Frontier Stays

Escape to Colorado's backcountry cabins.

September 2011

Carnero Guard Station

Rio Grande National Forest

As I sit nestled in my camp chair with my feet propped up on its nylon cradle, I survey the landscape around me and can’t help but feel like I should be wearing a cowboy hat and some well-worn leather boots. Inside our two-room cabin, weathered horseshoes adorn the walls. Outside, a rustic buck-and-pole fence surrounds the century-old outpost, and seems to silently yearn for horses to corral. The day is becoming long, and the sun is casting a yellow glow over the hillsides, which are covered in a striking mix of aspens, pines, and boulders. For a moment, I can almost hear the lonely whine of a cowboy’s harmonica.

I, however, am not lonesome. Five friends and I descended on this parcel of quintessential Western geography late last night, and spent much of today seeking out nearby adventure. The Rio Grande National Forest—1.86 million acres of south-central Colorado wilderness—offered recreation aplenty, but after looking at a regional map outside of the La Garita Cash Store, we were set on two specific destinations.

It was a 9.2-mile drive from “downtown” La Garita—it’s more like an intersection—to our first outdoor endeavor. We traveled through stunning, if stark, geography to reach the parking area for the Natural Arch. The short but steep hike to the seemingly implausible rock formation had us huffing and puffing, but the view was worth the respiratory distress. Peering out from underneath the archway—somehow carved directly in the middle of a volcanic-rock wall—we could see for miles, our eyes scanning a blown-open vista of the high desert.

Our second discovery of the day offered even more eye candy. Penitente Canyon, a 7,500-acre recreation area filled with mesmerizing rock formations and meandering trails, is one of Colorado’s most popular spots for rock climbers. The canyon was formed roughly 33 million years ago by volcanic ash. Over time, the rock has been worn down by wind and water, creating hoodoos, huecos, and other spherical and cylindrical shapes, which climbers find irresistible. Photographers will be similarly enamored. But climbers and camera hounds aren’t the only ones enjoying the topography: We found a variety of single- and double-track loops and trails for mountain bikers. Bikeless and ropeless, we simply wandered through the Dali-like landscape, making mental notes of climbing routes we’d like to try next time we visit.

After a full day of exploring, we made our way back to Carnero Guard Station, which is where I find myself now, waiting on the last arc of sun to fall behind the horizon. The cabin is relatively well-equipped for a building originally erected just after the turn of the century, and I watch as my friends prepare for a very un-cowboy-like dinner of vegetable orzo with goat cheese and garlic bread. Seems like pinto beans and biscuits would’ve suited my mood better. But I don’t let the anachronistic meal ruin my Old West fantasy. Instead, I close my eyes, feign a quick tilt of a cowboy hat, and lean back in my chair. —Dana Pritts

If you go

Year built 1908

Sleeps 12

Utilities No electricity or running water

Amenities Four bunk beds (single on top, double on bottom—no linens), propane lights and heaters, propane stove and oven, refrigerator, pots/pans/dishes/silverware, table and chairs, a couch and lounge chair, vaulted outhouse, picnic table, fire pit, well-water pump

Around the Cabin Hike one of the nearby hills for a great view of Carnero and its surrounding terrain. The only activity within walking distance of the cabin is a Forest Service trailhead that’s at the end of the driveway and down the road about 50 yards. It’s good for a stroll, but also allows horses, mountain bikes, and ATVs.

Wildlife Deer, elk, coyote, birds, and moose

Going to Town La Garita is the closest town at 17 miles away. The only thing you’ll find there is the La Garita Cash Store, operated by owners Jerry and Bonnie Nusbaum and Jerry’s mother, Dolores, who’ll greet you with a warm welcome and a hot cup of coffee. The trading post has a gas station and mini market, where you can pick up basic groceries and firewood. It also has a full-service cafe where you can grab breakfast before heading out for your hike or hunt.

Directions to the Cabin From Denver, drive south on U.S. 285 and continue through the town of Saguache 15 miles to the La Garita turnoff (County Road G). Turn right. Continue west on County Road 41G. From the La Garita Cash Store, go approximately 17 miles and look for the cabin on the right.

Tip You have to pick up the key to the cabin at the Cash Store, which is open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 7 to 11 a.m. on Sunday (lagaritatradingpost.com). If you’ll be arriving when the store is closed, you can arrange with the Nusbaums to leave the key outside the store. Winter access to the cabin may be limited to snowshoes, skis, or snowmobile. During the spring snowmelt (March thru mid-May) hiking (about six miles) may be your only access to the cabin. Call the Saguache Ranger District (719-655-2547) for current conditions.