Colorado escape: The backcountry hut trip.
Nestled into high meadows, perched along the Continental Divide, and tucked into stunning gulches, more than 40 Colorado backcountry huts beckon to those craving a rustic winter retreat. But to visit one of these jewels, you’ll have to earn it. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean you need to be an expert skier or an experienced backpacker: There are hut trips tailor-made for everyone from families with young kids to novice skiers to backcountry veterans. Prepare for a uniquely Colorado escape.
Background: Huts, Defined
Miles beyond the confines of ski resorts, backcountry huts pepper Colorado’s mountain terrain. Built in the tradition of European hut-to-hut skiing, some of these out-of-the-way locales (often open in the summer and winter) can be reached by car, while others require a daylong alpine tour. Plan your next adventure with one of the state’s three major hut systems.
1. 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, huts.org 2. San Juan Hut Systems, sanjuan
huts.com 3. Summit Huts Association, summithuts.org
We must have been quite the sight: four children under the age of six and four adults (one of whom was pregnant) tromping through the snow. Plus, with less than a mile between the car and our weekend home—Point Breeze Cabin, an easily accessible hut located nine miles northwest of Leadville—we hadn’t needed to pack light. There were coolers and sleds and packs weighed down with food and wine, as well as sleeping bags and multiple changes of clothes for the kids.
The November snowpack was negligible, so we trudged along in boots, thankful we didn’t have to break trail on snowshoes. The well-traveled path cut a narrow band over the frozen forest floor and through stands of pines. Just as the kids approached the “Are we there yet?” stage (one had taken up residence on a sled), we came upon a wooden bench. That solitary sign of civilization was enough to convince them to keep going. And then, suddenly, we were there. A spruce-log cabin with a big front porch came into view. It looked more like a cozy mountain cottage than a way station for the multitudes who use it as a one-night crash pad between epic ski days.
For groups like ours, Point Breeze is more of a home away from home; it’s also ideal for those who want an approachable first-time experience because getting there is, well, a breeze. There are no avalanche chutes to navigate, and there’s virtually no chance of getting lost. Plus, Leadville’s not too far away if you run out of provisions (like, ahem, booze) and need to make a supply trip.
As swift as the walk was, we were happy to unstrap our packs. We stocked the kitchen—and the chest refrigerator—until it was overflowing, uncorked the vino, and started a fire. (If no one has used the cabin for several days, expect the thermostat to hover near 50 degrees for a couple of hours.) Meanwhile, the kids romped in the snow, building a ramp for the sleds and patrolling the area for signs of deer, birds, and (they hoped) bears. Once the sun dropped below the horizon, we started the propane grill on the deck and sank into chairs around the woodburning stove inside. The kids colored and played games. After dinner, they bundled up and begged to go sledding. We spent the evening watching them trundle up and down their hand-patted sledding hill, long past all of our bedtimes. —Amanda M. Faison
IF YOU GO
Point Breeze Cabin
Setup: The single-story cabin sleeps eight with two private bedrooms (two twin beds in each) and four twin beds in the common area. There’s also a kitchen, dining room, living room, and attached outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: We weren’t left wanting for anything—there are even two playpens.
To-Do List: Cooking (the kitchen is well stocked); sledding; snowshoeing; hiking out
and buying a day pass at Ski Cooper.
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 195 (Copper Mountain/Leadville). Drive 22.5 miles south on Highway 91. Before you reach Leadville, take a sharp right onto Highway 24. Continue for about nine miles. The parking lot (on the left) is also the starting point for the Tennessee Pass trailhead.
Book It: $340/night (whole hut rentals only); 970-925-5775, huts.org
Darkness descended on us as the snowfall got heavier and piled up on my fleece-covered shoulders. In the shadows of the surrounding pine trees, miles from civilization, the lonely wilderness should’ve been beautiful, but I’d been skinning for more than 10 hours and was too exhausted to notice it. As I crested yet another hill, I finally saw what had been hidden from view at the bottom: the wooden beams of Eiseman Hut, lit up inside by the rest of our group, who’d arrived earlier. My relief was palpable.
