How did a Rockford couple come to create a first-of-its-kind campground of yurts and tipis in southwestern Michigan?
It’s pretty simple, actually.
But, first, let’s talk about this off-the-grid campground -- a retreat, really. It’s located on heavily forested 50 acres between Cedar Springs and Rockford. Spread out amid the trees are nine overnight accommodations, a mix of yurts, tipis, A-frames and a hobbit house, currently being built into a wooded hillside. Each hand-crafted structure sits on either three or 10 acres, intentionally spaced far apart to ensure seclusion and privacy.
The retreat is called Detach. And that’s the intent of the owners -- Sara Stout and her husband, Jarred Sper, and their partners -- for guests to detach from their electronic devices, to disconnect from the world and to reconnect with themselves and nature.
“This turns the quintessential campground model on its head,” says Sper, who formerly owned and ran an event production and staffing company in New York City. “The real value at Detach is having your own space so people aren’t on top of each other.”
Detach offers a mix of unusual accommodations. They include three authentic hand-painted tipis, three 320-square-foot A-frames, two yurts and a hobbit home. The furnishings are simplistic but comfortable: camp chairs, wood-fired stoves or chimeneas for heat, camping cots with mattresses and picnic tables. Hammocks, grills, fire rings, and firewood are outside. Two pumps provide water from spring-fed wells.
“We wanted to have various options available to people,” says Sper, who has helped build the structures while working with local builders Jim Stewart and John Rogers. “We didn’t want to have just one type of place to stay overnight. We wanted to create an experience people normally wouldn’t have in a campground environment.”
For the tipis, the couple contracted with a Sioux-style tipi maker on the West Coast, a company with ties to Native American tribes. Some proceeds from the tipi purchases help fund educational programs for Native American tribes, something that appealed to the couple.
Detach is believed to be the first-of-its-kind resort in Michigan. A treehouse resort is in the works outside Traverse City, and the state park system offers a variety of overnight accommodations, including yurts and tiny houses, but nothing with the variety available at one location, such as at Detach.
A camping retreat like Detach offers another opportunity for vacationers to experience the great outdoors Michigan has to offer, even if they don’t have “traditional” camping equipment, says Dave Lorenz, vice president of Travel Michigan, part of the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. Camping, he adds, has really taken off in the past three summers, due in part to people wanting to get outside following the COVID pandemic.
“I think we will likely see more and more of these types of resorts pop up,” he says. “We are already seeing many established campgrounds adding yurts and camping cabins to their inventory of more common camping sites for those very people who are looking for that experience, but would like some more creature comforts.”
The real value at Detach, Sper says, is having your own space.
“People aren’t on top of each other,” says Sper, a U.S. Marine Special Operations veteran. “We spaced the structures out on the property so people could really feel like they had their own place, their own natural setting. So when they’re out at night by the campfire, there is no one else around. We were very deliberate like that.”
One other thing. Detach is primitive. There are no modern bathrooms. Hand-constructed wooden outhouses feature Michigan’s only commercial incinerator toilets. And it’s a bit of a walk from the parking area to accommodations -- the farthest one being nearly a mile.
“This is not a simple walk in the woods -- you have put in a little effort,” Sper says. “The reward is worth it.”
A tiny home community had long been a dream for Sper and his wife but other work and entrepreneurial projects always got in the way.
The couple had returned to Michigan during the last recession, settling outside Rockford, where Sara Stout grew up. In New York City, she worked as a fashion model, representing brands like Victoria’s Secret, Ralph Lauren and Nautica. Sper grew up in Lowell, Michigan.
Once back to their home state, Sper helped launch a brewery, Perrin Brewing Co., in Grand Rapids. That brewery sold a few years ago and has since been purchased by Monster Beverage. Sper remained involved until the recent purchase.
“We kept circling back to this idea -- of a tiny home community. Once the pandemic hit, it just made sense for us to pursue it. We just said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s go for it.’”
Their experience during the pandemic inspired them to reimagine what they had in mind. Confined to their home with two daughters, Avery, 12, and Maya, 8, they realized just what they had been gifted right outside their door: space, nature, peacefulness. As the year of the pandemic progressed, each family member sought places to escape and find time alone -- to detach. Their backyard was full of trees and trails. Eventually, the couple built a yurt for use as a refuge for reading, writing, yoga or just enjoying the silence.
“We know first hand how important it is to find time for reflection and quiet meditation, especially in today’s hectic world,” Sper says.
Nearly 24 months later, Detach is a reality, with all but one of the accommodations completed. Sper declined to divulge a price tag on the project. The hobbit house is expected to be ready in about two weeks. They have room to build one more structure but haven’t decided on which type of housing. They’re considering another hobbit house or perhaps a treehouse.
While the cool factors are off the charts at Detach, this unusual resort is very accessible. It’s just 15 minutes from downtown Grand Rapids and Michigan’s White Pine Trail, one of the longest trails in the state, runs through the property, making it accessible to bicyclists.
“We encourage bicyclists to come stay with us for a night or two,” Sper says.
So far, about half the Detach guests have come out of state and the other half have come from within 30 minutes of its location. “To be frank, we love having people from others areas come to explore Detach, but we enjoy even more people who come from Rockford or who live less than five minutes away … we hear things like ‘It’s so unbelievably nice to have something like this in our backyard’ or ‘What a great place to take our kids camping for the first time.’”
The couple and their partners -- Jarred’s brother, Stephen Sper, a director of software engineering, and Kyle Sischo, a real estate entrepreneur and primitive camper -- already have dreams of replicating the campground elsewhere in Michigan. Until then, they’re embracing the retreat and reveling in the soothing impact it's had on their many guests.
“Nature is one of the best medicines,” Sper says. “We really wanted to have an impact on what is going on in our society. People are trying to come back from isolation and integrate. It’s something we’ve very conscious about and we want to help people through. We’re thrilled to have something like this that can fit into our current fabric of society … It's something positive, encouraging and productive.”