Waterside Retreat

By: Rebecca Lee Benwitt

Yurt1.jpgAside from the grisly maraudings history tells us Genghis Khan was famous for, the Mongolian chieftain was also known for having tremendous roadside-sleeping style. For overnighting, Khan and his nomadic militia used yurts, circular drapings of fabric or animal skins stretched over poles (picture a cross between a tent and a tepee).

To see for yourself what life in these ancient structures was like, one need search no farther than our own Cachuma Lake. There are three yurts there (one that is wheelchair-accessible), grouped together at the far end of the campground. And for a not-so-high sum, they’re rentable for sleepovers year-round. Each comes with a cute name (Sage, Poppy, and Lupine) and sits perched at the edge of a gentle cliff overlooking a cove occupied only by driftwood and ducks. The location is supremely peaceful. My son and I tried a three-day stay recently. And after first collecting, from the entrance gate, our key, grounds map, and space heater (handed through the car window by the ranger), we slowly drove to the site — careful to avoid the many squirrels zig-zagging across the asphalt. Our yurt was surrounded by a fence and had its own yard stocked with a personal picnic table, BBQ, fire pit, water spigot, and expansive view of the lake and surrounding hillsides.

Yurt2.jpgThe yurt contained two sturdy bunk beds — doubles on the bottom, so you could sleep a total of six people — a table, four chairs, a fire extinguisher, and electrical outlet (I wished I’d brought my coffeemaker). Through the two windows blew breezes infused with scents of fresh moss and sagebrush.

We unpacked our blankets (you bring your own), watermelon, firewood, and laptop, and walked (bikes would be good to bring) across the campground to the Cachuma Grill, located in the marina. The Grill turned out to be no greasy-burger, cigarettes-in-the-sand kind of place, but a pretty little eatery with lots of shade, frilly flowers planted in a wheelbarrow, periwinkle-blue picnic tables, and a menu someone’s put some thought into. After tasting the fish tacos, fresh and crunchy in all the right places with cabbage, homemade salsa, and chipotle cream sauce ($7.49), I wasn’t surprised to learn the owner, Craig Lingham (whose grandparents started the Grill in 1954), was once an instructor at the San Francisco Culinary Institute. This place was so tasty and pleasant I’d come up just for the day to have lunch and feed the ducks waiting patiently for French fries.

The next day we took a pontoon, or patio boat, for a nice mellow motoring around the lake. This is a really civilized way to cruise, particularly if you have no nautical experience or previous boat-handling skills. Jason, the attendant, showed us everything we needed to know to make our way around the lake before we shoved off. It was easy to drive (no mysterious knobs or dials on the dash to worry about) and comes with a full roof. You can putter around exploring coves at your leisure. There’s a floating bathroom in the middle of the lake for emergencies. Our vessel seated 10 ($105/hr), but for a less spacey experience, you can “take a tern around the lake” on the regularly scheduled Wildlife Cruises aboard the Osprey ($15 adults, $7 children 12 and under).

At dawn the next day I sat on the yurt’s large wrap-around deck, drank hot tea, and enjoyed the atmospheric drama of the heavy morning mist over the water. For breakfast we had a choice: Eat the Shredded Wheat and black bananas in the trunk of my car, or throw economy to the wind and visit the Grill again. Option two rewarded us with Debbie’s Delights’ warm cinnamon rolls, coffee, and hot chocolate. It was fun to see all the early boating activity going on at the dock, plus two cats stretching in the morning sun dreaming of fish guts, no doubt.

Near the entrance to the Cachuma Lake Recreation Area is the Nature Center, a place I’d heard of but never visited because I thought it couldn’t be worth the drive from Santa Barbara. Note to all, particularly those with children: It’s worth the drive. Housed in an old ranch house, the Nature Center has a fascinating, clever, and fun collection of interactive cultural history and nature exhibits. There are fish tanks, a bird room, a Chumash pantry, puzzles, interesting handouts, eggs, nests, and fur patches to pet. In the plant room are seeds in jars, burrs on a sock, and a recipe for Horehound Candy. Outside are postings for mountain lion talks, kids’ fishing workshops, and an interesting display of “Wrappus Discardus” (Discard Vine) branches behind glass hung with milk cartons, cigarette boxes, and bottle caps.

We loved the Nature Center, as would children or visitors of any age. My son’s favorite display was The Scoop on Poop, an exhibit consisting of a drawerful of real life samples — raccoon, coyote, and opossum deposits, and then slipped into the middle of the boxed bits of doo-doo, a container of “droppings” labeled “Snowman” (mini-marshmallows).

At night, yurt-life was the best. We sat on the little slope outside and ate hot dogs and s’mores (made with cinnamon graham crackers, my invention), and watched the sun set over Bradbury Dam. And after shutting our door and tucking in behind the canvas contours of our home away from home, we would stargaze through the skylight hearing nothing but wind and rippling water outside. And the rest is history.

4-1-1 Fees: $45-$65 per night depending on yurt size and season; non-refundable $15 reservation fee. Two-night minimum stay for weekends, three nights for major holidays. General store, a gas station, coin laundry, and hot showers (25 cents/3 minutes). For reservations, call 686-5050, Mon.-Fri., 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; or visit

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