'Glamping' finds its niche in northern Utah

Monday , July 13, 2015 - 6:19 AM

GARDEN CITY — Glamping resorts keep popping up around the nation, and Bear Lake is home to Utah’s latest ritzy resort found en plein air.

Conestoga Ranch opened its rustic wood doors and canvas covers in Garden City this month. The resort provides guests with campfires, s’mores and slumber with only a taurpaulin between them and the wide Rocky Mountain skies. It also provides plush beds, gourmet dining and bell service.

“People are just ecstatic about it,” said Tom Hedges, one of five partners who brought the resort to fruition. “We’ve only had great comments and great reviews.”

A fusion of “glamor” and “camping,” glamping mixes traditional tenting with the comforts of an inclusive resort. Most of Utah’s bona-fide glamp resorts have materialized around tourist-centric national park gateways in red rock country. Conestoga Ranch is the first glamp-branded resort to come to the northern region.

Caribbean-blue Bear Lake is a stunning attraction in its own right. But owners of the Conestoga Ranch also lure guests by focusing on the unique needs of the local Utah and southern Idaho market.

“It’s family oriented and family-reunion friendly,” Hedges said. “Next year we expect the whole property to be rented out regularly for big reunions and for wedding groups as well.”

“It’s nice to have a bed to sleep on instead of the ground or a cot, which is what we usually sleep on, and real linens, too,” said Wendy Stanger, of Rigby, Idaho. She spent a weekend at the resort with her husband, Daren, celebrating their wedding anniversary.

“And it’s a heck of a deal,” Daren said. “We’ll definitely come back.”

Conestoga Ranch goes to great lengths in catering to all ages. There’s a game tent for teens and tweens and a playground for young children. There’s live music on weekends and a decent beer and wine list.

Two big pavilions can seat the entire extended family for a barbecue. The restaurant, too, will offer family-style options.

Families also have accommodation options. Tents sleep up to eight, with twin beds and bunks for the kids and a king-size bed for Mom and Dad.

Some of the resort’s namesake Conestoga wagons also sleep up to four. Big groups can literally circle those wagons for their own personalized encampment.

“We’d love to spread the word about how perfect of a place it is for corporate retreats and other large groups as well,” Hedges said.

One of the resort’s top benefits, though, is saved time.

“I think it’s cool to be able to come, hop in and have your beds all ready,” said Preston Fackrell from Heber City, sitting at a tent-side campfire with his two young sons.

Fackrell is no stranger to roughing it -- he often takes his family backpacking in the Uinta Mountains.

Glamping doesn’t replace traditional camping, but it provides a different travel experience.

“Not have to bring your sleeping bags and gear, that’s the biggest thing about it,” he said.

Freeing up the afternoon by not having to set up camp seems to be a selling point for many families. So does the notion of a hassle-free outdoor experience. Like the smell of campfire but hate it when smoke infuses in your hair? Rinse off in the shower. Forgot the marshmallows and roasting sticks? No problem. They’re sold at the resort general store.

“We’ll even light your fire for you,” Hedges said.

Bringing the resort mentality

Hedges cut his teeth in the hospitality industry at Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

He helped breathe new life into the Jackson Hole Campground, turning it into luxury accommodations.

“I’d always wanted to do glamping tents … but we couldn’t do that because of some rules at Jackson Hole,” Hedges said.

Long story short, Rich Smart and Mike Knapp of Bear Lake-based Smart Construction saw one of Hedges’ glamp tent concepts. They owned 18 acres nestled between a hillside and the Bear Lake Rodeo grounds.

Hedges came up with the idea of covered wagons to give the site more of a Western flair. Knapp and Smart used their construction know-how to build the wagons, tents and resort buildings. They broke ground in late March and Conestoga Ranch opened just over four months later.

“We started a business called Glampco, and this is our first Glampco resort,” Hedges said. “We’re hoping to do a project in Jackson Hole as soon as next year. The sky’s the limit from there.”

Beyond understanding their market, Conestoga Ranch owners are also capitalizing on a local opportunity.

“It’s so undeveloped here,” Hedges said. “There’s so much potential and there are very few restaurants, if any, that are quality.”

Food is a major component of Conestoga Ranch’s glamping experience. Hedges tapped Jackson Hole culinary talent Gustavo Suclla to develop a menu for the restaurant, the Campfire Grill.

“He owned an incredible restaurant called the Stone Table, a Peruvian tapas place,” Hedges said. “He’s been kind enough to give us his time this summer down here, and he’ll probably be our executive chef as we open new resorts developing the menus.”

The Campfire Grill also draws from its locale for inspiration. It offers gourmet riffs on the all-American fare found at hamburger stands along Bear Lake Boulevard. It also serves a few other comfort food favorites, like roasted chicken, prime rib and pizza.

The Bear Lake glamping experience call be had at prices that are friendly to the average family’s budget, too. Family tents start at $135 for weekend nights and plates run between $9 and $15 at the restaurant. But expect those rates to jump as word spreads.

“We’ll inch rates up as time goes by,” Hedges said. “But at least, initially, we’re trying to make it economical and get the buzz going.”

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