Yurt in Oregon (Helen Moat)
Blog Words : Freewheeling | 27 July

Secret places in US state parks revealed

Freewheeling Helen Moat discovers the hidden corners of some of America's most spectacular state parks.

Recently my husband and I walked from Gradbach in Staffordshire through the Back Forest to Lud’s Church, a deep chasm set in mixed woodland of ash, birch, oak and pines. Lud’s Church is a mysterious place filled with lichen and moss and great slabs of rock. It’s also shrouded in myth, taking in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood; Friar Tuck and Bonny Prince Charlie.

Back Wood took me back to a road trip I’d made with my family through Washington and Oregon. The National Parks and the landscapes surrounding these North American States are also set in places of outstanding beauty. Whilst researching accommodation for our road trip, I stumbled on Washington and Oregon’s State Parks (not to be confused with the National Parks) which showcase the best of the Pacific Northwest’s wilderness. And it just so happened that many of the Parks offered yurts, rustic cabins and even tepees for rental at bargain prices. Whilst most visitors to the US are unaware of their existence, Americans in-the-know book State Park accommodation up to a year in advance of their vacation.

My family and I travelled from State Park to State Park throughout Washington and Oregon.  We stayed in ‘Uncle-Tom’ cabins and yurts deep in woodland, beside mountain-rivers, on the shores of desert lakes or perched high above rocky sea-cliffs. 

As we walked down through Back Forest, Tom and I reminisced about our trip, particularly the State Parks we visited. We agreed that Oregon and Washington’s State Park accommodation is America’s best kept secret. This is why:

If you go down to the woods today: Seaquest SP

I opened my eyes and gazed up at the yurt’s glass dome above my head. Overhead, Douglas Firs stretched up hundreds of feet to a navy sky stitched with silver stars.  A blurry primrose moon glided ghost-like through charcoal trunks. As I floated in the all-encompassing silence that echoed the curve of the yurt I was lying in, I felt like an unborn child curled up in the womb again: mind empty, soul at peace; senses heightened in a world newly discovered.

Then I realised I needed the loo. As I stumbled through the huddle of yurts in the forest clearing, their orange lights glowing in the darkness, I tried not to think of the possibility of bears lurking in the shadows, and instead slowly breathed in the cool pine-scented night air. It felt as if I was walking into a Grimm’s fairy-tale and I half expected to see Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel slinking through the trees. I swept my torch from side to side, hearing the distant sound of an owl and a rustle from somewhere deep within the undergrowth: Bear, coyote, elk, deer, racoon, skunk, fox or rabbit?  All these creatures inhabit the woods at Seaquest State Park.

Our yurt at Seaquest State Park in the Pacific-Northwest was rustic: containing a roughly hewn bunk, a futon, a basic wooden table and four chairs. Outside, there was a fire pit, water tap and picnic table - and a makeshift shelter in case of rain. Typical features of the State Park accommodation. Beyond the clearing, there are 475 acres of woodland and six miles of cycle and hiking trails. We took the short walk through the woodland to the Mount Saint Helens Visitor Centre on the shores of Silver Lake, grabbing a frappe on the way.

On the trail of the volcano

The next morning, we drove the few miles from Seaquest SP to the legendary Mount St Helens. The volcano was a forbidding sight - destroyed by an eruption in 1980. No longer a fairy-tale snow-capped peak, it looked more like a decayed, broken tooth. Charred trees lay strewn across the landscape. Naked tree trunks lined the hillsides; the earth ripped up and stripped bare as if some enraged ogre had trashed the landscape. Yet in all of that, new life was emerging in the wasteland.

In Flintstone Land: LaPine State Park:

We headed on south to LaPine SP, set in a subalpine pine forest. Our cabin backed onto the jade-green Deschutes, a clear, fast-running river teeming with trout.

From LaPine we drove the short distance to Newberry National Volcanic Monument with its Flintstone-esque cone mountain and helter-skelter road leading to the top. Back at the base of the mountain, we picked our way through a surreal cinder-strewn (molten lava) landscape, feeling as if we were picking our way through the remains of a giant’s barbecue.

Before heading back to our cabin, we stopped off at a mile long Lava River Cave – a mile long volcanic plug. We were glad of the tilly lamps we’d rented, providing us with welcome warmth in this chilly environment, as well as necessary light. After a while, the plug shrunk to a narrow tunnel, barely 3 feet high - and the last few yards was so low, we had to wriggle along like worms on our tummies.

Route 101: The lonely Sea and the Sky

Having stopped off at Crater Lake and dipped into North California, we headed north again. We made our way along the coastal road flanked by forest on one side and rocky bays on the other. Sea stacks emerged out of surf and mist, while jagged sea-cliffs rose dramatically from the ocean swell. Coves and sandy beaches stretched along the coastline, and we found ourselves stopping at every bend - or so it seemed. But it was worth it: we uncovered a wealth of wildlife - osprey and baby murres, and marine gardens lined with star-fish and sea anemones, as well as harbour seals basking in the sun. Whilst ocean-side accommodation (outside of towns and villages) is infrequent, or at least expensive in Europe, Route 101 is lined with State Parks in wild coastal places, many of them offering cabins, and occasionally yurts.

Room with a view: Cape Blanco State Park:  

Our cabin sat in a group of four, high above the Pacific Ocean at Cape Blanco State Park, all named after birds of prey: Eagle, Falcon, Osprey and Hawk. These magnificent birds wheel across the sky at Cape Blanco or stand sentry on nearby sea stacks. We wandered down steep paths to the shoreline from our cabin; then headed through the bracing winds to the lighthouse and the historic Hughes homestead.

In amongst the sand dunes: Umpqua Lighthouse State Park

Close to the small but beautifully formed Lake Marie, our cabin sat in among sand dunes. Just a short hop and we were in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area with sand dunes big as hills. You can rent a buggy here and get an adrenalin fix, but we were happy to do some sand surfing with a makeshift piece of plastic.

From alpine forest to desert: The Cascades

Once again, we headed back inland, this time towards the Cascades, stopping off at the German-styled town of Leavenworth with its shuttered windows, balconies and painted walls. Walking through town, we even caught sight of a character dressed in Lederhosen and Tyrolean hat replete with feather.  The whole experience felt more than a little surreal.

Waterside cooling: Pearrygin Lake State Park

Just beyond Leavenworth the landscape changed abruptly from alpine to desert. At Pearrygin, the lake across from our cabin, provided a welcome respite from the intense summer heat. From Pearrygin we visited another themed town; this one, the wild-west town of Winthrop. John Wayne would have felt right at home here.

For something different

We didn’t get a chance to try the fire lookout on Mount Spokane or a tepee by John Day River – if only we’d had more time. But they sound like fun. Definitely worth looking out:

Mount Spokane State Park in Washington State: a fire lookout atop a mountain at 5,129ft with panoramic views.

Clyde Holiday State Recreation Site in Oregon: Tepees by John Day River. Deer and elk are known to wonder through the Park.

For information on Oregan and Washington’s State Park accommodation, visit:

Oregon: http://www.oregonstateparks.org/

Cabins, yurts and tepees: from $40 - $90

Washington: Information at -

http://www.parks.wa.gov/

Cabins and yurts between $70 - $80

Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Publishers.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.