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.
Links are provided here to the detailed operational profiles of the U.S. systems I have visited, studied, and written up: Tenth Mountain Division Huts, AMC Huts, Mt Tahoma Trail Association, and San Juan Huts. I plan to visit and study all of them eventually to build the knowledge base. My research is ongoing, but its time to pull together an initial brief overview. Future posts will go into greater depth in characterizing the situation and outlook for hut systems in USA.
DEFINITION OF A “HUT SYSTEM”
My definition of hut system is: a chain of 3 or more huts, yurts or cabins intentionally spaced a days walk, bike or ski apart on a designated trail system. Hut systems are designed to support human-powered travel ranging from several days to months on end. The buildings generally provide space for eating, sleeping, and social interaction. Hut systems intentionally concentrate backcountry travel in ways that protect the environment from the wear and tear of human overuse. They can be subdivided into: a. Self-Service Systems (unstaffed, providing cooking facilities and utensils, outhouses, and mattresses), and b. Full Service Systems (staffed, provide beds, bathrooms, showers, and meals).
Not included in this analysis are individual or pairs of huts, yurts, cabins, and lodges. There are hundreds and possibly thousands of these unconnected huts; they are often used as base camps for day excursions. Many can be reached by car. Also excluded here are shelter systems, which are usually not enclosed buildings and do not include amenities for cooking food (such as stoves and utensils) and sleeping (such as mattresses). While shelters and individual huts are extremely important and interesting infrastructure for outdoor recreation, they are not treated here. For a fuller explication (with pictures) of the wildly inclusive term “hut” see What is a hut?
OVERALL PICTURE (See Tables 1 & 2)
The largest concentration (12 or 75%) of the nation’s 15 hut systems is in the West. New England has three hut systems but contains the largest share (737, or about 50%) of total of 1,496 beds in the national system. These 15 hut systems include a total of 107 huts, yurts, and cabins. The Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) started building the oldest hut system in the USA in 1889. The two largest systems in terms of number of huts are in Colorado: San Juan Huts and the Tenth Mountain Division Huts. The oldest hut system in the West is the Rendezvous Huts in Washington. The largest concentration of hut systems is in the Pacific Northwest. US hut systems are all located in mountainous terrain. See Hut Systems Map of the Americas for a visual view of the distribution of US huts.
Table 1: Number of huts, geographic distribution, land ownership, & business models:
|Name||State||Region||Terrain||Land Owner||Business model||# huts|
|White Mountains National Recreation Area||AK||White Mountains||Mountains||BLM||Nonprofit||12|
|Southwest Nordic Center||NM||San Juans||Mountains||USFS||For profit||5|
|Sun Valley Trekking||ID||Rockies||Mountains||USFS||For profit||6|
|Three Sisters Backcountry||OR||Cascades||Mountains||USFS||For profit||3|
|Rendevous Huts||WA||Cascades||Mountains||USFS||For profit||5|
|Mt Tahoma Trail Association||WA||Cascades||Mountains||State||Nonprofit||4|
|Cascade Huts||OR||Cascades||Mountains||USFS||For profit||5|
|Wallowa Alpine Huts||OR||Wallowa||Mountains||USFS||For profit||4|
|AMC Huts||NH||Appalachian||Mountains||USFS & State||Nonprofit||8|
|Maine Huts and Trails||Maine||Appalachian||Mountains||Private||Nonprofit||4|
|AMC Maine Lodge to lodge||Maine||Appalachian||Mountains||Private||Nonprofit||3|
|10th Mountain Division||CO||Rockies||Mountains||USFS, Private||Nonprofit||13|
|San Juan Huts||CO||San Juans||Mountains||USFS, BLM, Private||For profit||17|
|Summit Huts Assn.||CO||Rockies||Mountains||USFS||Nonprofit||4|
|Never Summer Nordic||CO||Rockies||Mountains||State Forest||For profit||14|
OVERVIEW BY REGION:
1. New England:The non-profit AMC runs two hut systems: the AMC Huts in the Presidential Range and AMC Maine Lodge-to-Lodge Skiing. Founded in 1876, the AMC is among the nation’s oldest outdoor clubs and the first to build a hut meant specifically for the convenience and safety of hikers. The eight AMC Huts in the Presidential Range, located in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, are built on federal and state lands, and the AMC takes great care to monitor and limit the ecological impact of its huts. These huts operate primarily in summer season. Built using existing private cabin infrastructure on land purchased from the International Paper Company, the system of 3 lodges in the AMC Maine Wilderness Lodges opened under AMC management in 2003. The AMC now owns 70,000 acres, in the region of Maine called the 100 Mile Wilderness, and operates its lodges year-round.
