The first Appalachian Mountain Club ski hut was built in New Hampshire back in 1888. Since then, the American tradition of hut-based backcountry skiing—where skiers set up their bases in mountain refuges with ski access, warm meals, and soft beds—has thrived.
While Europe originated hut-based backcountry skiing and boasts the majority of the world’s alpine shelters, America’s ski huts beckon backcountry enthusiasts to some of the country’s most remote, least populated ranges that see little human activity—unlike in the Alps, where the largest huts fill with literally hundreds of people in high season.
Some American huts serve as little more than a rustic shelter in which to lay your sleeping bag. In others, hut keepers serve gourmet meals and cold beer in the European spirit. Whether you’re seeking overnight shelter en route to a high alpine objective or a fireside night with friends far from Wi-Fi, hut trips offer reward beyond measure. Pack the essentials—your gear, a map, good food, a med kit, down booties, and your avalanche survival skills—and get on your way to the best trip of your winter.
Opa's Taylor Hut
West Elk Mountains, Colorado
While Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts garner more popularity and press, Aspen’s Braun Huts offer better skiing for experienced backcountry skiers. The approaches are longer and less user-friendly, and they cross avalanche terrain. But, as local professional skier Chris Davenport says, “It’s the best system of backcountry huts in the country for actual ski terrain. Whereas the 10th Mountain Huts are more focused on the touring, the Braun huts offer some amazing access to ski mountaineering and steep skiing.”
The newest hut to the system is named for its founder, Fred Braun, who was known as Opa (grandpa in German) by his family and friends. Opa’s Taylor Hut was built in 2012, anchored to a granite outcropping at almost 12,000 feet southeast of Taylor Pass. Its south-facing deck offers arguably the best views from any hut in Colorado. The passive solar design maximizes sun exposure and the modern exterior features interesting rooflines and thick wooden beams. The one-story, 850-square-foot hut sleeps eight in a large, open living room and three bedrooms.
The hut's location at the center of the Braun Hut system means intrepid skiers can connect multiple huts in one trip, and never be more than five or six miles from the next shelter. That’s if you stay on route. The 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, which accepts reservations for the Braun huts, guesses more groups get lost within the Braun system than in any other hut system in Colorado. Of the eight huts, the Markley and Lindley are the most accessible, with approaches that take less than two hours.
Davenport suggests the Star Peak Traverse with Aspen Expeditions, utilizing Lindley Hut, Opa’s Taylor Hut, and Friends Hut in a four-day trip that offers everything from 3,000-foot, 40-degree couloirs on Taylor Peak and Star Peak to low-angle glades in the Taylor Valley Basin. Aspen Expeditions can lead the trip at any time based on hut availability with one of its IFMGA Guides.
Gore Range, Colorado
Within the 10th Mountain Division Huts, the most extensive hut system in North America, the Eiseman Hut north of Vail, Colorado, is the highest (at 11,180 feet) and closest to the best skiing. It also boasts the system’s largest sun deck—nearly as important as the ski access—from which you can view multiple ranges and a memorable view of Vail Mountain Resort. With a challenging seven-mile, almost 3,000-foot approach into the rugged Gore Range, you’ll feel far removed from the 1-70 corridor.
With good ski terrain available from the hut on many different aspects, you’re sure to find high-quality snow somewhere close by. The ridge behind the hut affords a view of Bald Mountain, which advanced ski mountaineers might summit (along with Peak 12,390) from the hut. Bald Mountain offers many routes down; the safest is skiing all the way back down the ridge. But you needn’t explore far to find plenty of fun. Logging has thinned the slopes around Eiseman, making them perfect for skiing. A fun run drops from the front porch, even.
The Eiseman is set up for a party. Its sleep 16. The huge kitchen with multiple wood burning stoves inspires alpine feasts. It pays to pack light, especially for a slog like the one to Eiseman, but if you have the legs and lungs to carry good, fresh food (and booze), do it. On a hut trip, you’ll most likely remember the evenings more than the skiing, which is why the Eiseman is stocked with barware, games like Jenga, books, and entertaining journals of past hut trips.
Williams Peak Hut
Sawtooth Range, Idaho
The mountains around Sun Valley, Idaho, offer a half-dozen huts and yurts to enjoy in winter, but the Williams Peak Hut—at 8,000 feet on the flanks of Williams Peak—stands out for the skiing. The five-mile approach to the hut gains 1,600 feet as it follows a summer hiking trail along a ridge with sweeping views of the Sawtooths, a rugged range that local guides estimate receives about double the snowfall as Sun Valley Ski Resort, 60 miles away. In early January 2016, after a deep December, the hut was surrounded by a six-foot snowpack.
