Checking In and Checking Out

Community Is a Feeling at This Grand Canyon Glamping Outpost

by Elizabeth Johnson
Under Under Canvas Grand Canyon. All photos by Bailey Made.

There’s more to the glamping company Under Canvas than Instagram-ready settings and scenic backdrops. Take a peek inside their newest outpost to learn what the fuss is all about.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Arizona - The idea originated in the white sand dunes of Africa. 

Or maybe it came to her sometime after that, inspired by the flat prairies of her husband’s home state of Montana. 

But when Sarah Dusek thinks back, it was the yellow savannah, sprinkled with canvas safari tents, that first spoke to her.
The British entrepreneur ignored the soft whisper of her idea for years, until she couldn’t anymore. And so, in 2009, she founded Under Canvas with her husband, Jacob, as a way to link travel and the great outdoors — their two passions. The couple had burned out of their jobs as overseas aid workers, where they met in 2003 in Taipei, and were ready to move on to the next great thing. Before luxury tent canvases became Instagram props, spurring an entire economy, Dusek dreamed of creating community. A place to intentionally inconvenience you. A place to reconnect with friends or family over a bonfire or a board game. And a place where you could shower off the dirt and sweat. Eco-friendly luxury at its finest.

The safari tents she and her husband crafted were all of that — and more. White canvas stretched over a wooden frame, complete with a deck. Casper mattresses, wood-burning stoves, cowhide rugs. Hot showers, running toilets, plush pillows. She wanted to show that glamping could be experiential lodging — not a one-hit wonder that faded, like other trends. The tents are a marvel, with flaps that can be fastened to let in fresh air and the moon’s white glow. Lounging on the deck, thousands of stars lance the night horizon with their dying light. The coo of owls and rustle of the cheatgrass linger in the air. 

At this location, a 25-minute drive from the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, the world is peaceful. The air smells of piñon and juniper. The 160-acre site seems to sprawl forever. In the mornings, hot coffee is delivered in a wooden crate to your doorstep. In the evenings, local musicians serenade guests at the main tent, plucking their guitar strings and crooning with soul. Families spear marshmallows for roasting. Couples curl into each other, sharing a thick blanket. Groups of friends, young and old, uncork red wine and laugh, just a little too loud.

The activities at the Grand Canyon are just as community oriented. Horseback riding with two old cowboy brothers named Earl and Reggie, who have their guests ride on a pack of all-male horses to ensure “there is no drama,” as Earl jests. They’re a calm pack of Apache horses, speckled like stracciatella gelato or mottled like ink blots on white paper. There’s guided hiking into the Grand Canyon with another set of brothers — Ben Murphy and his half-brother — who are all sharp tongues and quick wit. They run All-Star tours and will be something like Earl and Reggie someday — except they know how to work an iPhone for the perfect photo.

Candlelit dinners are hosted by Cloth & Flame, with servers dressed in wide-brimmed hats and overalls, like something out of a catalogue. Helicopter rides are with Maverick, the aircraft steered by a former police officer who points to every sun-dappled crest and rusty basin in the Grand Canyon, indicating the overlooked spots. Beauty is in the details.
And at the end of the day, home is Under Canvas. There is no Wi-Fi in the tents. There are no televisions. But the effect is exactly what Dusek would have hoped for. At Under Canvas, community is a feeling. Maybe that’s what inspired Erin Andrews and Mark Zuckerberg to rent tents where they can be normal people whom nobody bothers. Dusek is abashed but excited about this, because her idea has worked. Even bold-faced names find respite in her canvas tents. 

So far she and Jacob have built eight sites — Grand Canyon, Moab, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Great Smoky Mountains, Mount Rushmore, Tucson — with more coming next year, including Yosemite, Sonoma, Catalina Island, and Joshua Tree. Others are still in the works: Arcadia, where she envisions tents along the Maine coast that abut the ocean. She hasn’t seen much of Kansas or Iowa, but maybe the Midwest is coming, too.  

Tents are priced from $120 to $500, but this summer, the Duseks created a campaign to fill unused inventory. “Name your price,” they told guests, in the hopes that vacation could be something everyone could experience — not just the wealthy. She read each and every story of need, which humbled her and reminded her how human we all are. Her graying curls whip as she speaks. She’s moving her head back and forth, caught up in her tale. Her voice is soft; she’s not wearing make-up. Some of the stories were wild and crazy. Others told of single mothers working two jobs and juggling two kids. She plans to do the name-your-price program every year from now on.

“We built this because of who we were,” she said. “We were a family with two young boys and a dog. We wanted to be in a place where they could be two young boys and a dog. We wanted to create a community around that.”

For a season, the canvas tents rise in the desert, on the savannah, in the forest. They fill, and they empty. And at summer’s end, they vanish. Crews disassemble every tent-piece and deck, storing them in a facility. Nature returns to its original form — until the snow thaws and the next season arrives, along with another group of travelers.

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