Maine Huts & Trails system of 4 huts on 80 miles of trail was established in 2007. The system caters to hikers, skiers, and bikers. Like the AMC huts, Maine Huts & Trails provide both food and a well-trained staff in each hut to support travelers. The huts are quite luxurious, the food is great, and they have a liquor license.
These three New England systems are all non-profits. They are the closest in their design and amenities to European hut systems. Each hut provides hikers with a bed and food, as well as wood stoves for heat and social spaces. It is worth noting that though the three New England combined only account for 15 of the 107 huts in the U.S. (14%), they comprise nearly 50% of the total beds nationally. Like European counterparts, they are all within a few hours drive of major population centers and they prize the social aspect of hut-to-hut travel, featuring much larger huts with far greater capacities. They are also the most expensive hut systems in the USA. As we move West, we see fewer amenities and a dramatic decrease in the capacity and the cost of staying in the huts.
2. Colorado: Colorado is the national leader in huts and yurts for backcountry skiing and biking. They have more huts and yurts than any other state and the only statewide association — the Colorado Alliance of Huts and Yurts. The Alliance represents the owners of over 130 huts and yurts state-wide, including four hut systems. Importantly, Colorado is home to the remarkable Tenth Mountain Division Huts, which is both a great hut system in itself, and a forward-thinking, inclusive organization keenly interested in the future of huts in the state.
The Tenth Mountain Division Huts, established in 1982, is both a stand-alone non-profit hut system operating 13 huts of its own, and is an umbrella organization for a unique model of cooperation among 34 huts and yurts in Colorado. As a stand-alone system, it owns and operates 14 backcountry ski huts connected by ski trails in the Aspen/Leadville area. Most of these huts are also open during the summer season for hiking and biking. As an umbrella organization, it provides booking services for another 20 privately owned and operated huts, including the Summit Huts Association. There are trails linking some of these private huts, which effectively makes many of them part of a very large hut system (however these partially linked huts are not included in the data used for this report).
Established in 1984, the privately operated San Juan Huts is one of the largest (in number of huts and miles of trails) and one of the oldest systems in the nation. It operates two premier bike trails of 215 miles apiece, each with six, eight-person huts that are provisioned with food (guests do their own cooking) and beverages. It also operates a five-hut hiking and skiing system in which guests carry in their food. The non-profit Summit Huts Association operates four self-service huts near Breckenridge; their heaviest use is in winter. The for-profit Never Summer Nordic maintains 14 self-service yurts.
When compared to either European huts or the systems in New England, Colorado’s hut systems are intentionally more rustic. They are almost entirely self-service; except for the two remarkable San Juan Huts bike trails, they provide no food for hikers. Colorado’s huts provide shelter without diminishing the rugged appeal or adventurous spirit of hiking the Rockies. And they are much cheaper to stay in than the hut systems in New England. Of the four hut systems in Colorado, two are for-profit and two are non-profit.
In my research I have found Colorado hut system owners unusually open to cooperation with each other in the interest of promoting huts state-wide. This is due in part to the leadership and foresight of those running the Tenth Mountain Division Huts, and to a strong core of hut owners who see the benefit of having a common voice on land issues and other topics of cross-cutting interest. This cooperative ethos is most evident in the membership and activities of the Colorado Alliance of Huts and Yurts, in its regular meetings that bring hut owners together to discuss common cause, and in its web site offering information about Colorado huts and yurts. The land management agencies in Colorado have accumulated a great deal of experience in permitting and monitoring hut systems and there is much to be learned in harvesting this experience.
Another interesting characteristic of most Colorado hut systems is that they are not used nearly as much for hut-to-hut travel as they are as base camps for skiing weekends. There is a clear pattern of skiers preferring to stay in one place for several days and go out to ski the surrounding terrain. This preference is equally strong as you go further west.
3. The Rest of the West: This huge region includes eight systems: three in Oregon, two in Washington, and one each in Idaho, New Mexico, and Alaska. These eight systems are relatively small in size, comprising 47 huts (44% of the national total) with 297 beds, about 20% of the national total. Six of these eight systems are for-profit enterprises. All of them are optimized for backcountry skiing, but most also accommodate hikers and bikers. The oldest are Rendezvous Huts (1981) and Mt. Tahoma Trail Association (1990) in Washington, but most were developed in the past 15 years.
