Colorado escape: The backcountry hut trip.
The sun is hot for a late January day, and I find myself de-layering less than a mile into my hike to Janet’s Cabin, a rough-hewn jewel that’s nestled at timberline on the east side of the Continental Divide. I’ve never journeyed into the backcountry during the winter until today. The excursion is a birthday present to myself—one I hope my 34-year-old body can handle. The 0.6-mile, 800-vertical-feet hike up the edge of Copper Mountain Resort to reach the backcountry gate (and the start of the real haul) is serious exercise—especially with a 25-pound pack—but my hiking companion and I fare well on our snowshoes once we head beyond the resort. The easy-to-follow, snowshoe-trodden trail, which rolls through frosted pine forests before making a gentle ascent up the Guller Creek Drainage, feels like a solid but not unmanageable workout during the first four miles. The final mile—the beginning of which is marked by a blue, diamond-shaped sign with a black hut on it—is a StairMaster-style slog that leaves us begging for trail’s end.
Upon reaching the hut—a 3,000-square-foot log cabin named in honor of Janet Boyd Tyler, an avid skier and early supporter of Colorado’s ski industry—we throw down our gear and pull up a seat on the front deck to drink in views of the bowls and the ridgeline that tower above. The season’s snowfall has been meager, but there is still enough fluff for off-piste turns. We’re not here to ski, but more than half of our 18 hut-mates are. Others are planning to snowshoe, while some are here simply to enjoy a good book, a cup of cocoa, and no cell service.
We may all have different recreational plans during daylight hours, but after everyone settles in for the evening, 20 strangers morph into one huddled mass that melts snow for water, cooks dinner, cleans up, drinks boxed wine, and, finally, unwinds in the fresh mountain air. The ambience is part sleepaway camp, part freshman dormitory—surfaces are a little grimy, furniture is well-worn, and people whoop and holler walking through the falling snow to the wood-burning sauna. It’s familiar, casual, and completely charming. For a 34th birthday party, it’s ideal—not just because I feel like I checked off a bucket-list item, but also because I burned enough calories to thoroughly enjoy the chocolate-dipped cookies (5.29 ounces of delicious extra weight!) I hauled with me to mark the occasion. —Lindsey B. Koehler
IF YOU GO
Setup: The cabin sleeps 20; there is a living area and a kitchen on the main floor and four bunk rooms upstairs.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Water filter, pillowcase, and a swimsuit for the wood-burning sauna
To-Do List: Snowshoeing; backcountry skiing; ski touring for all ability levels.
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 195. Turn into Copper Mountain Resort’s main entrance and make your first left into the north end of Alpine Lot. Park near the Transportation Center in spaces designated for Janet’s Cabin. Place your parking permit (which will be emailed to you upon reservation) on your dashboard. Take the free shuttle to Union Creek. Snowshoers: Trek up the extreme west (right) side of Roundabout ski run and then up the extreme west (right) side of West Tenmile ski run until you reach a backcountry gate. (It’s not well-marked, but you’ll see it.) This is the start of the trail to the cabin. Skiers: Take the same route as those who are snowshoeing or present your cabin reservation letter to the lift ticket office for a free, one-time ticket good for the K and L lifts. Ride them up to the top of West Tenmile ski run, and cruise down the extreme west (left) side of the slope until you reach the gate.
Book It: $35/person/night; 970-925-5775, huts.org