Feature

Frontier Stays

Escape to Colorado's backcountry cabins.

September 2011

Bassam Cabin

San Isabel National Forest

The sun set less than 20 minutes ago, and like clockwork I have to use the facilities. The problem: There are no facilities. It’s as if my body knows I’m in the middle of the wilderness, and it thinks it’s funny to send me out there alone. I sigh at the inevitable and slide into my shoes. As soon as I close the cabin door and flip-flop my way to the outhouse, the crushing blackness overtakes me. It’s only a 20-foot walk, but the remoteness suddenly becomes very real. Except for my headlamp, there’s not a light. Except for my footfalls, there’s not a sound. For a quick moment, I imagine what it was like to be stationed here as a forest ranger in the 1920s. The thought—or maybe it’s the cool night air—sends a chill down my spine.

Back inside the cabin, my husband has the potbelly stove roaring. The heat has easily permeated the small, one-room log structure. He also has the blue, speckled-enamel kettle we found in the cabinet warming on the stove. Hot chocolate with marshmallows is our dessert after a dinner of canned beef stew over instant mashed potatoes.

We had hoped to be eating river trout for dinner. We fly-fished most of the afternoon, trolling the public sections of the Arkansas River for browns and rainbows. We got lines wet at the easy-to-access Granite State Wildlife Area Hardeman Parcel and at the Railroad Bridge Access, but we had the most luck at the Champion State Wildlife Area. (You can pick up a fisherman’s map at the South Park Ranger District in Fairplay.) Unfortunately, “luck” simply meant we got a few nibbles—nothing we could actually throw on the fire.

As I slowly stir my stew, I think about James Frame, the U.S. Forest Service ranger who lived in this cabin in the 1920s and ’30s. I doubt he had canned stew as a backup plan when the fish didn’t bite. According to the scrapbook we found in the cabin, Frame and his wife, Irene, spent their days doing what the Forest Service required them to do: learn intimately the geography and the natural resources they were responsible for protecting. And Frame did it in style: No matter what he was doing—felling trees, riding a horse, digging a ditch—he was nearly always pictured in a tailored vest and hat.

The next morning, we are not quite as sharply attired. Although the days are warm, the morning air is chilly, and we have on pilly fleeces and dirty jeans. We make a quick batch of pancakes—Bisquick’s Shake ’n Pour mix is a camping godsend—and, using water from the hand-pumped well, brew a steaming pot of camper’s coffee. As we warm ourselves around the fire pit, we take in the stand of fluttering aspens near the cabin, which are just starting to take on the yellow hues of autumn. Another few days and the meadow around the cabin will be awash in gold. But our two-night stay—a significantly shorter tenure than the Frames’ months-long residence—is at an end. We drink the last few sips of warmth from our mugs and begin loading the car.

If you go

Year built 1920

Sleeps 2 (room for tents outside)

Utilities No electricity or running water

Amenities Double bed (no linens or pillows), wood-burning stove, propane cooking stove, some pots, pans, and plates, indoor table and chairs, well-water pump, vaulted outhouse, outdoor picnic table, fire pit with grill rack

Around the Cabin The land surrounding Bassam Cabin is crisscrossed with county roads perfect for jeeping or four-wheeling. Take CR 187, 188, or 86 from just past the cabin and hold on for dear life.

Wildlife Deer, elk, bighorn sheep (pictured below), and wild turkey

Going to Town Salida is about an hour drive from the cabin; however, the “Best Chicken Strips Ever” at the Boathouse Cantina on North F Street are well worth the journey. Plus, if it’s warm outside, the eatery opens its garage doors, giving you an airy view of kayakers, boaters, and fishermen on the Arkansas River.

Directions to the Cabin From Denver, take U.S. 285 South toward Buena Vista. About seven miles beyond Antero Reservoir—just as you see the Collegiate Peaks ahead of you—turn left onto County Road 307. (There are two entrances to CR 307; either one will work.) Go 1.5 miles; turn south onto County Road 187. Go seven miles to Forest Road 186 (right fork). Then drive one mile to Forest Development Road 186A, turn left, and go 100 yards to the gate. When you make reservations for the cabin, the Salida Ranger District (719-539-3591) will give you the code to the lockbox.

