The Art of Glamping and Sightseeing Near Zion National Park
Camping, but make it luxury
Two travel trends that exploded during the pandemic but have since remained au courant are visiting national parks and glamping, and one of the best places to experience both is Greater Zion in Southern Utah. The “glamping capital of America” and home of Zion National Park is a crown jewel in Utah Red Rock Country and the third most visited national park in the country — more than four million people descend here every year, many to hike Angels Landing or its wind- and water-carved Navajo sandstone canyon, the Narrows. Great outdoor experiences call for close to nature stays and Zion has a growing number of coveted base camp accommodations that combine this with hotel-like levels of luxury and convenience.
Photos of Airstreams and safari-style tents might attract Instagram likes, but how would staying in two of Zion’s newest glampsites stack up IRL? As someone once game for legit backcountry trips and California car campers (because, yes to duvets and real pillows), perhaps glamping would be a happy medium. If a tent with heated bathroom floors and plush robes or a retro trailer with home comforts — plus access to a clubhouse and pool — are options, then I’m all in on glamorous camping, and nowhere more so than Greater Zion.
Best suited to: Outdoorsy friends or families and couples who might consider themselves novice or seasoned campers but now prefer to spend time in nature with all the creature comforts of home
Airstream’s “silver bullet” trailer has been iconic to American travel since they debuted in 1936, and their eye-catching curved aluminum exteriors and retro design are still very much in style. Outdoor lodging pros AutoCamp blazed a trail in 2013 when they used these “Cadillacs of camping” to create their first hotel-like concept in Santa Barbara; today the brand has nine locations, including sites in Joshua Tree, Yosemite and Cape Cod. Their most recent debut is in Zion, located along the Virgin River 12 miles from the park’s main entrance. It’s the largest AutoCamp to date with 72 custom Airstreams, 10 Basecamps (Airstreams with a canvas tent), nine premium X Suites and five ADA cabins spread across the 16-acre site.
My Classic Airstream was located close to the mid-century inspired Clubhouse and all-season swimming pool — ideal for a morning coffee run to the lobby, or so I thought until discovering pourover sachets and an electric Boden kettle in the kitchen. At one end: a queen bed dressed with accent cushions and a blanket, a sliding door for privacy and a pull out sofa in the central living-room-meets-kitchenette (the Classic can sleep four, although it would probably feel a little tight). I awarded extra points for the spacious spa-like bathroom on the opposite end that was stocked with Ursa Major bath products and very fluffy white towels. There were accouterments for grilling and cooking — heck, there was even a microwave, stove top and mini fridge — private patio and fire pit, plus a couple of chairs outside. Should I have felt like watching Netflix in bed, there was a smart TV for that, too.
The low-slung Clubhouse at AutoCamp Zion blends beautifully with the surrounding red rock landscape and serves as an everything sort of space — it’s where you’ll check in and check out, where you can help yourself to water, tea and coffee throughout the day, kick back to read a book, and socialize with friends or fellow guests. There’s some cool Zion and AutoCamp merch for sale in The General Store, plus snacks and drinks including wine and beer. Opened since my stay, The Kitchen at AutoCamp Zion now serves complimentary granola and breakfast dishes for purchase (7 a.m. to 11 a.m.) and mains like pretzel bites and pizzas (11 a.m. to 10 p.m.). Do try one of the chef-prepared steak or chicken grill kits for two, which come with several sides and one of AutoCamp’s superb gourmet s’mores kits for dessert. After spending the best part of a day racing around off-road in a Polaris ATV, being able to take a quick dip and soak up a little late afternoon sun poolside before heading out to dinner scored the resort another thumbs up from me.
A stay at AutoCamp Zion is not only friendly on budgets (rates start at $299) and logistics (it’s well situated 35 minutes from St. George and 20 minutes from the park entrance), you’ll be giving back too, as they donate $1 from every nightly lodging reservation to the Zion National Park Forever Project.
