Tom Hendrick has come to enjoy delivering customers to their lodging at Conestoga Ranch.
“It’s just great when you drive people up to their accommodations,” says the part-owner of Bear Lake’s first “glamping” resort. “The ‘wow’ factor makes it all worthwhile.”
Those reactions come when people first peek into the large canvas tents — some built as Conestoga wagons, some teepee-style, and others resembling large hunting camps. Inside the “grand” units are multiple beds, fully plumbed toilets and a cowboy bathtub. Space heaters, swamp coolers and a mini-fridge round out the indoor amenities, while outside, burly Adirondack chairs surround the firepit. The smaller tents have scaled-down amenities, but each has electricity, wifi is available all over the 18-acre property, and almost every unit has a view of Bear Lake’s famous turquoise waters.
“People like camping with a mattress,” Hendrick says. “We’re trying to focus on people who want to get away and relax but don’t want to pack a lot of stuff. And kids just go nuts about sleeping in the wagons — they just love it.”
Indeed, with a high-end restaurant and a convenience store on site, visitor can show up without any of the typical camping accoutrements and be fine. (That includes matches: If your campfire isn’t blazing by the time it gets dark, Josh the Handyman comes by to light it for you. Now that’s glamour camping.)
It was a long journey to Garden City for Hendrick, who until a couple of years ago was a trader of fixed income debt in Chicago and New York. Last year he bought a glamping tent and set it up on private property near Jackson Hole, where his wife has relatives.
“I just wanted to try something new,” says Hendrick, who still works in finance and lives north of New York City when he’s not working in Garden City.
A friend in Victor, Idaho, referred Hendrick to Rich Smart and Mike Knapp, owners of Smart Construction in Rich County. Working on land owned by Smart, they began creating a resort with the help of a landscape designer. After “redesigning it a few times,” they started construction April 1, keeping the “canvas theme” Hendrick coveted. Conestoga Ranch opened July 1.
“It’s not really based on any other (resort),” Hendrick says. “We just kept talking until we ended up with this setup.
“It’s all new,” he adds. “This is a whole new world.”
The resort now boasts 11 wagons, 10 “grand” tents and 14 “deluxe” tents, each featuring that new-wagon smell, for a total of 38 units that can sleep 168 customers. Weekends are already booked through mid-August, Hendrick says, with the majority of the visitors coming from northern Utah and southeast Idaho. The investors were so enamored with the concept that they started a spinoff business, Canvas & Company, to build and sell the wagons and tents, and are looking into launching new resorts between Bear Lake and Jackson Hole, and possibly in Island Park, Idaho ... and maybe even all across the country.
“We have every intention to expand and use this concept in other areas,” Smart says. “We’re really happy with the way it looks.”
Both men say that while they did look at other glamping facilities, none quite matched what they wanted, so they had to come up with their own design.
“There was no valuable template to follow, so we were inventing every step of the process,” Smart says. “Ninety percent of what we’ve done, we invented; that’s something we’re proud of.”
At this point the grounds don’t look as lush as the artist’s renderings on the website. Few of the trees are tall enough to provide shade and privacy, and the grass is spotty, victimized by what Hendrick describes as “six and a half inches of rain in May.” Night provides possibly the best representation of what the resort will eventually feel like — islands of glowing tents golden, each with a flickering campfire out front. As the trees grow, Smart expects the area to “look a lot different.”
To keep guests occupied, Conestoga offers a grassy area for volleyball, soccer, badminton, Wiffle ball and other games, a small arcade/game room, a ping-pong table and games such as “cornhole,” along with rentals of bicycles and paddleboards. An on-site arena hosts rodeos every Saturday, and Hendrick hopes eventually to offer more concerts and other entertainment there.
“Parents want activities for their kids,” Hendrick says. He purchased an additional 13 acres to the north and has plans to expand there, adding more units and possibly a swimming pool and courses for mini-golf and disc golf.
Also on-site, the Campfire Grill restaurant features “a different menu” than most lakeside joints, Hendrick promises: gourmet pizzas, grilled steaks and fresh soup and salads in a rustic, indoor/outdoor ambiance.
Hendrick declined to say how much the ownership group, which also includes Tom Hedges and Larry Bettino, invested to launch the project, but says he envisions “an attractive return if we can figure out the shoulder season and the restaurant.” Although weekends are booked out for a month to come, weekdays have been harder to fill, and the restaurant has been slow to catch hold. (Although Smart is so sold on the prime beef offered at the Campfire Grill that he bought a herd of Japanese Wagyu cattle and cross-bred them with Angus cattle. His Bear Lake Beef Co. will feature prime beef, as conformed by the USDA, using ultrasound to verify the quality.)
“We’re trying to widen our geography a little bit,” Hendrick says, noting that he aims to pursue motorcycle touring groups, bus tour groups and international tourists en route to the Yellowstone area. And one new offering is a yoga/paddleboarding retreat in late August. “More and more people are coming to Bear Lake from the Wasatch Front and as far north as Idaho Falls.”
To help with that, he turned to Redhead Marketing & PR out of Park City, and they have focused on search engine optimization — Google “Bear Lake lodging,” and Conestoga Ranch appears second. He also invited everyone in the Bear Lake Valley to tour the site in June; 450 people showed up. Some of them now work at Contestoga, which has roughly 40 employees.
“People here have a great work ethic, and they’re so friendly,” says Hendrick, who puts in plenty of hours himself shuttling guests to their tents, waiting tables at the restaurant, working the desk at the office/trinket shop, delivering paddleboards to the beach and handling guests’ concerns.
Hendrick says he will shut down near the end of September, shrink-wrapping the restaurant and storing the wagons and tents in a warehouse. He hopes to open by May 15 next spring.
Prices at Conestoga Ranch start at about $100, putting the resort more in line with condos than campsites. The wagons can be moved to various configurations to accommodate different groups. Cars and pets are banned from the camping area to keep it as serene as possible, so guests are shuttled from the parking lot to their campsites via electric golf carts.
“We’re trying keep things as peaceful as possible” around the camping area, Hendrick says. “If we had cars up there it would just be different.”
For now, glampers can enjoy their solitude in a tent that makes even thunderstorms enjoyable, with the rain pitter-pattering on the canvas and the lightning glowing through the walls.
Whether the popularity of glamping passes like a summer storm remains to be seen, but Hendrick and his partners are all-in on this one.
“With glamping’s popularity skyrocketing in the West, we recognized the potential for an upscale, comfort-camping experience at Bear Lake,” says partner Tom Hedges. “Bear Lake has the perfect blend of family-oriented tourism, mountain and lake recreation, and potential for new development. Our vision calls for a glamping resort of unprecedented scale in Utah.”