Perhaps Eiseman wasn’t the smartest choice for my first true backcountry excursion. Since it was built in 1996, powder junkies have sought out the steep terrain and snow-filled couloirs easily accessible from the front door. I’d always been more of a resort skier—a solid intermediate. But the eight guys I was with (one of whom has led group tours up Mt. Rainier) were all avalanche-trained, advanced skiers and snowboarders, and they convinced my best friend and me that we had the mettle to reach the hut.
The day started off easy enough. We geared up with our alpine touring skis and set off on a cat track–like snowmobile path before cutting right a mile or so in to start our ascent. After hours of endless switchbacking up-up-up, I lost focus on being blissfully lost in the Colorado backcountry—because I realized we actually were lost, having gone about a mile out of our way before finding the correct trail again. (Perhaps we should have taken the other, slightly shorter route up Spraddle Creek Trail.) By the time we reached the hut, I had just enough energy to eat the spaghetti we cooked and down some Advil with snowmelt water we’d boiled. I soon passed out on a window seat, warmed by the wood-burning stove.
The next day, with avalanche danger high because of the still-falling snow, some of us stayed in, relishing the solitude, reading novels, and playing cards. Others—armed with shovels, beacons, and probes—were rewarded with thigh-deep powder on a steep face a short hike from the cabin.
Our route home took us down a powder-filled slope (comparable to a black diamond run) followed by an easy downhill skinning section and a difficult tree portion before we reached the snowmobile track we’d started out on. I put down my pack and thought about what I’d learned over the previous 48 hours. First, I discovered that getting up after falling with a 20-pound pack on is no easy feat without a helping hand to pull you back up. Second, I realized I did in fact have the grit necessary to reach Eiseman. And finally, I learned that in the future I would opt for an easier (read: shorter)hut trip. But as I rested on the snow for a moment, pack on the ground, I also knew there would definitely be a next time—Colorado’s backcountry being too alluring to ignore. Sitting there, I let the contentedness wash over me and finally saw the beauty of my surroundings. —Daliah Singer
IF YOU GO
Setup: The cabin sleeps 16. There is a communal sleeping area with 12 single beds; two private bedrooms with double beds; a small loft; and a large living area, kitchen, dining room, mudroom, and outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Waterproof hut slippers, oil for cooking, hand sanitizer, and
To-Do List: Alpine touring; backcountry skiing and snowboarding; snowmobiling (the vehicles are not allowed within five miles of the hut).
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 176 (Vail). At the roundabout, follow North Frontage Road (the sign also says “West Vail”). Continue on the road as it switchbacks up the hill until you reach Red Sandstone Creek trailhead. You can park one mile before the trailhead in a parking area.
Book It: $33/person/night; 970-925-5775, huts.org
I’ve been spoiled by the deluxe huts of the Alps, where multicourse meals and fine wine await even if you have to jump crevasses and scale ladders to reach the dinner table. By comparison, the typical Colorado ski hut can seem a bit…rustic. Yet when two friends and I skied up to the two-year-old OPUS (Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski) Hut deep in the rugged San Juan Mountains in early April, our packs were the lightest we’d ever carried this side of the Atlantic. That’s because OPUS owner Bob Kingsley has imported European amenities to the hut he built half a mile east of Ophir Pass.
When we arrived after several hours of easy skinning, Kingsley greeted us at the door and pointed out hut slippers, indoor bathrooms with running water, and cozy bunkrooms, then ushered us into the dining room for homemade barley soup—much-needed warmth and carbs after the chilly ski in. This hotel in the woods even comes with warm blankets and pillows so you don’t need to lug in a sleeping bag. For an extra charge, Kingsley and his staff will prepare your meals, including bread baked in the wood cookstove (with a full-size oven), a hearty dinner, and a full breakfast with brewed coffee. All the fuel you need to pack is lunch fare and cocktails. (You can opt to cook your own meals, but your pack will be that much heavier.)
Despite a relatively short, 3.5-mile approach, OPUS’ location at 11,765 feet is higher than most Colorado huts. What that means for outdoor enthusiasts: out-the-door access to terrain most skiers can reach only by helicopter. My crew still had some energy after our midday bowl of soup, so we headed out for late-afternoon turns on Piper Charlie, a broad chute directly above the hut. The next day, Kingsley guided us to a 1,600-foot drop into Paradise Valley (equivalent to an easier black diamond run), and then we toured up the valley to frozen tarns glistening below 13,380-foot South Lookout Peak. New snow had begun falling, and by that afternoon several inches had built the base for a creamy powder run behind the hut.