Not only do these mountains have a deeper, generally more stable snowpack, they also look and feel completely different. Dramatic granite spires and picturesque couloirs define the area, yet Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG) co-owner Chris Lundy says the terrain is quite accessible. “For how gnarly the Sawtooths look, it’s amazing how much ski terrain is in there,” he says.
Skiers will find everything from entry-level 20-degree slopes right in front of the hut to huge basins chock-full of steep couloirs. From the terrain right above the hut, skiers can access drainages on either side. And what makes it unique, Lundy says, is the possibility to connect them via alpine traverses and ridge crossings. It’s the kind of place where you could bring friends of all ability levels and everyone would find their groove.
Sawtooth Mountain Guides claims the yurts, handcrafted by founder Kirk Bachman and installed in 1986, were some of the first in North America used as backcountry skiing shelters. “Because the yurts were built by hand, they have different character,” says Lundy. “The rafters are peeled lodgepole poles, and it just has this really nice, cozy feel.” Warm woodstoves, a wood-fired sauna, and a well-stocked kitchen sets up guests for an enjoyable stay, but booking a fully guided trip with SMG ensures maximum comfort, calorie intake, and prime ski lines.
Bell Lake Yurt
Tobacco Root Mountains, Montana
Montana Alpine Adventures (MAA) owner and lead guide Drew Pogge says the Bell Lake Yurt includes four ingredients that make a perfect hut trip: terrain, access, people, and a holistic approach. The experience goes far beyond the skiing, Pogge says. Everything, including the freshly prepared bison red curry, the guides’ knowledge of the local ecosystem, and the photos of the surrounding ski terrain above every bed, aims to create a memorable trip.
While the 20-foot-diameter yurt hides away at 8,500 feet in a fairly remote mountain range, the approach—an hour’s drive from Bozeman, a short snowmobile ride, and a 2.5-mile skin—is easier than most of the huts on this list. From the yurt, good skiing beckons in every direction, much of it accessible with little effort. “Our terrain is diverse, interesting, and infinitely skiable—and the yurt’s in a non-motorized zone, so the ski experience is perfectly quiet, pristine, and untracked,” says Pogge. Gentle powder bowls, whitebark pine glades, skiable 10,000-foot peaks, and walls of aesthetic couloirs (some visible right from the front window) surround the yurt. The setting suggests an ideal first hut trip experience or base camp for a true alpine adventure, like MAA’s 30-mile Montana Haute Route or its R.A.D. Camp, an exclusive expedition to a ski first descents in the range. The yurt even offers immersive education programs in avalanche safety, ski mountaineering, and backcountry skills camps.
The fully equipped yurt (think memory foam mattresses, a solar-powered LED light system, and restaurant-quality cookware) is available for self-guided trips—if the group leader has completed a Level 1 Avalanche Course and basic first aid course. But with guided and catered packages starting at $175 per person, per day, with a maximum guide-to-client ratio of 4:1, why not let AAA and AMGA-trained guides break trail and do the dishes?
Baxter State Park, Maine
East coast backcountry skiers can find a handful of huts in the White Mountains and the Adirondacks offering easier access, less harsh conditions, and more options for tree skiing in inclement weather, but for a ski mountaineering experience unlike anything else in the northeast, consider Chimney Pond in Maine’s Baxter State Park. The 10-bed log bunkhouse at the base of 5,620-foot Mount Katahdin, surrounded by cirques of vertical icy cliffs, offers shelter in what many consider the most dramatic alpine environment in New England.
The odds are stacked against the skiers headed to Chimney Pond for great skiing. First, the strict reservation system forces you to book far in advance. And forget about April, when conditions would be best—the park’s higher-elevation terrain is closed for the month to protect wildlife habitat. Then, it’s a 15-mile skin (many chose to stay at the Roaring Brook bunkhouse 13 miles in as a stopover) through remote, wooded habitat for moose, black bear, and Canada lynx. Finally, once you’ve made it, there’s the terrain—steep and exposed to wind and avalanche hazards—and weather that’s extreme and unpredictable. It’s easy to see why backcountry skiers make up less than 10 percent of the winter traffic in the park, but rewards as big as the challenges await skiers at Chimney Pond.
“It provides access to a wide variety of ski and snowboard descents on different aspects above and at tree line, including many long, steep couloir descents,” says Josh Wilson, a splitboarder and trails alliance director in the Adirondacks. “Many of the these are less than an hour from the hut, making it easy for fit skiers to hit multiple lines in a day. The classic ice climbing and mountaineering routes are also superb.”
