With their domed roofs, the new yurts at Afton State Park look like two giant mushrooms rising from the rolling landscape.

A crew of young adults from Conservation Corps installed them over the summer. DNR officials hope the yurts will be available for overnight stays by the New Year or sooner — the organization is still working on installing wood-burning stoves.

Afton State Park already has four rustic camper cabins available for overnight guests. Opened in early 2010, the cabins have proved very popular. "They're booked every day during the summer, and every weekend for the rest of the year," said Tamara Simonich, assistant manager at the park.

The new yurts will help meet this overwhelming demand for overnight accommodations in the park. Officials also hope the cool digs will entice a new, perhaps younger, set of visitors.

What is a yurt?

A yurt is a portable, circular, wind-resistant structure indigenous to ancient Mongolia. Yurts were popularized by prehistoric nomadic herdsmen on the vast central Asian steppe. Only later did yurts become status symbols: From the years 1206 to 1227, Genghis Khan reigned over the Mongol Empire from the comforts of his posh yurt.

Designed to be portable and light, early yurts were made from wooden frames and fabric walls — often felt or sheep's wool. The contemporary yurts at Afton State Park also feature wooden frames, but the walls demonstrate the progress of humankind — a layer of insulation is sandwiched by two sheets of heavy-duty canvas. With flexible walls, roofs and central support structures, the yurts have much in common with tents, except when it comes to aesthetics — they look more like geodesic domes.

Inside the yurts, walls wrapped with foldout lattice and wooden rafters provide an attractive, even soothing, pattern for tired eyes. Even more appealing: Each yurt is crowned with a skylight dome, providing sunshine by day and dapples of starlight by night. Furnishings include two sets of bunks (they sleep up to seven), a dining table with chairs, even a comfy leather glider with a handy end table to set your drink.

Measuring 16 to 20 feet in diameter, the yurts feel open and spacious compared to the camper cabins. They cost the Minnesota DNR $11,000 apiece, said Cliff Connaughton, chief operating officer for Colorado Yurt Company, which manufactures these particular structures.

A mushrooming trend

With the rise of "glamping" — or glamorous camping — yurts have been gaining traction with outdoor enthusiasts in the United States. Backcountry skiers have been flocking to these hip vacation spots — not only in Colorado, but also in Minnesota, where a handful of resort-owned yurts have dotted the Gunflint Trail since the 1980s.

As for government-operated parks, Oregon was the first to install yurts in its state parks circa 1994. Oregon State Parks now boast the highest concentration of yurts in the United States, according to Connaughton. Yurts subsequently were introduced in the state parks of Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, to name just a few. "They're more popular in state parks than national parks," said Connaughton.

Michigan's state parks were the first to install yurts in the Upper Midwest. "I believe it was 2006," said William Doan, western Upper Peninsula district supervisor for Michigan Parks and Recreation Division.

Now Minnesota is joining the trend. In addition to two new yurts at Afton State Park, the Minnesota DNR just installed a pair at Glendalough State Park, a haven for paddlers and anglers, plus three at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, a popular destination for mountain bikers. "We know there's a lot of interest from folks using those bike trails," said Peter Hark, operations manager for the DNR's Parks and Trails Division.

Who else wants to stay in a yurt? In Michigan, Doan says it's the same folks who like to rent their cabins — in fact, Michigan State Parks didn't increase volume by adding yurts. Cabin visitors simply switched over.

Hark expects to see similar crossover in Minnesota, but he also hopes the yurts prove popular with "the younger generation of folks, people in their 20s, who are looking for a greater sense of adventure."

Yurts vs. camper cabins

Minnesota State Parks boast 88 camper cabins statewide. It's an overnight experience Minnesotans know and love. Staying in a yurt will be a little different.

The yurts have a more remote feel than the cabins. For starters, this is because the yurts were erected farther from roads and trails. "You have to either hike, bike or canoe to the yurts," noted Hark.

"You can't cook or store food inside the yurts," added Simonich, the park manager at Afton. Each yurt is paired with an external cooking area complete with a picnic table and a "bear box" for keeping critters out of the groceries.

Many state park camper cabins have electricity, but none of the yurts are wired. Visitors should pack lanterns, said Hark.

Finally, the camper cabins at Afton feature electric heat, whereas the yurts are being equipped with wood-burning stoves, a more primitive heat source. Yurt reservations will become available as soon as the stoves are installed and fully operational.

"The yurts are a little bit rustic, a little bit further removed. And we want to keep it that way," summarized Hark. "Bring a sleeping bag and a flashlight and you're ready to go."

Christy DeSmith • 612-673-1754