Since OPUS opened in 2011, February has been the busiest month, but Kingsley says the best skiing is often found in April, when snow stability improves and sunny slopes yield harvests of fun-to-schuss corn. We didn’t get any kernels, but by day three the storm had dropped more than eight inches of snow, and Kingsley led us to one more steep stash before we had to pick up our featherweight packs and glide back out to the car. —Dougald MacDonald
IF YOU GO
Setup: OPUS sleeps 16. There is a dining room and two indoor bathrooms on the main floor; two private (three-bunk) bedrooms downstairs; and two five-bunk bedrooms upstairs.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Sheets or sleeping bag liners for bunks and a bathing suit for the sauna.
To-Do List: Seeking out the best—and safest—backcountry powder stashes (we recommend guided tours from Bob Kingsley, at $150–$325 per person depending on group size).
Getting There: You can approach OPUS from the west (Ophir/Telluride) or east (Ouray/Silverton); most Front Rangers choose the latter because it’s 45 minutes closer to home. Take U.S. 285 south to U.S. 50 west to Montrose, then head south on Highway 550. The trailhead is about halfway between Red Mountain Pass and Silverton, at the start of Ophir Pass Road.
Book It: $35/person/night (private rooms vary), $35/person/day
for meals; 970-708-0092, opushut.com
It had been years since I thought about my childhood days at summer camp, when I played games late into the night and laughed under the covers to avoid being shushed by counselors. At the Blue Lakes Hut, one of five small cabins operated by the San Juan Huts system in the winter, stretched along the northern flanks of the Sneffels Range, those memories came back to life. When we arrived, my four ski companions—all veteran 10th Mountain hut-goers—were underwhelmed by the 256-square-foot bedroom-in-the-kitchen quarters. There’s no fancy sauna here. “There’s not even a table!” one friend exclaimed as we opened the door after a gentle ski-and-skin approach following a broad snow-covered road up the East Fork of Dallas Creek. The vibe of the San Juan Huts system is more log cabin than luxury lodge, but over two nights, the small building’s charm grew on us. The wood stove quickly heated the intimate space, we had the hut to ourselves (highly recommended), and we reverted to that summers-away-from-home state of mind as we laughed uproariously at bad jokes, acted out charades, and played Dudo (a Latin American dice game) long into the night.
The relatively low elevation of the cabin—tucked into aspens at 9,430 feet—not only makes it easy to access and free from avalanche danger on the approach, but it also leads to comfortable nights in comparatively oxygen-rich air. That may not sound like a huge deal—until you wake up ready to play rather than wanting to take a nap due to elevation-induced sleep apnea.
In the morning, we skinned about 1,800 feet up gentle logging roads to a shoulder of a hill nicknamed Little Matterhorn and then raced each other back to the hut, swerving off the road to carve arcs through deeper drifts. The following day, we ski-toured toward the Blue Lakes for which the hut is named, crossing a broad meadow under the craggy west face of Mt. Sneffels. Here we found all the splendor the hut lacked: blue sky, black rock, white snow, green firs, and silvery aspen—the full Colorado color wheel. —DM
IF YOU GO
Blue Lakes Hut
Setup: The one-room, eight-bunk cabin has a small kitchen and an outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Waterproof hut slippers, pajamas, star chart, earplugs (so you don’t hear your neighbors’ snoring).
To-Do List: Alpine touring; snowshoeing; sledding; cross-country skiing (create a three-day hut-jumping tour by skiing 7.2 miles west to the North Pole Hut, spending the night there, and then heading out via the West Fork of Dallas Creek—a short car shuttle is required)
Getting There: Take U.S. 285 south to U.S. 50 west to Montrose. Then take U.S. 550 south to Ridgway. Drive four miles west past town to CR 7. Turn left; you’ll see the trailhead at the end of the plowed road, which is where you’ll park.
