CUYUNA COUNTRY STATE RECREATION AREA – Seated at a table inside a fabric-walled yurt, my bare feet on a cool wooden floor, I listened to a trio of mountain bikers pass through the deep forest outside my door. Their bicycles made a distinctive mechanical whirring punctuated by chain slaps and short, sharp brake squeals, a chorus of alien noises rising into the pine boughs. The cyclists grew louder as they approached. I could hear them grunt with effort, and then just as quickly the noise dimmed as the group navigated a red-dirt trail through stands of pine, paper birch and basswood.
The bikers were soon gone, and quiet descended on my camp. Diffuse sunlight poured through a clear plastic dome at the yurt’s peak, illuminating the single, circular room my family of four was calling home for a weekend at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Brainerd. The yurt was a new twist on a favorite family camping spot. We’d been to Cuyuna many times before, usually staying at the park’s first-come-first-served Portsmouth campground or at a friend’s cabin nearby. But last year the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources installed yurts at Cuyuna and Afton and Glendalough state parks as an effort to draw more people. As soon as I heard of the yurts’ pending arrival, I made plans to stay in one with my wife and two sons, ages 10 and 7. Would it work for a family of four?
Not content to experiment with just my own family’s happiness, I invited two other families to join us, our three tribes filling the three yurts the DNR put up on a hillside overlooking Yawkey Mine Lake within the Cuyuna Range. Not everyone planned to mountain bike, one of the park’s main activities, and we were a fairly wide age range, from 7 years old to just a tad older than 50. In the days leading up to the trip I considered some of the worst-case scenarios: The weather could turn foul and trap us indoors; the four-season yurts could prove hot and unbearable in mid-July; or, perhaps worst of all, boredom might set in among the nonbiking crowd as our camping weekend plodded on.
My oldest son was the first to correct me.
“We’re not camping, Dad. We’re yurting,” he informed me soon after we arrived.
The distinction proved to be a real one, and my initial worries gave way as we became accustomed to this new experience.
Nervous that something would go wrong early on, I made sure that we arrived at Cuyuna before the others. The Yawkey Mine Unit is a section of the park just north of Crosby. It’s a mile or so down a gravel road to a parking lot near the yurts. A path open only to foot traffic, mountain bikes or DNR vehicles leads from the parking lot to the yurts. Hauling our gear from the parking lot was made easier thanks to a rubber-wheeled cart we found stashed in each yurt.
The first thing I noticed about the yurt upon entering was the heat. Our unit had windows, but they were all closed. The clear plastic dome on the yurt’s top, meanwhile, allowed enough passive solar energy to pour into the room that the temperature rose much higher than the outside air, not unlike a car parked with the windows rolled up. I slid open the windows, mindful that the provided screens would keep out bugs, and cranked open the dome using a long handle that hung near the front door. The heat rose through the dome and out of the yurt as fresh air came in through the opened windows. It was soon a comfortable temperature inside, and I made the same adjustment to the other two yurts before others arrived.
Otherwise, I was pleasantly surprised at the yurts’ condition. It was a big step up from tent camping, more like a cabin than anything else, with a wooden floor and a solid wood front door. The yurt, made by the Colorado Yurt Co. and 20 feet in diameter, had a generous amount of room for our group of four. It was large enough for a pair of wooden bunk beds, a third bunk bed with a queen-sized bed supporting a twin-size above it, a square table with chairs and a black iron wood stove.
The furniture, built by Viking Log Furniture of St. Joseph, Minn., included a rocking chair that was a bit too upright for my taste, but the solidly built pieces looked ready for years of use. Each of the yurts comes with a metal storage locker to keep food safe from animals, a sturdy pavilion and two picnic tables, one of which we stuck under the pavilion in case of rain.
We slept soundly our first night, and my initial concerns about overheating in the midsummer temperatures were allayed by opening up the yurt’s top vent. We chose to eat outside for all meals, and never really used the inside table. It was easy, however, to imagine gathering four people around it for a winter dinner.
It also was easy to see why the DNR was reporting a lot of favorable comments from first-time users.
“So far it’s been absolutely positive overall,” said Peter Hark, DNR operations manager and the agency’s “yurt guy.” The yurts provide more comfort than most tenting setups, and for visitors who spend all day riding their mountain bike, it’s nice to have the shelter of the yurt to sit in and relax, visitors have told him. “It’s that kind of adventure-with-a-bit-of-luxury feel to them,” Hark said.
Hark was himself a yurt novice before a trip to Oregon several years ago put him in one overnight. He came back to Minnesota promoting the idea to his bosses at the DNR. “It’s just this kind of different unique kind of experience. Until you stay in one, it’s hard to describe,” he said.
His lobbying led to a pilot program with yurts in three state parks this year: three in Cuyuna and two each in Afton and Glendalough. There have been some minor hitches, like the placement of clothing hooks and the need for small, handheld LED lights. (None of the yurts has electricity.)
Using the space
Locals were curious about the yurts, too, we learned, as groups of people came along every now and then to check them out as we sat outside eating breakfast or reading. I befriended local cabin owners Julie Cazette and Andre Audette when they stopped by. They have a lake cabin nearby and bike often in Cuyuna, Audette said. He added that Cuyuna’s popularity has caught the local economy by surprise, and there isn’t enough lodging for visitors. That’s starting to change, and the yurts are another useful addition, he said.
“You’re starting to see a lot more families [in Cuyuna] because they have places to stay,” said Audette. That in turn has been a boon for the local economy, said Cazette, with local businesses doing what they can to lure bikers into town.
“Plus you can swim in these lakes,” said Cazette. “They’re emerald green. It feels like you’re in the mountains.”
My fears about boredom overcoming our group of novice adventurers disappeared as joyful shouts and shrieks drifted up the hill from Yawkey Mine Lake. We had rented two stand-up paddleboards from local gear shop Cycle Path Paddle in Crosby (1-218-545-4545), and could have spent most of our time just playing in the water. The lake, along with the easy access to mountain bike trails, earned the Cuyuna yurts an A+ for location.
A final note: Although our group rented all three, each of the yurts at Cuyuna has enough space to be its own camp.
The time too quickly came to pack up and head out, and our group cleaned up the yurts and checked out so they could be prepared for their next visitors. We drove back to Minneapolis and by the time we hit the city we had a new plan. Next summer, we’re renting all three yurts again, this time for a longer stay.