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Glamp Like a Champ (In an Unlikely Spot)

Camp V, a historic boutique camping and glamping outpost, brings retro Airstreams, onion-shaped canvas tents, restored miner cabins—and open-air experiential art—to rural Colorado. 

You would think it would be easy to find a bright yellow school bus on top of a mesa, knowing it was probably within a 100-yard radius of where you were standing. 

The school bus in question was, in fact, only about 25 yards from us. My husband and three teenage kids did find plenty of abandoned relics at Camp V, a new camping and glamping destination on 120 acres near Naturita in Southwest Colorado. But not the elusive bus. We stepped into an abandoned open-air water tower where, if you stood in just the right spot, a simple clap or hoot would reverberate through the whole tower. 

We clambered through the hatch of a second water tower, tipped like a giant tin can on its side. Peeking out the small square opening at the top while the kids tried running up the curved walls, I started to imagine this hulk of metal rolling downhill. A short walk away, we found two giant electric signs resting in the weeds. One was a red arrow, now pointing nowhere; the other for a liquor store. If you wait long enough, trash becomes whimsical and vintage. Historic ruins. Nostalgic antiques.

Why a school bus is buried on the mesa above Camp V remains a mystery. Photo courtesy Helen Olsson

Natalie Binder, the founder of Camp V was driving through Naturita along the San Miguel River when she saw a For Sale sign for the Vancorum property, a 1940 mining camp for the Vanadium Corp. of America. (Technically, it should have been Vancoram, but a typo was made on an early sign and the name stuck.) 

Though she was raised in Wyoming and launched a successful luxury hospitality company in Telluride, Binder had a family connection to Vancorum. Her grandfather worked in uranium for Vanadium, and her grandmother was the company’s secretary. “If you lived here at that time, you were integrally connected to that industry,” says Binder. “That’s where all the jobs were.”

Hundreds of people worked in the Uravan Mineral Belt, mining its huge reserves of uranium, which was processed at the mill in Uravan. When the Manhattan Project started in 1939, uranium, the basic raw material for atomic energy, came into high demand, fueling the government’s atomic energy program well into the Cold War.  

Binder partnered with Jodie and Bruce Wright, founders of Telluride’s One Architects, and together they gutted and remodeled 14 original cabins that housed the uranium mill’s bosses and engineers. From Camp V, you can see the dilapidated Flat Tops bunk housing where the rank and file lived. Back then, they called the bosses’ territory “Snob Hill.” What better place to glamp in the 21st century?

ne way to glamp in retro style at Camp V is to rent an Airstream. Photo courtesy Camp V

Binder and the Wrights tapped Salt Lake City’s Black House to furnish the cabins with sling chairs, sheepskin rugs, leather ottomans, and rustic wooden tables. While each cabin has its own WiFi, AC, and gas fireplace, you won’t find TVs here. Just a Crosley record player and a selection of old LPs. On the front porch, you can sit in a low-slung rocking chair or roast marshmallows over the firepit—ideally while wearing your Camp V robe. The design team salvaged old barnwood doors from the property and installed them as interior sliding doors, giving the cabins an upscale but original vibe. The hardwood flooring is original, and if you look carefully, you can trace the cabins’ original layouts. 

Behind the row of cabins, a one-time baseball field for the miners is the setting for a smattering of art installations and a community firepit called “Fuega.”  Binder rescued the hulk of metal for the firepit from the Tri-State power plant in Nucla, which had been demolished just the week before. “It was a spare part that cost $250,000 and was never used,” Binder says. “I thought, ‘We have to give this another life.’”  

While the firepit is utilitarian, old machinery also serves as outdoor experiential art at Camp V. The centerpiece: a massive rusted crusher cone tipped on its side. It’s a “non-binary landscape frame” called Francis. My husband, Jeff, slid into the vintage metal lawn chair set in front of Francis. Not coincidentally, the structure perfectly frames the water tower above. It offers a moment of reflection, like sitting on a museum bench and appreciating a painting—only different. Groovier, to be sure. 

The Prairie Wind Chapel, constructed by artist Robert Hoehn, is a Burning Man relic come to rest at Camp V. Photo courtesy Camp V

At night, the water tower is lit up in multicolored splendor, serving as a beacon to guests and passersby. It’s also the site of Camp V’s Sound Bath Gong Ceremonies, which promise to be more therapeutic than listening to echoes of three teenagers yodeling unceremoniously inside the space.

