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Hutting It in Idaho's Backcountry

Yurts provide a chance to experience wilderness—in comfort


When the 280,642-acre Beaver Creek Fire swept through the mountains surrounding Sun Valley in August 2013, the Sun Valley Trekking Coyote Yurt site fell victim to the flames. Two yurts, a deck and a sauna were transformed into a pile of ash overlooking the spectacular Boulder, Smoky and Pioneer mountains. Only the stovepipe remained.

With help from the community, Francie St. Onge and her husband rebuilt the yurts, making them better than ever.

"They're our showcase yurts now," St. Onge said. "They are fresh and gorgeous."

The new site now boasts a 20-foot and a 16-foot yurt, a new deck, hammock, barbecue, fire pit, a couple of outhouses and another sauna.

Yurts are gaining popularity across the state as a way to enjoy Idaho's vast wilderness in comfort. While some are barely a step up from tents and peppered throughout state parks, others can only be accessed by snowmobile.

Sun Valley Trekking offers six yurt sites: one nestled in the Pioneer Mountains, three in the Smoky Mountains just north of Ketchum and two overlooking Redfish Lake. The yurts sleep 15-20 people, and they're stocked with beds, kitchen equipment, saunas and hot tubs. Guests only need to bring sleeping bags, food and ski equipment.

Four of the yurts sit on mountain summits and take most of the day to get to, either on backcountry skis or snowshoes. The elevation makes for stellar backcountry skiing and powder turns, though skiers are required to have avalanche training to navigate the area.

Sun Valley Trekking also has two easily accessible yurts, only a mile-and-a-half on snowshoes or cross-country skis, as well as the Boulder Dinner Tour. A guide meets guests at a trailhead 15 miles north of Ketchum around 4 p.m. and leads them on an hour-long cross-country ski jaunt to the Boulder Yurt at the base of Butterfly Mountain. After taking in the orange-red alpenglow, a fully catered dinner awaits.

"The yurt is warm and the fire is burning, the appetizers are ready," St. Onge said. "The caterer has made a beautiful dinner, then you ski back to your car under the stars."

Overnight yurt rentals begin at $175 and more information can be found at

For those not as excited about taking a long trek to reach the Mongolian-style domed shelters, Payette Powder Guides will deliver guests 100 yards from the front door via snowmobiles or snowcats. Their two yurts are perched at 7,000 feet on Lick Creek Summit, between McCall and the South Fork of the Salmon River.

"It's more of a river-trip style," Payette Powder Guides owner Marty Rood said. "You spend all your time and energy skiing the backcountry instead of using it all up just to get there."

Rood offers guided, fully catered multi-day backcountry trips starting at $675 per person. People with avalanche training can rent the yurt alone at a cost of $400 for eight people per weekend night, plus an additional $100 per person for transportation. More information can be found at

Idaho Parks and Recreation manages a variety of yurts throughout the state and charges a lot less for them. Overnight rentals range from $65 to $115 and the yurts sleep six.

"The really popular ones are in the backcountry outside of Idaho City," said Leo Hennessy, trail coordinator for Idaho Parks and Recreation. "They are packed almost 95 percent of the time in the winter. In the summer, we're getting close to 60 percent."

There are six yurts located around Idaho City, which range from a 1.4-mile ski-in to 3 miles. They are stocked with a propane stove—although guests need to bring their own propane—solar lights and padded bunks as well as a pit toilet, fire ring and picnic table.

The Idaho City yurts are placed within easy reach of a variety of snowy activities, such as backcountry and telemark skiing, snowshoeing, Nordic skiing and skate skiing, though the paths are only groomed once a week.

For more information, or to make reservations, go to

A possible U.S. Forest Service project may threaten access to two of the yurts in the summertime, however. The Becker Integrated Resource Project aims to create elk security, improve water quality and vegetation, and carry out several prescribed burns and logging. The project would close two roads to the Stargaze and Skyline yurts, making the trip to the yurts 2 miles longer.

Hennessy said that would make it harder for families with children or grandparents to access the yurts. Users would even have to pack in their own dishwater.

"Backpackers can do it, but not everyone else," he said. "We're asking the Forest Service to keep the access open. We rely on that income to hire staff and groom the trails."

Public comment for the proposed project ends on Sunday, Nov. 8.

Other yurts managed by the state are located in Winchester, Harriman and Castle Rocks state parks, as well as along Lake Cascade. Those yurts are much simpler, or "basically a tent," as Hennessy put it.

"Check out the guest journals in each yurt," Hennessy added. "People write about life-changing experiences. People love them and they take care of them."