MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Yippee for yurts

A weekend stay on an Iowa lake is so simple, it's hardly camping.

A green canvas-sided yurt looks over Clear Lake in Iowa.

Beth Gauper

Two yurts have their own corner of McIntosh Woods State Park in northern Iowa, overlooking Clear Lake.

In summer, the nomads are on the move.

These days, their dwellings might look the same whether they’re herding yaks on the steppes of Kyrgyzstan or exploring tidepools along the Oregon coast.

The round, cloth-sided hut called a yurt — or ger, in Mongolia — originated in Central Asia but now can be found in state parks across North America.

Oregon provided the first yurts for its campers in 1994 — “No tent? No RV? No problem. We’ve got you covered’’ — and now offers them in 18 state parks, mostly along its famous coast.

Then Washington state built some yurts, and Idaho and Colorado, and now yurts can be found in two dozen state and provincial parks across the continent, even in Texas and Georgia.

Why yurts? They’re a step up from tents, literally. Built on wooden platforms, they often have a small deck.

Their doors lock, and windows have screens with roll-up covers. Inside, they’re equipped with a table, chairs, bunk beds and, often, a futon sofa sleeper. Most have electricity.

It’s camping for people who are a little lazy or appreciate a little luxury — which is to say, most of us.

I was a very lazy camper one June, when I threw a sleeping bag and pillow into the car and drove two hours down Interstate 35 to Clear Lake, Iowa. I didn’t bother to solicit company; in early June, most people in Minnesota want to go north, not south.

It was their loss. McIntosh Woods State Park is on one of Iowa’s most popular lakes, a big expanse of sparkling water that was scoured out by glaciers and sits above the surrounding countryside, catching breezes on hot days.

The park has a sand beach and boat launch, and it’s connected by bike lanes to the laid-back beach town of Clear Lake.

Iowa state parks don’t charge an entrance fee, and when I got to McIntosh Woods, the office was locked. The only staff turned out to be 19-year-old Andy Carter, whom I found down at the beach, raking out the sand. He said he’d meet me back at the office and asked where I was from.

“I was born in St. Paul, and I don’t ever want to go back,’’ he said. “Too many people. I’ve got it made right here; it’s peaceful.’’

He collected a $50 damage deposit, then showed me to a little green yurt on the lake. With one other yurt, it had its own dock and its own newly built bathhouse, with hot showers and flush toilets, and there were two picnic tables, grills and firepits.

A yurt in the Porcupines.

Debra Gagner

On Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park rents three yurts.

The two yurts sat all by themselves in a private, oak-shaded cul de sac, pretty posh for $35 a night. Then it occurred to me that it also would be perfect for late-night, blow-out beer parties.

Carter assured me that kind of thing didn’t happen much.

“I patrol until midnight,’’ he said. “I’ll keep an eye on you.’’

As it turned out, my fellow yurt guests weren’t wild at all. Lindsey Beglinger was a young middle-school custodian from Huxley, Iowa, who has an interest in sustainable housing, and she’d brought her 13-year-old brother, William.

“Wow, this is like our own private campground,’’ Beglinger said. “I’ve always wanted to stay in a yurt.’’

She’d reserved her yurt Feb. 13, nine days before I had, when most summer weekends already were filled. But we’d ended up with a lovely weekend: warm and sunny, with cool nights.

The walleye were biting, and fishermen huddled around the nearby cleaning station late into the night. The annual Take Me Back oldies music festival had brought thousands of people to Clear Lake’s lakeside City Park, and the Lady of the Lake paddlewheeler had started its cruise season.

Lindsey and William mostly hung out at their yurt, fixing foil-wrapped meat and potatoes over their grill, but I explored the area, riding the 15 miles around the lake on my bike and walking to dinner at Rich’s Muskie Lounge, a popular restaurant that has a patio overlooking the lake and is only a block from the yurts.

On Saturday, the Beglingers’ mother, Leslee, joined them, and she, too, was impressed.

“We’ve been Girl Scouts for a long time, and for us, good times are a tent with animals underneath it and a leak,’’ she said. “So this is pretty nice. This is fabulous.’’

They invited me over for s’mores that evening, but when I returned from a late dinner at one of the Italian restaurants facing City Park, they’d already gone to bed.

I slept so well on my full-size futon, with the ceiling fan whirring softly overhead, that I barely made it out by check-out time, when park manager Tammy Domonoske came down to see what I was doing.

With help from volunteers, Domonoske built the yurts from kits bought from the Colorado Yurt Co. in Montrose, Colo.

The kits — $6,000 for a basic 16-inch yurt with a screen door, extra window and ceiling-fan mount — include the rafters, lattice walls of Douglas fir, fabric cover and acrylic skylight. Domonoske and her crew used recycled materials to make the deck, plank flooring and furniture.

A Pacific Yurt interior.

Beth Gauper

Skylights make yurt interiors sunny at Wagon Trail Campground in Wisconsin's Door County.

“It was an interesting project,’’ she said. “It’s been holding up really well.’’

