By Molly Blake, Kati Blocker and Katie McCrimmon
Love the idea of enjoying a great day of backcountry skiing, then nestling in a cozy hut overnight?
Or perhaps you prefer exploring the Colorado mountains in the summer. If you’re up for a beautiful hike, but would enjoy sleeping with a rustic roof over your head rather than carrying a tent, then a Colorado hut trip might be a great option for you.
Among backcountry huts in Colorado, the most famous are the 10th Mountain Division huts near Vail, Leadville and Aspen. These huts celebrate the history of the legendary 10th Mountain Division troops, heroic backcountry skiers and mountaineers who trained in Colorado near Tennessee Pass at Camp Hale, then fought in Italy during World War II. Learn more about the 10th Mountain Division through the Denver Public Library’s archives. Or visit the Colorado Snowsports Museum in Vail, which has an exhibit dedicated to the “ski troops,” as the remarkable soldiers with the 10th Mountain Division were known.
Along with the 10th Mountain Division huts, many other options for hut trips abound. The Colorado Hut and Yurt Alliance provides a list of backcountry choices from privately owned huts and yurts to old forest service ranger stations and spans both sides of the Continental Divide from the San Isabel National Forest to the San Juan Mountains. You can make in-and-out trips or plan extended hut-to-hut excursions.
Most huts in Colorado are remote and a haven for those who treasure Colorado’s natural beauty and serenity. The history behind each hut and its visitors is literally scrawled on the pages of paper logbooks with entries that go back many years.
Most 10th Mountain Division huts can accommodate 16 to 20 guests. Prior to the pandemic, small groups and singles could book reservations, but each hut currently is limited to a single group. Stay tuned for COVID-19 health and safety policies that may evolve.
Before you venture out on a hut trip, it’s absolutely essential to respect the serenity of Colorado’s wild places. No motorized vehicles like snowmobiles are allowed. And backcountry skiers and hikers must be experienced enough to keep themselves and everyone in their party safe. Avalanches are common in Colorado’s backcountry during the winter. Summer hikers can also face emergencies if they’re not prepared. Hut users who have to be rescued could face thousands of dollars in costs unless they contribute in advance of their trips to rescue funds.
Review an excellent list of answers to many questions about hut trips in Colorado. We’ll go over the basics to get you started.
Getting a reservation for your hut trip
Once you’ve decided to explore huts in Colorado, appoint a leader to wrangle the logistics. Then start considering which hut to visit. This decision likely will be based on your group’s ability to handle the trek in and out of the hut. For instance, snowshoeing a little under three miles to Jay’s Hut at The Shrine Mountain Inn is a far different experience than skinning uphill almost 10 miles to Peter Estin’s hut.
Backcountry skiing and hiking at high elevations can be challenging. Be aware of the potential for altitude sickness and dehydration. Every member of the party should have at least intermediate-level skiing skills, and at least one person should have avalanche awareness and first aid skills. Mountain huts in Colorado are not for everyone.
For the 10th Mountain Division huts, a lottery system opens for members starting March 1 of every year. Non-members can apply for a few hut permits starting May 1, and the rest open on June 1. You can see what huts are available on the division’s website.
Another strategy is to wait for a cancellation and be ready to jump on an open date. Cancellations are fairly common, so check the website regularly.
Meal planning for your Colorado hut adventure
Once your dates are locked in, the meal-planning fun begins.
The goal is to make the most out of your meals while keeping your pack weight in mind. Assign each person a meal or plan a chili cookoff, pasta or burrito bar. (Tip: cook the chili or pasta the day before and pack it in a Ziploc bag.) S’mores for dessert are a no-brainer. For breakfast, consider oatmeal with fruit, scrambled eggs or pancakes: wholesome meals that will kickstart your day. Don’t forget coffee, tea or hot chocolate.
Most huts in Colorado are well equipped with pots, pans, utensils, toilet paper, wood-burning stoves, firewood, kindling, matches and propane burners for cooking. Check your specific hut for details so you’ll be sure to be prepared. A few choice huts have plumbing, running water and even a sauna here and there, but most have only outhouses and are heated via wood stoves. In the winter, plan to boil snow and treat your melted water for all your cooking, cleaning and drinking needs.
Hitting the trail to your Colorado ski hut
If you’re skiing or hiking with a heavy pack, brace yourself. Your first few steps on the trail or tracks in the snow could be a little shaky. But soon, your arms will be in sync with your skis or your hiking pace, and you’ll be on your way to a memorable mountain trek. The quiet of birds singing in the summer or your skis schussing on Colorado powder as you float along trails are absolutely mesmerizing. Before you know it, thanks to the rhythmic motions, you will have swallowed up a few miles.
You may tend to keep your eyes on the path in front of you, so be sure to stop for water breaks and enjoy the scenery. There’s nothing quite like being with friends or family in the mountains under a bluebird sky.
Once you’re at your hut, you’ll be greeted with many rewards: gorgeous mountain views and access to backcountry skiing on unspoiled powder literally out the door of your hut. After arriving and ditching your pack, take your safety gear and hike to nearby pristine snowfields. The farther up you go, the more worthwhile turns you’ll earn. If you’re an early riser, skin up and catch the sunrise.
The terrain varies, of course, depending on which location you choose, but it’s critical for hut users to pay close attention to weather forecasts and always check avalanche conditions from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
There are lots of blogs and trip reports from past hut visitors that give tips and GPS coordinates for the best backcountry ski runs in the area. Your choices for your day-to-day adventures depend on the snow conditions and your skiing/riding and backcountry safety skills.
Must have safety gear for hut travel
- Paper topographic maps. Plan on not having any cell service for the trip.
- A compass.
- Avalanche transceiver, shovel and snow probe.
- Duct tape and an all-purpose tool and knife.
- Headlamp and carabiners.
Before you begin your Colorado hut adventure
- Check the weather forecast. If there’s snow on the ground, you can melt snow for water. If not, water will be a key item to pack.
- Layer your clothing. Whether you are hiking, skinning or snowshoeing, you’ll work up a sweat quickly. Even in the summertime, thunderstorms can move in quickly, and the weather can change dramatically from hour to hour.
- Pack hut slippers, sleeping bags, toiletries, food, a first aid kit, Band-Aids for blisters, a lightweight water bottle, snacks and hand warmers.
Before you leave for your hut
- Review the cleaning and check-out list carefully. Clean up the hut so the next group can enjoy it in pristine condition.
- Make sure any fires are completely out, and ashes have been properly disposed of in ash containers. You absolutely do not want to be responsible for burning down a hut or starting a wildfire.
- Do not leave trash or food behind.
To ensure these rugged gems are here for many more years, visitors must remember there’s no maid service to clean the floors or wipe down counters. A maintenance crew doesn’t show up to clear off the deck or steps. Hut visitors can expect to spend time shoveling off snow-laden decks in the winter, and old-school dish duty is absolutely part of the experience.
In addition to the 10th Mountain Division Huts, learn more about other Colorado hut systems: