Category Archives: Hut operations

Hutmaster Profile: Michael Quist Kautz

Yurts rising on the Prairie: the American Prairie Reserve hut system

Preview: Yurts Rising on the Prairie!

American Prairie Reserve building their first two huts

By Sam Demas

The first two yurts of American Prairie Reserve planned 10 hut system are now subtly nestled in a remarkable prairie landscape in Montana.  The interiors will be finished this fall, the interpretive program will be developed this winter, and the yurts will be open for adventurous environmental pilgrims in Spring 2018.  The amazing American Prairie Reserve’s hut system will be:

  • the first in the USA not located in the mountains;
  • the first located on the threatened, sublimely beautiful great American prairie;
  • the second largest in the USA (after the 10th Mountain Division Huts);
  • the largest in the USA located on privately owned land;
  • operated as part of a huge nature reserve as and integral part of a strong conservation and education mission;
  • open to travel by hiking, biking and/or canoeing/kayaking; and
  • offering spacious, comfortable quarters with excellent amenities, with minimal environmental impact in a remote and rugged environment.

What follows is a brief preview, based on a visit in early September 2017, of what is coming soon on the great American Prairie.  I hope to visit again next year and present a more complete report, based on the experience of staying in the huts, on this innovative, distinctly American hut system.  For now much of the content below is derived from the APR website, from visiting the huts under construction, and from stimulating discussions with Mike Quist Kautz, Visitation and Huts Manager, who is leading the APR hut system development.

Yurts rising on the Prairie, Courtesy APR

One of the APR Yurt Sites, near Judith River, Courtesy Mike Kautz (also the featured photo at the beginning of post)

Context: Mission of the American Prairie Reserve (APR)

Our mission is to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.

Operating since 2004 on the basis of an exemplary set of values, the APR is committed to a bioregional program of stitching together 3,000,000 acres of existing public lands (primarily BLM lands) using private land purchases.  As their web site states, “When these fragmented public and private lands are connected, the Reserve will provide a continuous land area collaboratively managed for wildlife and recreation, the largest of its kind in the Lower 48 states.”

So far the non-profit APR has completed 25 land acquisitions transactions to build a habitat base of 353,104 acres:

  • 86,586 acres are private lands owned by the Reserve
  • 266,518 acres are public lands (federal and state) and  leased by the Reserve

They operate on the basis of a rigorous scientific program and strive to foster strong working relationships with their neighbors — the current human occupants and users of large parts of this landscape.

This map gives a sense of the scale and nature of the challenge.  The brown background is BLM land and the white is privately owned.  The goal is to knit together 3,000,000 acres surrounding the Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument andCharles M. Russell National Wildlife Preserve to create the largest prairie reserve in the world.  All this to help preserve and restore the land as close as possible to the landscape and wildlife Lewis and Clark encountered in this place in 1806.

American Prairie Reserve

American Prairie Reserve Current Habitat Map 2017, courtesy APR

The huts will be built on private lands owned by the APR.  The purpose of the hut system is to advance the APR mission by providing affordable shelter and recreational opportunity for visitors interested in experiencing and learning about this unique ecosystem.  Knowing a landscape engenders commitment to preserve it, and the hut system is being designed to aid in getting people to visit and come to appreciate the subtleties of the prairie.

Aerial View of Judith River Site – Courtesy APR

Conceptual plan for the APR Hut System

The prairie ecosystem of Central Montana is a spare and subtle environment — most folks fly or drive over it as quickly as possible.   It is a rugged steppe-like environment with weather extremes, including low rainfall, intensely slippery muds and dangerous roads, and is remote from gas, cell reception, and life safety services.  It requires serious shelter and planning to visit, and a slow, thoughtful pace to truly appreciate.

The hut system is conceived as a means of giving a wide range of visitors the rare opportunity to safely, comfortably, and affordably experience one of America’s iconic — and disappearing — landscapes.  How do you provide public access to a privately owned nature reserve?  How do you direct people to he places you want them to visit and keep them away from ecologically fragile areas?  These are the essential challenges of designing this kind of hut system.

