At Montpelier Canyon Campground in southern Idaho, heavy rain pummeled my tent, the drops sounding like tiny angry fists. A small lake formed by my toes. Temperatures plunged, forcing me to burrow inside my sleeping bag. In the morning, a sliver of sunshine seeped through a gap in the fabric. I crawled out of my tunnel, yanked off the rain fly and returned to my sleeping pad, basking in the honeyed warmth.
DIY vs. OMG: Camping and glamping on a trip out West
After days of wrestling with the elements, that burst of sunlight did more than thaw my nose and raise my spirits: It elevated my camping experience from basic to luxury, an upgrade courtesy of nature. Of course, I could have gone straight to a higher plane of camping by spending all my time out West at Conestoga Ranch, a glamorous Utah camping resort about 40 miles south of the Idaho campground. But in the name of Nietzsche, would I have truly appreciated the property’s porcelain throne and claw-foot tub if I hadn’t persevered through vault toilets and baby-wipe baths?
“Camping is about getting back to nature, testing yourself and not always being comfortable. It’s about being part of the environment,” said Kelly Davis, director of research at the Outdoor Industry Association. “With glamping, you are paying to extract the discomfort from the outdoors. You might have a nice hike and sit by the campfire, but you will sleep in a queen-size bed and maybe give up TV. Maybe.”
When I set out for the mountain states over Memorial Day weekend, I imagined that my camping experiences would fall along clear-cut lines: I would rough it at the primitive site for the first half and luxuriate at the glamping property for the final two nights. But nature proved me wrong.
Primitive camping in Idaho
Several days before flying to Salt Lake City, my co-camper and I dusted off our outdoor survival skills. Christian opened a can of tomato soup using his pocket-size multi-tool, and I taught myself to French braid my hair. Together, we raised my two-person tent, which had been rolling around in my car trunk for the better part of a decade. Two of the three practices required YouTube tutorials, a commodity not available at the campground in the more than 3 million-acre Caribou-Targhee National Forest. Nor would we have cellphone service, electricity or running water — hence the braiding lesson.
Despite a prolonged drought, Montpelier Canyon was carpeted in many shades of green. A distant peak wore a milk mustache of snow. At the campground, which abutted Highway 89, tall willow trees and shaggy sagebrush helped mute the whoosh of traffic and hum of RV generators. Our campsite sat at 9 o’clock on a cul-de-sac; the only visible neighbors resided at 3 o’clock, and they never seemed to be home.
Christian and I pitched our tent on a smooth patch of ground that gently sloped toward Montpelier Creek, a popular trout-fishing spot. Magpies dropped by to share their unsolicited opinions, and ducks with someplace to be honked overhead.
We drove to Montpelier, a speck of a town that Mormon pioneers settled in the 1860s and Butch Cassidy robbed in 1896, galloping off with more than $7,100 in valuables from the Bank of Montpelier. (The former financial institution houses the free Butch Cassidy Museum.) At Broulim’s Supermarket, the area’s most abundant grocery store, we stocked up on items that we could grill on the fire ring, plus a few prepared meals in case frightful weather forced us to close the kitchen.
At checkout, I asked the kid bagging groceries if the weekend forecast — 80 to 100 percent chance of rain, temps in the high 30s, possible snow — was accurate or an exaggeration. “The weather in Idaho is bipolar,” he said dryly.
Back at the campground, Christian built the fire, while I set out on a reconnaissance mission. The 15 sites were occupied by an even split of tent campers and RVers. On a message board near the entrance, I read the rules: Bag your fish heads and innards; secure your food to avoid unwelcome visits from wild animals; and don’t use the faucet for bathing or washing dishes. My hopes rose, then fell: Clearly the printout was a standardized form posted at all the campgrounds, regardless of individual amenities.
On the return walk, I checked out the pit toilet (I’ve seen much worse at outdoor festivals) and scanned the creek for trout (just rocks). At the edge of our campsite, I cocked an ear toward the mountains and listened to a chorus of howls.
