Out of Bounds

Colorado escape: The backcountry hut trip.

November 2013

Flecks of snow accumulate on our map as we interrupt our pursuit of powder skiing to consult the topographic web. My husband and I had spent the previous hour skinning uphill from El Capitan Lodge, a plush hut near the famous Chicago Ridge where 10th Mountain Division soldiers once trained (and Ski Cooper snowcats now dispense backcountry enthusiasts). The tour felt like countless others I’d done in more than a decade of hut-tripping across Colorado, except this time my husband’s pack carried our two-year-old daughter, Simone. And instead of hiking for miles to reach our backcountry refuge, we’d driven our car right to the front door.

Located at the end of a dirt road near Tennessee Pass, within a 30-minute walk of Vance’s Cabin (one of the huts in the 10th Mountain Division system, in case you’re looking to do some hut-hopping), El Capitan combines earn-your-turns backcountry adventure with frontcountry convenience. It’s hutlike in that it sits off the grid at 10,500 feet, where it draws power from solar panels and propane. But this hand-built cabin feels luxurious—like a trophy home someone shrunk with a ray gun. Stout wooden beams support white plaster walls that are decorated with painted tiles and glass panels interlaced with ironwork. Hobbit-size cabinets hold board games and boxes of tea. We luxuriated in hot showers, snuggled on leather sofas, dozed between the silky cotton sheets provided to us, and savored Maxwell House mornings warmed by two cheery wood stoves.

Yet when we stepped out the door, we entered the backcountry. El Capitan borders the White River National Forest and offers everything from 30-minute snowshoe circuits to full-day tours on Chicago Ridge and other snowy slopes above the hut. If cranking turns is your objective, you can access plenty of worthy terrain—so long as you take avalanche precautions. After touring to the nearest powder field, we deemed the snowpack too unstable and opted instead for a sledding session on the hill beside the cabin. Then, sipping cocoa on the deck, we watched the slanting sun spotlight nearby Homestake Peak.
I’d worried that I wouldn’t decompress at El Capitan like I typically do at hike-to huts, where I’ve always felt so blissfully “away from it all.” But this luxe, kid-friendly version afforded an equal escape. Skinning up mountains and soaking in summit views, we felt a million miles from our workday worries—but closer than ever as a family.  —Kelly Bastone


El Capitan Lodge

Setup: This two-story, 1,500-square-foot cabin sleeps four to six people and feels like two tiny cottages joined together. There’s a bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen in one wing; the other area contains a second bedroom and bathroom, plus a reading nook and living room.

Hut-Specific Pack List: A French press (if you sneer at the thought of making coffee in a stovetop percolator) and your favorite discs (there’s a CD player in the kitchen).

To-Do List: Alpine touring; sledding; snowshoeing (both sleds and snowshoes are provided); taking a trip to Ski Cooper, a quick one-mile drive.

Getting There: Take I-70 west. Five miles past Vail, take the Minturn exit. Hop on U.S. 24 east for 21 miles, turn left onto Forest Service Road 731, and follow the steep, winding path for 1.2 miles until you reach the cabin.

Book It: Starting in mid-summer 2014, this hut will be available for short-term rental; $295/night (two-night minimum, whole cabin rental only); 970-390-7700