Highway 12, Utah’s renowned ribbon of highway that threads between Capitol Reef National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon, is known for its variety. One minute you’re looking at dense pine-covered forests, the next red rock formations that stretch beyond the horizon, the next slot-canyon badlands that could hide Manhattan.
And then you round the bend outside the little southern Utah town of Escalante (pop. 695) and you see this: a drive-in movie theater with nine vintage cars permanently parked in front of the screen and 10 shiny Airstream trailers behind them that look like they just came off the assembly line – in 1950.
It could be a movie set. It might be a mirage. You half expect James Dean to get out of the Corvette and Bogart and Hepburn to emerge from the Airstream.
But then reality sets in when you see a neon sign on the highway flashing VACANCY.
Answering a need for road trippers
Three years ago Charles and James Tate, a father-son team of entrepreneurs from Texas, set out on a quest to combine the time-tested all-American road trip with the emerging fad of ‘glamping” (glamorous camping).
This is what they came up with: Yonder Escalante, an RV park/luxury campground/drive-in movie theater situated a couple miles west of Escalante on 20 acres of land at the doorstep of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
For anywhere from $64 (for the cheapest RV hookup) to $329 (for the nicest Airstream), you can sleep under the stars, so to speak, in the middle of nowhere, more or less. There are 67 RV sites and 22 cabins shaped like tents, in addition to the 10 Airstreams that have been equipped with air conditioning and classy furniture and look more like a room at the Plaza than somewhere you might find Everett Ruess.
But then that’s the point. Some people – usually the kind who know who Everett Ruess is – prefer sleeping in a bivy sack. Others don’t.
“Yonder Escalante is an attempt to build a very different type of product to serve the all-American road trip, whether in an RV or a car,” says Charles Tate. “What it offers is not just a place to stay, but an experience.”
Before getting into the glamping business, Charles and James, in the name of research, took their own all-American road trip, driving an RV around the West, from Yellowstone to Zion and all points in between.
“The single biggest complaint we heard,” Charles says, “was not being able to find a nice place to stay.”
The Tates began looking for property bordering a national park or monument where they might help alleviate that problem.
They found what they were looking for in an already existing RV park called the Shooting Star next to Escalante that was for sale.
The Shooting Star opened in 2011, featuring the drive-in movie screen, the vintage cars and the Airstream trailers.
“All of this in this extraordinarily beautiful place,” says Charles. “James and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is it.’”
They kept the drive-in theater as is, but everything else got a makeover. They completely rehabilitated the Airstreams, added the tent/cabins, upgraded the RV hookups, built a swimming pool and spa, a reception area where you can dine and read books and play board games, and a bath house with bathrooms and indoor-outdoor showers.
They opened this past March 26. Business has been steady and getting steadier ever since. They were sold out over the Memorial Day and July Fourth holiday weekends.
What brings people to the glamping experience
The real lure of glamping, Charles Tate will tell you, isn’t the high thread count on the sheets as much as it is the opportunity to interact with others.
“One of the reasons people do this form of recreating is connecting,” Charles says. “It allows them to reconnect with their spouse, with their children, and just as importantly, with other people. Humans are social animals, but families who live in hermetically sealed cities closed off from others, leading incredibly frenetic lives bombarded by electronics, get far away from that. Here, they’re kinda forced to deal with each other.”
At Yonder Escalante, nowhere is that more in evidence than at the show at the drive-in every Thursday through Sunday night. The movie begins at dusk. The selection is decided by guests staying at the park who vote by text. The night my wife and I were there, “Mamma Mia!,” the 2008 version starring Meryl Streep, won. By showtime every vintage car was filled, a pickup truck pulled up and parked next to the pink Edsel and many more people set up camp chairs by the concession stand to watch under the stars.
It’s a not-Netflix scene that is repeated nightly, according to no less an authority than a Yonder Escalante employee named Christina Goddard.
The pandemic chased Christina to Yonder Escalante. She spent 2020 looking after her parents, both in their 90s, at a care facility in Ventura, California. She visited them as best she could, given the lockdown rules and restrictions. Then, after her mother and father died within weeks of each other in the spring (neither one from COVID-19), she shut down her real estate design business and set her sights on the open road.
“It was my turn to get out,” she says.
She heard about Yonder through a friend, applied for a job online, and clicked on Google maps “to find out where Utah is.” She bought a van and steered east, arriving in Escalante in time for Memorial Day weekend.
Christina works mornings. She’s the breakfast concierge. She supervises the complimentary coffee and muffins served in the reception area starting at 6:30 a.m.
But every night she takes her chair to the drive-in and watches the movie.
“I just love seeing the kids with the popcorn and the gummy bears,” she says. “I love seeing families happy. I love seeing people coming together and enjoying themselves again.”
She’s on her version of the all-American road trip, 2021 style: Getting away from it all to get back to it all.
Correction: An earlier version said movies were shown nightly at the drive-in. The shows run every Thursday through Sunday night.