American Prairie Reserve Yurts

Mike Quist Kautz, Director of Visitation and clerk of the works

The idea of a hut system grew from multiple stimuli: the experiences folks have had through APR’s amazing annual “Transect” program and its Kestrel Camp program of trips for board members and donors, from precedents including the Appalachian Mountain Club huts, New Zealand DOC huts and Great Walks, and from the vision  of Mike Quist Kautz and others that huts are an ideal way to introduce people to this unique landscape. 

Eventually 10 huts — ideally placed a days hike, bike or river trip apart — will provide a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in this rich ecosystem.   Each hut will feature a different facet of the Reserve and have its own interpretive theme.  In combination, the total experience of these 10 huts will cultivate appreciation of the the range of biodiversity, the threats, and special thrills of this subtle and vast landscape.  At one time xx % of the America was dominated by prairie.

The map below presents the conceptual plan for a 10 hut system, and the following picture is an artist’s representation of the hut designs.

American Prairie Reserve Hut System

American Prairie Reserve Hut System Plan

American Prairie Reserve Hut System Design Scheme

American Prairie Reserve Yurt Design Scheme, courtesy APR

The first two yurts: design, amenities and operation

Viewed from a distance on this grassland system, these two structures evoke a Mongolian steppe settlement or, in some ways, a spaceship landing in the outback.  The two yurts, designed and built by Shelter Designs (shelterdesigns.net) of Missoula, MT, are grand embodiments of the yurt/hut genre. They comprise three modules each: a 30′ diameter common area, a 30′ diameter sleeping yurt (with the space divided into four sleeping rooms, each accommodating two twin beds, and one also including a bunk bed), and a commodious bathroom yurt. These are unusually commodious spaces for a hut system.

One yurt is located by the rushing Judith River sheltered by a beautiful and increasingly scarce Cottonwood Gallery of majestic old trees. The other is higher in elevation and a nice hike away from the bench providing a dramatic Missouri River overlook (in the Missouri Breaks), featuring views of the historic confluence of the Missouri and Judith Rivers (see also featured photo for this post).

The entire yurt will be rented to a single party, on the model of the US Forest Service cabins common in the Western US. Prices are not yet set, but the intent is to make them affordable.

Yurts will have an unusually high level of amenities for a hut system.  Full kitchen facilities will include propane stove, refrigerator, pots and pans and eating utensils, and sink.   The huts will be available as self-serve (bring your own food and cook on site) or “catered” (food provided and you cook it yourself).  Provision of guided trips is under consideration.  Both huts are on ranch roads that allow for provisioning. Drinking water and food will be trucked in.  Solar collectors will provide power for lights, heat, refrigerator, air conditioning (!), and charging of personal devices.  Description from their website of toilets by Toilet Tech Solutions:

Toilet Tech offers a low-cost and low-hazard solution for waterless human waste management at high use sites.  Toilet Tech’s urine diverting toilets are superior to: expensive barrel fly out toilets, hazardous and ineffective conventional composting toilets, and water polluting pit toilets.  100% of urine is diverted and treated onsite by native or engineered soil.  Fecal matter and toilet paper are consumed by invertebrates (TTS-Decompose), or dried and burned onsite (TTS-Waste Away) leaving little residue.  No bulking agent is required.  Stabilized waste extraction is very infrequent.  Odor is very low.

Graywater will be collected in buckets in the kitchen area and hauled to the septic system behind the bathroom for disposal.

Biking will be on existing ranch roads.  Other recreational pathways are still under consideration. In addition to using existing trails (human and wildlife), walking routes will be created de novo by users in some areas as part of a grand vision with conservation, recreation and educational dimensions intertwined.  APR promotes a form of walking they call “snorkeling” (making ones way slowly across the trackless landscape and becoming attuned to its subtle pleasures). Canoeing and kayaking routes are under consideration.

The initial target audience will be native Montanans who are familiar with the great plains environment, experienced in traveling rough terrain and harsh climate, and overall have the outdoor skill set for this adventure experience.  Doubtless the demographic will evolve over time, and I predict many Europeans will eventually find and treasure this hut system.

This hut system is off to a fabulous start in developing infrastructure to give the user an experience of the larger meaning of prairies by recalling the American prairie as it existed when Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea came through in 1805 and 1806.

