Frontier Stays

Escape to Colorado's backcountry cabins.

September 2011

Elwood Cabin

Rio Grande National Forest

Under a bluebird sky scented with pine we huddle on a hillside, staring at the ground. The tracks are big—and fresh, the edges still a little too precise for comfort. The impressions fall in a line down the slope and abruptly U-turn back the way they came, as if the animal had heard us coming uphill. As if maybe he’s just ahead of us, eyeing us from farther up the incline. Nobody wants to say the two scary words on everyone’s mind: mountain lion.

We’d been headed for Crater Lake, which seemed like a nice hike from Elwood Cabin. I look at my boyfriend, who’s schlepping a backpack full of fishing gear. Do we forge ahead to the alpine lake that’s surely teeming with trout—and risk tempting an angry beast? Or backtrack to our cozy log cabin and disturb Phil (the name we’ve given to the territorial marmot who lives in the woodpile outside the cabin)?

In the end, we take our chances with Phil. As we meander back down the rolling hills, Elwood Cabin comes into focus. Dwarfed by the Continental Divide and the vastness of the surrounding meadows, it lives unobtrusively in the wilderness. It has, after all, been blending into the forest for a century.

We reach the cabin, ditch our boots, and drag some chairs into the afternoon sunshine. As views go, it doesn’t get much more scenic than this, even in Colorado. Looking out over Schinzel Flats toward the ridgeline, we savor the crisp alpine air as a fox scampers across the meadow. One hundred years ago, the cabin’s occupants—the service crews who maintained the then-new transdivide phone lines—must have enjoyed the same stunning vistas.

I duck inside to pluck a worn binder from a wooden shelf and bring it out to the front stoop. It chronicles Elwood Cabin’s history, noting the “heroic work done here to keep up the phone lines in the winter,” and calling it “historic in the development of communication.” The phone lines were abandoned when Wolf Creek Pass became a viable option for a transdivide route, and in 1950 the cabin was donated to the Forest Service, which used it as a guard station for 14 years. In the early ’90s, Elwood was rehabilitated for public use.

When the sun crouches below the peaks, we start a fire in the outdoor pit, roast brats over the flames, and sauté veggies on our propane burner. Although our day’s exploits likely could be described in the old binder as a bit cowardly—as opposed to “heroic”—sitting outside Elwood, we feel as though we’re now a small part of the cabin’s history, too. —Julie Dugdale

If you go

Year Built 1911

Sleeps 4 to 6, single room

Utilities No electricity or running water

Amenities Two sets of bunks (single over double), futon mattresses (no linens or pillows), wood-burning stove, ax and hatchet, propane cooking stove and lanterns, pots/pans/dishware/utensils, table and chairs, outdoor fire pit, vaulted outhouse

Around the Cabin Elwood sits at an elevation of 11,000 feet in an expansive meadow called Schinzel Flats, just east of the South San Juan Wilderness Area and the Continental Divide, which offers scenic trekking. Five-and-a-half miles southwest of the cabin lies Crater Lake; try your luck with the mountain trout if you’re up for the rigorous three-and-a-half-mile hike. And a few miles before the cabin at a fork in the road, one direction leads to the old Summitville mining community, a ghost town where crumbling wooden houses hint at the once-booming gold and copper industries here.

Wildlife Deer, elk, mountain lions, marmots, foxes, bears, bighorn sheep

Going to Town Consider a side trip to Pagosa Springs on the way out. It’s a 25- to 45-minute drive (depending on your route), and worth it for a treat at the Springs Resort & Spa (pagosahotsprings.com). Soak your wilderness-weary bones in one (or all) of the 23 natural mineral pools before the haul back to the city.

Tip Call the ranger district (719-657-3321) the week before your stay to get the lock combo for the cabin door and gate. If visiting in springtime—anytime before July—snowdrifts will likely render the unplowed road impassable for vehicles. Bring snowshoes just in case, and be prepared for a multiple-mile, yet mellow, trek up the road.

Directions to the Cabin From Denver, take U.S. 285 South. Stay on 285 for approximately 187 miles. One mile past County Road B, go right on CO 112. At South Fork, take U.S. 160 west about eight miles toward Wolf Creek Pass and turn left at Park Creek Road (FS Road 380). Continue for 15 miles (unpaved) to a junction with Summitville Road and stay right at the fork. The cabin will be on your left about three miles away.