San Juan Huts (SJH)
- Overview: (mission, purpose, programs, etc.)
SJH was founded by Joe Ryan in 1987 to help get people into the woods and to help keep basic wilderness skills alive. Operating in the San Juan mountains of SW Colorado, the system started in 1987 with five huts for backcountry skiing and later added hiking in these same five huts along the 33 mile Sneffels Traverse. Two mountain biking routes were added (Telluride to Moab in 1988 and Durango to Moab in 2004, each about 215 miles), each with 6 huts. See Founders Profile for more background.
SJH calls itself “the original bike hut system”, and it is certainly one of the earliest on Colorado and the West. It has invented hut-to-hut biking and has the premier biking system in the USA. The huts are simply constructed and no-frills, but supply everything one needs for an enjoyable long distance ski, hike, or bike ride. The cost is kept low and it is affordable for families kids under 12 are free in the huts), which is a priority of the founder.
This highly successful private, for profit hut system provides a set of experiences tailored to its clientele and after over 25 years in operation it continues to grow in popularity. This is due in part to good marketing and mostly to consistent delivery of an affordable set of services in a spectacularly beautiful part of Colorado. SJH is a model for other hut systems in Western USA, most of which focus on backcountry skiing. The growth potential for SJH seems to lie in hiking and biking. SJH is a rare example of a family operated hut business that has grown steadily over several decades and has made the transition to a new generation of management, as Joe and his daughter Kelly have co-managed the hut system since 2010.
- Huts and shelters:
- Description, location, capacity
There are 5 ski/hike huts along the Sneffels Traverse from Telluride to Ouray. These huts are about 5 – 8 miles apart. One of these five huts, Last Dollar near Telluride, is also used by bikers.
In addition there are 6 huts on each of the two bike routes: Telluride to Moab and Durango to Moab. These huts are about 35-40 miles apart. Two huts are in Utah and the rest are located in Colorado.
The accommodations are basic and amenities are primarily the great outdoors. See their web site for hut amenities.
- Policies and hut ethics
SJH uses Leave No Trace principles. People are expected to leave the hut in good condition and a checklist of duties is posted in each hut. Their “Biker’s Bible” contains many rules/guidelines and the San Juan Hut Systems Ten Commandments (p. 17). Dogs are allowed in the huts and there are no formal policies about use of cell phones and other electronics. While officially no outdoor fires are allowed, a number of the huts have fire rings.
Each hut on the Sneffels Traverse has a water supply (creek or spring) nearby. 5 five-gallon plastic containers are provided for hauling water. Patrons are responsible for filtering the water they gather. In winter, melting snow is a primary source of water. On the bike routes, water is supplied to the huts by SJH staff.
The two sinks in each hut drain into 5 gallon buckets under the sink.
- Waste management
Each hut has a composting toilet separated from the hut. After each use a half scoop of woodchips is added. The compost is removed and spread in the vicinity of the hut. See a short video of Joe explaining the operation of these composting toilets at the Exit Strategies Conference in 2010.
Each hut is equipped with a wood stove. Users burn 3 – 4 cords of wood per ski hut per year. The staff is currently building wood storage sheds at each of the five huts, each with a 3-cord capacity. SJH has permits to cut wood near the huts. Cut into rounds and people split their own. No fires are allowed outside the huts; people tend to burn too much wood.
A few huts have solar panels for lights, but most use wall-mounted propane lanterns. Each hut has exterior storage space for up to 6 propane (LP gas) 15 lb. tanks. Two tanks at a time are hooked up to the stove and lanterns.
- Cooking and eating
On Sneffels traverse hikers and skiers bring their own food and use SJH cooking utensils and propane stoves to cook. Food re-supply is available on request for a fee.
In the bike huts food is supplied too keep the bike loads light. SJH staff supply coolers of perishables (eggs, cheese, milk, etc.) and beer and soda. The staff and supply ingredients for Gluten Free and vegetarian diets on request. Patrons do their own cooking and cleanup. San Juan Huts cuisine is detailed on their website.
Each hut has 8 bunks and sleeping bags are provided to bikers and hikers. Patrons are asked to use their own sleeping bat liners.