Art and creativity are central to Camp V’s gestalt. “Here we give ourselves permission to do nothing and recharge,” Binder says over a coffee mug of tequila and kombucha. “The space allows for creative, spontaneous, and deep conversation.” While Camp V does have movie nights and live music on its calendar, it prides itself on not overly programmed its guests. “You can just go out in the field and look at the stars,” she says. On a clear night at Camp V, you can easily see the Milky Way. In fact, in June 2021, the towns of Naturita and nearby Nucla were designated as an International Dark Sky Community

The flagship experiential art set up in the field is the Prairie Wind Chapel, constructed by artist Robert Hoehn for the Burning Man festival. The wind chapel, a whimsical structure crafted from steel, canvas, tractor seats, windmill parts, and a collection of 1880s reed organs and pipes, is meant to be a community space. “It’s a place for spoken words, DJs, random sermons, and weddings,” Hoehn says. During our visit, we met the artist, who is newly minted as the executive director for the nonprofit WE Arts (for West End Arts), and who has been living in an old-school RV at Camp V—next to Camp V’s lineup of rentable Airstreams—to work on the chapel. 

Technically, the name “Vancorum” is the result of a 1940’s typo. (It should be Vancoram as in “America.”) But the name stuck. Photo courtesy Camp V

When we visited in late July, Camp V had sustained significant damage in a freak microburst storm. The onion-shaped canvas glamping tents set along the bluff were ripped apart, and the chapel was nearly flattened. “The first day, I was in shock,” Hoehn says. “What’s helped is having the community help put it back together. That’s been my silver lining.” Hoehn is thrilled to find a permanent home for the chapel, which he says is not really a good touring piece anyway. “It fits really well here. And there’s at least a truck worth of concrete underground holding it down.” 

Complementing the Prairie Wind Chapel is The Pariah Express, an art car that’s been to Burning Man and back. We climbed up a metal ladder through what looked like a giant medieval helmet, past chandeliers threaded with fairy lights, onto the deck, colored flags flapping in the breeze. During live music events, DJs spin tunes from the Pariah’s rooftop stage.

During our visit, we met a woman named Melissa, who was wearing a navy-blue bridesmaid dress (“It’s my travel dress,” she says.) A Camp V devotee, she showed us the Time Out Cabin, a historic wooden structure now lined with green astroturf and simple art on the wall. “Sometimes we all need a time out,” she says. 

Later in the day, we drove down to the camping section of Camp V, set on the edge of the San Miguel River, where an ancient GMC bus has been transformed into a gathering space. In front, a Marrakech-inspired space was set up with rugs, couches, comfy chairs, and pillows, though this outdoor space was also a casualty of the storm and in need of repair.

We ambled past a camp shower set up inside a corrugated metal silo, cooling turbines planted like giant daisies, and metal barrels painted orange with stenciled messages: “Have Fun” and “Walk the Line,” and   Next to the bus, there’s a pond for swimming and boating. (Binder installed an aerator to keep the mank at bay.) A standup paddleboard and a canoe sat at the side of the pond, and we paddled around, glimpsing old metal bed frames in the reeds. 

The author climbs the stairs to the rooftop of The Pariah Express, an art car that’s been to Burning Man. Photo courtesy Helen Olsson

Before we went to Camp V, everyone we met said, “Naturita? There’s nothing there!” Of course, Camp V is there now, offering the promise of revitalization. With both the power plant in Nucla decommissioned in 2019 (and the New Horizon coal mine that supplied it closing in 2017), the West End of Montrose County has been hit hard economically.  “That’s one reason we really thought this project was important,” Binder says. “The area lost its job base overnight.” But she sees a bright future in tourism. Not just with Camp V, but also in gravel biking. “There are miles and miles of old mining roads threading the area. If you come here with a gravel bike, there’s no barrier to entry,” she says. “You can get on the road and ride and ride, and you won’t see another person.”  

The scenery near Camp V is spectacular. We drove from Snowmass down Highway 141 through red rock canyons, plateaus, and mesas, stopping at the Hanging Flume Overlook. We peered over the edge to see sections of the crumbling Hanging Flume, a remnant from the gold mining days and a mind-boggling feat of engineering. Completed in 1891, this wooden water chute stretched ten miles along sandstone cliffs some 150 feet above the San Miguel and Dolores Rivers. Despite the monumental task of constructing it, the flume was abandoned after only a few years of use as the gold from the placer deposits was too fine to catch. Today the Hanging Flume is on the National Register of Historic Places. 

The next day, we doubled back and hiked on the Y-11 Trail, which skirts along the canyon, catching new views of the Hanging Flume from the trail. We also drove along the dirt Y-11 road to seek out a 48-foot section of the flume that was restored in 2012 by preservationists. 

Back at Camp V, we settled in for dinner. We brought chicken wings to grill, but if you really want to embrace the glam in glamping, order ahead through Camp V, and food boxes filled with locally sourced fare from Nucla’s Wild Gal’s Market will be waiting in the cabin when you arrive. 

On our final evening at Camp V, stumbled on the school bus, not far from the water towers. It was buried in a hillside, with just a slip of yellow showing in the soil. As we walked around the bus, we found a back door and climbed inside, the walls painted the same pale green color as the sage bushes outside. The seats had been pulled out, a few piled up in the dirt at the front of the bus. Binder says the reason the bus is buried here is a total mystery. 

Maybe it’s just art. 

Across the Camp V property, you’ll find whimsical stenciled messages like this one. Photo courtesy Helen Olson
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