Next Steps:

APR hopes to continue development of its hut system by opening one or two more huts in 2019.  As the first American hut system not located in the mountains, they have an incredible opportunity to experiment with a wide range of hut designs appropriate to the weather and terrain. The inclusion of Indigenous architectural traditions, such as cabins and shelters dug into the hillsides (and perhaps some contemporary architectural riffs on these and other building traditions) might result in an architectural showcase of shelter types as well as demonstrating a high level of environmentally sustainable amenities.  And the potential for the huts as infrastructure for innovative environmental education by APR is incredibly exciting!

Stay tuned and get ready to book a trip next year!

Sam Demas, September 2017

 

 

Sun Valley Trekking

Featured Huts: Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt and Hut

Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt and Hut

Featured Huts of Sun Valley Trekking

(See Also Photo Galleries for Pioneer and Fishook,

and Operational Profile for Sun Valley Trekking)

Pioneer Yurt and Fishook Yurt are two of the six huts operated by Sun Valley Trekking in the beautiful snow-filled mountains of Central Idaho. These two locations have historical significance in the world of U. S. alpine touring huts, and they give a taste of the offerings of San Valley Trekking’s remarkable infrastructure for enjoying the beauty and thrill of these mountains.  

Pioneer Yurt sits on the edge of a lovely alpine meadow at 8,600’ in the Pioneer Mountains in the Sawtooth National Forest in Central Idaho.  Located near the towns of Ketchum and Hailey, this fully-equipped yurt — located in a bowl surrounded by Hyndman Peak (12,009’, the highest peak in the Pioneer Mountains), Old Hyndman Peak. (11,755’), Cobb Peak (11,6500), and Peanut Peak (c. 9,600).   This is paradise for ski mountaineering groups in winter and a spectacular base camp for hiking, botanizing, and star-gazing in summer.  

Sun Valley Trekking has operated Pioneer Yurt since 2006 when it took over from Heli-Ski and tore down the old yurt and erected a new one.  The 24’ diameter yurt is equipped with everything you need (just bring a sleeping bag and food) to enjoy this mountain Shangri La.  The high ceilings, three large windows, and nicely designed amenities provide a feeling of openness and comfort.  The ambiance is simple, rustic and cozy — perfect for a getaway with family and/or friends.

The amenities are thoughtfully honed over years of experience in mountain hospitality.  The yurt sleeps up to 16 people in four bunk beds, each with comfortable plastic covered mattresses.  The wood stove keeps the yurt warm.  There are lots of clothes lines and hooks for hanging wet clothing to dry.  Water for drinking and cooking is from snow melt in winter and from nearby Hyndman Creek in summer (gravity filter provided).  The kitchen has a three burner propane stove and all the implements needed for cooking and eating, including a small BBQ.  There are tables for indoor and outdoor eating and lounging, and foldable chairs for reading and sitting in the meadow or under the stars.   The Goal Zero solar collector system feeds a battery which powers lights, lanterns, a speaker system, and recharges GPS units and personal devices.  A selection of games and reading material, along with the hut log, provide quiet entertainment options.

Pioneer Yurt is 3-4 miles as the crow flies (much farther by trail) from the historic Pioneer Cabin, the first backcountry ski hut in Sun Valley.  In 1938 the Bavarian ski guides and instructors brought to Idaho to start the Alpine Ski Touring School at Sun Valley told their employers that the place to learn alpine ski touring is in the mountains, not in the valley.  They took over an old mining cabin and called it Pioneer Cabin, where they established one of the early alpine ski schools in the USA.  The original hut is no longer in use, but is a popular day hike destination for its fabulous panoramic views.  

Sun Valley Trekking

Fishook is comprises a wall tent and a yurt joined with a walkway. Photo Courtesy Sun Valley Trekking

Fishook Hut and Yurt sit at 6,800’ next to meandering Fishook creek and beautiful meadows on the edge of the Sawtooth Mountains wilderness area.  The jagged mountains rise above the meadow, with spectacular views of Thompson Peak (the highest in the Sawtooth Mountain).  Fishook has the same level of amenities as Pioneer, described above, and is distinguished by three features: topography, history, type of accommodation, and a hot tub.

