Travel

Check Into an Airstream in the Majestic Wilds of Utah

There's a pool and a drive-in movie theater-and it's just down the road from Bryce Canyon.

Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman

Located off of Utah’s scenic Highway 12-which climbs through the pine trees of Dixie National Forest and connects the red rocks of Capitol Reef National Park with the massive slots of Bryce Canyon- Yonder Escalante emerges like a scene frozen in time. A drive-in movie screen protrudes from a sandy outcrop, with thrusting canyon formations as its backdrop. Parked in front are nine vintage automobiles, Corvettes and Edsels straight out of the 1950s. Behind the cars, 10 vintage Airstreams. And behind those, 22 pre-fab modern A-frame cabins. On the other side of the 20-acre property are 66 hookups for RVs. Oh, and there’s a pool and hot tub.

Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman

Opened this March, Yonder Escalante is the latest concept to join the luxury camping world, aimed at travelers who want to connect with the outdoors without sacrificing a decent bathroom or operating heavy machinery. When father-son team Charles and James Tate found the property three years ago (or rather, sent in an intern to drive around Utah looking for a suitable location for their vision), they were looking to reimagine the traditional RV park and road trip experience, adding more comfort and amenities.

Back then the site was called the Shooting Star RV Park, and all the bones were there-including a few vintage Airstreams and the drive-in. “They had a DVD player and they had probably like 30 movies that they would rotate,” says designer and Yonder CEO Hannah Collins. “The first time I ever went to the property they threw a movie on for me and I was like oh, this is gonna work. This is incredible.”

Photo by Kim & Nash Finley
Photo by Kim & Nash Finley
Photo by Kim & Nash Finley

The Yonder team gutted the space and began building. Additional Airstreams-all of which come with a sink and kitchenette-were acquired and designed by Collins with white linens, hardwood flooring and vintage furniture. The small A-frame cabins feature birch ply interiors, soft leather flooring, and glass walls that bring the outside in. Every spot has its own fire ring with a grill, and dinner kits and fire starter packs are sold on-site.

And then there are the bathrooms-shared, spa-like spaces with relaxing music, travertine and terracotta tiles, free luxury bath products, and hair dryers. A separate outdoor shower lets you bathe under the stars. “If you’re camping or RVing, the bathroom is the least desirable aspect of the experience, and we tried to flip that on its head and say, well what if we made it one of the more desirable things that you were interacting with?” explains Collins.

Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman
Photo by Aleks Danielle Butman

As for the drive-in-accessible only to people staying on property-there’s hot dogs, vintage candy, and free popcorn on movie nights, with first-come, first-served classic cars for prime seating. There’s also a grocery store where you can buy things like cocktail kits, and a main clubhouse with a café, Wi-Fi, books, board games, and communal fireplaces for gathering.

“We have this real fascination with the way that camping and RVing brings people together,” says Collins. “I think that there’s a real interest in community and building community with this type of travel, and it’s part of the reason people do it.”

Perhaps most encouraging is that this desert oasis is actually somewhat affordable, currently starting at $215 a night (though we’ve seen cabins with sale rates of $150), less for RV hookups.

“Without spending a thousand dollars a night at a place like Amangiri (editor’s note: try more like $1800 to $5000), you really are stuck with a lot of big box brands,” explains Collins. “There’s a million Best Westerns you can stay at and they’re like an air-conditioned box in the middle of the desert. They give you no context and no relationship to the journey that you’re on.”

Photo by Kim & Nash Finley
Photo by Kim & Nash Finley
Photo by Kim & Nash Finley

You could easily spend several days just exploring the area. Yonder Escalante is enveloped by the dramatic and desolate Grand Staircase-Escalante Monument, one of the last places in the continental United States to actually be mapped. It’s about a 45-minute drive to Bryce Canyon National Park, and the immediate area has its own slot canyons, arches, natural bridges, and hoodoos to navigate.

About fifteen minutes away are the hikable Calf Creek waterfalls. “It’s an extraordinary hike,” says Collins. “You can either hike to the top of the river and see the waterfall coming down, or [hike] to the bottom and actually swim underneath the waterfall.” You’re also near Hole in the Rock road, a rugged dirt path that runs 57 miles past formations and slot canyons to the “Hole in the Rock” crack in the canyon overlooking Lake Powell-significant in Utah’s history, as this is where in 1879 Mormon pioneers lowered their wagons to cross the river.

Behind the property runs the Escalante river, with Wide Hollow Reservoir a five-minute drive away for boating, kayaking, swimming, and lounging on the dock. Adjacent to the reservoir is Escalante Petrified Forest State Park, with hiking trails and displays in the Visitor Center of fossilized dinosaur bones.

And when the sun sets there’s exploration too. Utah has the most Dark Sky Places in the country, and at Yonder you’re between the two International Dark Sky Parks of Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef, making the large, remote Grand Escalante-Staircase monument and its lack of light pollution an awe-inspiring location to experience the stars.

And the hotel leans into it with movie nights. Peppered among comedies and spaghetti westerns are a few tied to astronomy, and space. ET backed by an incredibly vivid Milky Way? Well that’s basically an immersive experience.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She calls dibs on the Edsel.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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