Hut to Hut skiing

Hike, Hike, Hut!

Colorado’s mountain hut adventures.

By Ted Alan Stedman // Photography by Casey Day

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Colorado’s mountain huts make backcountry adventures accessible—and surprisingly comfortable—year-round.

Sipping coffee on the sunny deck of our backcountry yurt, we first saw the antlers poking from tall sedges framing the boggy meadow. Then she came into view—a cow moose along with her calf, foraging on summer’s outdoor buffet. After they wandered out of sight, we smiled at the Animal Planet encounter that came courtesy of our wild but cozy perch, high in the northern Colorado Rockies. My girlfriend and I had reserved the Lower Montgomery yurt weeks earlier and hiked three miles the previous day to reach it. We enjoyed an evening of solitude, a gourmet camp dinner prepared in the fully equipped kitchen and a restful night on a comfy bed before waking with the sun and wildlife.

hut 10th mtn

10th Mountain Division

Venturing into Colorado’s mountains to visit huts is an enchanting, multifaceted experience drawing solitude-seekers, nature-lovers and adrenaline junkies year-round. Colorado has more than 60 backcountry shelters for rent, including the Never Summer Nordic yurts where we stayed, as well as the Summit, 10th Mountain Division, San Juan and other hut systems scattered throughout the state. Visits take planning, reservations, the right gear and varying degrees of stamina.

Huts can be as diverse as the visitors themselves, ranging from well-built cabins to modern but remote yurts to modified hunting shelters located within a couple miles (or less) of a trailhead or many miles from civilization. Roughly three-quarters of hut visits occur from December through March, inspired by the prospect of snowshoeing and backcountry skiing on virgin powder. In winter, they’re a great escape from the chaos of the holidays, delivering quality family time free of cell phones, TVs, Internet and other modern distractions.

Dancing Moose Yurt

Dancing Moose Yurt

But summertime visits are on the rise for visitors who hike, mountain bike, fish, scramble peaks, photograph nature and appreciate the extreme green of the Colorado high country. Summer access can put visitors closer to the huts; a few are in drive-to locations using a high-clearance vehicle,  though snow-smothered Forest Service roads are often impassable well into August. Winter access, naturally, is more difficult. Snowplowed trailhead parking is the norm, as are longer, more difficult approaches.

Year-round, the joys are simple and well-earned: arriving at a hut under your own steam, enjoying the camaraderie of friends and hut mates, soaking in magnificent alpine views, preparing hearty meals and sleeping in a snug bed far from the commotion of resorts, hotels and RV campgrounds. Plus, huts are a step up the luxury scale from a nylon tent and foam sleeping pad.

The hut concept in Colorado traces back to Rocky Mountain National Park, where the opening of Fern Lake Lodge in 1916 marked the beginning of what would become the nation’s most extensive collection of backcountry huts open to the public. Over time, a hodgepodge of rickety mining and shepherd’s cabins throughout the high country were converted into rustic huts and hut systems, most notably the famed 10th Mountain Division Hut Association system, which honors the 10th Mountain Division ski soldiers who trained in Colorado and fought in the Alps during World War II. With some 31 huts and cabins laced by a 350-mile network of interconnected trails—many intended for multi-day hut-to-hut traverses—the nonprofit system is the state’s largest. There are also scores of privately owned huts available for reservation summer and winter.

Some backcountry winter hut travel demands superior fitness and above-average skills. Many of Colorado’s huts sit above 11,000 feet, are pummeled by Arctic-like winds and require approaches of more than 10 miles (one way) and several thousand feet of climbing. Route finding is often challenging. Shorter daylight hours compress your travel schedule, and temperatures can be subzero. But gentler experiences are available for newcomers with average fitness levels who have basic experience on cross-country touring skis and snowshoes. In fact, some huts, like Dancing Moose Yurt (trail length: .25 miles) northwest of Estes Park and Shrine Mountain Inn (2.75 miles) on Vail Pass, are beginner-friendly, easily reached and pose relatively low avalanche danger while on trail.

In summer, it’s easier to navigate to huts, which are located along well-worn, marked trails that get shrouded by snow in winter. Of course summer brings afternoon thundershowers, mosquitoes and hot, thirsty hikes at high altitudes. Virtually all huts for reservation post detailed route descriptions and maps online and clearly describe the required experience level. Research your route in advance, memorize the major terrain features you’ll encounter, and know how to identify your location at all times with a topo map and GPS.

Harry Gates hut

Harry Gates hut

Hut websites give the full rundown of individual huts, reservation calendars and availability; most allow online reservations while some require old-fashioned phone calls. Reserve your hut months in advance, especially if your adventure includes linking several huts on a single tour. Huts are usually reserved by groups of four to 16 individuals each, and occasionally spots are available for one or two soloists. Some huts in the 10th Mountain and Alfred A. Braun systems have capacities to sleep more than 20, and it’s common for two or more groups to share a single hut—an invitation to socialize that you can’t refuse. The larger huts have separated bunkrooms that sleep four or more, so there is some degree of privacy (note: bring earplugs, snorers are inevitable). Given the preparation and effort it takes to visit huts, quite a few groups linger, stretching their stays to three or more days to allow plenty of out-the-door playtime.

If the group dynamic sounds too communal, know that there are smaller, first-come, first-served huts such as the Arestua Hut (operated by the Colorado Mountain Club) and the Tennessee Mountain Hut, close to the Eldora ski area above Boulder. Other independently owned huts include the four yurt-style structures in the Hinsdale Haute Route near Lake City and the Never Summer Nordic Yurts in northern Colorado.

Being in the backcountry means no plumbing. Although a handful of cabins feature indoor composting toilets, the vast majority rely on nearby vault toilets (a.k.a. “outhouses”)—a small sacrifice when visiting the Colorado backcountry.

Because the huts are well-equipped with basic modern amenities, you don’t need to pack in cookware, utensils, fuel stoves, lights or sleeping pads. Summer visitors have lighter pack loads (minus skis, snowshoes, winter-rated clothing and heftier sleeping bags). You need only to carry the water needed for the trek in—you can melt snow or purify stream water on the stove. You’ll need season-rated outdoor apparel, a sleeping bag, your personal items (don’t forget toilet paper), emergency gear, food and beverages. With some good pre-trip culinary preparation (visit optimumwellnessmagazine. com for tips) you’ll be amazed at how a propane- or wood-stove-cooked meal can taste like a five-star feast. And nothing beats steaming coffee or tea on the outside deck in the morning. Keep your eyes peeled. If you’re lucky like we were, you might get some furry morning visitors.

Find your hut.

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