July 15, 2012

Worth the Trip: Shawnee yurt provides right amount of comfort


Though I'm an outdoorsy guy, I'd hesitate to call myself particularly hardy. I do plenty of day hikes, but thru-hiking isn't often on the agenda. I like getting away from my urban environment, but I'm not anxious to go off the grid completely. Call me spoiled, but I like to get the best of both worlds -- I appreciate a few creature comforts even when I'm roughing it.

Shawnee Peak in Bridgton offers visitors of a similar temperament the chance to walk the line between luxury and paucity. A yurt and a cabin, stationed near the top of the ski area, present an option for those who wish to spend a night in the mountains. For $125 a night, hikers can rent the four-person North Ridge Yurt or the six-person Tuckerman's Cabin, "rustic" dwellings with some much-appreciated amenities.

Earlier this summer, I took to the yurt with a few friends when we needed an escape from the tourist-clogged seacoast.

So what's a yurt, exactly? The yurt, a structure that dates to at least the 13th century, is a traditional dwelling used by Central Asian nomads. The dwellings are striking due to their circular shape -- latticed walls are bent into a circle, and a "crown" of beams is placed on the top. Yurts were originally constructed to be highly portable, but Western takes like the North Ridge are meant to be permanent. All of the wood parts are Certified Sustainable Forestry, and have been finished with an oil preservative to keep the yurt standing for years to come.

Shawnee Peak isn't the only place in Maine that has taken inspiration from the yurt. Saddleback's mid-mountain cafe, Kennebago Station, is a modern take, and there are four-season yurts for rent from Brownfield to Montville.

Shawnee's Pleasant Mountain Cabins have only been open for about a year but have proven to be a popular rental for both summer and winter guests. The location of the dwellings, just off the easy cruiser Sunset Boulevard, certainly helps to draw in skiers and snowboarders.

We chose to take the most direct route to the yurt from the Shawnee Peak lodge. Switchbacks climb up intermediate slopes The Main and The Horn, and connect to a well-traveled road from the midstation to the summit. It's not remarkably difficult, but the steady slope to the midstation can be exhausting with a full pack. The direct route takes about an hour.

Alternate routes are also available, all slightly longer but also more forgiving. A utility road on the mountain's western edge follows beginner trails most of the way up, and a climb up Lower Kancamangus offers a gentler slope than The Main. A Loon Echo Land Trust trailhead, just south of Shawnee on Mountain Road, provides a hike that keeps visitors in the woods rather than on the slopes.

The yurt is nicely appointed, with more amenities than you'd expect given the abandoned feel of a ski area during the summer. A basic kitchenette with dishes and utensils, a propane grill and a camp stove are available, which means all you need to provide is food and drink. Board games and a hiking guide cover your foul weather entertainment options. There's also a highly engaging guest book, stuffed with entries from aspiring Krakauers and Brysons. Two bunk beds (sans bedding), a table and a propane fireplace round out the interior. There isn't any electricity, but battery-powered lamps provide some light in the evening.

Outside, hikers will find a fire pit, a picnic table and Adirondack chairs. The grounds face the Presidential Range, with a direct line of sight to Tuckerman Ravine. A natural outhouse is the only reminder that you're "roughing it" at the site.

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