Book It: $30/person/night ($240/night for the whole cabin); 970-626-3033, sanjuanhuts.com
The sun is hot for a late January day, and I find myself de-layering less than a mile into my hike to Janet’s Cabin, a rough-hewn jewel that’s nestled at timberline on the east side of the Continental Divide. I’ve never journeyed into the backcountry during the winter until today. The excursion is a birthday present to myself—one I hope my 34-year-old body can handle. The 0.6-mile, 800-vertical-feet hike up the edge of Copper Mountain Resort to reach the backcountry gate (and the start of the real haul) is serious exercise—especially with a 25-pound pack—but my hiking companion and I fare well on our snowshoes once we head beyond the resort. The easy-to-follow, snowshoe-trodden trail, which rolls through frosted pine forests before making a gentle ascent up the Guller Creek Drainage, feels like a solid but not unmanageable workout during the first four miles. The final mile—the beginning of which is marked by a blue, diamond-shaped sign with a black hut on it—is a StairMaster-style slog that leaves us begging for trail’s end.
Upon reaching the hut—a 3,000-square-foot log cabin named in honor of Janet Boyd Tyler, an avid skier and early supporter of Colorado’s ski industry—we throw down our gear and pull up a seat on the front deck to drink in views of the bowls and the ridgeline that tower above. The season’s snowfall has been meager, but there is still enough fluff for off-piste turns. We’re not here to ski, but more than half of our 18 hut-mates are. Others are planning to snowshoe, while some are here simply to enjoy a good book, a cup of cocoa, and no cell service.
We may all have different recreational plans during daylight hours, but after everyone settles in for the evening, 20 strangers morph into one huddled mass that melts snow for water, cooks dinner, cleans up, drinks boxed wine, and, finally, unwinds in the fresh mountain air. The ambience is part sleepaway camp, part freshman dormitory—surfaces are a little grimy, furniture is well-worn, and people whoop and holler walking through the falling snow to the wood-burning sauna. It’s familiar, casual, and completely charming. For a 34th birthday party, it’s ideal—not just because I feel like I checked off a bucket-list item, but also because I burned enough calories to thoroughly enjoy the chocolate-dipped cookies (5.29 ounces of delicious extra weight!) I hauled with me to mark the occasion. —Lindsey B. Koehler
IF YOU GO
Setup: The cabin sleeps 20; there is a living area and a kitchen on the main floor and four bunk rooms upstairs.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Water filter, pillowcase, and a swimsuit for the wood-burning sauna
To-Do List: Snowshoeing; backcountry skiing; ski touring for all ability levels.
Getting There: Take I-70 west to Exit 195. Turn into Copper Mountain Resort’s main entrance and make your first left into the north end of Alpine Lot. Park near the Transportation Center in spaces designated for Janet’s Cabin. Place your parking permit (which will be emailed to you upon reservation) on your dashboard. Take the free shuttle to Union Creek. Snowshoers: Trek up the extreme west (right) side of Roundabout ski run and then up the extreme west (right) side of West Tenmile ski run until you reach a backcountry gate. (It’s not well-marked, but you’ll see it.) This is the start of the trail to the cabin. Skiers: Take the same route as those who are snowshoeing or present your cabin reservation letter to the lift ticket office for a free, one-time ticket good for the K and L lifts. Ride them up to the top of West Tenmile ski run, and cruise down the extreme west (left) side of the slope until you reach the gate.
Book It: $35/person/night; 970-925-5775, huts.org
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
IF YOU GO
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
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
IF YOU GO
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
The formidable san juan backcountry typically calls out to hard-core beyond-the-ropes explorers—which is to say I figured the terrain around the picturesque Aladdin’s Lamp Hut outside Silverton was just a bit out of my league. I became so nervous as we rented our avalanche safety gear that we opted for snowshoes over a skis-and-skins setup for the weekend.
The last leg of the drive to Silverton over Red Mountain Pass, with hairpin turns minus guardrails, made me squeamish, but the majestic scenery was well worth it. The drive, it turned out, was the most challenging part of reaching the hut. Not 200 yards from the roadside gate, the wood cabin appeared against the spruce trees with Grand Turk looming in the distance.
