“Where is this place?” my daughter asked after we made the seventh twisty-turn on the unpaved dirt road leading out of Gardiner, Mont.
The hand-drawn map we got from the rental agency said Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters ranch was only six miles out of town, but it seemed like the farther we went into the mountains, the farther away from civilization we got.
We passed two elk grazing on the side of the road and a sign for the Gallatin National Forest but hadn’t reached the three log cabins that the person at the rental counter said were a landmark to tell us to turn right onto a one-lane bridge.
“Is this where we’re finally going to go camping?” my son piped up from the back seat.
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“Well, yes,” I said. “Sort of.”
My son loves the outdoors and was so excited that we had planned a trip to Yellowstone for the summer. And he really wanted to go camping as part of his national park vacation.
But I didn’t.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m city folk, and “roughing it” is not part of my vocabulary. So when half of my family wanted to pitch a tent while the other half preferred hot showers, I went online and found the perfect compromise.
Glamping is the solution for those of us who want to commune with nature but don’t really want to sleep with nature.
And Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters was our glamping destination. The Montana ranch is nestled a few miles outside of Yellowstone’s north entrance and offers wall tents for those customers, like me, who want to experience camping while still having a bed to sleep in.
But I was having second thoughts as my husband navigated our car around huge potholes on the dirt road. Maybe we should have stayed three more nights at a hotel in town like we did for the first half of our vacation instead of this camping adventure?
It was almost dusk and I was nervous that we’d be lost in the mountains, searching for this ranch.
My worries were unfounded when we came around another bend and saw two large stone columns declaring we had reached our destination.
“Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters. Hunting Fishing,” the sign said. “Horses, Mules bought, sold, traded.”
Time to make camp!
A college-aged ranch hand met us in the parking lot and helped us unload our luggage. But it was Saylor, a golden retriever, who showed us to our wall tent and pushed the door open with his nose.
We were in the first of the three canvas wall tents that sit on a wooden platform overlooking a horse corral. Each tent has its own wooden door with a lock on it to keep unwanted critters out, except for Saylor, of course.
Inside, there were two twin beds and one queen-size bed, an overhead light and an electric heater that looked like an antique wood stove. There were a couple of electrical outlets — perfect for keeping our cellphones and tablets charged — and a table with a basket of fresh flowers and a flashlight.
Of course, you wouldn’t have a bathroom inside a tent, and neither does the wall tent.
About 40 feet from the tents is an outhouse. There are two separate bathrooms with one shower and sink in each for men and women. Towels were provided by the ranch, and we had brought our own toiletries.
Warren and Sue Johnson added the wall tents to their ranch in 2009 to give city slickers a chance to camp, or glamp, under the stars and have cookouts and campfires with marshmallows.
“We had a lot of people who wanted to take their kids camping but didn’t want to invest in all the camping gear,” Sue Johnson says. “It’s a little more comfortable. They’re going to sleep in a real bed with bedding and be able to turn on a light.”
The outhouse was added for the Secret Service officers who stayed in the tents in 2012 when former first lady Laura Bush and her girlfriends spent a week at the ranch, fishing and horseback riding.
The Johnsons started opening up their ranch to guests in 1982, initially for hunting season and eventually adding summer horseback rides. More than 5,000 people visit the ranch for horseback rides or fishing trips or overnight stays each year. Currently, they have several cabins, the wall tents and 200 draft cross horses on the working ranch. The summer is their busiest season, although they also arrange several hunting trips in the fall for guests.
As we settled into our tent for the evening, we played a few games of Apples to Apples and then rounded up the kids for one last trip to the outhouse before bedtime.
It was on the trip to the outhouse, in the dark, that we looked up.
Yes, everything is bigger in Texas, but the Montana night sky seemed to stretch on forever, lit with thousands of stars and the Milky Way. The kids easily picked out the Big Dipper and the North Star as we stopped to stargaze.
Then it was back in the tent, snuggling under the comforters on heavenly mattresses.
Now this is glamping.
When the sunlight began streaming through the window of the wall tent, I did not want to get out of the comfortable bed.
Not just because it was comfortable, but because it was warm. And overnight, the temperature, which had been a wonderful 80 degrees during the daytime, had dropped into the 30s.
The little electric heater did put out heat, just not nearly enough to keep the entire wall tent warm. But my son was already out of bed and ready to start another day of exploring in Yellowstone, so it was time to get moving.
In the main house, a couple hundred feet from the tents, the ranch serves a continental breakfast for guests. The pastries, fruit, yogurt and cereals were more than enough to fuel us for a day in the park.
We left the ranch and drove down to the town of Gardiner, which sits just outside of Yellowstone’s north entrance, the only entrance open year round. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt placed the cornerstone of the stone archway that welcomes visitors through this entrance.
