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Glamorous Camping

Luxury camps offer cushy sleeps, gourmet eats, and an easy way to rough it in California, Montana, and British Columbia.

glamorous camping at El Capitan Canyon
Photo caption
Maria Venegas and Katherine Valentin share an evening at El Capitan Canyon.


On my first night at Sequoia High Sierra Camp, the amuse-bouche was a New Zealand green-lipped mussel topped with curry mousseline and gratinéed with panko breadcrumbs. At 8,300 feet, this little delicacy gave new meaning to haute cuisine, so it seemed a tad tragic for it to disappear like ground beef before a stray dog.

Ditto for the curried eggplant soup, which, being not just delicious but hot, was wolfed down by my companion—who had, oddly enough, earlier expressed an aversion to eggplant. It wasn't that we were famished from hiking. We'd spent all day in our car, except for a backpack-free walk of less than a mile to the camp. Of more concern were our chattering teeth. Sequoia's cavernous dining hall has no walls, the better to show off the sunsets and brisk mountain air.

This odyssey in outdoor luxury began last summer, when my significant other and I set out to plan our annual camping trip. Both of us are veteran backpackers, but since hitting the far side of 50, we've scaled back our ambitions—her work schedule leaves little time for alpine idylls, while knee problems limit my camping to the automotive variety. We looked into Yosemite's High Sierra Camps, which provide real beds and fresh-cooked meals in backcountry locations, requiring you only to carry your clothes and linens. Those places fill up early in the year, however, and the accommodations are dorm style.

All of which led us to investigate glamorous camping—aka "glamping," a phenomenon whose origins, curiously, are attributed to Kate Moss. A couple of summers ago, the noted British model was photographed wearing rubber boots in the mud at England's Glastonbury music festival; at night she slept in a tent, albeit one that cost $12,000 a day, featuring down comforters and sheepskin rugs. This touched off a craze among young Brits, who overran the countryside with the chicest trappings money could buy.

"Luxury camping has existed as long as there were tents," insists John Poimiroo, a former spokesperson for Yosemite Park & Curry Company. He points out that a segment of outdoor culture has always enjoyed a distinctly unaustere tradition, with the High Sierra Camps and Adirondack Great Camps providing century-old examples; still, he acknowledges, glamping represents a new extreme. "People have come to expect greater creature comforts," Poimiroo says. "The reason is that we all have less time. Today there are two wage earners in the typical home, so when we go on vacation, we expect to indulge ourselves. We don't want to work, because the rest of the time we work so hard."

In the United States, of course, it's all linked to that notorious 800-pound demographic, the baby boom. Now in their mid-40s to early 60s, boomers—despite their celebrated efforts at staying fit—are apparently going soft, shirking the self-reliance of backpacking for the cushiness of cabins and mattresses (to say nothing of maid service and massages). Backcountry camping in national parks has fallen by a third (from 2.4 million to 1.7 million campers a year) over the past 25 years, and people over 45 now constitute only 14 percent of backpackers.

"Forget dirt, bugs, and cold rain seeping through canvas," Newsweek advised in an article titled "Fluffing It." "Camping's back, and this time you can take your evening wear." Hence the appearance of places such as the Resort at Paws Up, a 37,000-acre Montana retreat whose Tent City features plush bedding, Western oil paintings, a spa tent, local cuisine from a five-star chef, and a "camping butler" who will do everything from starting your fire to telling you stories about Lewis and Clark ($595–$670 a night).

The rituals of camping have always implied that to get away from it all and be close to nature you have to forgo certain amenities, which affords the additional benefit of refreshing your appreciation for civilization. Glamping's response to this time-honored ethic is "Au contraire!" The only things you need do without are drudgery and discomfort. As long as you can pay the tab, you can have it all—and as long as your king-size bed is surrounded by canvas, you can call it camping.

My partner and I were socioeconomically unqualified for Paws Up, where the average income of summer guests reaches well into six figures. Along the California coast, however, El Capitan Canyon (off Highway 101 near Santa Barbara) and Costanoa (on Highway 1 between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz) both rent tent cabins for about $150 a night. As recently as eight years ago, the former was a sizable RV camp on land owned—along with 2,500 undeveloped acres—by Texaco. The corporation sold the property to a pair of businessmen who sold the surrounding hills to the Trust for Public Land and erected cabins on the RV sites, along with safari tents "for those true adventurous types… to become one with nature, yet be protected from the elements and animal life."

When we drove in after dark, we noticed somebody else's tent illuminated by lamps from within, the inhabitants' silhouettes moving about on the walls. Our own safari structure sat between two bona fide wooden cabins; the 12 x 14 foot tent itself was appointed with a willow-frame bed flanked by tables for reading lamps, wooden chairs, a storage trunk, and an electric heater, with towels and toiletries stacked on a table as they would be in a bed-and-breakfast. Still, we felt unexpectedly self-conscious. In places like Yosemite's Camp Curry campground, I realized, everyone stays in a tent. Here the canvas architecture simply served to showcase us as poor—or at least eccentric—cousins.