Frequent snowfall and several feet of snow buildup make snowshoes a required accessory to avoid tiring and dangerous postholing, in which legs can sink thigh-level into the snow. Still, our group of four congratulated itself on choosing a cabin with a trek conducive to lugging along a full case of beer. (A second high five–worthy decision from a duo who arrived later: piling a sled with supplies to lessen the carrying load.)
The private hut, named after the 1880s-era Aladdin’s Lamp mining claim on the same land, was built in 1996 as a yoga retreat. Current owner Kennan Harvey purchased the cabin three years ago; to make it available for rent (and to remove it from Bureau of Land Management property), he hooked up a bulldozer and dragged the entire structure 50 feet downhill.
First on the agenda after claiming our bunks and building a fire: hitting the billowy snow in front of the hut with the plastic toboggans we pulled off the porch. Our sledding luge was good for the kind of spectacular snowbank wipeouts and gut-busting laughs that bring you right back to childhood. Only when the last vestiges of daylight retreated did we trudge inside. Our snowshoes came in handy the next morning when we headed out to the groomed trails across U.S. 550 for a one-mile hike. For a moment I felt a twinge of regret at leaving my skis behind: From the cabin, there was plenty of low-angle backcountry terrain to explore. (Experts can block off six to eight hours to skin up Grand Turk, ski north off the back side, climb the south side of the Sultan, and ski a 4,500-foot vertical shot down to the highway, where they’ll need to leave a car.) But avalanche conditions were risky, and my regret dissipated by the time we kicked off our snowshoes for another round of big-air sledding. —Julie Dugdale
IF YOU GO
Aladdin’s Lamp Hut
Setup: The two-story hut sleeps eight and has a kitchen, common area, and attached outhouse.
Hut-Specific Pack List: Paper towels, board games
To-Do List: Alpine touring; cross-country skiing; snowshoeing; snowmobile tours (try the Silverton Snowmobile Club); cat skiing (check out Silverton Powdercats); for non-thrill- seekers, visiting the Montanya Distillers Tasting Room in Silverton.
Getting there: Take U.S. 285 south about 124 miles toward Fairplay and turn right onto U.S. 50 west to Montrose. After 123 miles, go 0.8 miles on East Main Street, then turn left onto U.S. 550/South Townsend Avenue. Follow U.S. 550 about 60 miles through Silverton to a pull-off on the right about four miles past town, where a gate marks the trail. If snow makes it impossible to park, turn around and drive back a quarter-mile for additional plowed parking.
Book It: $150/weeknight, $175/weekend night, $700 weekly (two-night minimum Friday–Saturday, whole hut rentals only); 970-382-9570, silvertonskihut.com
Pack It In
Always check the detailed list (usually available online) for your specific hut, but typically you should bring the following items:
• Sleeping bag
• Food (include some that you don’t need to cook)
• Water-filtration system
• Headlamp and extra batteries
• Topographic maps
• Avalanche safety gear
• First-aid kit
• Pocket knife
• Sunglasses and goggles
• Clothing (layer-ables, socks, jacket, ski clothes, pajamas)
• Hygiene items
• Duct tape
Hut system cabins generally come equipped with:
• Wood- or propane-burning stoves
• Chopped wood
• Cooking and eating utensils
• Cleaning supplies
• Toilet paper
How to prep for the backcountry.
Many backcountry mountain huts are located near avalanche terrain. Even if the cabin stands a mere half-mile from the road, getting there may put you in the danger zone. Fifty-eight avalanche fatalities have occurred in this country over the past two years—18 of them in Colorado. Any foray outside the boundaries should be undertaken with the appropriate safety equipment, including a beacon, shovel, and probe. Backcountry travelers should also have enough knowledge to identify avalanche risk, make decisions about terrain and routes, and properly use the equipment. Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), offers his top three avalanche awareness tips.
Study the conditions: Besides a general weather forecast, you should know the danger level (low through extreme) for your terrain and be aware of any avalanche warnings issued. Find this and other information at CAIC’s website, colorado.gov/avalanche.
Get educated: Providers around the state (we like Aspen Expeditions and Colorado Mountain School) offer varying levels of avalanche awareness courses. Check CAIC or the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) for class listings that include AIARE 1 (three-day introduction) and AIARE 2 (four-day advanced) courses. Or, visit the Forest Service National Avalanche Center (fsavalanche.com) for a basic online tutorial.