The approach to Fishook is a gentle four mile tour.  The lower elevation and flat terrain are ideal for Nordic skiers and snowshoers.  Advanced skiers and snowboarders can find fantastic downhill terrain in the peaks above Fishook Valley: Horstman, Thompson, and Williams.  

The 16’ diameter Mongolian yurt is nicely appointed and sleeps 8, and is joined together by a lodge-pole pine framed walkway to a pioneer style wall tent that sleeps 6.  The wall tent, the site of cooking and dining, is appointed with colorful panels and a gorgeous fabric doorway.  There are two covered outhouses. The piece de resistance is a wood fired hot tub.  

Historically, Fishook was the site of what Joe Leonard, the guide who started the business that Sun Valley Trekking built upon, claims is the first yurt in North America, built in the 1970’s.  Whether this claim is true (there is a competing claim in Sun Valley lore), staying here gives the visitor a sense of being part of the history of alpine huts/yurts in the USA.  

****

Sun Valley Trekking

Joe and Francie St. Onge at work in the SVT office in Hailey, ID

Joe and Francie St. Onge, owners of Sun Valley Trekking, have developed a remarkable series of backcountry ski huts and a local and international guiding business.

They offer guided trips to their huts (including porters and food service if desired) as well as self-guided experiences.  Most of their business is from return visitors; first-time visitors in winter are required to use a guide for the first day.

This is a serious, well-run backcountry ski destination, and appropriate skills are needed.  I visited in summer and can’t wait to return for the winter experience!

Details on hut rental and reservations can be made on the Sun Valley Trekking website .  

 

 

 

Post by Sam Demas, September 2017

Sam Demas, September 2017

American Alpine Club Grand Tetons Climbing Ranch

American Alpine Club Grand Teton Climbing Ranch

Overview:  Located in Grand Teton National Park in Moose, WY, the Grand Tetons Climbing Ranch (GTCR) is one of five AAC mountain huts, i.e. base camp accommodations centers for climbers operated by the American Alpine Club.  The cluster of 11 buildings comprises 9 cabins, a lodge, and a bath house.  It is located on the valley at the foot of the fabulous Grand Teton mountain range.  GTCR sleeps 64 and provides an array of amenities designed to support climbers as they prepare to go climb in the remarkable Grand Tetons.  About 85% of the users of GTCR climbers, and about 50% are members of the American Alpine Club (AAC).  The GTCR has a venerable history and a special place in the history of the AAC.

GTCR is more than an accommodations center.  It is an agent in education, conservation and community-building in the mountaineering community.  Its mission is:

….to provide inexpensive, extended-stay accommodations for mountaineers visiting Grand Teton National Park.  As a facility of the American Alpine Club the Climber’s Ranch also represents the interests and concerns of the American Climbing Community in the Park, cooperates with the NPS in conservation of the environment and preservation of the historic structures of the ranch, and provides a venue for the cultivation of mountain craft, the exchange of information about the Teton Range, and the promotion of good fellowship among climbers.

History:  The establishment of the GTCR in 1970 was a signal event in the modern history of the AAC, and an important step in its gradual shift from an Eastern elitist organization to an inclusive climbing club reflecting the democratization of climbing in America.  Two visionaries — AAC President Nick Clinch and former superintendent of Grand Teton National Park Horace Albright — combined forces to address a growing challenge: the rapid increase in the numbers of climbers in the USA.

The Tetons are a cross-roads and focal point of American climbing.  In the 1960’s increasing numbers of climbers began gathering at the Jenny Lake campground adjacent to prime climbing spots.   It became hard to reserve camp sites and there were conflicts between the culture of the young “dirtbag” climbers and families staying at the campground.  The NPS had to impose limitations on camping and campground activities.  Clinch and Albright, neighbors in Palo Alto, got together to find a solution to these symptoms of the growing pains of a new phase of mountaineering in America.  In 1969 there were three former dude ranches for sale in the Grand Teton National Park; one of these, the Double Diamond Dude Ranch (operated 1924-1964), was determined by Clinch, Albright, Leigh Ortenburger, and others (reportedly including Yvon Chouinard, who did the plumbing in the early days) to be the most appropriate of the three for purchase by AAC.

