Yurts offer new kind of camping experience

Growing up in Vermont, I have fond memories of camping. I hiked through pine groves and hardwood forests, cooled off in chilly, rocky rivers and devoured the fried bread my mom somehow managed to cook over an open campfire.

It was primitive camping: no picnic tables, no grills, no bathrooms. I loved it. I didn’t mind the bugs, summer heat or even sleeping on hard, uneven ground.

There was only one thing about camping I hated: rain. The anxiety about getting wet was almost as bad as an actual storm. Even today, I cringe just thinking about the drippy patter on the tent, and during those heavy downpours, ice-cold raindrops seeping inside our tent and reaching my toes.

I have camped far less as an adult with my husband, Brian, and our two daughters, now 7 and 12. I want to do more of it, but wimp out over weather concerns and giving up the comforts of home. Yet I enjoy being outdoors, unplugging, unwinding — especially with my husband and kids. So when I recently had the chance to stay in a yurt at Cloudland Canyon State Park, I seized on the opportunity.

Yurts are circular dwellings, somewhere between tents and cottages. They have real furniture, and at Cloudland Canyon, this includes bunkbeds and hand-carved wooden tables that look like pieces of art. Made of wood and canvas, the elevated yurts at Cloudland are weather-tight, built with wood flooring, and designed to ensure that wildlife stays outside. Well, except for a couple of small, brown scorpions that paid a visit. Luckily, Georgia scorpions are more benign than their desert-dwelling cousins.

Our yurt, set up in advance (and a permanent fixture in the park), was 20 feet in diameter with walls 7 feet high, and the very top reaching 11 feet. It can sleep six.

Yurts have been around for thousands of years in Central Asia, and even today in Mongolia, most people reside in these rustic abodes. Now-retired Georgia State Parks director Burt Weerts (yes, rhymes with yurts) was introduced to the idea of yurts at a state parks conference back in the 1990s. Weerts saw yurts, popular in Oregon, filling a niche.

At around $80 a night, Cloudland yurts are cheaper than staying at a cabin, and are handy alternatives to tents. Yurts are for those who like the idea of the camping but don’t have the equipment or don’t know how to pitch a tent. Or they’re for people like us — who have tents and could rough it, but would rather not.

It’s a popular choice for enjoying the great big outdoors with yurts available at five Georgia state parks, including Red Top Mountain and Fort Yargo State Park. They fill up several months in advance. It’s my kind of niche. The same is true for our friends Paul Donsky and wife Elizabeth Lenhard — she actually established on one of their first dates that she is not into camping. As a result, they have even less camping experience than my family. We formed the perfect crew, I thought, for giving the yurts a try.

So on a recent weekend, my husband, younger daughter Isabel and I made the two-hour drive from Atlanta with Paul and Elizabeth and their two girls. (Our older daughter stayed behind for her best friend’s birthday.)

At Cloudland Canyon, 10 yurts are part of what’s known as yurt village. The yurts cluster around a playground, and very nice, clean bathroom. When we arrived, our yurt was muggy hot inside, but we rolled up canvas and plastic window covers to let in air and the yurt cooled off quickly. We’d barely settled in when some curious hikers veered off their trail to peek in our window and ask questions about our novel dwelling.

Staying in a yurt, you still have to be OK with walking to a bathroom (and hot shower in the morning), and you have to be able to live without air conditioning (in the cooler months, space heaters warm the air). Yurts have lamps and an overhead fan. They have electricity to plug in an iPhone charger, curling iron or in our case, coffee maker. No wonder it’s often referred to as “glamping” (as in, glamour camping). And we glamped it up. With our cooler stocked with organic grapes, bottled water and arugula salad, we sipped wine from (real) glasses and nibbled on dark chocolate.

True to form, our campfire was dampened by a rookie mistake — forgetting to clear rain-soaked ashes out of the fire ring before stoking our store-bought logs. We managed to barely char our tofu dogs and make lukewarm s’mores before retreating to the comforts of our yurts’ Adirondack chairs for more wine.

Cloudland Canyon’s yurt village is located along the park’s West Rim Trail. After arriving, we quickly dropped off our things (you need to bring your own linens, pillows, towels, etc.). We made our beds. Our daughter Isabel, 7, neatly arranged her dolls on the top bunk. And then we closed the door to our yurt and hit the trail, where the untamed outdoors was mere feet away.

Within a couple of minutes, Isabel and her pals, Mira, 8, and Tali, 5, crawled into a tiny cave and started speculating whether it was home to bears and coyotes.

We hiked to the bottom of the gorge, which included a 600-step staircase, to find a waterfall with crystal-clear water cascading over layers of sandstone and shale into pools below. Sitting on smooth rocks, the soothing sound of water flowing surrounded us.

The theme of our conversation? Our quirky yurts. Laughing, we went out of our way to say the word as much as possible. We were never going to our “place.” We were always going back to our “yurt.” When Isabel, Mira and Tali donned bright pink wigs, they weren’t just trolls, they were “yurt trolls.”

As evening fell, the girls put on a theatrical skit, inspired by our hikes and trolls. We enjoyed the quiet and stars, the company of friends.

Sometime after 9 p.m., each family retreated into their almost side-by-side yurts. And then it happened: rain. Not just any rain, but a heavy, end-of-the-world kind of downpour, the kind of storm that makes you happy you and your sleeping bag are in a yurt.

The next morning, we stepped outside to a steamy, sunshiny day and hiked again. This time, we found ourselves on top of the gorge, hiking alongside dramatically deep fissures in the underlying limestone. We drank in breathtaking views of the canyon with firm grips on our little girls’ arms.

Before long, we got back into our cars, and the girls watched a movie as we drove back to the big city.

For a summer spell, we got close to nature, thanks to our yurt in the woods. We were all in — iPhones (for snapping photos), family and friends, and gourmet trail mix complete with yogurt chips. Some may say this isn’t really camping and I guess technically it isn’t. But I know one thing: For me, the great outdoors is even greater when my sneakers, sleeping bag and toes stay dry.

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