Like diamond dust sprayed on black velvet, shattered particles of light glisten in a crystalline winter sky. Overhead, the Milky Way spills a swath of creamy luminescence that flows through the celestial hemisphere. Stars glimmer with galactic intensity, undimmed by the glare of civilization.
I stand mesmerized by the spectacle so seldom seen by city dwellers and condo-confined skiers. I would linger longer, but nature screams a reminder of why I ventured into the crisp night. Yurts have no indoor plumbing, so I scurry on to the outhouse.
Friends and I are spending the weekend skiing the Colorado State Forest north of Rocky Mountain National Park. For lodging, we reserved a yurt, one of the more unusual abodes found in snow country. Its Mongolian-inspired design combines the comfort of a cabin with the intimacy of a tent.
Used for centuries on the vast Asian steppe, yurts are portable structures whose circular shapes and domed roofs make them resemble colossal cupcakes. Traditional walls consist of wool felt stretched over 6-foot-high folding latticework frames. Spoke-like rafters support a felt roof, and an opening at its apex creates a skylight, which allows smoke and cooking fumes to escape.
Twenty years ago, Alan Bair needed a place for his family to temporarily reside during home construction. Inspired by photographs in National Geographic, he fabricated his first yurt. Others saw the creation and requested duplicates. Sensing a business opportunity, Bair formed Pacific Yurts.
He and others have made improvements to the original Mongolian design. Space-age fabrics replace felt, and foil laminates provide insulating power. Acrylic domes cap the tops, cranking open or closed as weather dictates.
Years ago, an entrepreneur bought three of Bair’s creations to rent as winter retreats. After establishing Never Summer Nordic, he found that he faced an unusual marketing problem. Few people had ever heard of yurts.
My pals hadn’t either, but I have no trouble persuading several of the more adventurous to try out a yurt for a winter’s weekend. Unlike mountain huts where strangers share space, we will have the entire place to our snoring selves.
Each shelter contains a table, benches and chairs. A wood-burning stove provides heat, and propane powers cooking burners and lantern. Firewood, cookware, dishes, utensils, matches, candles, paper towels and toilet paper come supplied. We need to bring little more than sleeping bags, clothing and groceries.
We have a choice of six yurts. The majority are 16 feet in diameter and include padded bunks to accommodate five. Extra mattresses allow additional guests to sack out on the wooden floors.
Since our entourage includes willing cooks, we opt for the close-in Grass Creek yurt. The chefs plan a gluttonous menu heavy with fresh delicacies. For our two-night stay, we end up carrying enough food to save the Donner Party and a supply of wine that could souse Dionysus.
Armed with the door-lock combination and a trail map provided by Never Summer Nordic, we begin the easy ski-in approach. Blue markers affixed to trees and posts outline the trail.
Less than 20 minutes from the car, we round a bend and catch our first glimpse of the silver-gray structure. It rests like a miniature water tank on a short platform jutting above the snow. We move in, scattering gear as we prepare for a day of exploring the countryside.
“The Colorado State Forest hasn’t been discovered yet,” Never Summer Nordic warned us. It’s easy to see what they meant.
The uncrowded land possesses an aura of remoteness that defies its ease of access. Its diverse topography pleases skiers of any skill level. Beginners can glide across open meadows, while advanced telemarkers dance down bowls, valleys and slopes.
We’re somewhere between the two extremes, so we spend the day following trails to the other yurts. Pleasantly fatigued at day’s end, we retreat to our yurt to enjoy an enchanting winter’s night in the Colorado backcountry. Donning parkas, we first sit on the deck to admire the nearby peaks glowing with Technicolor intensity in the setting sun. The wind whispers in the trees, and a faint aroma of spruce laces the mountain air.
The sunset show over, we go inside. The lantern casts a bright white light over the cooking counter, while a half-dozen candles illuminate the tabletop and fill the shelter with a warm flicker. The shuffle of down booties replaces the clomp of hard-soled boots. Except for an occasional thud of snow sliding from the roof, the soft walls mute the outside world.
The yurt feels spacious with the group plopped on benches and bunks, but its roominess shrinks when too many of us try to get active at once.
“Just keep out of my way,” one of the cooks orders as she prepares to peel, pare, chop and dice dinner.
Kitchenly challenged, I oblige. I kick back on my bunk, getting up only when it’s necessary to throw another log in the stove.
Yurts excel at heat retention. With a well-stoked fire, they can eventually reach 80 degrees inside. As it warms, we strip to long johns. The yurt soon looks like Calvin Klein meets L.L. Bean.
For the evening’s entertainment, we take turns reading comments from the guest log. One entry tells about a scout troop that used the area for winter camping and survival training.
The kids scattered around the structure, digging snow caves and pitching tents. As the sun set and temperature plummeted, the scouts earned their merit badges by enduring a chilly night on the hard-packed snow.
The adult scoutmasters, meanwhile, remained in the yurt. Under the guise of maintaining an emergency retreat, they luxuriated, feeding the fire and basking in its blushing warmth.
I’m sure scoutmasters in Mongolia would have done the same thing.
If You Go
Reservations:Contact Never Summer Nordic (970-723-4070, neversummernordic.com). The smaller yurts rent for $90 per night midweek, $110 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The larger ones are $100 midweek, $120 weekends. The price covers the entire yurt, regardless of the number of participants in a party. Available space fills quickly, so early reservations are a must, especially for Christmas week or holiday weekends.
Getting there: The Never Summer Nordic yurt system is located in the Colorado State Forest, 9 miles west of Cameron Pass on Colorado Highway 14. It’s about 90 miles west of Fort Collins and 80 miles east of Steamboat Springs. County roads to the yurt trailheads are plowed, and signs designate parking areas. Entry to the state forest requires paying a daily use fee.
When to go: Colorado winters can be fickle, but a good snowpack usually forms by late-November and normally lasts into early April before getting too mushy to ski. January and February offer the best powder and coldest nights.
What to bring: Never Summer Nordic provides almost everything needed. Guests should bring personal items, warm clothing, sleeping bag, food and skiing gear or snowshoes. A complete “Checklist for Yurt Trips” is sent to each registrant.
What not to bring: Leave Fido at home. Since snow must be melted for drinking water, dogs are not welcome at any of the yurts. Also, go easy on the alcohol – a little goes a long way at the yurt’s 9,000+ foot altitude.
Summer use: The yurts are available year-round, and they make excellent base camps for day hiking or mountain biking in the summer. Rates are cheaper (starting at $60 for midweek nights, $75 for weekends), and summertime trailhead access is closer.
Dan Leeth is a freelance writer who lives in Aurora. Visit his website, lookingfortheworld.com.