By Annette McGivney | Photograph by John Burcham
Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo journeyed through the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. He wrote that he observed many wondrous things, including the “neatly and skillfully constructed” portable structures dotting the countryside. These circular houses — called yurts in the English language — had a domed roof, with an opening at the top, and walls made of collapsible slats. Many Mongolians still live in yurts today. But you don’t have to travel to Mongolia to experience the peaceful ambience that comes from camping in the round.
Arizona Nordic Village, located in the Coconino National Forest 16 miles northwest of Flagstaff, offers five backcountry yurts for overnight rental. In winter, the cozy, tent-like structures shed snow easily and are enjoyed by cross-country skiers, but the prime time for yurt living is summer. During June, July and August, daytime temperatures at this 8,000-foot elevation typically remain in the 70s, and alpine meadows are alive with wildflowers and songbirds.
“For being so simple, yurts really do provide a lot of comfort,” says Nordic Village manager Tuesdé White. “Even those who aren’t big on camping in the outdoors find that sleeping in a yurt is the perfect in-between.”
The facility’s backcountry shelters are nestled on the edge of grassy meadows and accessed via a 1- to 3-mile walk from the parking lot. A 35-mile trail network maintained by the Nordic Village offers not only an easy route to the yurts, but also plenty of options for moonlit hikes or biking through mature aspen stands in the foothills of the San Francisco Peaks. The 20-foot-diameter yurts accommodate up to eight people each, while the 12-foot yurts sleep four per unit. Mattresses and a table and chairs are provided inside the yurts, along with a wood stove, firewood and a propane grill. You’ll need to take your own bedding and drinking water. Portable toilets are nearby.
“We equip each yurt with the bare necessities, because we aim to give our guests the most authentic outdoor experience possible,” White adds.
You’re close enough to the car that you can pull a wheeled cooler to camp if you desire, but you’re also far enough removed from all things electrical that entertainment comes from the simpler things in life: watching elk browse among lush ferns in the forest, telling stories around the fire pit, making morning coffee on the propane grill and playing cards while a summer monsoon shower peppers the yurt’s canvas roof.
However, the most magical part of the yurt experience — and perhaps what mesmerized Marco Polo during his first night in a round house — is the portal to the stars. When you stare up through the Plexiglas-covered skylight as you doze off, there is comfort in knowing your place. You’re encircled by the yurt, and also by the universe.
Arizona Nordic Village is located at 16848 U.S. Route 180 near Flagstaff. For more information, call 928-220-0550 or visit www.arizonanordicvillage.com.