This was our third day in the park, so we had already paid the $25 fee that gives you access for a week.
We planned to explore the Mammoth Hot Springs area of the park, which is only a few miles in from the north entrance. As we drove toward the red-roofed buildings of Fort Yellowstone that now house the park’s headquarters, we passed by the Mammoth Hot Springs campground.
Dozens of RV campers and nylon pup tents dotted the campground, which has bathrooms but no showers, and all I could think about was how wonderful our glamping-hot shower was the night before.
In Mammoth Hot Springs, we saw a herd of elk casually grazing in front of the park rangers’ offices. Apparently, the elk like the Kentucky grass that was planted by the U.S. Cavalry at Fort Yellowstone during the turn of the century better than the natural grasses found in the park.
The highlight of the day was the hot springs, which flow down the hillside, creating large, chalky formations that look like frozen waterfalls. The thermal springs rise through the limestone and dissolve the rock to create travertine formations.
We spent hours walking on the boardwalks alongside the hot springs. Some of the pools of hot water are a deep blue, while other formations are a canary yellow and burnt orange. We then headed down to the area where the hot water from the springs flows into the Gardner River. After walking about a half-mile from a parking area, we reached what is known as the Boiling River.
Along with dozens of other parkgoers, we took a quick dip, marveling at how the hot and cool water mix to create currents that sometimes feel like you’re in a hot tub, and other times, like you’re swimming in a cool ocean.
For our second night in the wall tent, it was penguin time. The temperature dropped even further, and it did not matter how many blankets we piled on top of our kids’ beds — they were not going to sleep alone.
So, we huddled up like emperor penguins in Antarctica, all together in the queen bed, and added three extra comforters to keep warm until morning.
When we booked our stay at the wall tent, we also added a “saddle-paddle” adventure at the ranch.
After breakfast, we headed out to the main parking area, where we were greeted by four large draft horses and two wooden platforms to help us get on the horses. With a horse that stood 16 hands tall, the only way I could get on was by climbing a couple of steps onto the platform and then hoisting one of my short legs over the horse named Sandy.
Since Sandy decided that she was going to go at whatever pace she chose, I trailed the rest of my family for most of the ride, giving me plenty of time to see the sun-bathing, yellow-bellied marmots.
The horses meandered slowly down a trail south of the ranch through the Gallatin National Forest that had breathtaking views of Yellowstone Park and Gardiner, which appeared as a small town nestled down by a river.
When Sandy finally caught up with the group, our guide pointed out Electric Peak, which is struck several times by lightning every year. The majestic peak, which rises more than 10,000 feet, is the tallest mountain in the Gallatin Range, but is not the tallest in Yellowstone.
And while we didn’t see any elk on our horseback ride, our guide mentioned that they seem to know where the boundary line between the national forest and Yellowstone park is. During the summer, the elk graze prominently in the forest, but when hunting season begins, they cross back over into the park where they can’t be hunted, he said.
The leisurely ride ended after we crossed over a small creek back toward the ranch. After a light lunch, it was time to change into our swimsuits and head back down into Gardiner for the “paddle” portion of our day.
The Flying Pig Adventure Co. partners with Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters to give guests a whitewater rafting trip down the Yellowstone River.
Since it was later in the summer, the whitewater part was going to be much tamer than in the spring, which was fine by me since I had never been rafting. After a safety briefing, our guide introduced us to the other family that would be sharing our boat, and we were on our way.
For eight miles, we paddled in the calm areas and battled a few eddies, mostly ones and twos on the rapid-class scale. We shared the river with other rafting companies and when it came time to hop into the river for a brief swim, we all agreed that the snow-melted water was just a tad too cold, even in the 83-degree afternoon air.
That evening, back at the ranch, we sat outside of our wall tent, watching the kids feed the foals some hay.
And as the sun set behind Electric Peak, we marveled at the clouds streaking against a pink sky, waiting for the moon to rise, signaling it was time to head in to our wall tent for our last night of glamping.
American Airlines flies nonstop from DFW to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and then you can rent a car for a six-hour drive to Gardiner, Mont. Alternately, United Airlines flies from DFW to Chicago and then to Bozeman, Mont., which is a two-hour car drive to Gardiner.
Where to Stay
Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters offers two types of lodging at its ranch six miles outside of Gardiner. Wall tents are available for $150 a night, while log cabins start at $250 a night. 406-848-7578, www.hellsaroarinoutfitters.com.
What to Do
The ranch offers one-hour to full-day horseback rides ranging from $40 to $195.
The Flying Pig Adventure Co., which also accepts online bookings for Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters, offers whitewater rafting trips that can last from an hour to overnight, ranging from $32 to $300. 888-792-9193, www.flyingpigrafting.com.