Staying in style in mountain huts and lodges…
Lance Sullins, the owner of Peak Mountain Guides, stands in front of a wall covered with green topographic maps of the San Juan Mountains. He is eyeing the small red marks, each one indicating the location of a mountain lodge or hut. He traces his finger slowly over the landscape between the red points, imagining the routes that connect them and the adventures that lay in between.
Each year, more lodges and huts are being built, making backcountry travel more accessible and enabling people to bike, hike, climb, and ski without having to carry camping equipment and food. Backcountry lodging makes it possible for people to venture further out into the wilderness and have multi-day trips, even in the winter. Sullins said that the difference between the San Juan Mountains and other ranges in Colorado is the breadth of the terrain. “There’s not one route through the San Juans here. There are so many options, and there is an infinite number of variables,” said Sullins.
Joe Ryan had the vision of linking backcountry travel in 1987 when he built the San Juan Hut system, a series of five cabins stretched along the Sneffels range in the northern San Juan Mountains: Last Dollar, Burn, Ridgway, North Pole, and Blue Lakes huts. Ryan stayed in huts when was a climbing and skiing guide in Canada in the 70s and he imagined creating a multi-day ski touring route here. He remembers living on Hastings Mesa and driving a backhoe down county roads into Ouray at a slow clip, eyeing the terrain above, when he had an epiphany. “I thought, this is it. This is where I gotta build it. This is where it will work.”
Ryan’s San Juan Huts are rustic, simple cabins in remote locations. They provide sleeping bags, pads, wood stoves, cook stoves, propane or solar lights, pots, pans, and utensils. Each hut has a water source—a spring or a stream—nearby, but guests typically haul in their own food and use maps, descriptions of the routes, and GPS points to navigate to and between the cabins. They connect to some of the most breathtaking spots in the high country, says Ryan. “I like the day trek from North Pole to Blue Lakes. It’s close to the mountains, and really spectacular. The view from Wilson Creek summit is one of the top five views in the state.”
The San Juan Huts were such a success that he built more: six huts that span from Telluride to Moab, and six huts that run from Durango to Moab, both meant for biking. Those routes both also have an alternate singletrack course for a more challenging mountain bike trip. “It’s really like four routes, with the singletrack,” says Ryan. “The mountain biking trips are quite busy.”
The South Side
Along the Red Mountain Pass corridor, between Silverton and Ouray, a host of new mountain lodges and cabins are springing up. The latest addition is the Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, a beautifully crafted, sophisticated building that accommodates twenty people. Red Mountain Alpine Lodge is perhaps the most luxurious of the backcountry cabins—it has running water, hot showers, food and drink service, and is entirely off-grid with solar power and propane heat. There are games, puzzles, a dart board, a barbecue, and all the amenities—even Wi-Fi—although the real trappings are the peaks and trails surrounding the lodge. “The space has such good energy,” says director Andrea luppenlatz. “It’s got a wood stove in the living room, a communal dining room table. We do have all the amenities, but it’s still the quintessential hut experience, with good vibes and people exchanging emails and phone numbers at the end of their trip.”
Best of all is the fact that the lodge is just 300 yards from Highway 550. That doesn’t just make it easy to keep the lodge stocked, it also makes access possible for even the casual adventurer. Despite its proximity to the road, Red Mountain Alpine Lodge is still secluded and visitors can’t see or hear traffic. “The location gives people access to the backcountry who might not have been able to experience it before,” says San Juan Mountain Guide Sheldon Kerr. “Grandma can come up with you and have breakfast and dinner and you can go hike or mountain bike.”
Red Mountain Alpine Lodge is the new kid on the proverbial block, having just opened last December, but there is a proliferation of existing huts along the corridor and in the high country above: Opus and Thelma huts, which were built fairly recently, along with St. Paul lodge and the Mountain Belle, Addie S, and Artist cabins. Local guides like Kerr are eager to take people on multi-day adventures and traverse the high country. “Now that there are more huts, the possibility of hut-to-hut travel is exciting,” says Kerr. “You could travel from Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, hike up Ohio Peak, and head to the Opus Hut. It’s a big day, but because you don’t have to carry an overnight kit, it suddenly becomes doable.”
The Opus Hut offers some of the more remote backcountry lodging on the south side, but it’s still one of the most well-appointed and comfortable cabins. Opus owner Bob Kingsley, who also manages the Thelma hut, says that guests appreciate the conveniences—a sauna, running water, and especially the indoor bathrooms. “It’s a little more comfortable than some huts, but it’s definitely not fancy. It sleeps sixteen people and is furnished with comforters and blankets. We also serve food and liquor, and people really dig that.”
Taking the High Road
Smack dab in the middle of the huts on the north side and the south side of the San Juans, in the high country above Ouray, sits the Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge.
The Hayden is a rustic log cabin built in the 80s which is being renovated by Eric Johnson. Johnson added solar power and developed the onsite spring for conventional plumbing, and is working on an 1,800-square-foot addition this year. The lodge’s amenities will include a hot tub, sauna, shower, food, and a full bar.
The Hayden’s location is the missing link for local guides pursuing a haute route like the one in Chamonix that connects backcountry lodging via the high country terrain. Linking the north and south is sort of the holy grail, the ultimate goal, says Kingsley. Traveling in winter, the Hayden is anywhere from three to six hours from the accommodations along Red Mountain Pass, and a day trip on foot in the summer to the Opus Hut. Guests can also go over Blue Lakes pass and hook up to the San Juan Huts. “Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge is located in the spectacular and pristine Richmond Basin,” says Johnson. “It will be an integral connection for the San Juan haute route.”
Sullins and his Peak Mountain Guides partner, Keith Garvey, pieced together a local haute route ski tour this winter that crosses the San Juan Mountains and also uses lift access at the Telluride Ski Resort. Sullins says that because of the avalanche danger and extreme terrain, it’s more of a mountaineering objective, an adventure, than it is about finding good snow to ski. He says that Garvey was the visionary behind the route. “He never liked driving shuttle,” laughs Sullins.
It was European hut systems such as the haute route that first inspired Kingsley to build the Opus, which he did himself between 2005 and 2010, after spending time abroad and as a mountaineering guide. He’s excited to welcome ultrarunners, skiers, and hard core adventurers that want to travel in style with minimal gear. “It’s always been a goal of mine to try and create a string of full-service huts where you can travel light between places, and it’s starting to happen,” he says. “I love turning people on to the wilderness and showing people they can do it in comfort.”