Feature Article - July 2021
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Alternate Routes

Nonconventional Structures Take Programs Year-Round Without Breaking the Bank

By Joe Bush


Structures that provide rest and relaxation from recreational outdoor activities like biking, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing have to be durable and comfortable. Since the late 20th century, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has used yurts on a non-motorized trail system near Idaho City.

The yurts are rented year-round, and the revenue is used to groom the trails, said DeEtta Petersen, who runs the yurt operation for the department. She said the hope is to add a few more in the next several years. The department provides everything inside the yurts as well: two bunk beds and a futon, table and chairs, plates and dishes, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, and several cords of wood, refreshed as needed, much of it by Petersen herself.

"We are like crazy busy all the time, mostly in the winter," Petersen said. "It's not a warming hut, it is a full-on place to stay overnight with cook stove and wood stove. They can go and play all day in the snow and come back and have a warm place to sit and eat dinner and sit amongst the stars, and they love it."

One of the yurts Petersen oversees is built 7,000 feet up with a clear view of the sky; it's named StarGazer. Its exposure to four seasons and the high winds that come with such altitude necessitates a hardy structure. That requirement is a main reason Petersen's colleague Leo Hennessy chose yurts when he was in charge of the program 25 years ago. Hennessey's list of attributes includes:

  • Unique design.
  • Can handle high winds on mountaintops.
  • Can handle deep snow with winter package.
  • Durable.
  • Dome can open to cool.
  • Floor, roof and side wall can be insulated.
  • You can place windows nearly anywhere.
  • Reasonable price.
  • Natural high-quality wood inside

Alan Bair, whose company makes the yurts Hennessy selected and the department still uses today, said the pre-COVID use of the yurts by outdoor enthusiasts made new recreational habits during and post-COVID perfect for yurt growth.

"The pandemic has made it very desirable to get out into nature rather than vacationing in crowded hotels," Bair said. "With more people looking for hotel-like amenities in natural settings away from crowds, our business has been booming. We have also seen a rise in restaurants or diners who want to offer well-ventilated dining space apart from other diners.

"Smaller yurts not only provide these benefits, but also offer a unique ambience that is very marketable. Yurts have provided the means to cost-effectively expand new and existing resorts and recreation areas to create more social distancing and accommodations."

Bair, whose company has been in business since 1978, said the trend in recent years is toward larger yurts with more amenities.

"People seem less interested in sacrificing comfort when they go out to enjoy nature," he said. "From ceiling fans to insulated glass windows to ductless heat pumps, our yurts can provide plenty of comfort."

A range of sizes are available, as are customizations for terrain and climate and amenities, he said.

"In the recreation industry our yurts are mostly used as glamping rentals," he said. "Everyone has their own definition of glamping, and there are varying levels of comfort provided for glamping. This means that some yurts are simple and rustic, with bunk beds and a heater, which allows people to be out enjoying nature without having to bring a lot of gear or set up camp.

"Higher-end glamping rentals are essentially luxury cabins complete with bedroom, kitchen and bathroom facilities. Many times, yurts allow managed campgrounds or recreation areas to utilize areas of their property that aren't suitable for constructing more permanent structures, since they are typically built on raised post and beam platforms." RM