Utterly unlike camping and walking in the woods, your first backcountry hike and hut experience is an initiation into the soul of the high mountains. There’s the thrilling sensation of your heart pounding in your ears as you struggle to climb ever-upward at 9,000’ of elevation in the Colorado Rockies; the electrifying possibility of crossing the path of a coyote, bear or elk. Your calves burn, your head thumps, your breath is labored–but there is no doubt that you feel deeply alive and maybe even fit.
A hut trip is about the rituals of the mountains – the measured beat of your boots on the trail, swapping stories with other hikers, firing up the wood-burning stove in the hut, and pulling out the Godiva chocolates.
One August my 17-year-old daughter and I spent a week in sunny Colorado hiking to the mountain huts between Aspen and Vail. Since we live at sea level, and Aspen is located at 9,000’, we stayed for three days in Aspen to acclimate to the elevation. Our home base was the elegant St. Regis Hotel. The second day, after a vigorous jog, I felt the effects of the altitude, so I booked a treatment at the Remede Spa. The deep tissue sports massage, with hot paraffin packs on my calves and lower back, revived me. I capped off my recovery with a half hour in the oxygen bar – a luxuriously appointed, quiet room with lounge chairs and breathing apparatus imparting orange-scented oxygen.
On the third day we stuffed our backpacks and headed for the trailhead with Scott, our guide from Aspen Alpine Guides. We opted for a guide because we only had three days of hiking time and organizing a car shuttle to the trail heads was complicated. Scott, an experienced guide and member of the Mountain Rescue Team, knew the area well. With him, we didn’t have to worry about topographical maps, route-finding skills, preparing menus, packing food, or navigating our way to the hut. We did carry our own clothing, storm or cold weather gear, our toiletries, books, our share of the dinner food, lunches and lots of water.
For five hours we hiked seven challenging miles up Lenado Trail, with an elevation gain of 3,000’, through aspen groves, thick fir and spruce forests. Mid-afternoon we left the forests and hiked through alpine meadows choked with pink fireweed, purple lupines, yellow asters, mountain gentians, wild geraniums, and red and orange Indian paintbrush to reach Margy’s Hut, located at 11,300’ on the edge of the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness Area.
In the summer you may be the only guests, but in the winter the huts are full with cross-country skiers. We stayed at Margy’s Hut for three days, hiking up Mt. Yeckel, through meadows and forests, photographing wildflowers, telling stories, breathing in silence and solitude and reading nature philosophy from the hut’s library books by Emerson, Thoreau, John Muir and Aldo Leopold.
Mountaineers agree that Margy’s Hut occupies one of the loveliest sites in Colorado. The hut has all the qualities that make summer hiking, mountain biking or winter cross-country skiing hut-to-hut a special experience. It can be reached by several intermediate-rated routes. You can telemark ski directly below the front porch. The hut overlooks the Williams, Sawatch and Elk Mountains.
Reading on the wooden porch, I glanced up from my book to take in the view of dozens of peaks over 10,000’, snow-covered ridges and slopes shining with purple mineral streaked rocks. Miles of undulating, soft forests, in healing, soothing green descended below me. My daughter read nearby. We were comfortable being together, being silent, and just being. The soul craves the silence and solitude of nature’s hand.
What’s a hut like?
Imagine Heidi’s log cabin in the Alps and add a wide porch, picnic tables in the main dining room, a bunk room, a loft with more beds, lots of big windows, fluffy pillows on window seats, puzzles, games, books, and a huge, well-equipped kitchen with an iron wood-burning stove for heat and cooking. They’re cozy and comfortable with a dash of charm. Hut food depends upon what you carry in and cook. One evening we had pasta with smoked salmon, pine nuts, sun dried tomatoes and fresh vegetables.
The huts were built for use by backcountry skiers modeled after the Haute Route system between Chamonix, France and Zermatt, Switzerland. The goal is to provide a safe summer and winter wilderness experience at affordable prices, ($28.00 per person/per night). The huts are located between 9,700’ and 11,700’ in the central Colorado Rockies. Each hut includes a living and dining area heated by wood burning stoves; all wood is pre-cut and ready for use. Kitchens are equipped with propane burners and a wood burning cook stove plus utensils for cooking and eating. There is sleeping space for 16 people divided among several rooms. Outhouses are adjacent to each hut.
Who shares a hut with you? The majority of the outdoor enthusiasts who hike, ski or mountain bike to the huts return each year; 82 percent are from Colorado.
Where can you start? Trailheads begin near Aspen, Vail and Leadville.
The 10th Mountain Hut Division manages a system of 22 backcountry huts in Colorado, connected by 300 miles of suggested routes, many of which offer amazing hikes, mountain bike treks and snow shoe or x-country ski trails. Much of the territory that encompasses the 29 huts was originally part of the training ground for the 10th Mountain Division troops, who fought critical battles in the Italian Dolomites near the end of World War II.
A winter trip doesn’t require expert skills – you can cross-country ski or skip the skis and do the trip on snowshoes.
For More Information
Aspen Alpine Guides
10th Mountain Hut Association
Aspen Chamber Resort Association