Even if you don’t ski from one of Katahdin’s three summits, jump turn down Saddle Gulley, a 35-degree chute in Great Basin; or rappel down the extreme Chimney Couloir in South Basin, Katahdin fan and Vermont photographer Brian Mohr says there’s plenty of fun to be had: “Obscure low-angle tree lines, snow-filled stream beds, and sections of established ski trails in the park make for some very fun descents for those willing to get creative and really explore.”
Baldy Knoll Yurt
Teton Range, Wyoming
In the increasingly crowded Tetons, where parking is cutthroat on Teton Pass and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort backcountry draws thousands of skiers on a busy day, there’s one way to ensure you get first tracks: Wake up with a five-mile, 2,200-vertical-foot head start.
The most remote hut in the Tetons, the Baldy Knoll Yurt sits at 8,800 feet in the Jedediah Smith Wilderness Area between two canyons, prime for snowfall and ski touring.
Whereas other yurts in the system require more navigation skills, Baldy Knoll offers straightforward skiing right out the door. And you’ll most likely be sharing that terrain with only seven other yurt guests. A huge swath of north- and south-facing terrain welcomes skiers of varying abilities—experts can hunt down steep couloirs, cliffs, and coveted Teton lines. More reserved options can be found in the surrounding trees and open bowls. Link up a hut-to-hut trip from Baldy Knoll to the Plummer Creek hut, or traverse 7.5 miles to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort over 10,500-foot Housetop Peak. And its position on the western slope of the range means Pacific Northwest storms track over central Idaho and collide with the dramatic vertical relief of the Tetons, resulting in an average of 500 inches of snowfall each year. This winter, after the deepest December in 40 years, the yurt is already surrounded by 250 inches.
“Every time I’ve stayed there, it’s snowed like crazy,” says Chris Denny, a business owner and backcountry skier based in Jackson. “Even though the yurt is on a platform, the snow accumulates enough to reach the doorway, so we’ve always had to ‘dig in’ to get inside. It’s super cozy and homey once the fire is lit.”
Each of Teton Backcountry Guides’ five yurts provides sleeping bunks and pads for eight people, a kitchen with a two-burner propane stove, a wood-burning stove, and propane lanterns. In February, when the days grow longer and the snowpack settles, Teton Backcountry Guides leads guided, catered trips, as well as multi-day camps and traverses.
Ophir Pass, Colorado
Just off Ophir Pass in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, the full-service OPUS Hut mimics the European hut experience—think après-ski soup, dinner, and breakfast prepared by a caretaker (plus wine and beer for purchase); running water, and beds made with down comforters and plush pillows. It was huts in the Alps and the tea houses of Nepal that inspired OPUS founder Bob Kingsley to purchase a mining claim and build a remote, amenity-packed hut at 11,600 feet that accesses some of the best ski terrain in the country.
An acronym for “Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski Hut,” OPUS perches at treeline, offering protected skiing straight from the back door, or alpine tours above. Skiers can find north-facing powder stashes in Paradise Trees directly across from the hut. Following the OPUS breakfast spread, you might have the stamina to lap them all day. Across Ophir Pass road, skiers can switchback their way up to Crystal Lake and gain the south ridge to the top of a small, skiable peak. Behind Crystal Lake Basin, South Lookout serves up the west-facing Magnum Couloir, which you can ski all the way to the town of Ophir.
Crafted from stone and aesthetically worn barn wood from a dairy farm in Wisconsin, the eco-friendly hut is almost as beautiful as its surroundings. Catch some San Juan sunshine on one of the decks and scope a lifetime of ski lines before calling dibs on the reading nook—the best seat in the house. Après-ski kicks off with homemade soup, followed by a delicious dinner made with as many local ingredients as possible. OPUS sleeps 16 people; bedrooms can be rented in a variety of options and include meals. Guide services are also available.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Located at the apex of the Chugach, Wrangell, and St. Elias mountain ranges, inside the largest national park in North America, and surrounded by 13 million acres of wilderness, the new Tebay Lodge offers possibly the best opportunity for lodge-based ski touring in Alaska. Its Piper Super Cub ski plane sets Tebay apart: the aircraft transports guests to high alpine glaciers. Handbuilt and run by Jay Claus, son of legendary mountain pilot Paul Claus (known as King of the Bush Pilots), Tebay offers a main lodge and cabins to host up to eight guests. Catered meals prepared by a professional chef, a sauna, and a cedar wood-fired hot tub round out the roster of comforts. Non-skiers who come along can enjoy cross-country skiing, ice fishing, and viewing the northern lights.