“Yep, those are coyotes,” the campground host confirmed during her evening watch. I asked about other possible wildlife encounters in the vicinity. “Cougars, or we call them mountain lions here,” she said. “If you walk to the other side of the campground and look at the mountain, you can see the caves they live in.” Follow-up question: What should I do if a mountain lion pops by? “Get into your car as quickly as you can.” After she drove off, I checked the doors on the rental car. All unlocked.
Christian had downloaded an HBO series on his phone, our one urban transgression. Tucked into our sleeping bags, we slid his gadget into a pouch in the tent ceiling, so we could watch horizontally, like mummies at a Screen on the Green. We were halfway through the first episode when the rain started falling. It grew heavier and louder, drowning out the dialogue.
Camping is about improvising and problem-solving through any genius or harebrained means. For cookware substitutes, we used a game board as a cutting board, my wool mittens as oven mitts and a branch-and-pan combo as a spatula. To overcome our audio issue, we simply activated the closed captioning. Crisis averted.
In the wee hours, a blazing light filled the tent and woke me up. I poked my head out, expecting to see a car with its headlights on. I looked up and blinked: The sky was burning bright with hundreds of stars set on the highest wattage.
Storms started to sweep through the area early in the morning. We sat out the first cluster at the Ranch Hand Trail Stop, a diner for outsize appetites. “We get a lot of truckers, and they can’t even finish the smaller portion of pancakes,” the waitress said, consoling Christian, who barely put a dent in his stack of 14-inchers.
We drove through the Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge, lowering the rain-splattered windows to snap photos of white pelicans and a bald eagle standing as still as a statue on a wooden pole. At Bear Lake, a father and his three sons polar-bear-plunged into the “Caribbean of the Rockies,” a nickname that refers to the water’s azure color, not its tropical temperatures. “If I only could take a hot shower after the swim, but, you see, my campground … ” I said in response to their invitation to join them.
In our final hours, I grew wistful about leaving the campground. I would miss the singing coyotes. The sun bathing the tent in golden rays. The bottomless bowl of stars. A raindrop on my sleeping bag interrupted my reverie. I stretched my arm out of the tent and started pulling up the stakes.
Glamping in Utah
At Conestoga Ranch, I stood in the parking lot and eyeballed the distance from the car to our tent, perched on the far reaches of a hill. A manageable walk, especially with my lightened load and the slightly lower elevation of 5,968 feet. As I was consolidating my bags, Seth, the general manager who favored a park ranger’s palette, cruised up in an electric golf cart. Not one to pass up a chauffeured ride, I tossed my backpack — and myself — into the vehicle.
The seasonal resort opened seven years ago with 14 Conestoga wagons and 26 canvas tents on the Beehive State side of Bear Lake. Co-owner Larry Bettino said the tents were inspired by African safari camps: rugged structures containing opulent interiors like inside-out Fabergé eggs. He added that the idea of liberating guests from camping duties stemmed from a family vacation at an upscale fishing retreat in Idaho, where the staff handled all of the heavy lifting.
“People want to be able to camp and get the camping experience without having to put in all the effort,” he told me a few days after my visit. “If you don’t want to cook, we have a restaurant. The tents are cleaned daily by our staff. We will start and tend the fire for you.”
The property overlooking Bear Lake (plus an unsightly flurry of developments) offers four tent styles in ascending levels of luxury. I booked the top-shelf option, the Royal Tent Suite, which came with everything the Montpelier Canyon campground didn’t: heat, WiFi, electricity, modern plumbing.
Seth parked by our private deck and unzipped the front door for the theatrical reveal: a king-size bed dressed in pristine white linens. A daring color choice, I thought, as I glanced at the mud on my shoes and the soot on my clothes. He showed us how to use the pellet stove, which we could employ for heat but not cooking. “Text if you run low,” he said as we peered into a bin brimming with wood nubs.
