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With yurts, DNR’s latest lodging option takes aim at adventurers

This is one of the new yurts slated to open to the public for overnight stays next month at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources) 1 / 2
The interior of a soon-to-open yurt at Afton State Park near Hastings, Minn. The furnishings in the yurts at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area near Crosby and Glendalough State Park in western Minnesota will be similar. (Photo courtesy of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources)2 / 2

CROSBY, Minn. — The shelters of nomads and adventurers are coming to three Minnesota state parks and recreation areas.

By sometime in September, three yurts at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area and two each at Glendalough and Afton state parks should be fully furnished, equipped with woodstoves and ready to rent.

“There’s a little sense of adventure, the sense that you’re out a little bit farther than just any state park,” said Peter Hark, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ operations manager for parks and trails. “All three of these sites were picked because you can’t just drive right to them.”

At Cuyuna, three 20-foot yurts open onto pine-framed views of Yawkey Mine Lake. Tugger Trail, a mountain bike route rated “more difficult,” hugs the hillside directly behind them. Access here and at Afton’s bluff-top site near the Twin Cities probably will be cart-in. At Glendalough in western Minnesota, visitors can paddle Annie Battle Lake or take the new Annie Battle Lake Trail.

The DNR still is working out the nightly charge, but Hark said it probably would run about the same as state park camper cabins — $45 to $65, with weekend rates at the higher end of that range. Reservations are not yet open.

Like the camper cabins, which have grown to include 89 cabins at 27 sites since the first were built in the mid-1990s, the yurts are meant to draw new groups into the outdoors.

The Legacy Amendment-funded pilot program’s cost to date — including everything from vault toilets and woodstoves to cooking shelters and the $13,000-apiece structures themselves — totals nearly $569,000. Made by Colorado Yurt Co., the structures’ wood rafters and lattice walls support an industrial laminated fabric exterior. A reflective insulation is incorporated in the interior walls.

What the DNR really is trying to do, Hark explained, is build the sort of unforgettable experience that keeps people coming back.

At Cuyuna, mountain bikers attracted to 25 miles of single-track seem like a built-in audience. Last year, annual visits to the SRA totaled nearly 163,730. Part of Afton’s appeal was its proximity to the Twin Cities. Glendalough had an under-used group camp, and camping already was cart-in only.

During a tour earlier this summer, Cuyuna Country SRA Manager Steve Weber unlocked the yurts to allow a peek inside. The yurts smelled like new wood. Sunlight spilled onto the floor soon to be occupied by a wood stove, bunk beds and a futon — sleeping space for seven.

Overnight stays currently are restricted to the 28-site campground. Located within the Yawkey Unit just north of Crosby, the yurts are strung out on the site of what once was a private campground.

“We need more overnight camping, for one, and this provided it for 21 people,” Weber said.

In their free time, Weber said, guests might listen for loons or do a little swimming or trout fishing in the stocked lake.

Inside, four screened windows plus a screen in the door catch the breeze. An adjustable, circular ceiling vent can be battened down in case of rain or snow, or opened up for mosquito-free stargazing. On this particular afternoon, a hawk circled directly overhead. An entryway will help keep the rain out.

Outside, a bike and gear shelter will double as a place to prepare food. A bear-resistant food container stands within arm’s reach of a prep area. Fire rings and picnic tables were among the items to be installed.

A new well and vault toilet will serve all three yurts.

Each yurt will have a name, probably something that reflects the iron ore mining industry. The SRA sits on 5,000 acres of land that hasn’t been mined for 30-plus years.

The so-called trellis tents can be occupied year-round.

After 12 months’ use, Hark said the DNR will evaluate whether the yurts are serving their purpose, what might change and if they should be built elsewhere.

“We want to be sure we’re meeting a need and creating a setting that works well,” Hark said. Where yurts might pop up next won’t be discussed until after the evaluation. “I think the question would be: Should we try these in more the traditional campground?”

What’s a yurt?

Yurts have evolved from the felt-covered, collapsible-frame models used in places such as Mongolia. Used primarily for recreation in the U.S., they retain the circular shape but in some places have become more permanent structures.