The red dirt yurts of Cuyuna
WRITTEN AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY KATE PERKINS
IT’S HALF TENT, HALF CABIN; a circular structure filled with light from a generous skylight and lined with bunk beds. There are three of these structures, called yurts, lined up in the red dirt next to the mountain bike trails at Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area (CCSRA).
The yurts are the newest addition to lodging offerings through the DNR at the state recreation area. Nick Statz, park technician at CCSRA, explained that the yurts are somewhere between a tent and a cabin.
“The best thing you can say is that they’re a kind of Mongolian hut. That’s where they originated,” Statz said. “You’ll be surprised when you see these things. They definitely exceed people’s expectations.”
The yurts fall somewhere between a rustic adventure and glamping. They have no electricity and no running water, but those rustic elements are offset by the sturdy wood furniture, including a heavy wood table and a glider that sits next to the woodstove. Each of the beds has a mattress (plus one futon), but guests bring their own bedding. Water to the yurts has to be hand-pumped from a well and there are no flushing toilets, but some of Minnesota’s best mountain biking is less than a quarter-mile away.
The yurts are twenty feet in diameter and sleep up to seven people. While Mongolian yurts originated as dwellings that were intended to be temporary, the yurts at CCSRA are permanent structures. They have a wood frame for the walls and roof, both of which are overlaid with a waterproof rubberized canvas. At the apex of the conical roof of the yurt, a domed skylight lets in daylight and even offers the potential for a little indoor nighttime stargazing.
In the summertime the entire skylight raises to vent out heat, and the several windows in the yurt can be opened wide. Statz reports that even in the summer heat, campers are surprised at how comfortable the yurts stay. In the colder months, wood is provided free for the yurt’s woodstove. The yurts can be rented year-round.
Each of the yurts is walk-in, meaning vehicles can’t access the yurts directly, but the hike is no more than one-thousand feet to the farthest yurt. Carts are provided to make it easier to bring gear to the yurts. (In the winter, the carts are swapped for sleds.) Since cooking isn’t allowed inside the yurts, there’s an outdoor shelter with a picnic table and cooking area, a fire pit with barbecue grate, and another uncovered picnic table.
All three of CCSRA’s yurts are nestled back in the woods that have grown out of what used to be a pile of mine tailings, on the shore of Yawkey Mine Lake. Many of CCSRA’s lakes are actually abandoned pit mines, and the red dirt of the area is evidence of the iron ore once mined there. While the mines were pumped dry of spring water while iron ore was excavated from their depths, the mines were eventually abandoned and the pits filled to form deep, clear lakes.
What had been piles of dirt and rock pulled from the mines has been reclaimed by Mother Nature, now grown up into forests as popular with wildlife as they are with humans. The area has transformed from industrial use to recreational, and is now known for several forms of recreation, principally mountain biking, trout fishing and, perhaps surprisingly, scuba diving.
The mountain bike trails have made a name for themselves across the state and the Midwest, and more updates and improvements were planned for the summer, including a new skills park and completion of the transition to an entirely one-way trail system.
The skills park, Statz said, will have technical features where riders can practice. The park will include man-made features like decking or skinny riding surfaces as well as natural elements. There will be something for all skill levels, from beginner to expert, Statz said.
Making the trails all one-way is primarily for safety. Since CCSRA trails appeal to all skill levels, including both expert riders and families with young children, one-way trails minimize the risk of head-on collisions, especially on sharp turns. It also creates a better user experience, Statz said, as traffic and congestion are minimized on one-way trails.
While the trails surrounding the lakes are a draw, on-the-water activities are also popular. The mine lakes have become a niche area for scuba diving and snorkeling because of their clarity. Because they are spring fed, visibility is twenty to thirty feet. When the mines were abandoned by mining companies, many of the pits had forests growing in them or were still fitted with railroads.