Connect with nature at glamping destination Walden Retreats, just a stone’s throw from Austin.

By Chantal Rice, Photos courtesy of Will Graham Photography 

Henry David Thoreau was right: We can never have enough of nature. It is imperative that we are refreshed in the surrounds of wilderness, that we must endeavor to live a life we have only imagined, that we live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, that we leave our unnecessary bonds behind and witness our own limits transgressed, embracing the parts of the natural world we rarely wander.

Thoreau came to this revolutionary conclusion in the 1840s after spending more than two years alone in the woods on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. It was a life-defining experience for the naturalist, philosopher, writer and rebel, one that spawned his classic opus, Walden, which forever influenced the canons of American literature and inspired generations upon generations of wanderers to endeavor to find their true selves, to seek that which is not in the facets of mundane everyday life, but in the higher order of beings.

Such an experience can be had in any number of earthly locales: the Rocky Mountains of Montana, the wilds of the Indian Ocean, the rugged splendor of the Andes Mountains, the savannas of East Africa and, yes, one hour west of Austin in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. There lies an outdoor experience unlike any other, one that fosters an intimate connection with nature while offering an unparalleled camping adventure. This is Walden Retreats, a breathtaking 96-acre property along the cliffs of the Pedernales River near Johnson City, Texas, that beckons visitors to slow down and reflect on life alongside Mother Nature herself.

But don’t be fooled by Walden Retreats’ designation as a camping site. This sylvan destination is far from the average muddy-ground encampment where adventurers are guaranteed sleep on the hard earth alongside endless dust clouds with no access to running water or electricity. Indeed, Walden Retreats epitomizes the modern term “glamping.” Outfitted with two 500-square-foot safari-style canvas tents, Walden Retreats offers “an authentic outdoor experience without sacrificing the comforts of a luxury hotel.”

This marvel of a business is the brainchild of Founder Blake Smith, who opened the property in spring 2018 after spawning the idea while attending Acton School of Business. Inspired by his stays in East African eco-lodges and high-end safari camps, Walden Retreats is Smith’s variety of a stylish, boutique hotel that emphasizes scrupulous attention to detail.

“We live in such a nonstop world these days that finding time to slow down and really reflect on where we are going in life seems harder and harder to do,” Smith says. “Camping is one of the best places to do this, and I just didn’t see why getting out into nature meant that you had to spend hours packing up gear only to sleep on the ground and not take a shower for three days.”

With that in mind, Smith ”along with his wife, Sarah Contrucci Smith, of home-goods company Marra, who thoughtfully designed the plush tent interiors with curated handcrafted elements and gorgeous decor touches ”outfitted the Walden Retreats tents with only the finest in luxury amenities, including undeniably snuggly kingsize beds, running water, private bathrooms with flush toilets and claw-foot bathtubs, wood stoves, refrigerators, gas grills, coffee makers, cozy wool blankets and even air conditioning and heat, among other superb creature comforts. Of course, all the desired camping essentials are present too, from private fire pits to acres of wanderable riverside grounds and an incredibly memorable and vast Hill Country view. Walden Retreats is luxury living among unspoiled nature.

Perhaps that’s why the property has attracted guests from as far away as the Cayman Islands and has quickly become a honeymoon destination for lovers seeking to get away from the cacophony of wedding-day chaos.

“Because of all the wedding venues in Dripping Springs and the surrounding area, we have had a number of couples come stay at Walden the night after their wedding,” Smith says. “It’s a great way to relax after the busyness of planning a wedding. Oftentimes, we have been a destination for a pre-honeymoon before couples travel to a more exotic location for the full honeymoon.”

This flood of honeymoon business is what, in part, led Smith to decide to expand Walden Retreats. The renovation will include an additional 14 tent suites, an event pavilion, a pool and a general store. Expected to be completed by fall, the upgrade will “walk the fine line between having enough capacity while still providing guests with seclusion and privacy on the property,” Smith says, adding 16 tents “is a good size for our property and will provide enough room for wedding parties to stay on-site.”

Whether a stay at Walden Retreats involves honeymoon bliss, wedding-party escapades or simply unplugging from everyday life in a phenomenal natural environment, it is sure to be unforgettable.

“Ideally, I’d like [guests]to leave Walden feeling rested and with a renewed perspective on whatever they have going on in life,” Smith says. “And hopefully, during their time, they got to spend some real distraction-free quality time with a loved one. Relationships are what life is really all about, so if we can play a role in strengthening them in some way, that is our ultimate goal.”


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