Morning unveiled our environs, an oak- and sycamore-dotted stream drainage within walking distance of El Capitán State Beach. More than 100 cabins (outnumbering tents four to one) were separated into "villages" where kids and couples were riding bikes or relaxing. To us, however, camping still meant hiking (if without heavy packs), so after breakfast we set out on the Bill Wallace Trail, which climbs 1,000 feet into the backcountry. (Nowadays, docents lead Saturdays-only outings on the trail.)

As we hiked, a pair of red-shouldered hawks called out and a peregrine falcon shot past. We soon found ourselves surrounded by sandstone outcroppings and scrub oaks, with white yucca stalks decorating the desiccated slopes. The route climbed stiffly for a few miles, levitating us into the true backcountry; then we followed an oak-clad ridge back to the coast, with vistas of the Pacific stretching away below.

It was a terrific hike, after which we grilled dinner outside our tent, having purchased a meat-and-utensil barbecue kit ($45–$73, not including a butler-cook, who costs another $150) at the campground's market. This supported the premise that we were camping, though I found myself secretly envying our neighbors, who retreated within wooden walls after the sun went down and the fog came in.

Before we left the next morning, a member of the resort's staff told me that when guests come back—and a sizable number do—many who previously stayed in a tent opt for a cabin on the second round. She also said the place attracts a decidedly different clientele from those who showed up in RVs—some of the kids have never been outside a city, and some of the adults call the camp o˜ce if they see a spider. None of this was terribly surprising in light of the location, which after all is beside a beach in Southern California. For a wilder brand of luxury it seemed we had to go farther and higher.

Sequoia High Sierra Camp is the brainchild of Burr Hughes, a 54-year-old Memphis insurance executive who, armed with a new architecture degree from the University of Cambridge at age 45, proceeded to carve a high-end resort from a forested slope in the Sierra Nevada. Inspired by the Yosemite camps, Hughes bought 40 acres between Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks, where he spent $3 million building 36 tent cabins and a dining pavilion patterned after an Etruscan temple.

This is the realm of Ryan Solien, a 40-year-old chef who had never lived outdoors or even been to the mountains but has since found that it suits him. "The stress level isn't nearly as intense as running a restaurant in the city," he says. "People are here on holiday, so they're in a good mood. I can cook whatever I want, so it's truly my food—I touch every single thing."

Our inaugural night was allegedly the first of the summer that required propane heaters, which perhaps explains why our table never got one. À la the older High Sierra camps, we shared a table with six others including Hughes, his wife, Suzanne, and a couple who met through eHarmony. "It's good to meet other people," Suzanne says. "It forces you to be more outgoing." In this and other ways (for example, her honeyed accent), she fits the classic image of a Dixie-bred hostess. "California does lack a few Southern charms," I heard her tell another guest.

The housing was actually more rustic than El Capitan's— the floors were cement, the furniture steel, the lamps powered by gas instead of electricity. Though we did secure a heater for our tent, its effect was negligible—my partner spent the night in a sweat suit under fleece pants, a vest, a pair of gloves, a hat, two down comforters, and three wool blankets, and I passed the frigid time before dawn contemplating how much warmer I'd be in a mummy bag and backpacking tent.

"Hey," Hughes admonished us at breakfast, "this is camping." He said that duck hunters remove all their clothes before turning in—that way you don't sweat, which is what makes you cold. He went on to describe the camp's typical guest as—speak of the devil—an over-50 ex-backpacker whose knees are giving out. Suzanne confirmed that most are real hikers: "I thought some would just want to hang out, but the camp is deserted every day by 10 a.m." Duly apprised, we set off at 9:59 for Mitchell Peak.

The route began with a forested ascent, then led gently through sun-dappled duff past granite boulders and lodgepole pines; the 10,365-foot peak itself came as a shock, as the trees cleared only 100 yards from the top to unveil an astonishing panorama. To the north, the deep cleaver-cleft of Kings Canyon was surmounted by a swarm of silver mountains stretching away toward Yosemite, vertiginous emerald watercourses plunging between the peaks. To the east, the jagged Sierra Nevada crest—Mount Brewer, Mount Pinchot, Mount Clarence King, and the Great Western Divide—was revealed when we gained the actual summit, just three miles from camp. Except at the Grand Canyon, I've never seen such a sweeping view from such an accessible spot.

That evening a heater found its way to our table, which made all the difference from the previous night. Solien created a "true" Caesar salad for the occasion, eliminating the white ribs of the romaine and whisking his egg-and-anchovy dressing at table. This was followed by a chianti-braised lamb shank with mint risotto and gremolata, and a strawberry-peach-nectarine shortcake accompanied by a superb vin santo. By the time we got back to our tent, we felt warm, relaxed, and rested.

"I'm sold on glamping," my companion announced, though I still wasn't so sure. I found the G-word rather misleading—the experience was hardly glamorous (Ms. Moss never did show up), nor did glamping really qualify as camping. But I am all for luxury dining after hiking. If I could just pitch my tent by a fine alpine restaurant, that's something I would be—liking.

Photography by Catherine Karnow


This article was first published in March 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.