Oregon’s three hut systems are small, privately operated outfits. . These outfits seem very independent and have been the hardest to get detailed information about. Wallowa Alpine Huts is a for-profit enterprise offering guided trips, with food provided, to its four yurts near the Eagle Cap Wilderness of Eastern Washington. Three Sisters Backcountry operates 3 huts for winter use in the Southern Cascades near Bend, OR. Cascade Huts operates five huts/yurts near Hood River, OR in the Columbia River Valley. The first two systems operate only in winter and under US Forest Service permits that require them to take down their structures after ski season and put them back up in the fall.
The two systems in Washington State are quite different from each other and each has a unique flavor and story. They have been generous in sharing information. The for-profit Rendezvous Huts works in close partnership with the remarkable Methow Valley Trails, which grooms a 120 mile trail system in Winthrop, WA on the East side of the Cascades. The Mt. Tahoma Trail Association is located on Washington State Department of Natural Resources land near Mt. Rainier and enjoys strong support from the DNR. It was founded as a separate non-profit by a DNR District Forester, and operates on an all-volunteer basis.
Alaska’s White Mountain National Recreation Area is a 1,000,000 acre BLM managed park with 12 cabins and 250 miles of groomed trails. Government operated, some of the cabins are open year-round, but the emphasis is on skiing. Idaho’s for-profit Sun Valley Trekking operates three yurts and three huts. They are all open in winter, but only one yurt operates in summer. They provide food and guided expeditions. New Mexico’s Southwest Nordic Center operates a system of four yurts for winter use in the Cumbres Pass region.
Hut systems in the West tend to emphasize adventure over ease. Almost all are unstaffed and only about half of the systems provide food services. Most hut-to-hut systems in the West are small, for-profit enterprises, run largely by locals intent on opening up the vast wilderness to more casual explorers. Because huts have largely been kept small and simple, costs tend to be low.
Table 2: Type of buildings, number of beds, types of recreational activities, and selected amenities:
|Name||State||type of “hut”||# beds total||Hike||Ski||Bike||Staffed huts||Gear shuttle||Food service|
|White Mountains National Recreation Area||AK||Cabins||48||x||x||x||N||N||N|
|Southwest Nordic Center||NM||Yurts||34||x||N||N||N|
|Sun Valley Trekking||ID||Yurts & Huts||30||x||x||x||N||Y||Y|
|Three Sisters Backkcountry||OR||Huts||24||x||N||N||Y|
|Mt Tahoma Trail Association||WA||Huts & yurt||42||x||x||x||Y||N||N|
|Cascade Huts||OR||Huts & Yurts||25||x||x||N||N||Y|
|Wallowa Alpine Huts||OR||Yurts||44||x||Y||Y||Y|
|Maine Huts and Trails||Maine||Huts||178||x||x||x||Y||Y||Y|
|AMC Maine Lodge to lodge||Maine||Cabins||157||x||Y||Y||Y|
|10th Mountain Division||CO||Huts||224||x||x||x||N||Y||N|
|San Juan Huts||CO||Huts||136||x||x||x||N||Y||N|
|Summit Huts Assn.||CO||Huts||55||x||x||x||N||N||N|
|Never Summer Nordic||CO||Yurts||57||x||x||x||N||N||N|
DISCUSSION OF SELECTED FEATURES
Business models: Nationally, 8 hut systems are for-profit enterprises and 7 are non-profit. All 8 of the for-profits are in the Western part of the nation. I do not have sufficient data on the finances of hut systems to generalize about their profitability/sustainability. However, anecdotally I do know from the operators that many of them are experiencing significant annual growth in business (this includes all three systems in New England, Tenth Mountain Division, San Juan Huts, Mt Tahoma, and Rendezvous).
Land ownership: Ten (66%) hut systems are located all or partly on federal land, two are located solely on state land, and two are located solely on privately owned land. The US Forest Service is the federal land agency with the largest number of huts, followed by BLM.
Recreational uses: Overall, fourteen systems (93%) support skiing, which appears to be the most popular use for hut systems. Nine systems (60%) report that they support all three forms of recreation: hiking, biking and skiing. One system supports two forms: skiing and biking. Five systems (33%) support one form only: 4 skiing only and 1 hiking only. The strong growth areas reported are in biking and hiking, particularly in systems that were originally designed for skiing.