In an article in the January/February 1969 issue of Summit: a mountaineering magazine (of which Royal Robbins was contributing editor), AAC President Nick Clinch published an article “The New Climbers Ranch: Your Base Camp in the Tetons”.  He outlined plans to open the ranch in 1970 for the purpose of “providing accommodations for climbers at a very modest rate”.  Clinch outlined plans to raise $200,000 to make improvements to the property and to establish an operational endowment.

GTCR opened in 1970 and Dave Dornan (of the Dornan family in Moose) was the first manager.  Rick Liu was the second manager, and Ruth Balsin, who served for 12 years, was the third manager.   There have been others since.  Bob Baribeau, the current manager, showed up in 1973 as a guest and climber and began helping out.

The former dining room of the original dude ranch building currently serves as the headquarters/registration building and the library.  It is listed on the National Historic Register.  A 1985 forest fire destroyed about half of the structures.  Other period structures were moved to the site by NPS and AAC to replace the burned buildings.  The first of these was named after Leigh Ortenburger, author of A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range.

Accommodation and amenities:  Each of the cabins has between 2-6 two-tier bunk beds, each wide enough for two people but usually used for one person.   Guests provide their own bedding (sleeping bags and pads).  The bunk rooms are spare but thoughtfully supplied with plenty of electrical outlets, string for drying clothes, showers (bath tubs in at least one cabin!), and pegs for hanging gear and clothing.  Some rooms have a closet for gear storage and some have a desk or table.

Reservations are necessary and the charge for overnight accommodation is $25 per night per person for non-members, and $16 per person per night for AAC members.

The bath house includes a sink room, wash room, climbing wall, and recycling center.  The very well stocked sink room is supplied with detergent and scrubbers.  It also houses an array of loaner pots and pans, BBQ grills, toasters, electric water kettles, hose, etc.  In addition to bathrooms (in most of the cabins) there are central men’s and women’s bathrooms with showers.  There is a well-equipped laundry room with washer and drier ($5 per load), and a great clothesline located nearby.    GTCR also loans coolers, bicycles, and locks and helmets.  And there is a left-over food box with items free for the taking.

There is no food service; guests bring and cook their own meals.  The magnificent outdoor dining pavilion has great views and is perfect for preparing meals.  Bear-proof lockers are provided for food and gear.  It is also the social hub of the GTCR, where people eat, drink and talk together.  Most of the conversation revolves around climbing.

GTCR operates a serious recycling program including nearly every kind of waste (including fuel canisters), includes a can crusher, and even goes through the trash to separate out material that should have been placed in recycling.

The library is a magnificent amenity.  Located in a separate, sacred space (paintings, no shoes allowed) that used to be the kitchen of the dude ranch.  The collection is fairly extensive (the online catalog has 685 entries) and is primarily focused on climbing in the West, but includes an international focus.  The library is curated by Prof. Alan Nagel of U of Iowa.  The library is used for presentations and discussions.

There is a “partners board” where folks can meet up to climb together, as well as get information about local guides.

Operations:  The GTCR operates June 1 – September 15 within the Grand Tetons National Park (NPS) on a concessionaire permit, renewable every ten years.  The staff consists of a manager, Bob Baribeau, and four young staffers.  All are climbers, and are unfailingly knowledgeable, competent and courteous.

The GTCR structures are owned by the NPS and operated and maintained by AAC.  No new construction is allowed and the buildings are all old, many moved onto the property from the area.  The buildings are well-maintained with obvious care and attention to detail.

A plentiful supply of excellent water flows underground from the mountains, through a vast underground cobble field, and is tapped at a wellhead/pump house at the GTCR.  Sewage and graywater drain into a septic system which is pumped out as needed at AAC expense.

NPS conducts and annual walk through with the manager and compiles a list of maintenance tasks to be completed during the year.  NPS is responsible for road maintenance and large infrastructure projects.

GTCR conducts an annual “work week” in which volunteers assist with maintenance tasks.

