Adults-only Nomad Ridge, a luxury wilderness experience in southeastern Ohio, is modeled on African safari camps. For about $360 a night, a duo can stay in one of the Mongolian-style yurts with electricity, private bathrooms, plus decks and ceiling fans. The pricier “Grand Yurt” has a king-size bed and air conditioning. Rates include dinner, breakfast and a safari on the Wilds’ nearly 10,000-acre game preserve.
“It’s like a little piece of Africa,” says guest Jeff Derr of Holtwood, Pa., peering through binoculars at rhino, trumpeter swans and rare Sichuan takins (bearlike creatures with heads like those of giant guinea pigs). Their yurt, with hotel-style bed, is truly comfortable, Cindy Derr says.
Welcome to ‘glamping’
Such glamorous camping experiences are dubbed “glamping” — a trend among vacationers who want to be in the wild but don’t care to sleep on the ground, tromp in the dark to communal bathrooms and cook over campfires. It’s even driving bookings at Kampgrounds of America, where stays in recently built lodges are up 15% this year, even though KOA’s campsite business is down, CEO Jim Rogers says.
Lodges, tepees and gussied-up Airsteam trailers are a way for KOA “to give people an outdoor experience (such as nightly campfires) with some of the comforts they enjoy,” Rogers says. “We are reaching people who may not have had an outdoor experience.” Lodges at more than 300 North American locations have a kitchen, bath, flat-screen TVs, Wi-Fi, gas grill and typically rent for $100-$150 a night.
Simpler outdoor digs are available at Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes on Washington State’s San Juan Island. “Canvas cabins” with pillow-top mattresses and cordless lanterns (but no electricity or private baths) start at about $160 a night with breakfast. A U.S. glamping pioneer, Costanoa, on the scenic northern California coast, has canvas cabins with electricity and heated mattresses from $89 a night.
Over-the-top glamping, similar to that at Africa’s top safari lodgings, is found at the new Pinnacle Camp at 37,000-acre The Resort at Paws Up near Missoula, Mont. Expect to pay at least $1,000 for two to stay in one of the four chic camps, where top-of-the-line tents have jetted tubs and heated slate floors, and guests are pampered by butlers and chefs.
Rates include all meals, including regional treats such as bison and smoked trout.
The resort — which also offers stays in luxury homes — has 24 tents, which sell out so fast that more are planned. Many of Paws Up’s affluent guests have “a desire to go camping. But they don’t want to rough it in any way, shape or form,” says John Romfo, director of sales and marketing.
The aim at Ohio’s Nomad Ridge — sold out many nights and having a record summer — is to provide a “reasonably priced” upscale wilderness experience, says Tom Stalf, chief operating officer of the Wilds and its partner, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
“We have plans to build more” yurts, he says.
The Wilds, about 1½ hours by car from Columbus, also attracts day trippers who snap photos from buses and open-air safari vehicles or soar on just-installed ziplines. There are campsites, cabins and a lodge that can be booked for family reunions and such.
Dinner and breakfast are a short walk away, taken on tables covered with white linen for Nomad Ridge guests in an otherwise modest restaurant used by Wilds visitors.
Young chef Pam Nalbach produces a changing menu that might include goat cheese salad with local greens, raspberry vinaigrette and candied pecans or grilled flat-iron steak in a maple chipotle sauce. The wine list isn’t as exotic as the roster of animals at The Wilds, but no one seems to mind.
Over dinner, Wilson and Lynne Hood of New Orleans say they decided to stop here on a trip because they’d never gotten to Africa for a safari camping experience. This “seemed like something we could do” that was similar, says Lynne, who started and managed a fund to help the New Orleans needy.
They are “leaving with admiration,” says Hood, a retired geologist. It was “a memorable experience. Given the chance, I would choose a yurt for all of my ‘roughing’ it.”
Many Nomad Ridge visitors are in their 40s or older, says concierge Richardson (who just left for graduate school). The resort also attracts younger folk such as honeymooners who seek the novelty of bedding down in a yurt and going on a multi-hour safari that gets you close to camels, giraffes, ostriches and other wildlife. Staring into the eyes of a 5,000-pound rhino or watching an anesthetized cheetah get a physical are memorable travel moments.
Most animals roam freely behind electric fences on the 7-mile-long parcel of land that once was a strip mine, but now is reclaimed rolling grassland with ponds and lakes. On land donated by the American Electric Power company, the Wilds is run as a private non-profit conservation center.
Quiet nights in the Wild
At night when most tourists are gone, the honking of swans, grunting mating calls of Asian Père David’s deer and conversation from neighboring yurts are the subdued soundtrack. The yurts, with bamboo floors and paprika-colored walls separating sleeping areas from bathrooms, have no TVs or phones. Cellphone reception is spotty.
After dinner, Nomad Ridgers, feeling languorous if they’ve indulged in the molten chocolate cake, relax in Adirondack chairs on the terrace around a gas-fueled firepit. On this evening, the more ambitious pull out or borrow binoculars to watch animal antics, even as the first raindrops fall.
The Derrs, both 60, call the Wilds a “diamond in the rough,” from its accommodations to its cuisine to its young and helpful staffers. They had hoped to chat with fellow guests around the fire. But the evening is cut short by claps of thunder.
Still, no one seems to mind retiring to a cozy yurt and drifting asleep to the lullaby of rain pattering on a canvas roof.
Among places to go “glamping” in the USA (most close in the fall):
Nomad Ridge at the Wilds in Ohio. 740-638-5030; thewilds.org
The Resort at Paws Up, Mont. 800-473-0601; pawsup.com
Lakedale Resort at Three Lakes, Wash. 800-617-2267; lakedale.com
Kampgrounds of America. 888-562-0000; koa.com
Costoanoa, Calif. 877-262-7848; costanoa.com