Most of the maintenance is performed in the spring and fall.
- Capital projects and repairs
- Hut design
The huts are of simple plywood construction with metal roofs. They are one-room structures about 16’ x 16’ and efficiently designed to accommodate 8 beds (2 bunk-beds on each side of the hut). Each hut has a two-burner propane stove, a two-basin sink for washing and rinsing, and a wood stove in the center of the hut. There is storage space under the counter for pots and pans and utensils. There are hooks to hang clothes. Design varies somewhat, but most huts seem to have one wall dedicated to a window above the sink, counter and stove area. The huts are raised above the ground level and have an enclosed crawl space under them. All the huts the same basic design.
- Permitting process
Two huts are on BLM land under special use permits. Four huts are on private land under permit agreements with land-owners. Ten huts are on USFS administered lands (located in Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, Gunnison, San Juan, and Manti La Sal National forests) under special use permits. Joe reports that securing permissions on private land is quite straightforward and working with BLM is manageable, but working with USFS can be extremely difficult, depending on the district and the situation. Joe reports that working across three different USFS districts can be challenging because in some cases they might each have different interpretations of the rules depending on conditions and personnel.
Permits are required for many different uses.
- Logistics/hut supply: how do you get supplies in and waste out?
Resupply of huts is constant: each hut is visited about every 3-5 days for resupply and maintenance checks. With 16 huts spread over nearly 500 miles of trail and a 20,000 square mile area, this keeps the staff on the road constantly, often travelling by truck 200-300 miles per day (half may be on dirt roads). Each staff person fills up a truck with needed supplies and provisions and inspects 2-3 huts per day, depending on the distances and needs. All resupply is out of Ridgway office, except for seasonal vegetable supply to bike huts out of Paradox, CO.
See 2.8 above re food supply.
- Connectivity among huts
The 33 mile Sneffels Traverse (30 miles in summer) connects Telluride and Ouray, along a trail that connects five huts for skiers and hikers. Each hut can be reached by the main trail and also by a connector trail to the trailhead.
The two bike trails are 215 miles each in length, both ending in Moab and connecting 6 huts along the way. In effect there are four bike trails because each or the two bike trails has two routes: a main trail (located on a combination of logging, mining, county, and ranching roads) and an alternate single-track trails (single-tracks do not extend the entire length of the journey). These routes cross the San Juans, a vast dry creek basin, and the La Sal Mountains in Utah before following the spectacular Porcupine Rib Trail into Moab.
The Durango to Moab trail is said to be about 25% more difficult than the Telluride to Moab trail. It has 115 miles of single track alternate trail, and has 26,000 feet of vertical ascent overall.
- Trail building and maintenance
The Sneffels Traverse trail is mostly on USFS land. The bike trails are on a combination of private, USFS and BLM land.
- Data, policies & practices on environmental impact of hikers/skiiers/bikers and of huts?
Hut policies and practices are based on Leave No Trace principles. These include composting toilets; and small-scale, bear-protected composting of food waste. Snowmobiles are allowed to use some of the trails, but not the huts. SJH serves human powered travel only.
- Governance, Staff and Management:
- Governance – as a small private business there is no governing board.
- Staff – In summer there are about 10 people on staff, some of which are part-time. In winter there are 3-4 staff. These numbers include Joe and Kelly. The whole team shares responsibilities and all staff do a bit of everything. There is apparently a strong communal feeling and an emphasis on continually paying attention to communication. Kelly does the scheduling and makes assignments according to the needs of the hut system and of the individuals. She is said to take care of her staff, sensing how they feel and what they need as she makes assignments.
As with all hut systems, the need for workers is subject to seasonal fluctuations and its not easy to keep help over a period of many years.
- Volunteers – No regular use of volunteers.
- Summer interns – Because they are so successful SJH gets requests from people interested in starting a hut system to come and help out for a few weeks to learn how they operate. Joe has taken on a number of folks over the years, but there is not formal internship program.
- Reservations, Marketing, Memberships:
Reservations are by phone and SJH welcomes the opportunity to talk with each party and screen them to ensure they are prepared for the type of activity being booked and understand what they need to bring and how the system works. No online reservation system and they are apparently not in a hurry to implement one.