Business model: GTCR operates on a non-profit basis under the AAC.  AAC’s attitude towards the economics of its five accommodations centers is that they are not looked to as revenue centers.  Its considered good if they don’t lose money, but some do in some years.  GTCR consistently earns sufficient revenue to cover its operating costs and return some surplus to the AAC.  There is a small operating endowment.

by Sam Demas, August 2017

Huts & Trails: Programs at the International Trails Symposium

You can’t have huts without trails.  Surprisingly there is no communication at a national level in USA between the huts and trails communities.   Next month a conversation will begin at the International Trails Symposium (ITS).

The ITS is a rich mix of hikers, operators of many of the major trail systems in the world, federal and state land managers, and people interested in all aspects of trail planning, building, and operations. It turns out most of these folks don’t know much about hut systems, but they are curious to learn more about accommodation systems for long-distance human-powered travelers.

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Shelter from the Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts: book review part 1

Book Review by Sam Demas:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part one of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

With its highly-organized system of 1,000 backcountry huts New Zealand (NZ) — about the same size (area and population) as Oregon — is the hut capital of the world.  By comparison, the USA has about 110 huts operating within 17 different hut-to-hut systems; Switzerland and Norway each have about 500 huts.  Every nation’s approach to outdoor recreation — including how its citizens organize overnight stays in the wild — is based on local causes and conditions such as geography, size of the country, climate, terrain, history, economics, politics, and cultural values.  Shelter from the Storm is a richly illustrated, well-researched history of the causes and conditions that created NZ’s unique hut culture, and a beautiful tribute to the huts themselves.

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Shelter from the Storm: book review part two

Book review continued:

Shelter From The Storm: The Story of New Zealand’s Backcountry Huts

(Part two of a two part book review)

2012, Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, NZ.

Text and most photographs by Shaun Barnett, Rob Brown, and Geoff Spearpoint.

For part one of this review click here.  Following are some fascinating themes and stories that are skillfully elaborated in Shelter from the Storm, about New Zealand Backcountry Huts.

This book tells the story of how a geographically remote island nation came to create a robust international outdoor culture, and how a disparate collection of huts built for other purposes – I like the phrase infrastructure lying in wait — came to form the backbone of the world’s largest hut system. Continue reading

Adirondack Hamlets to Huts: coming soon….

Adirondack Hamlets to Huts: a new hut system

By Sam Demas, August 2016

A new hut system, Adirondack Hamlets to Huts, appears to be coming together quickly.  In 2015 the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) contacted Joe Dadey and Jack Drury to request that they propose and help to “fast-track” the implementation of a hut system in the Adirondack Park.   In response to the DEC’s invitation, they produced a “Conceptual Plan for a Hut-to-Hut Destination-based Trail System” analyzing and ranking 26 potential routes.  I  reported on this plan last month.

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Hut-to-hut in USA: situation and outlook

Hut to hut in the USA: situation and outlook

by  Sam Demas and Wilson Josephson

This is a preliminary overview of the 15 hut-to-hut systems in the USA.  There are a number of systems under development or expanding, and I’m hoping readers will tip me off to others that should be included.  Currently these 15 systems comprise 107 huts, yurts, and cabins, and offer 1,496 beds for long distance hut-to-hut hikers, bikers and skiers. This sketch of hut-to-hut infrastructure in the USA provides an overview by region, and very briefly discusses: business models, recreational uses, staffing, and some. Based on the data presented, it concludes with some musings about the future of hut systems supporting long distance human-powered travelers in the USA.  hut to hut in usa

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Hut-to-hut skiing: a tale of two Mt. Tahoma Huts

Featured Huts: A tale of two Mt Tahoma Huts

by Sam Demas

 

 

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Mt. Tahoma — High Hut and MTTA Notes on History and Operations

Spring 2012, Karly Siroky, High Hut Manager.

High Hut Trail Guide Excerpts

Notes kindly compiled by Leyton Jump, Manager of High Hut, Mt. Tahoma Trails Association

OUR MISSION

2005

The Mt. Tahoma Trails Association operates and manages for public use a year-round hut-to-hut trail system adjacent to the slopes of Mt. Rainier, offering trail users of differing skill levels and economic backgrounds a safe and inspirational backcountry experience. MTTA leadership maintains a functional working partnership with all stakeholders (MTTA members, trail users, volunteers, and our host land owners) based on mutual trust and honesty. Volunteers provide labor to achieve this mission.

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