Colorado escape: The backcountry hut trip.
Nestled into high meadows, perched along the Continental Divide, and tucked into stunning gulches, more than 40 Colorado backcountry huts beckon to those craving a rustic winter retreat. But to visit one of these jewels, you’ll have to earn it. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert skier or an experienced backpacker: There are hut trips tailor-made for everyone from families with young kids to novice skiers to backcountry veterans. Prepare for a uniquely Colorado escape.
Background: Huts, Defined
Miles beyond the confines of ski resorts, backcountry huts pepper Colorado’s mountain terrain. Built in the tradition of European hut-to-hut skiing, some of these out-of-the-way locales (often open in the summer and winter) can be reached by car, while others require a daylong alpine tour. Plan your next adventure with one of the state’s three major hut systems.
1. 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, huts.org 2. San Juan Hut Systems, sanjuan
huts.com 3. Summit Huts Association, summithuts.org
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We must have been quite the sight: four children under the age of six and four adults (one of whom was pregnant) tromping through the snow. Plus, with less than a mile between the car and our weekend home—Point Breeze Cabin, an easily accessible hut located nine miles northwest of Leadville—we hadn’t needed to pack light. There were coolers and sleds and packs weighed down with food and wine, as well as sleeping bags and multiple changes of clothes for the kids.
The November snowpack was negligible, so we trudged along in boots, thankful we didn’t have to break trail on snowshoes. The well-traveled path cut a narrow band over the frozen forest floor and through stands of pines. Just as the kids approached the “Are we there yet?” stage (one had taken up residence on a sled), we came upon a wooden bench. That solitary sign of civilization was enough to convince them to keep going. And then, suddenly, we were there. A spruce-log cabin with a big front porch came into view. It looked more like a cozy mountain cottage than a way station for the multitudes who use it as a one-night crash pad between epic ski days.
For groups like ours, Point Breeze is more of a home away from home; it’s also ideal for those who want an approachable first-time experience because getting there is, well, a breeze. There are no avalanche chutes to navigate, and there’s virtually no chance of getting lost. Plus, Leadville’s not too far away if you run out of provisions (like, ahem, booze) and need to make a supply trip.
As swift as the walk was, we were happy to unstrap our packs. We stocked the kitchen—and the chest refrigerator—until it was overflowing, uncorked the vino, and started a fire. (If no one has used the cabin for several days, expect the thermostat to hover near 50 degrees for a couple of hours.) Meanwhile, the kids romped in the snow, building a ramp for the sleds and patrolling the area for signs of deer, birds, and (they hoped) bears. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, we started the propane grill on the deck and sank into chairs around the woodburning stove inside. The kids colored and played games. After dinner, they bundled up and begged to go sledding. We spent the evening watching them trundle up and down their hand-patted sledding hill, long past all of our bedtimes. —Amanda M. Faison
IF YOU GO
Point Breeze Cabin
Setup: The single-story cabin sleeps eight with two private bedrooms (two twin beds in each) and four twin beds in the common area. There’s also a kitchen, dining room, living room, and attached outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: We weren’t left wanting for anything—there are even two playpens.
To-Do List: Cooking (the kitchen is well stocked); sledding; snowshoeing; hiking out
and buying a day pass at Ski Cooper.
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 195 (Copper Mountain/Leadville). Drive 22.5 miles south on Highway 91. Before you reach Leadville, take a sharp right onto Highway 24. Continue for about nine miles. The parking lot (on the left) is also the starting point for the Tennessee Pass trailhead.
Book It: $340/night (whole hut rentals only); 970-925-5775, huts.org
Darkness descended on us as the snowfall got heavier and piled up on my fleece-covered shoulders. In the shadows of the surrounding pine trees, miles from civilization, the lonely wilderness should’ve been beautiful, but I’d been skinning for more than 10 hours and was too exhausted to notice it. As I crested yet another hill, I finally saw what had been hidden from view at the bottom: the wooden beams of Eiseman Hut, lit up inside by the rest of our group, who’d arrived earlier. My relief was palpable.
Perhaps Eiseman wasn’t the smartest choice for my first true backcountry excursion. Since it was built in 1996, powder junkies have sought out the steep terrain and snow-filled couloirs easily accessible from the front door. I’d always been more of a resort skier—a solid intermediate. But the eight guys I was with (one of whom has led group tours up Mt. Rainier) were all avalanche-trained, advanced skiers and snowboarders, and they convinced my best friend and me that we had the mettle to reach the hut.
The day started off easy enough. We geared up with our alpine touring skis and set off on a cat track–like snowmobile path before cutting right a mile or so in to start our ascent. After hours of endless switchbacking up-up-up, I lost focus on being blissfully lost in the Colorado backcountry—because I realized we actually were lost, having gone about a mile out of our way before finding the correct trail again. (Perhaps we should have taken the other, slightly shorter route up Spraddle Creek Trail.) By the time we reached the hut, I had just enough energy to eat the spaghetti we cooked and down some Advil with snowmelt water we’d boiled. I soon passed out on a window seat, warmed by the wood-burning stove.
The next day, with avalanche danger high because of the still-falling snow, some of us stayed in, relishing the solitude, reading novels, and playing cards. Others—armed with shovels, beacons, and probes—were rewarded with thigh-deep powder on a steep face a short hike from the cabin.
Our route home took us down a powder-filled slope (comparable to a black diamond run) followed by an easy downhill skinning section and a difficult tree portion before we reached the snowmobile track we’d started out on. I put down my pack and thought about what I’d learned over the previous 48 hours. First, I discovered that getting up after falling with a 20-pound pack on is no easy feat without a helping hand to pull you back up. Second, I realized I did in fact have the grit necessary to reach Eiseman. And finally, I learned that in the future I would opt for an easier (read: shorter)hut trip. But as I rested on the snow for a moment, pack on the ground, I also knew there would definitely be a next time—Colorado’s backcountry being too alluring to ignore. Sitting there, I let the contentedness wash over me and finally saw the beauty of my surroundings. —Daliah Singer
IF YOU GO
Setup: The cabin sleeps 16. There is a communal sleeping area with 12 single beds; two private bedrooms with double beds; a small loft; and a large living area, kitchen, dining room, mudroom, and outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Waterproof hut slippers, oil for cooking, hand sanitizer, and
To-Do List: Alpine touring; backcountry skiing and snowboarding; snowmobiling (the vehicles are not allowed within five miles of the hut).
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 176 (Vail). At the roundabout, follow North Frontage Road (the sign also says “West Vail”). Continue on the road as it switchbacks up the hill until you reach Red Sandstone Creek trailhead. You can park one mile before the trailhead in a parking area.
Book It: $33/person/night; 970-925-5775, huts.org