Staffing: Only 5 (33%) of hut systems have staff staying with guests in their huts. These include the three full-service huts in New England, and two that provide guided trips that include meal service.
Amenities: Seven hut systems (47%) provide some form of food service. The three New England systems cook and serve breakfasts and dinner, while three others either stock the hut with food to be cooked by guests or have guides do the cooking. Seven systems provide some form of gear shuttle service for a fee.
MUSINGS ON SITUATION AND OUTLOOK
I believe huts as a form of outdoor infrastructure have great potential for conservation, recreation, and education in the USA. Based on the data above and a bit of what I’ve learned so far, here are some preliminary observations on the situation and outlook:
- For its land area and population USA has very few huts (107 in hut systems). Three quick points of comparison: the New Zealand Department of Conservation manages a system of over 950 huts of all shapes and sizes; the Swiss Alpine Club manages a system of 250 huts, and there are several hundred privately-operated huts in addition; Norway’s DNT operates about 350 huts. Most of the nations of Europe have hut systems that comprise hundreds of huts, and many other nations have significant organized infrastructure to support long distance human-powered travel. Of course, these are not all strictly apples to apples comparisons, but you get the picture: there is room for growth in hut systems in the USA if it suits our culture and needs.
- Use is growing steadily in the systems I have studied. It appears that there is strong demand for huts where they already exist.
- All our hut systems are in the mountains, where the views are sublime and the skiing is great. There are no hut systems in the Midwest, the South, the Great Plains, or the Mid-Atlantic states. But there is plenty of room (and I would argue need) for huts in the lower elevations, and near population centers. We are building thousands of miles of new trails, but we simply don’t think about whether some small fraction of new and existing trails might be suitable for hut systems.
- While skiing is the most popular way of visiting huts, long distance hiking and biking are growing in popularity and provide opportunities for generating revenues in the shoulder seasons for hut owners.
- There are at least 7 hut systems in some stage of development or expansion. These are largely grass-roots efforts that are not on the radar of national and state recreation planners.
- There seems to be significant opportunity to locate hut systems on state lands. The Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) in many states are building many cabins and yurts, but so far failing to connect the dots and link them into systems to meet a demand they do not yet perceive.
- Similarly, there may be great opportunity to partner with timber companies and other large land private holders.
- The federal government land management agencies now have a great deal of experience in working with hut systems. But they have yet to step back and learn from their own experience; which I observe has been very positive overall. Nearly all hut owners cite inconsistent and onerous permitting processes as their biggest challenge. It is time for the federal land agencies to study their experience with huts so far, and to develop standardized and streamlined approaches to working with hut system owners, and to think about how hut systems might fit into national recreational planning and priorities.
- There is a need to review the huge body of research data on environmental impact of various forms of recreation, and to draw some firm conclusions about how hut systems can and do concentrate human use in ways that protect the lands we treasure and from unwittingly “loving them to death”.
- Colorado is a bellwether state for outdoor recreation and education. The hut owners have established a state association (Colorado Hut and Yurt Alliance) that can be a model for other states or regions. Someday we’ll likely have a national professional association to study and promote the interests of hut systems.
- The Tenth Mountain Division Huts has established a model for creating an umbrella to help support the work of smaller hut systems by jointly handling registration and marketing. Again, this model could be valuable on a regional basis.
- The Mt. Tahoma Trails Association presents a model worth emulating on several counts: it is volunteer operated, it has the lowest overnight cost in the USA, it is in sound financial condition, and it enjoys close and productive cooperation with the state DNR.
- Backcountry biking is exploding in popularity. We need to get ahead of the curve in meeting the needs of bikers and also protecting our lands from environmental damage that could be caused by irresponsible biking and sub-standard trails.
- Huts are not on the radar screen of either American recreation professionals or the general public interested in outdoor recreation. Its time for a national conversation about the role of huts in recreation and education.
I could go on and on, but this is already too long. Comments and corrections welcome.
Future posts will expand on this overview, adding new systems as I learn about them and presenting new data and findings. At some point I’ll return to the original question that set me on the path of researching hut systems: why does the USA have such limited infrastructure to support long distance human powered travel compared with Europe and New Zealand? This post is a step in that direction.
Finally, I am in the early stages of my research. I welcome partners to join me in studying the fascinating world hut systems in the USA and abroad.
Sam Demas 11-11-15