Out of Bounds

Colorado escape: The backcountry hut trip.

November 2013

I'm sitting on a stool in a wood-framed kitchen learning the ins and outs of making curry sauce. The scene wouldn’t be unusual except that we’re in a log cabin 20 miles from the nearest town; the woman cooking is pouring spice mixes and coconut milk out of neatly labeled ziplock bags; and a full-bodied, nicely spiced chicken and veggie curry is about the last thing I expected to have for dinner in the backcountry.

Welcome to Vagabond Ranch, a cozy mountain retreat that claims backcountry hut status thanks to its easy access to more than 100 miles of groomed snowmobile trails and plentiful ski lines. But that’s where the similarities to typical backcountry abodes end. Cascade Hut, where we’re holed up on a sunny January weekend, has running water, hot showers, and indoor toilets and is about 100 yards from an on-site general store.

Other buildings dot the surrounding landscape, some dating to the 1800s. The land has changed hands many times, transforming from a hunting retreat in the 1930s to a youth summer camp in the ’60s and ’70s to, finally, a backcountry haven. There are four lodging options: Those looking to leave any pretense of home behind can opt for the four-person Parkview or two-person River View huts, which are truly off the grid. More sociable travelers will prefer the Ranch House or Cascade, which are larger and less primitive. We chose the latter—and the easy way of getting here. Instead of strapping on snowshoes or touring skis, we loaded our packs onto a sled hooked to a snowmobile and hitched a ride ($35/person round-trip) with Vagabond Ranch co-owner Jeremy Mercier.

We arrived at a cabin where 14 people—a group of family and friends who all knew each other—had already made themselves comfortable. Initially, we felt out of place, but they quickly included us in their activities. By the time the stars came out (and our bellies were full of fajitas), we were all circled around the fire singing folk songs.

Our plan to snowmobile the next day was thwarted when we found out someone had crashed our reserved machine. So we put on our snowshoes, bundled up against sub-freezing temps, and set out along the hard-packed Meadow Trail just down the hill. For an hour we puttered along, passing beautiful meadow after beautiful meadow, warmed by the sun’s rays. We spent the rest of the afternoon playing ping-pong (yes, there’s a ping-pong table) and sipping Colorado whiskey. At dinnertime, our new friends invited us to eat with them, which is how I found myself in the stocked kitchen learning the nuances of curry—and gaining the true hut experience, which involves making friends as much as making turns. —DS

Cascade Hut

Setup: There are four different accommodations on the property. Cascade sleeps up to 16 people with a loft area and four bedrooms (eight twin beds, two full, one queen, and one king) and has a kitchen, three indoor bathrooms, a living room, and a game area.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Shower items, towel, pillowcase, cash/credit card for the on-site general store

To-Do List: Snowshoeing; snowmobiling; backcountry skiing; alpine ski touring.

Getting There: Head west on I-70 to the Highway 40 (Winter Park) exit. Follow 40 through Winter Park and Granby. About two miles past Granby, turn north onto Highway 125 (toward Walden). Drive 16.8 miles until you see the Stillwater Pass Road trailhead on the right (a quarter-mile before the trailhead, you’ll see a Forest Service Access sign). Park in the lot. To get to the cabins, you’ll ski/snowmobile/snowshoe 3.5 miles east on the groomed trail until you reach a fork in the road. Veer left and climb uphill for 0.3 miles until you reach Vagabond Ranch.

Book It: Cascade: $42/person/weekday, $52/person/weekend (prices vary depending on cabin); 303-242-5338, vrhuts.com