The “Documents” page on the web-site contains a trove of useful documents giving the user a good idea of what they are in for. For reservation purposes, skiers, bikers, and hikers must fill out a group roster form, agree to a set of terms and conditions, and fill out online a liability waiver for each person on the trip. The online signing and submission of documents is powered by Right Signature software and works well. In addition to filling out the required forms, users can download customized maps, GPS tracks, and detailed route directions, and route checklists/supplemental information (what to bring). The “Bikers Bible”, is a 20-page guide to planning a SJH bike trip; practical notes on what you should know and be prepared for along the trail; some great notes on hut etiquette, policies and practicalities; and clothing/gear/equipment lists; and contact information.
- Rates – See website.
Word of mouth appears to be a key factor in spreading the word about SJH’s unique bike hut systems
In addition to word of mouth, the web site and social media appear to be SJH’s primary marketing tools. The web site is attractive and well organized. It contains detailed information on all three forms of trail use and gives the user a good sense of what to expect. The site includes quotes from users and over a dozen videos posted primarily by bikers. SJH has an active social media presence on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They also use clymb.com to get the word out about trips and packages. One can sign up on the website for email updates on SHJS activities.
SJH has a great set of marketing handles. They can make the powerful claims that they invented hut to hut biking (calling themselves “the original hut to hut mountain bike system”), and that they have the most extensive hut system for biking. They are clear that an important part of the value they add is “adventure without the weight”, and that the expertly supported experience of travelling from point A to point B is what its all about. And they can boast the beauty of the San Juan Mountains, their longevity and experience as a company, and proximity to recreational centers Ouray, Silverton, and Telluride.
One can select from a variety of packages, including 4, 6 and 7 day bike tours, loops.
- Membership There is no membership program for users of the SJH.
- To the trailheads
SJH provides a shuttle service on request to drop off and pick up patrons at trailheads.
SJH website provides a listing of shuttle services and other travel resources, including weather and lodging information and links.
- Guiding services
- Snowmobiles are allowed on some of the trails but cannot use the huts.
- Horses and pack animals
- Car access to huts
It is possible to drive up to or close to Blue Lakes and Burn huts. No cars allowed to the huts on bike routes.
- Safety: The information packed provided to guests includes tips on safety and preparedness. As described under “Challenges” (section 16.1.4 below), there are challenges in ensuring that inexperienced hikers are adequately prepared for their trips.
- Insurance is expensive.
- Use of hut system: capacity, demographics, survey data, trends over time, etc.:
Capacity: Eight persons per hut for 17 huts = 136 people.
Occupancy: huts are not always full and there is some room for growth in bookings;
Breakdown of use by type of use: [The following numbers from Kelly were rough approximations and don’t add up. Can you provide a refined version?]
- Biking: 75% of use and a greater % of revenue because there are two trails and more huts, and because more service is provided and charge for these services, including:
- food and water is supplied,
- servicing huts more regularly (2-3 times a week), which involves alot of travel time and gas.
- Skiing: 20% (less service is needed for skiers than bikers and hikers; they are quite self-sufficient).
- Hiking: 20% of current use and a growing area.
- [The numbers don’t add up; correction?]
- Bikers are about 80% male, affluent, and tend to cluster around 45-55 years old. They tend to be very self-sufficient.
- Skiers are less affluent and tend to be 25-35 years old. They tend to be very self-sufficient. More men than women in general.
- Hikers represent a much broader demographic, ranging from people tin their 20’s to families and people in their 50’s and 60’s. The older folks tend to be more accomplished and don’t encounter problems.
- Considerable number of international guests for biking, in particular from Canada, South & Central America, Australia and New Zealand.
Some common categories of clients besides hikers, skiers, and bikers:
- Trail runners
- Peak baggers who use the huts as base camps to reach
- Honeymooners, anniversaries
- National Guard units doing avalanche studies
- Guided trips
- Boy Scout groups
- Family reunions
- Groups of friends
- Hunters, boaters, runners
It appears SJH is a profitable business; but, as Kelly says, “If you are looking to get rich fast, huts are not for you!”.