Best suited to: Couples and soloists happy to splurge on luxe touches like a chilled bottle of Champagne on arrival, high thread count sheets, outdoor soaking tubs and gourmet meals during an off-grid escape
Accessed by a blink-and-you-might-miss-it dirt and gravel road (signposted: Dalton Wash), boutique glampsite Open Sky is the place to come when you truly want to feel away from it all, despite only being five minutes from Utah Route 9. Several years in the making, its founder and visionary Bygnal Dutson dreamed of creating somewhere special for discerning travelers to get off-grid with as many high touch amenities as possible — “a place to be close with nature, not the crowds,” he says. There are five styles of luxury camps here, from Star Seekers with separate lounges for night sky viewing and bougie oversized clawfoot copper soaking tubs, to slightly smaller Cedar Springs tents perfect for solo travelers.
I stayed in a Desert Rose that had wooden French doors open onto a private front patio with a fire pit and swinging hammock chair. Inside, it’s kind of West Elm meets CB2 — a sophisticated space anchored by a comfy looking king size bed with lots of layered neutral tones and textural elements. Every camp is outfitted with an outdoor gas grill, utensils and indoor mini fridges. The Wi-Fi is impressively strong thanks to eBoost and Starlink internet services, so I could easily keep up on emails during my stay.
The tents have heat and AC, too — discovering a warm bathroom floor in the middle of the night was a pleasant surprise — and taking an outdoor morning shower with the sun beating down felt fantastic. A grab-n-go breakfast of fresh fruits, muffins, yogurts, plus Keurig coffee is available from the lobby tent every morning between 7 and 11 a.m. While there are plenty of great restaurants 20 minutes away or less (including Balcony One), definitely do dinner at Open Sky’s Black Sage Restaurant, where chef Charles Parcell’s menu showcases regional produce like locally caught trout and beef from Mineral Springs Ranch.
Open Sky is well located as a base for exploring Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyons, but there are five miles of hiking and biking trails, a swimming pond and a waterfall to explore on the property, too. With rates hitting $699 a night, staying here is admittedly a splurge, but those celebrating special occasions or looking to upgrade their experience when exploring Zion will love checking in here and might find it hard to leave.
What to Do Around Greater Zion
Opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking and rock climbing abound in Greater Zion. Top experience picks include an adrenaline-boosting UTV tour of the nearby Red Cliffs National Conservation Area with Mad Moose, a slightly more chilled-out guided e-bike tour of Zion Canyon with local outfitter Zion Adventures or simply just renting bikes and cruising around by yourself.
Certified as an International Dark Sky Park in 2021, Zion is a magical place to gaze up at the Milky Way, and an evening with Stargazing Zion is one to remember. State-of-the-art telescopes are provided, as are zero-gravity loungers, blankets and hot drinks so you can get cozy while learning about the constellations and planets on view in the northern hemisphere that night. And if off-grid dining isn’t in your culinary lexicon yet, it should be. Much like a secret supper club, the exact coordinates — perhaps on one of the surrounding pinyon pine-covered buttes or mesas — of adventure dinners by Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Jeff Crosland are texted the day of, ingredients are from local farms and views are nothing short of outstanding.
Getting there: Delta, American and United all fly into the tiny but charming St. George Regional Airport, where you can also rent a car (Alamo, Hertz, Enterprise), essential when visiting the Greater Zion area. Another option is flying into Las Vegas and making the two-hour drive east.
Don’t skip: Kevin Costner may have got people buzzing about LDS-settlement turned golfers’ paradise St. George while filming his Western epic Horizon nearby, but it’s also great place to fuel up (try Kairos for fast-casual Greek fare) and grab a blended soda (the food trend you heard about here first) from the Swig drive-through before making the 43-mile drive west to Zion. For an extra sugar fix, get a box of cookies from Dutchman’s Market, a boutique gas station bakery (trust me, they’re good) in nearby Santa Clara. And you could easily spend a day exploring nearby Snow Canyon State Park — the petrified dunes are otherworldly but keep an eye open for Mojave desert tortoises, both when driving and walking around.
When to go: Like many national parks, Zion has struggled with over-tourism, and visiting outside peak times and exploring lesser-visited corners helps to combat these issues. Open year-round, early spring can be a sweet spot, but April through October are the busiest months. Experienced hikers flock here during fall when temperatures don’t hit triple digits before midday, but the hardiest outdoors people enjoy having the trails all to themselves during winter. Just don’t forget to apply for hiking permits in advance.
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