From yurts to fire towers, cheap vacation options abound

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2002

WALDEN, Colo. -- There are stacks of firewood labeled itsy-bitsy, medium and big honking stuff. In the trim outhouse is a stack of feminine supplies. Folksy and convenient, the Dancing Moose yurt in the Colorado State Forest could be a harbinger of 21st century camping.

The canvas-covered circular shelters, fashioned after those created by Mongolian nomads, have been quietly growing in numbers among the lodgepole pine and sagebrush.

Yurts, fire tower lookouts and backcountry huts are spreading like wildflowers as increasingly available options for vacationers looking for inexpensive ways of staying in the great outdoors.

''They're economical, and you can take your whole family,'' says Tim Metzger, a former Ohioan who oversees the state forest's Rocky Mountain peaks and alpine lakes. ''They're not just for extreme backcountry users anymore.''

Moose and other wildlife come right up to the yurts. Coyotes once awakened Denise Fisher, a Web support technician in Fort Collins, Colo., when she was staying in the Dancing Moose with a small group of friends.

''It's very cozy at night. You can look up through the dome and see the stars,'' Fisher says. ''They're cute, 'cause they're round -- there's just something aesthetically appealing about them. If there's anything lit up inside, they glow.''

Folks in the recreation business say people are seeking solace and simplicity this first summer since the Sept. 11 attacks. A third of vacationers this summer plan to visit a state or national park, according to an Associated Press poll conducted this month by the polling firm ICR of Media, Pa. Cabin-type camping in nontraditional rustic retreats meets their requirements.

''It's going to be really important to the economic and emotional recovery from the catastrophe last year,'' says Frank Hugelmeyer, president of the Boulder, Colo.-based Outdoor Industry Association.

Built of canvas and wood, modern yurts have a dome skylight, stove and beds. They typically sleep a half-dozen people at less than $100 a night for all. Of course, they aren't for those wanting to sleep directly under the stars in unfettered isolation.

The yurts' increasing use in backcountry settings is in some ways America's version of the European hut system, Hugelmeyer says.

Helping set the national trend, Oregon began with two yurts in its state parks little more than a decade ago. Frank Howard of the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department talks of a ''yurtplosion'' that started in the mid-1990s.

Oregon has 177 yurts available this summer, some clustered in yurt villages, spread among 19 parks. Most cost less than $30 per night and sleep up to five, and they're often booked months in advance.

''The reason they were originally put in was to increase attendance during the off-season, late fall, early spring,'' Howard says. ''They just became extremely popular year-round, especially with people who don't have RVs but maybe don't want to go to the trouble of pitching a tent.''

The yurt is not the only offbeat way to spend a night in America's parks and forests.

Rentals of fire lookout towers once used by the U.S. Forest Service are bustling as more of the structures become quaint relics with the advent of fire-spotting planes and cell phones.

''The rental program has been real popular and it's one method for keeping these facilities going,'' says Gary Weber, a Forest Service fire management officer in Priest River, Idaho. ''For some people, it's nostalgia. For others, it's just a way of getting away, back to the woods.''

Lighthouses give another option along the coasts and the Great Lakes. Prices and styles of accommodation vary widely.

People can tour more than 200 lighthouses nationally or sleep in about 15 of them in California, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington state.

''They're hot to visit,'' says Wayne Wheeler, president of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group. ''Since the '70s, America has been paying attention to historical preservation like never before.''

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