- Partnerships and educational programs:
Part of Joe’s motivation for starting the huts was to give kids and families opportunities for immersive experiences in nature and to keep alive backcountry skills that are gradually fading in the general populace. To this end SJH has long worked with kids groups (e.g. Boy Scouts, Telluride Academy), and kids under 12 can visit the huts free on family trips. Joe has also worked with a variety of Veterans group, such as the Wounded Warriors Project, and Guitars for Vets. Eric Weihenmeyer, the blind athlete, completed the bike trail.
Joe and his partner Anne are deeply committed to the power of nature in education and healing. They are preparing to increase their efforts in working with kids, families, veterans groups, and injured athletes. They are currently working on a hand-cycling program for paraplegic veterans.
SJH sponsors the Sneffels Traverse 25 mile ski race, with elevation gain of 5,540 feet and elevation loss of 5,550 feet.
Kelly and Joe are active in and supportive of the Colorado Alliance of Huts and Yurts. Kelly sees the primary benefits as being like those of any trade group:
- A collective resource for sharing information and experience, such as permitting experience and language, comparing notes on waiver and registration processes,
- Potential to work as a group with other agencies and groups;
- Potential to help plan location of additional huts in Colorado by looking at the map and seeing where the gaps are.
- Founding/origin stories:
- Some important lessons learned by the managers of the system:
- Need consistency of amenities across the huts
- Skills needed to run a hut system:
- ability to deal with bureaucrats
- construction skills
- backcountry skills
- Observations by Sam:
SJHS is an exemplar of one model of hut system: privately owned and operated, affordable, and constantly evolving in response to the market. This is the prevalent model in the western USA, and I suspect it presages a major direction in the future growth of hut systems in the USA. It looks as if Joe and Kelly have proved that a privately operated hut system can not only succeed as a small business, but that business continuity can be maintained over two generations. There is no question that SJHS is not only one of the oldest and most successful hut systems in the USA, but also one to watch in the future. This is because, as Bob Kingfield of the Opus Hut said, “ her father raised the perfect daughter for taking over from him.”
- Challenges and opportunities:
- Permitting is the greatest challenge. Working with federal land management agencies requires ongoing communication and work to demonstrate compliance with new requirements as they emerge. Operating over such a vast area entails working with many different districts and individuals. Regulations are not interpreted and enforced in the same way across districts, which results in inconsistencies in permitting practices. Refined diplomacy skills and constant vigilance are required.
- Reduced revenue during the shoulder seasons makes it difficult to keep staff employed year-round.
- 5 The huts on the Sneffels Traverse are used nearly year-round, which requires continual maintenance and re-supply.
- Because hiking is more accessible to a broader demographic than are biking and skiing, hikers are a more high maintenance. Hiking is not as extreme a sport and many hikers do not have the skills that the others do. As the number of hikers increases the number of “emergency” calls has increased. It seems that some hikers are not that comfortable in the outdoors, some are not experienced in use of topographic map and compass, some lack sufficient fitness for the undertaking, some do not think logically when they encounter obstacles, and some start too late in the day.
When they feel out of their depth, some call the local Sherriff’s Office or 911 rather than hut personnel. SJH is addressing this by emphasizing that calls to the Sherriff and 911 are only for real emergencies, and providing the cell numbers of hut personnel for other circumstances. They are also offering optional basic orientation to navigating the area and route-finding skills.
SJH finds it needs to focus its marketing to ensure getting the right demographic for the experience. While hiking is a definite growth area, it is not for everyone. Screening guests at the point of registration is a challenge.
- Have a great product and there is great demand for it.
- Fat bikes in winter; got a permit
- Addition of loop routes for shorter trips in the shoulder seasons.
- Working on a 2 night/3 say horseback trail ride.
- Additional Resources:
- Web site: www.sanjuanhuts.com
- See National Geographic article on the hut system in 2002.
- Contacts: Joe & Kelly Ryan at email@example.com
- Document written by: Sam Demas, revised and finished with assistance from Kelly and Joe Ryan (10/5/15)