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.

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.

Brewery Creek Guard Station

Rio Grande National Forest

I have a confession: I’m afraid of the dark. The sun sets, and I get twitchy. Call it the scary-movie curse—I’ve watched too many flicks where unsuspecting young women vanish from an otherwise lovely wooded area. Thus, camping, where the appeal lies in the isolation, has always presented a challenge for me. S’mores, I fully support. Bonfires? Count me in. Long hikes through the Rocky Mountains? Sign me up. But sleeping alone in a tent with just a thin sheet of fabric separating me from…who knows what? That’s simply not my thing.

So I was looking forward to the chance to go “camping” in a cabin, where I’d have six friends sleeping in the same room and four walls separating me from my somewhat irrational fears.

Following the directions we received from the ranger district, we drive along a dirt road for what seems like miles. There’s not a hint of civilization; not one other car passes us. Then we see our cabin: Brewery Creek Guard Station, a 76-year-old, clapboard-style structure resting below a hillside of pines and aspens. It’s, well, rustic.

Just two miles up the road from the guard station lies the ghost town of Bonanza, a mining outpost that boomed in the 1880s after silver ore was discovered. Saloons, dance halls, and a town baseball team sprang up, but just as quickly, the price of silver dropped, and the town began to empty. After a fire in 1937 destroyed 30 buildings, Bonanza was never rebuilt. Today, fewer than a dozen people make their homes within the old town limits. But the remnants of its heyday still exist, and you can visit them on the Bonanza Off-Highway Vehicle Tour—six routes that last from 45 minutes to two hours. All the self-guided trip requires is a high-clearance vehicle and a map picked up from the Saguache Ranger District (about 15 miles south of town).

The nearby Elkhorn Trail was also calling to me. A moderate 3.5-mile walk (up and back), Elkhorn affords stunning views of snow-covered Antora Peak, not to mention potential moose sightings. But we decide it’s too late to go gallivanting tonight. Tomorrow’s sunny forecast should offer plenty of daylight for playing. We set up camp at the outdoor picnic table, pop open beers—our homage to the once-active brewery outside Bonanza that is rumored to have supplied the old saloons and gave our cabin its name—and peer into the meadow to see if we can catch sight of beavers building dams.

As the sun begins to dip, we crowd inside the two-room cabin for a dinner of turkey fajitas cooked on the stove, and then hurry back outside to get the fire going before darkness descends. I head inside the cabin to turn on the heater. It’s the first time I’ve been alone all evening—and I find that my fear of the dark is holding in relative check. That’s when I hear it: a light tapping behind me. My heart speeds up. Tap. Tap. Tap. I turn wildly in circles and am ready to run outside when I see the culprit: a tiny mouse, scurrying through the cabin looking for warmth. I head back outside into the woods. In a surprising twist, the vast openness of the outdoors feels, for a moment, more secure than the four walls of a cabin. —Daliah Singer

If you go

Year built 1935

Sleeps 9

Utilities Propane lights, heater, refrigerator, and stove; no running water

Amenities Three bunk beds with mattresses (single on top, double on bottom—no linens), couch, table, chairs, pots and pans, cooking utensils, outdoor picnic table, vaulted outhouse, fire pit with grill rack, hand pump for water, barbecue

Around the Cabin The terrain surrounding the cabin is great for ATVing, but it’s fairly isolated. You’ll spend your time relaxing, enjoying stunning views of Antora Peak, and playing board games (Monopoly and Yahtzee, anyone?) stashed in the cabin.

Wildlife Elk, deer, and beavers

Going to Town The closest town is Villa Grove, which doesn’t have much in the way of amenities, but make sure to stop at the Villa Grove Trade for a lunch made with local products, from buffalo burgers to french fries.

Directions to the Cabin From Denver, take U.S. 285 South for about 160 miles. Just before you reach Villa Grove, take the Bonanza turnoff (a right turn onto County Road LL56). Drive approximately 13 miles west on a dirt road to the Brewery Creek sign and turn left, crossing a bridge. Drive another 1.5 miles until you reach a locked gate (you’ll have picked up the key in Villa Grove; call 719-655-2547 for more information). The cabin is a quarter mile from the gate, and you can drive right up to it—if there’s no snow.