Looking like something from the pages of National Geographic and another part of the world, yurts – round and tan, with a distinctive peak – are popping up along the Lake Ontario shoreline. They have been recently added to the list of camping options for two state parks in Niagara County and they are already a hit.
Four Mile State Park in Youngstown was the first in the state to receive two yurts early last fall, and two more just opened for business Memorial Day weekend at Golden Hill State Park.
So, what exactly is a yurt?
Yurts, also known as gers, are portable living structures first developed by nomadic groups of the Central Asian steppes. Designed to be easily dismantled and rebuilt to follow horse and goat herds, they were often made of local wood, felt and braided horsehair. Strong and light, they could withstand wind and snow.
The state park variety is made of a more conventional material – largely vinyl canvas – and is a permanent structure, available for rental year-round. The state purchased them from Yurts of America.
The local yurts are roomy – 20 feet in diameter, and each park has one that is accessible to the disabled. Two more yurts are being constructed at Evangola State Park. State park officials said more are on the way and that Allegany State Park will probably be next.
While the building materials have changed over the years, the distinctive, basic architectural principle of a circular arch has not changed in 5,000 years.
“Everybody who stays in them likes them,” said David Giambra, manager of Four Mile and Wilson Tuscarora state parks.
Giambra said the Four Mile yurts are being booked quickly for the summer.
“We had been asking for cabins, but our new commissioner (Rose Harvey) had seen yurts and asked, ‘Is anybody willing to give this a try?’ ” Giambra recalled. “We said, ‘Yes,’ and jumped on the bandwagon.”
Giambra pointed out that the yurts in his park come with three double bunks, a table and benches, dressers, electricity, a refrigerator and microwave. The dome can also be cranked open for additional air, and a ceiling fan can be used to draw in cooler air or expend hot air. He also said he tested his yurts in winter weather and found they retained heat well.
“We’re already thinking of upgrading and taking out one of the double bunks and putting in a futon that can be used as a couch or pulled out as a double bed,” he said. “All you need to do is bring your sleeping bags and pillows.”
Vicki Singel, her husband, and their young family recently stayed in a yurt for the first time while visiting Four Mile from their home in Glen Rock, Pa.
With a lack of cabins at Four Mile, and no camper or tent on this trip to go sightseeing in Niagara Falls, Singel said her family was happy with the yurt accommodations.
“I’m hoping we have a nice sunset,” she said from the comfort of her wide, pine deck, a stone’s throw from Lake Ontario.
She likened the experience of staying in a yurt to her family’s stays in other state parks, like those in Delaware.
“They’re pretty much equal to a mini-cabin,” she said.
Eric Hoppe, park manager at Golden Hill, also reported yurts are catching on.
“We’ve been getting good feedback,” said Hoppe, who noted that yurt campers have nice views of Lake Ontario from the sturdy wooden decks.
“The state is encouraging camping and the yurts leave less of a carbon footprint [than cabins],” Hoppe pointed out. “We’re excited to have them and people are interested in seeing them.”
Yurts rent for $77.50 per night, but Giambra noted that a four-day rental comes with an extra three days for free. For more information, go to www.newyorkstateparks.reserveamerica.com.