For many of us city slickers, there’s no better way to get away from it all than a jaunt into nature. Nothing fills the soul more than fresh air, the sound of a gurgling stream and the twinkle of a star-filled sky.
But then reality sets in, and we spend our days battling insects, keeping dirt out of sleeping bags and wrangling twisted tent poles.
I’ve been an avid car camper my entire life. But for me, the biggest downside to “rouging it” is dealing with tents. Broken poles, lost stakes and uneven ground are enough to drive turn me into a not-so-happy camper. And I’m not even going to get started on leaky air mattresses.
But, after years of waking up with a sore back and a sorer mood, I’ve found a middle ground: yurt camping. Similar to rustic cabins, yurts are wooden-framed structures covered with heavy-duty canvas. They have doors, wooden floors and are typically surrounded by a wooden platform.
Yurt accommodations run the gamut. But I’m not talking about glamping yurts — those that cost hundreds a night and boast ocean views and luxury bedding. Nor am I talking about the privately-owned structures commonly found on organic farms aimed at the granola crowd (one ad I saw promised “Goats! Hot tub! Romance!”)
Rather, I’m talking about the basic, rustic versions found in many state and federal campgrounds. What these lack in amenities they make up for in location. They are smack dab in the middle of some of the state’s most scenic public lands, often just steps away from hiking trails, lakes and other natural attractions.
Most yurt sites offer all the benefits of a standard campsite, including potable water, campfire rings and bear boxes. Some even have coin-operated showers and flush toilets nearby. Unlike tent camping, there’s no sleeping on the ground in a yurt — most have raised platforms or cots, though you do have to bring your own bedding. Best of all, they are affordable, ranging from $60-$90 per night.
Less time setting up camp = more time enjoying the great outdoors. Following are my favorite yurt sites in Northern California.
Boethe-Napa State Park, just off Highway 128 between St. Helena and Calistoga, proves there is much more to the Napa Valley than wining and dining. The park is home to an ancient grove of coastal redwoods and has miles of hiking and biking trails. We headed up Ritchey Canyon on bikes, which turned out to be a bit much for our newly-peddling 7-year-old, and instead ditched the bikes and wandered along the creekside, skipping stones and splashing in the water along the way. Our yurt was just near the trailhead and we could access the nearby Bale Grist Mill State Historic Park right from the campground. Though convenient, our yurt was located close to the highway and traffic noise was a bit of an annoyance.
An oblong alpine lake just a mile from Lake Tahoe, Fallen Leaf Lake is my go-to spot for a quiet getaway. It lacks the crowds and traffic of its more famous neighbor, yet is just minutes away from Tahoe’s beaches, restaurants and shops. Dedicated beach access is limited at Fallen Leaf Lake, but visitors can rent boats or kayaks and explore the shoreline. There are six yurts peppered among the regular campsites. They are a step up from other yurts I’ve called home for a night or two, with electric lights and portable heaters.
With its brilliant blue water, hidden coves and dramatic red shoreline, Lake Shasta in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is the place to go for boating. Campgrounds, RV parks and fishing lodges abound, but for an off-the-beaten track stay I like Lakeshore East, running along the Shasta Arm of the lake. Here, three yurts line the shore, each with its own private path down to the water. The views from our site were spectacular, though the proximity to the water was a concern when my son was little, as was the poison oak. Still, the security of a lockable door made it worthwhile. We rented a patio boat (no experience necessary!) and set off to explore, stopping briefly to play in the mud and eat lunch. Because of the lake’s size and layout (with numerous arms, inlets and tributaries), it felt as though we were the only ones on the lake, even in the middle of summer.