Camping Yurts Cozy Up Wild Oregon Coastline
Editor’s Note: This story was written by Margaret Backenheimer and appeared in the Chicago Tribune.
The Oregon coast does not disappoint, either in its grand, rocky vistas and pounding surf or — for many days of the year— in its impressive, gale-force storms. It is this awe-inspiring weather that draws many to the shore, and yet, at least for die-hard tent-campers, it is just this weather that makes coastal bivouacs a challenge.
Nearly 16 years ago, however, planners at Oregon State Parks came up with a solution. Fourteen coastal campgrounds now offer tidy, modern versions of the traditional round Mongolian yurt, used by pastoral nomads on the steppes of central Asia for generations. These yurts allow recreational nomads to roll up their tents and instead enjoy a dry, comfortable night’s sleep.
We decided it was high time to join the yurt set. We headed for the coast on a foggy afternoon, halting along the way to observe elk grazing near a meadow viewpoint and to consume hot chowder at a cafe in Reedsport. At Coos Bay we left U.S. Highway 101 for Charleston, a commercial fishing town beset with towering piles of oyster shells and troops of raucous gulls.
As darkness loomed, we hurried down Cape Arago Highway to the “rustic yurt” we had reserved in Sunset Bay State Park, hoping to stow our bedding and bundles before the intermittent drizzle turned into a serious downpour. After a lengthy tangle with the combination lockbox on the door, we were into our yurt.
Our circular home for the next two nights was equipped with a bunk bed, double on the bottom and single on top, as well as a double-size futon. The mattresses were encased in heavy green vinyl. Though the yurt measured 16 feet across (we counted the floor tiles), the bed and futon were screwed in place, leaving only a cramped aisle in between. Near the door we discovered two rows of hooks and an electric plug, and across the floor, a small wooden table with two chairs.
There also was a decidedly nontraditional yurt amenity, an electric wall heater, which we immediately activated.
After settling in, we ventured outside. Beside our yurt, a picnic table was pulled up to a large fire pit, an arrangement that suggested pleasant campfire evenings on summer nights.
On to practical matters, we stumbled down a short path, made hazardous by mysterious humps and bumps in the asphalt, to find clean restrooms and showers.
Only one task remained that first evening, to stir up an oatmeal-and-fruit breakfast in a seldom-used electric crockpot, dug out of storage for our first yurt excursion. Hoping that the campground raccoons were not cereal aficionados, we plugged the crockpot into an outlet on the tiny front porch — no cooking is allowed inside the yurts due to the fire danger and the possibility of critters wanting in.
Once in bed — and, thanks to the heater, quite warm despite a windy 30 degrees outside — we noticed the graceful lines of the yurt. A wooden latticework held up the canvas sides, making regular diamond patterns on the curving walls.
Three windows were covered in thick, clear vinyl and then curtained. The high ceiling was the architectural heart of the structure, with 28 wooden spokes radiating out from a round skylight in the center.
Morning dawned gray and icy, but — untouched by resident critters — our hot breakfast awaited us on the porch. Afterward, we rinsed our dishes hastily under the cold-water tap we shared with a neighboring yurt and prepared a rice mixture for dinner, another meal that would survive outdoors. Domestic chores completed, it was time to explore.
The biggest attraction along Cape Arago is Shore Acres State Park, once the lavish estate of the lumber and shipping baron Louis J. Simpson. Though Simpson’s mansion no longer stands, his expansive formal gardens remain in all their glory, ending with a cliffside Pacific overlook of mesmerizing dimensions.
All along the cape, an offshore reef, part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, provides excellent habitat for seals and sea lions. The signage at one turnout, Simpson Reef Overlook, boasts of the best pinniped-watching on the entire Oregon coast, and so it seemed, as hundreds of Steller and California sea lions barked incessantly from the rocks. At Christmas, Cape Arago also is a prime location for spotting gray whales heading south to their birthing grounds in Mexico, while Easter generally is the time to start watching for their northward migration.
We sighted nary a whale, but we returned in good cheer for dinner and another warm night in our yurt. Once tucked into bed, I gave up my fruitless struggle to unstick my sleeping bag zipper.
Instead I took in the sounds of the night, a symphony of howling westerlies and heavy rain, punctuated by heart-stopping, pounding surf, close at hand. Like its Asian cousins buffeted by blizzards whirling down from the high steppes, the campground yurts in Oregon would weather on stolidly through the night.