Featured Yurts: Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse
by Sam Demas and Laurel Bradley
Most photos courtesy Tennessee Pass Nordic Center and Cookhouse
Imagine a mile-long ski or hike into the woods to enjoy a fine meal with fabulous mountain views. After the delicious repast with fine wine, spend the night in a nearby well appointed yurt. This will be glamping at its best, hosted by and authentic backcountry operation far outside the realm of mass tourism.
We enjoyed the Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse at the end of a week-long exploration of some of the dozen or so Tenth Mountain Division Huts nestled in the Rockies between Vail, Leadville, and Frisco. This Featured Yurt post is a ringing recommendation of this experience – which can become a comfy climax, a cushy reward after days and nights immersed in the more rustic pleasures of hut life. We highly recommend you splurge and add the Tennessee Pass venue to your Colorado hut-to-hut bucket list.
HUT-TO-HUT AND THE HIGH-END YURT EXPERIENCE
A common lament found in hut logbooks is simply that folks are not ready to return to “civilization” after days of mountain highs. Off the grid, the Cookhouse and Ski Yurts are a unique half-way house between hut life and ordinary life with its full catastrophe of conveniences and complexities. This unique version of mountain hospitality, especially for families and friend groups, is special because:
- It offers a (mild) physical challenge, along with the act of leaving behind the car and all it represents, which unites the group;
- The short journey by foot or skis are rewarded by the fine food and restaurant amenities ;
- This mom and pop operation is distinctly NOT corporate; and
- Cookhouse and Ski Yurts is nestled within a network of trails and offers amazing views of the Sawatch mountains.
FINE DINING IN THE BACKWOODS
The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse evolved from a simple picnic table with a view. The owners recognized that a popular lunch spot enjoying spectacular views of the Sawatch Mountains could become much more. The Cookhouse is the result. Housed in a 30-foot diameter yurt, this fine dining establishment offers four-course, “bounty of the woods” meals. Fish, meat and vegetarian entrees go down easily with a choice from the fine wine and beer list. Candle-lit service is friendly and efficient. Lunch is served Saturday and Sunday during winter. This popular dining spot attracts friend and family groups, as well as couples from the local area and from as far away as Denver. Reservations are required as all the meal fixings must be prepared in advance.
Executive Chef Dylan Brody, who grew up in Minnesota hunting and fishing, learned early in life to prepare fish and game. As a young man he worked two summers at Bristol Bay Lodge, Alaska, leading fly-fishing trips and working in the kitchen. There he learned the fine dining side of things and yearned to cook fulltime in a “taste of the wild” themed backwoods restaurant. An ad in the Leadville newspaper led him to the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and the fulfillment of a dream.
THE SLEEP YURTS
Over the years, Cookhouse diners often joked that their dining experience would be perfect “if we could just stay the night”. And indeed, four sleep yurts now offer a delightful overnight experience. The rustic and elegant 20’ diameter ski yurts each sleep up to six people. The heavy timber queen-size bunk bed and a separate queen size bed are outfitted with flannel sheets and luxurious down comforters. The wood stove quickly warms up the hut. There is a small kitchen area with cold running water in the sink. The outhouse is close by. Altogether this is a cozy atmosphere, with the “oculus” of the yurt ceiling always reminding you that you are in the woods and under mountain stars and skies. The wood stove quickly warms up the hut and its fun to relax with a glass of wine in the warmth of the fire before the 6:00 dinner, a very short ski away in the Cookhouse.
This Cookhouse and Yurt complex is a unique act of imagination by owners Ty and Roxanne
Hall. The couple, who met and married in college, were resolved to make a life in Leadville, Roxanne’s hometown. Despite limited job prospects for college graduates, Ty found work at Ski Cooper while Roxanne signed on as a school teacher. Ty noticed a struggling Nordic ski center across the parking lot from Ski Cooper. The Halls bought the outfit in 1993 as it was about to go out of business.
As the Halls expanded the trail system and enhanced the Nordic Center’s capacity, they also moved ahead to realize their vision for a backcountry dining establishment. They managed to get a special use permit from the Forest Service for a temporary structure, and put up a 30’ diameter yurt, with attached kitchen in 1995. They struggled for the first eight to ten years, but eventually the Cookhouse proved a viable and valuable addition to the Nordic Ski Center offerings.
In this same period Ty and a friend built and operated the Belvedere Hut near Leadville; this hut – now the 10MD’s Sangree-Froelicher Hut – was sold to Tenth Mountain Division in 1999. They used the profits to construct a new building for the Nordic Center in 2002. They have expanded their cross-country ski rentals and trails business, rent fat tire bikes, sell gear, and provide delicious snacks and lunches at the cafe/warming center. With the Cookhouse and Nordic Center doing well, the Halls looked for ways to construct sleeping quarters. The Forest Service would not issue a permit for sleep yurts next to the cookhouse, so the Halls bought mining claims nearby and put up four yurts on private land, two in 2011 and two in 2013. They have rights to construct two more sleep yurts.
Twenty-three years in the making, business at the Cookhouse and Sleep Yurts is good although Ty admits that, “it’s not exactly a cash cow”. Indeed, this enterprise represents a lifestyle commitment as much as a business endeavor. Roxanne has retired from teaching and bakes cookies and brownies for the cafe, teaches ski lessons, works with reservations and otherwise works with Ty in managing this family business.