This Tour Company Brings Travelers—and Their Glamping Gear—Closer to National Parks

Ian Agrimis (Capture Unlimited)

Having guided extensively in the American West for the past 15 years, Andrew Roberts knows his national parks. He can pinpoint the best trails in Yellowstone and the prettiest vistas in Zion, and he's fluent in the logistics of getting visitors into and out of the parks. He also knows how difficult it can be to find the right lodging. Campgrounds inside the parks have amazing access, but they tend to be filled with RVs, noisy generators, and crowds, not to mention the fact that park campsites and lodges can easily book up a year in advance or have limited availability.

That's why in 2010 Roberts created American Safari Camp [ASC], a bespoke camping service that finds isolated spots near (but not in) national parks. Roberts and his team began building pop-up glamping-style accommodations using light-on-the-land principles, with all the creature comforts like en suite toilets and hot water showers, and providing customized itineraries. Think walking out of your tent along the Grand Canyon's north rim in the morning, hiking the Arizona Trail all day, then returning to camp for s'mores around your own private campfire—with zero other visitors in sight.

Until now, ASC has exclusively sourced commercial permits on federal lands adjacent to national parks. But a new partnership launching this May with Vermejo, a Ted Turner Reserve, brings the ASC concept to one of the largest privately owned land holdings in the United States. Located in New Mexico, Vermejo sprawls out along the Colorado border for 550,000 acres, an area larger than the most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains—and one so vast that Vermejo guests often end up seeing only a tiny fraction of it during their stay. “I've spent a total of 40 days there and I haven't even seen half of the property,” said Roberts. One of the more popular excursions for Vermejo guests is to visit abandoned 19th-century kilns that were used to turn wood into charcoal for the railroads. “The kilns are as far as you can go and return to Vermejo's permanent lodge in a day,” Roberts noted, “but we can put a camp by the kilns and guests can explore even more remote corners of the reserve.”

Building out new sites isn't as easy as just pitching a tent, however. On one scouting trip, Roberts and his team inadvertently set up camp in a bison grazing path. The next morning they found themselves in the middle of a herd. While it was thrilling, Roberts learned that there's such a thing as being too up close and personal with nature. “Bison love to scratch their backs on whatever they can find,” he said. “You don't want a 1,200-pound animal scratching its back on your tent.” And while setting up on private land may provide more leeway to create unique experiences than national parks, there's still a lot of factors to consider. Roberts worked with Ted Turner Reserves' scientists and wildlife managers for over five years to bring the Vermejo partnership to fruition, locating the perfect campsites that allow visitors to best explore—but not disrupt—the landscape. The goal was to create guest experiences that mimic, or even go beyond, what they might do in the national parks.

“Vermejo has bears, coyotes, and mountain lions—but these animals haven't seen or been seen by millions of people like the animals in our national parks have—it's a much more intimate experience here,” said Roberts. “It's the closest thing I've experienced in America to being on a true safari.”

Quick facts about American Safari Camp

Established: 2010

Areas of Operation: Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Montana

Company Motto: Leave no trace

Wildest place tent pitched: A sandbar in the middle of the Colorado River

This article appeared in the April 2024 issue of Condé Nast Traveler. Subscribe to the magazine here.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler