Yurts in Oregon Parks Have Colorful History
Editor's Note: The following story appeared in the online edition of Oregon's OPB magazine.
Do you cringe at the thought of setting up a tent in wind and rain? Is your camping budget not large enough to invest in an RV? If so, meet the yurt, a circular domed tent with a plywood floor, sturdy walls, electricity and a skylight. Yurts give campers a cozy, dry place from which to experience the North Coast’s great outdoors, even when the area’s weather is at its wintry worst. Roughing it has never been smoother.
Yurts are a national phenomenon that broke into the camping scene in the Pacific Northwest. They have become an especially popular and comfortable way to camp in the winter, due to their ability to withstand high winds and retain heat. They allow campers to extend their traveling season without having to risk discomfort on a rainy day by pitching a tent. Nearly all of Oregon’s state parks feature yurts, including Fort Stevens State Park and Nehalem Bay State Park. In addition, Cape Disappointment on the Long Beach (Wash.) Peninsula offers yurt rentals.
The history of yurts in coastal campgrounds dates back to 1993, when Craig Tutor, then-Oregon State Parks Northwest Regional Manager, came across a model on display at the Oregon State Fair. The design, based on a traditional Central Asian nomadic structure, was well-suited for rugged travel and harsh weather. Intrigued, Tutor approached the model’s designers from Cottage Grove-based Pacific Yurts about integrating them into the parks.
Tutor was convinced that yurt rentals would be the ideal way to encourage more people to visit the parks along the state’s coastline during the traditionally slower off-season. From November through April, the weather on the Oregon coast is less than desirable for tent camping, meaning parks were underutilized by the public and revenue from campers plunged. They would also help address parks’ tight budgets by generating usage fees.
In November of 1993, Oregon State Parks ordered two 14-foot diameter yurts and set them up at Cape Lookout State Park south of Tillamook in January of 1994. The idea was to see how they withstood severe winds and driving rain. They would also solicit public opinion from initial users.
With just word-of-mouth advertising, the two little rentals steadily gained in popularity. The yurts stood strong in howling winds and quickly began booking up because of their comfort. Users loved the feeling of the round space, abundance of natural light and being close to nature while being protected from it. In addition, the minimal footprint of the structure appealed to conservationists. The success of the experiment led to the state parks purchasing another 14 yurts in July of 1994 for several coastline parks.
200 Yurts in Oregon State Parks
Soon, yurt reservations swelled noticeably, compelling Oregon State Parks to install another 50 yurts in the winter of 1995. Today, Oregon State Parks has nearly 200 yurts in its system. Additionally, according to Nation’s Business, they are “the biggest money-maker to hit Oregon State Parks since campgrounds were introduced.” In difficult economic times this means more revenue to help keep parks open for public enjoyment year-round.
Carolyn Colbert of Rockaway Beach spent nearly 10 years as a volunteer Camp Host at coastal parks. This included stints at Fort Stevens and Nehalem Bay, where she remembers the increasing demand for yurts. “They always had a long waiting-list, especially as summer died down and winter came,” she said. “Once people realized they didn’t have to deal with tents or lug an RV around, the yurts were booked solid. It was especially nice for families with young children. We definitely noticed more people coming to the parks in the winter.”
Many of the yurts are fully ADA accessible, available to campers with disabilities. In addition, designated yurts recently began allowing pets inside for an additional fee, including those at Fort Stevens, Nehalem Bay and Cape Disappointment. “The yurts didn’t always allow pets, so that will make a lot of travelers happy,” Colbert said.
Peter Dolan of Pacific Yurts points to ease of care as a highlight of yurts’ popularity. “In general terms, the yurts simply need to have the exterior coverings washed a couple times a year using a soft bristle brush and soapy water,” Dolan said. “The exterior of the door needs a fresh coat of stain yearly. That’s really about it.
Yurts have evolved with the times. They come furnished with basic beds, heat, electricity and furniture. Larger units boast even more amenities, such as large porches. Campers provide their own linens and cookware. “A yurt comes with everything you need to get away,” Colbert said. “All you have to do is unlock the door, turn on the heat and leave your worries behind.”