We followed him past the mini-fridge, around a partial wall and into the palatial bathroom, where a rain shower in a tin wash basin and a claw-footed tub threatened to derail my plans to bike along the lake trail. We circled back to the deck, where logs lay in a fire pit, ready for a light. Not ignited by me, of course, but by the campfire valet.
At check-in, I received a bag with s’mores fixings, but even with that prompt, I still forgot to schedule a fire starter for that evening. Once I was in the tent, the main lodge seemed so … far … away. Instead, I texted my request in between courses at the Campfire Grill, the on-site restaurant with its own roaring fire.
“Yes, someone can light your fire at that time,” an employee responded minutes before the server delivered a heaping plate of grilled vegetables and quinoa.
I hadn’t even kicked off my boots when I noticed a golf cart puttering up the path to the Royal. A teenager in a baseball cap and medical boot hopped out and hobbled over. While Trent built our fire on bent knees, we chatted about his injured leg, which he had broken on a trampoline during a senior trip. He said he would return later to douse our fire.
According to house rules, guests must extinguish their fires by 11 p.m. Six minutes after curfew, Trent reappeared, this time on foot. Under his watchful gaze, we threw a bucket of water over the flames. The blaze sizzled, then vanished faster than the Wicked Witch of the West.
After all the pampering, I started to feel slightly alienated from the natural world, so we decided to incorporate more rugged activities and shoulder more of the camping responsibilities. We drove up to Logan Canyon and hiked the 1.4-mile Limber Pine Nature Trail. At the ranch, I had spotted one deer, twice. In the forest, nutcrackers fluttered by, their wings seemingly dipped in ink pots. A golden-mantled ground squirrel squatting on a log sternly contemplated us.
For dinner, we resurrected our aluminum foil and my mittens, and we grilled vegetables and salmon at a communal Rendezvous BBQ Tent. During a rain delay, I received a text informing us that no staff would be available for fire duty after 9 p.m. However, we could light our own if we wished. For the last campfire of the trip, we made (and burned) s’mores, popped (and burned) popcorn and boiled water for tea, a skill we had mastered in Idaho.
We slept with the flaps open, holding nature as close as possible. At dawn, I opened my eyes and saw golden streaks over Bear Lake. My gaze fell on the pellet stove, which had turned cold. But instead of relighting it, I did what any intrepid camper would do: I wriggled deeper under the covers.
Where to stay
Montpelier Canyon Campground
Off Highway 89, a few miles from Montpelier, Idaho
The campground in the Caribou-Targhee National Forest has 15 sites, most of which can accommodate tents and RVs. The camping destination is primitive, with no drinking water, electricity, cellphone service or bathroom facilities beyond a vault toilet. Each site comes with a fire pit. You can buy supplies in Montpelier. If you camp on the weekend, stock up beforehand, because most stores are closed Sundays. Nightly fee during the season (late May through September) is $10, plus $8 service fee if you reserve online. Sites are free and first come, first served during offseason.
427 Paradise Pkwy., Garden City, Utah
This glamping resort, which is open late May through September, offers a variety of accommodations, including Conestoga wagons and canvas tents that can accommodate two, four or six people. Guests in the traditional tents and wagons use the public bathhouse by the main lodge; all other tents (family, couples, Royal) have private en-suite bathrooms. Tents are furnished with beds, pellet stove, mini-fridge and fire pit. Rate includes golf cart luggage transport, fire-starting assistance, s’mores kit, weekend yoga and loaner cruiser bikes that are ideal for pedaling to nearby Bear Lake. You can cook out at one of the communal grills (the camp store sells charcoal, lighter fluid and other essentials) or dine at the on-site Campfire Grill, which serves daily breakfast (from about $8) and dinner (wood-fired pizza and burgers from $18, entrees from $22). Tents start at about $169; for the Royal Tent Suite in late May, I paid about $600, including taxes and resort fee.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.