Have proper gear: It can save your life.
1. Confluence Kayaks, 2373 15th St., 303-433-3676, confluencekayaks.com
2. Bent Gate Mountaineering, 1313 Washington Ave., Golden, 303-271-9382, bentgate.com
3. Neptune Mountaineering, 633 S. Broadway, Boulder, 303-499-8866,neptunemountaineering.com
Just because you’re cooking on a wood stove doesn’t mean you can’t eat (and drink!) well. Here, four simple but tasty ideas.
Green Curry With Chicken
(Serves 6; best on first night of trip)
2 14-ounce cans coconut milk
2/₃ cup vegetable or chicken stock (can substitute water)
4–6 tablespoons Thai Kitchen green curry paste (use to taste)
3–4 tablespoons fish sauce (can substitute packets of
2 pounds boneless chicken breast, cubed
3–4 cups vegetables (eggplant, zucchini, red peppers, broccoli, etc.), peeled and chopped
Instant jasmine rice (follow serving sizes and directions on packaging)
Fresh cilantro or basil
Simmer coconut milk, stock, curry paste, and fish sauce for 15 minutes. Add chicken and vegetables. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes (until chicken is fully cooked). Serve over cooked rice and garnish with cilantro or basil.
Jon Krakauer’s Hut-Trip Margaritas
Jon Krakauer, one of Colorado’s most famous authors and a backcountry veteran, swears by this recipe for hut-trip imbibing. His expert tip: Double the recipe.
750 milliliters Patrón Silver tequila
375 milliliters Cointreau
24 fluid ounces frozen
limeade (2 cans)
Juice from 4 limes
Before departing, mix tequila, Cointreau, limeade, and freshly squeezed lime juice together in a Nalgene bottle. At the hut, slice the kumquats into wedges, then smear the rims of cups with kumquat juice and encrust with rock salt. Add a large dollop of snow to each cup (or crush icicles from the roof of the hut), fill with margarita blend from Nalgene, drop in a kumquat garnish, and enjoy.
At home: Scramble enough eggs, with bacon or sausage and chopped potatoes, onions, and red bell peppers, to fill six burritos. Mix and drain thoroughly. Roll all ingredients together in large flour tortillas, and wrap each burrito tightly in aluminum foil. Transport in a zip-sealed plastic bag. Reheat burritos on stove in the hut. Serve topped with salsa.
Lemon-Brined Smoked Chickens
2½ quarts water
¾ cup kosher salt
¾ cup fresh lemon juice
(from about 4 lemons)
2 tablespoons hot sauce (try Frank’s RedHot)
2 teaspoons black pepper, freshly ground
2 teaspoons poultry seasoning
2 4-pound chickens, backbones removed and chickens split through the breast*
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons Paprika-Ancho Spice Rub (see recipe below)
*Tip: Ask your butcher to remove the backbones and split the chickens in half.
Paprika-Ancho Spice Rub
/₃ cup light brown sugar
¼ cup sweet paprika
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon ancho chile powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1½ teaspoons ground allspice
1½ teaspoons cayenne pepper
1½ teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon cinnamon
In a bowl, stir the spice rub ingredients together. Prepare the chicken before you leave for the hut. In a saucepan, combine water, salt, lemon juice, hot sauce, pepper, and poultry seasoning and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Let cool to room temperature. Put two chicken halves each in one-gallon resealable plastic bags. Pour half of the brine into each bag, seal, and refrigerate for eight hours.
At the hut, drain the chickens and pat dry. Sprinkle all over with the Paprika-Ancho Spice Rub, massaging it into the meat. Arrange the chickens skin side down on the grill over a drip pan. Cover and cook for about one hour at 250 degrees, rotating them a few times, until the skin is crisp. Turn the chickens skin side up and continue to cook for about 1.5 hours longer, rotating them a few times, until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the inner thigh registers 165 degrees. Monitor the grill and add more lit coals and water to the drip pan as needed to maintain the temperature and smoke level. Let the chickens rest, then serve.
Lemon-Brined Smoked Chicken recipe from Food & Wine (foodandwine.com/recipes/lemon-brined-smoked-chickens)