Before she put it up, Domonoske said, she consulted Ted Young on Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail, who has become known as “the yurt guy’’ of the Midwest.

In 1984, Young wanted to offer lodge-to-lodge skiing on the 28-kilometer Banadad Trail, but the U.S. Forest Service wouldn’t allow a permanent dwelling on federal land.

His wife, Barbara, read about yurts in Cross Country Skier magazine and suggested they get one, but he said, “It’s silly; who’s going to stay in that?’’

“Those were Ted’s exact words,’’ says Barbara Young with a laugh. “Six months later, another resorter said, ‘I just read something fascinating about yurts,’ and he looked into it and said, ‘This is something we should look into.’ ’’

They ordered a kit, and Barbara sewed the canvas, grommet holes and all, on a portable machine in a one-room cabin without electricity. The first year, they had to take the yurt down in spring, but then they got permission to leave it up.

“When we started, we called it a hut, because we didn’t think anyone would know what a yurt was,’’ Ted Young said. “But now everyone in the skiing community knows what they are, so after three or four years, we changed it to yurt.’’

The Youngs now have two, and their yurt-to-yurt skiing has earned them national attention.

“They’re all over now, except in Minnesota,’’ Ted Young says.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has considered yurts, says DNR development and real-estate director Larry Peterson, but has decided to stick with camper cabins. It's been able to accelerate construction by using inmate labor from the Hennepin County correctional system.

“These seem to be meeting the needs of our users,’’ Peterson said.

Michigan has three yurts in spectacular Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park. Ontario has 56 yurts in nine provincial parks.

This isn’t Mongolia. But we’ve got lots of nomads, and they’re all looking for a cool place to stay.

Trip Tips: Yurts in state parks

Yurt guests need to bring bedding, pillows, towels and toiletries, plus cooking equipment. No cooking is allowed inside the yurt; generally, each one has a picnic table and fire pit and/or grill.

Guests may want to bring camping chairs if the yurt has a deck. As at camper cabins, guests are expected to clean up after themselves. Usually, there’s a two-night minimum.

For information about camper cabins, see A roof in the woods.

Iowa: McIntosh Woods State Park, on the shores of Clear Lake, rents two yurts that each sleep four on a double futon and bunk bed, $35 per night or $210 weekly. The bathhouse is disabled-accessible, as is one yurt. Guests can bring a boat or raft to use off the dock.

Tall Pines Yurt on the Gunflint Trail.

Torsten Muller

On the Gunflint Trail, skiers can stay in a yurt near the Banadad Trail.

Yurts can be reserved up to a year in advance, 877-427-2757. Weekends go fast, but there are often weekday openings. The park is three miles from downtown Clear Lake, which can be reached via bike trail. For more, see Clear Lake tranquility.

Michigan: Three yurts in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park can be reached only by trail — the shortest hike is a mile — and do not have electricity or running water. Water is supplied at one yurt; at the others, guests must filter water from streams. Wood is provided. They sleep four, and the cost is $60.

There’s also a yurt in remote Craig Lake State Park on the Upper Peninsula and in Pinckney Recreation Area near Ann Arbor. Tepees are available in Baraga, Cheboygan, Wilson and Interlochen state parks, $30. Reserve up to a year in advance, 800-447-2757.

On the Keweenaw Peninsula, Mount Bohemia ski resort has a yurt village on its mountain. Yurts sleep 10, $185. Guests have access to an activity building with a fireplace, TV and small cooking area. 906-289-4105.

Ontario: Nine provincial parks, including Pancake Bay on Lake Superior's east shore and Quetico along the Minnesota border, rent 56 yurts that go for $85 Canadian. Reservations can be made up to five months in advance. Call 888-668-7275.

Manitoba: Five provincial parks in western Manitoba have 34 yurts. Reservations open the first Monday in February. Call 888-482-2267.

Wisconsin: Wagon Trail Campground near Rowleys Bay on the Lake Michigan side of Door County rents six yurts that sleep four.

The state rents seasonal tepees at Devil’s Lake, Hartman Creek and Kohler-Andrae state parks and at Mauthe Lake in the Northern Unit of Kettle Moraine State Forest, $30-$34. Reserve up to 11 months in advance at 888-947-2757.

On the Namekagon River near Trego, Namekagon Waters Retreat rents a yurt with a sauna, 715-635-2027.

Minnesota: On the Gunflint Trail, Ted and Barbara Young rent the Tall Pines yurt for $105 for two on weekends, $25 each additional person, and $90 weekdays, $20 each additional person. Call 800-322-8327.

For more, see From yurt to B&B on the Gunflint.

Other states: Oregon has 98 rustic yurts in 18 state parks. Rustic yurts sleep five and go for $35-$41. They can be reserved up to nine months in advance at 800-452-5687.

There are also yurts in state parks in Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Delaware, as well as British Columbia.

Many yurts are heated and some are air-conditioned; a few have kitchens, private bathrooms and televisions.

Last updated on September 12, 2012
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