys!” in old Westerns?) At the end of the glamping season in October, the wagons are all moved to the parking lot and covered with tarps for the winter, Hedges said.
When I first saw our tent, it brought back memories of the fancy safari tents I’d seen when Kim & I visited Kenya. In fact, the African safaris are where the concept of “glamping” started, and then spread to the United States, according to Tom Hedges of Jackson Hole, one of the Conestoga Ranch’s owners, when he was showing me around the resort.
Hedges said he was already involved in Jackson Hole vacation rentals and resort development when he visited Bear Lake several years ago. He was blown away with its beauty, and saw the potential for more high-end lodging and restaurant options in the area. He partnered with Mike Knapp and Rich Smart of the Bear Lake-based Smart Construction, who owned this 18-acre parcel of land. It was a lot less expensive to develop a glamping resort in Bear Lake than Jackson Hole — “pennies on the dollar,” as Tom said several times in our conversations. Now in its third season, the resort still has plenty of hillside for more tents or wagons.
Each tent or wagon has a picnic table, a set of chairs, and either a private or group fire pit. You can bring your own food to cook over grills in the bowery, or you can dine at the Campfire Grill, serving “gourmet” breakfasts, lunches and dinners, as well as picnic boxes for daytime outings.
The campground — er, glampground — has a couple of big boweries — one used for weddings and events; another with grills and picnic tables for those who want to cook their own meals. There’s a small playground for younger kids, and a big lawn that would work for playing soccer, touch football or a water fight. Guests can also take out beach cruiser bikes for a spin, and there’s a game tent with a ping-pong table and arcade games. On the weekends, there’s live music and cowboy story telling.
For that dude ranch feeling, there are hay bales with fake cow heads on them, so you can try lasso-ing them.
I saw posters in the lodge for local companies offering ATV rentals and horseback riding. Kim and I visited Minnetonka Cave, about 25 miles north of Garden City, over the Idaho border. It’s a beautiful drive up St. Charles Canyon, and the inside of the cave is refreshingly cool.
The only improvement that I can think of would be a beach front location, so you could walk right down to the water. The lake is just a few blocks away, but this year’s high water level left a lot of the lake’s beaches under water. Cassie (who works at the front desk), advised that the best place to find some beach would be on the Idaho side of the lake at North Beach.
For those with boats (or who want to rent them), the Bear Lake Marina is only about a mile away from the resort.
I talked to a family from Ogden who spent a day boating, then stayed overnight in a Grand Tent. After breakfast and learning to lasso hay bales, they were heading to the marina for another day on the lake before driving home. The father told me their overnight stay, with the resort fee and taxes, totaled about $350, “but it was worth it, because we all slept very comfortably and the kids had a blast.”
That night, I had dinner at the Campfire Grill with co-owner Tom Hedges, sales director Keith Battaglia, and a fun couple from Australia who were writing and filming their travels in the Western U.S. I got a different perspective about the cost of glamping when they told me that after flying into Salt Lake City, they had to buy a tent, sleeping bags and other camping gear before driving to Yellowstone. For people coming from other parts of the globe, or for those who don’t already own camping gear and would rarely use it again, it’s probably more practical to glamp, where a tent and a bed are already set up for you. Another option — buying or renting an RV or trailer — can be pretty costly, too.
I thought the food quality at the Campfire Grill was on par with good Salt Lake City restaurants, with items like wood-fired pizza ($11-$14) and locally raised meats. Our group shared a few items, and everything I tasted was perfectly cooked and well-seasoned. I didn’t get to meet the chef, Vince Liberato, but a peek at his LinkedIn profile shows he has a culinary degree from Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts in Pittsburgh, and cooked at resorts in Pennsylvania before coming to Bear Lake. .
Menu prices are along “resort” lines; entrees range from $18 (1/2-pound Bear Lake Wagyu Beef Burger) to $32 for a New York Strip Steak. For breakfast, a plate of two large, fluffy pancakes was $9; French toast was $10. My husband’s a la carte breakfast of 3 eggs, 2 large pancakes and a glass of milk came to $19.58. (I breakfasted on leftover BBQ Chicken Pizza from the night before — having a mini-fridge in our room came in handy!)
I enjoy outdoor cooking up to a point. After a few meals, it’s nice to turn the meal prep and clean-up over to someone else. Since the Campfire Grill is open to the public, it would be a nice night out for folks staying in condos or camping at the nearby KOA. I’ll be writing more about it — and sharing photos — in a future post.
Frankly, glamping is not for rock-bottom budgets. But here are a few ways to save a little cash:
- Conestoga Ranch gave me a special promo code to give my readers a 10% discount on their stay. When booking online, type in chewandchat2017 as the promo code, or mention it if booking by phone.
- The resort’s rates are generally lower on weekdays, and during May and September. Cassie told me the lake is actually warmer in September, since it has all summer to heat up. The summer crowds are gone, and but the skies are still blue and the daytime weather can still be pretty warm.
- Check the website to see what amenities are offered with each type of tent and wagon, and consider which ones will really use. If your or your family members are often up in the night for bathroom breaks, it might be worth it to pay more for a Grand Tent with its own toilet. But if you don’t mind walking down to the lodge to use the restroom, you can save quite a bit by booking a Conestoga wagon or “traditional” tent. And ask to be stationed as close as possible to the lodge for quicker bathroom/shower trips! Likewise, while the clawfoot soaking tub adds a touch of elegance to the Royal Tent, I have to confess that I simply didn’t have time to use it during our overnight stay.
- The best bargain is the traditional tent, which has a king and two twin beds. Depending on the day, prices hover around $125-150. These tents don’t have electricity, but maybe you’d rather save a few dollars and get by with campfire glow and flashlights for the night.
- Cooking some of your own meals is another costs savings. Help yourself to the bowery’s grills, or pour out some cereal and milk for breakfast.
- At the Campfire Grill, your kids can choose from Little Ranchers meals that are all $6 — a lot less pricey than the adult entrees. Since they are things like grilled cheese, pasta, burgers and hot dogs, kids are more likely to eat them.
- Take advantage of the free fun — go for a bike ride, let the kids play on the playground, learn to lasso or play volleyball or frisbee. And enjoy the complimentary s’mores kit around the campfire. DON’T fire up your laptop, and step away from your phone! Enjoy the freedom of being unplugged in the mountains.
- And again, take advantage of my special promo code — chewandchat2017, and pass it along to friends or family who could use a 10% discount. No, I don’t get any kickback or commission, but I’d like to know that my readers are saving a little cash — all the better to spend on a raspberry shake on the way out of town!