Posted February 1st, 2002
[Amazingly, the yurt sleeps 10 comfortably. Photo courtesy of On The Loose Expeditions.]
There is a tendency for locals to
shy away from popular tourist
attractions in their own communities. It’s not uncommon for native New Yorkers to say they’ve never been to the Statue of Liberty, or Bostonians to insist the John Hancock observatory tower is only open to out-of-towners.
But when my sister-in-law and her husband announced they were coming from Boulder to visit us at our new residence in Northern Vermont for the holidays, I saw an opportunity to visit some local attractions. They are avid hikers and I wanted them to experience our majestic New England mountains. We share an adventurous spirit and a common love for the outdoors, so I used their visit as an excuse to do something I normally wouldn’t do, something that would bring us closer together, something unusual. I booked a night at a yurt.
A yurt is a circular tent structure originally used by the nomads of Mongolia. Their yurts were constructed from wool felt which was easy to disassemble and light enough to be carried by a pack animal. These nomadic people would congregate inside the warmed yurt as they cooked their evening meal on an open fire. More recently, yurts can be found in splendid, remote places, where an adventurous spirit can enjoy the outdoors without the hassle of setting up camp.
In a state known for its extensive hiking trails, I was surprised to learn that On The Loose Expeditions is the only company that offers yurt rentals in the Green Mountains. Their yurts are located on a 150-acre hilltop property in Huntington, far enough from their residence to assure complete privacy.
After a day of continuous snowfall, my group, which had grown from four to six when a friend from Portsmouth, New Hampshire caught wind of our adventure, drove to On The Loose Expeditions’ farm as the sun was setting behind Hillsboro Mountain. With map in hand, packs on back and snowshoes on foot, we set off to our abode for the night.
The trail began with a gradual uphill climb past grazing cows and sleepy horses, then it meandered towards Camel’s Hump State Park. The surrounding mountains were illuminated in alpenglow, setting the mood for an idyllic evening. In that moment, everything seemed right with the world. After a half-mile we reached the edge of the woods and there it stood—our home with no corners.
The yurt, a 24-foot-diameter wooden structure, is bound tightly with canvas. Its wooden beams draw the eye upward to a skylight which outlines the tallest of the evergreens. Inside is rustic with a twist. A wood-burning stove is the focal point. Mattresses on handmade wooden bunks line the perimeter, sleeping 10 comfortably. A curtain is draped lazily in front of one of the bunk beds, offering a sanctuary for the modest.
Kitchen facilities include a propane cook stove, dishes, pots and pans, and utensils, almost everything a gourmet chef would require. A large bucket was provided for gathering snow to melt into water, which proved to be quite a task, since one bucket of snow equals about one half gallon of water. Twenty-five feet behind the yurt is a well-kept composting toilet in a wooden shed. On The Loose is serious about their recycling and the Leave No Trace philosophy flourishes.
A few hours passed before the yurt reached a comfortable temperature, but the round shape provided an ideal method for the heat to circulate and soon it began to feel more like a sauna. I discovered a simplicity to life in a yurt. Socializing in a circular structure with no dividing walls means eye contact can be made with anyone in the room at any time. There was no division between a host in the kitchen and guests in another room and conversation flowed freely.
After a cozy sleep, we awoke to a perfect Vermont morning, with freshly fallen snow covering everything in sight. I had to remind myself that we had snowshoed only a half mile in to the yurt. Stepping outside, I felt as if we were in a far-away, alpine location. To my right, miles of farmland were covered with glistening snow; to the left, dense woods with snaking trails led to everywhere and nowhere, in search of solitude.
Consulting our USFS topo map of Huntington, we concluded that there were myriad trekking possibilities from the yurt. Heading east, the Beane trail leads to Molly and Baby Stark Mountains, both topping out just under 3,000 feet. Heading northwest along the Long Trail would eventually lead us to Burnt Rock Mountain in Fayston. In the other direction a VAST snowmobile trail ideal for cross-country skiing bridged Jones Brook.
Eventually we decided on the Beane Trail because it gave us the option of hooking into the Long Trail from Birch Glen Camp. From there, the Long Trail goes south to Huntington Gap, or westward to the Catamount Trail.
Something about winter hiking makes me feel more serene than any other time of year. Perhaps it’s knowing there are fewer people out there to bump into, or maybe it’s the purity of the snow resting on every tree. The cool air enveloped me as I moved rhythmically in step with my breath along the narrow trail. We spotted animal tracks. At closer inspection our resident animal tracker claimed the three indents in the snow were made by a rabbit.
Following the blue blazes we reached the Birch Glen Shelter, built by the Green Mountain Club in 1930. The camp is legendary on the Long Trail for having some of the biggest, baddest and boldest mice East of the Mississippi. I imagined this shelter being filled with thru-hikers sleeping shoulder to shoulder in the summer. Pondering our winter wonderland, we sat on the benches in the shelter and not even a minute later a mouse scurried by, not living up to its reputation.
[Stepping out from the cozy interior to a winter wonderland. Photo courtesy of On The Loose Expeditions.]
We headed east toward Molly Stark Mountain, a two-mile moderately easy climb. The mountain was named after the wife of General John Stark who fought in the Revolutionary War and was forever grateful to her. She was a persuasive woman who organized farm men and, along with 200 other men, went to the General’s aid in the Battle of Bennington.
Molly Stark’s Balcony, reached by going north on the Long Trail from Birch Glen Camp, affords a beautiful view overlooking the beaver pond and the valley to the west. Turning back after eating lunch on the balcony, sunshine streaming through the snow-laden birches and pines warmed my already flushed face. Marveling at the ability to feel like I was on a vacation after driving less than an hour from where I reside, I resolved that the yurt experience was a success and perhaps I might return when I have another excuse.
Rent a yurt
On The Loose Expeditions’ two yurts are available for rent on a nightly basis: $100/night (for the first 6 people) minimum charge. $15/night per person after the 6th (10 person maximum). They supply a fully equipped yurt, including water and firewood. You need to bring your own sleeping bag, personal gear, and first-aid supplies. On The Loose also offers guide services and camp chefs with culinary flairs. For more information on a yurt experience, call 800-688-1481 or check out www.otloose.com.
In northern New Hampshire, Phillips Brook Backcountry Area, owned by Timberland Trails, has a network of summer and winter trails with 11 yurts (www.phillipsbrook.org, 800-TRAILS-8). Timberland Trails is presently negotiating with a private landowner to open a similar yurt/trail system on 2,500 acres in Orange County, Vermont. The two parties are planning a cooperative forest management lease in which Timberland Trails provides high-quality eco-system recreation management in return for the rights to recreate on the land. If all goes according to plan, Timberland Trails will begin erecting yurts there this summer.