For decades, backcountry skiers have been flying out of Paul Claus’ nearby Ultima Thule Lodge—the epicenter for fly-out ski touring in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park—every April, but were stuck on low-visibility, no fly days. Now, Tebay accesses 5,000 vertical feet of skiing out the back door and additional terrain in drainages along the lake via snowmobile—adding to the options in cloudy conditions.
After a successful soft opening in April 2016, Tebay’s 2017 season is almost fully booked. The six-day all-inclusive packages at Tebay include two days of plane-assisted touring with the option to add more. Runs vary from mellow, alpine bowls to extreme big-mountain skiing. After your first taste of skiing 6,000-foot first descents with views of some of the biggest vertical reliefs on Earth, you’ll most likely be swiping the credit card again. Luckily, ski plane drops cost a fraction ($150-$300) of the the cost of heli-skiing.
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park restricts helicopters, and with no maintained roads within the entire park, there’s a good chance you have an area the size of Switzerland buffering you, the seven other guests, and your guides from the nearest human.
Wallowa Alpine Huts
Wallowa Mountains, Oregon
Known as Oregon's "Little Switzerland," the Wallowa Mountains and the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area in sparsely populated and often-overlooked eastern Oregon hold many secrets, including one of the country’s most extensive backcountry yurt systems.
Thirty-one peaks in the Wallowas rise above 9,000 feet to form the largest alpine area in Oregon. This isn’t Cascade cement. A mountain range and a high desert separate the Wallowas from the Pacific, creating an intercontinental snowpack that brings more than 400 inches of snow to the area every winter. The granite peaks and ridges and U-shaped glaciated valleys create terrain perfect for backcountry skiing, and Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH) provides the access. Access non-technical summits, north-facing bowls, and old-growth tree skiing from four camps. WAH offers four- or five-day trips; skiers can stay in one area or link up multiple huts.
The McCully Basin camp at 7,500 feet has evolved from a few sagging tents in 1980 to its own yurt village. Accessed via a gentle, four-mile trail with only two switchbacks, McCully Basin serves up low-angle meadows, moderate north-facing alpine bowls, and non-technical summits sliced with couloirs. WAH’s Norway Camp, accessed by snowmobile and a three-mile skin, features a 20-foot-diameter double-decker yurt for 11 guests to ski lines off Red Mountain and several high alpine cirques. The Big Sheep and Wing Ridge Huts feature large wall tents with wooden floors, bunks for up to 12 people, wood stoves, plenty of firewood, white gas lanterns, propane cook stoves, deluxe sleeping pads, and nearby wood-fired sauna tents. Big Sheep offers low-angle tree skiing through several burn areas. Wing Ridge Hut remains the hardest to get to, but it provides access to above-treeline, pristine mountain basins with stunning scenery popular with advanced backcountry skiers.
Yosemite National Park, California
If the tenure of its hut keeper proves its merit, Ostrander Hut in Yosemite National Park is well worth its 10-mile approach. Howard Weamer has been the winter caretaker of Ostrander since 1974, three years after he came to Yosemite to research a doctoral thesis on John Muir. The photographer and book author manages the two-story, 25-bunk lakeside hut during its season from December 1 through March, chopping wood, playing harmonica, offering route advice, and even rescuing lost skiers. Ostrander regulars say Weamer has singlehandedly persuaded the National Park Service and the Yosemite Conservancy to keep Ostrander running.
Its popularity has never wavered with skiers. Early reservations are awarded by random lottery. Most come for the journey to the hut, which offers unique vantages of Half Dome, the Clark Range, and peaks to the north; or to cross-country ski, but the glacial cirque across Ostrander Lake from the hut holds prime ski lines off Horse Ridge—all within view from Ostrander’s front steps. Ski west along the broad ridge for almost a mile until the ridge splits and you’ll find a bowl to the west and a chance to continue on the ridge to the southwest, intersecting the Merced Crest Trail a mile later and a bowl descending northeast along the trail. Veer east for a mile and a half to return to Ostrander.
Ostrander hasn’t changed much since its construction in 1941. Guests must bring a water filter and haul their own drinking water from a hole in the frozen lake. Triple-decker bunks stack the walls, awaiting sleeping bags, and picnic tables occupy the floor space. It’s BYO most everything. Ostrander Ski Hut’s operational dates, nightly rates, and reservation lottery date change annually. Check the reservation website in early fall.