Sampling the Tenth Mountain Division Huts in Breckenridge and Leadville Areas
by Sam Demas, December 2017
Want to experience some of the best winter ski/snowshoe huts in USA? Spend a week experiencing the pleasures of some of the 34 huts in the nation’s premier winter hut system, the Tenth Mountain Division Huts Association. The Breckenridge and Leadville regions are closer to Denver (than Aspen) and have some of the easiest huts to access.
As an intermediate skier, but a beginner to true backcountry skiing, I spent a week visiting six of these splendid huts/cabins in the Breckenridge and Leadville areas. After my skiing buddy Peter had to drop out, what was planned as a 4 night ski traverse turned into a series of one night stays at some of the more accessible huts in the region. While not what originally planned, it was a great way to get a sense of the range of 10 MD huts and amenities, and to meet lots of people in the process. To top it off Laurel joined me at the end of the week for a final night in the huts. A fun climax to this hut trip was spending a glorious night glamping at the Tennessee Pass Ski Yurts and Cookhouse, where we enjoyed fine dining in the backcountry.
It was a terrific hut2hut field trip! I’ll definitely go back — in winter and in summer — to do some h2h traverses and to visit more of the 34 huts in the 10MD system. If you like skiing and huts, these notes will help you plan your own winter hut trip. Note: the navigation notes in this trip report are simply to give a sense of the difficulty of navigation. Be sure to use proper map, a compass, and the detailed guidebook discussed below for full navigation advice. NB: See sections below on determining if you are ready for such a trip and for tips on advance planning
Hut Amenities: Briefly, the huts are self-service: you bring a sleeping bag, your food, and emergency gear. Huts have beds and pillows, wood stoves and firewood, propane cook burners, pots and pans and utensils, and comfortable spaces for lounging. Water is from snow melt. See 10MD website for details and an equipment list.
Day 1: Francies’ Cabin – Summit Huts Association, 11,390 ft.
Navigation: via Crystal Creek Trail from Spruce Creek Trailhead – 1.3 miles
65 minutes up, 40 minutes down on snowshoes, elevation gain 1,000’. 10th Mountain Map: Boreas Pass, USGS map Breckenridge. Start at Spruce Creek Trail Head and at a fork within a few hundred yards you will choose: a. to ascend to the hut by bearing left at the fork for the Spruce Creek Trail (2 miles), or b. by bearing right to follow the Crystal Creek Trail (1.3 miles). Trail corridor through woods is quite obvious and marked only occasionally with blue diamonds.
Hut notes: Francie’s Cabin is very popular due to its proximity to Denver metro area and easy access from the trailhead. A beautifully designed log hut with 20 beds, Francie’s slept about 18 people the Friday night I was there. Among the 3-4 different groups sharing the hut experience, the hallmark was conviviality in friendly, elegantly designed spaces around the wood stove. I was alone, but easily fell in with several different groups. It’s all about conversation, cards/games, art materials for table-top drawings, and an opportunity to contribute to the log book. Plenty of opportunities for snowshoeing, ski touring, skiing and snowboarding on the slopes and ridges behind the hut. We saw moose by the cabin and mountain goats in the distance.
The idea for a hut in Breckenridge was conceived in by local dentist and former mayor John Warner. He and a group of friends was staying at the 10MD Friends Hut (named for a group of friends who died in a private plane crash near Maroon Bells) and as he looked through an album documenting the conception and construction of that hut, he said, “Hey, we can do this!”. After much planning and fundraising, the hut was built as a tribute to Francis Louise Lockwood Bailey, a mother, friend, and graphic designer who died in a plane crash at age 36. Francie was was described as “a gentle artistic and lovely person who never forgot the small things in life that mean so much.”
After a comfortable night at Francie’s Cabin, I spent the following night in an AirBNB near Breckenridge.
Day 2: Ken’s Cabin, Summit Huts Association, 11,530 ft.
Navigation notes: via Boreas Pass Trailhead, 6.2 miles via Bakers Tank Trail, which meets up with Boreas Pass Road. Took 4.6 hours to ski to Kens Cabin, and about 2.5 hours to ski out the next day. Elevation gain 1,130 feet. Going up to the cabin I took the more varied Bakers Tank Trail, which meets up with Boreas Pass Road at Bakers Tank. Skins not necessary. Skiing out all the way via Boreas Pass Road makes for a long gentle downhill all the way down.
Hut notes: Skiing up to Boreas Pass at the Continental Divide the mountain views in all directions are spectacular. The often windy pass and has a reputation for cold conditions, and was named after the Greek god of the North, Boreas. The main trail follows the railroad bed of the South Park Highline, a 63 mile narrow-gauge railroad built to connect Denver to the mining and timber districts around Breckenridge and Leadville that operated from 1884 until about 1934.
Ken’s Cabin (1864) is one of a cluster of four historic buildings at Boreas Pass. Owned by US Forest Service, Ken’s Cabin (built as Wagon Cabin) and Section House (1882) were built as living quarters for railroad workers and their families. Through a unique public/private partnership, Ken’s and Section House are operated in winter by Summit Huts as ski huts, and in summer by USFS as an historic interpretive center.
Ken’s is a rustic, cozy log structure that sleeps 3, with a brass bed, a couch shelf, a wood stove, cooking area, and a table with three chairs. The 3 solar powered light bulbs make for good reading and social ambiance at night. The logbook is filled with appreciative references to its suitability as a romantic getaway or “love shack”.
Section House (sleeps 12) is a delightful period structure that evokes the history of this lonely railroad outpost with a restoration that took place in mid-90’s, a great old wood kitchen stove, metal bunk beds. There are two pit toilets (in “John’s John”) with fabulous views out of the picture windows in each of the two throne rooms.
Dedicated to the memory of Ken Graff, MD, who died in an avalanche near Francie’s Cabin on the first weekend it was open. Family and friends raised funds to restore this cabin for use as a ski hut in honor of Dr Graff, a beloved figure. Ken’s Cabin is a fitting memorial to a kind man and avid outdoorsman.
Stayed in the comfortable, affordable and convenient Leadville Hostel the night before departing for Continental Divide Cabin. The friendly lodging establishment, the highest hostel in USA, is the perfect place to rest and regroup between hut trips. It has a fully-equipped kitchen, hot showers, wireless access, washer and dryer, interesting people, and ample spaces for lounging. Hut groups coming from different places around the state and region frequently gather at the hostel in preparation for a hut trip, and then unwind there afterwards.
Day 3: Continental Divide Cabin, 10,555 feet
Navigation notes: Start from Tennessee Pass Trailhead on East side of Rte. 24, near the Tenth Mountain Division Memorial (a must-see memorial to these influential soldiers). An easy .8 miles ski in with 95’ elevation gain; 25 minutes. Follows the Colorado Trail and Continental Divide Trail.
Hut notes: As the shortest and gentlest distance to ski in to any of the 10MD huts, this is a hut trip for families and for first-timers. Built in 2007, this well designed log cabin (and its neighboring twin, Point Breeze Cabin built in 2011) sleep 8, are very nicely appointed and have a high level of amenities. It is very comfortable, with hand-crafted furniture and attractive furnishings, comfortable seating areas for lounging, rocking chairs around the stove, games, etc. There are several food storage options, including a solar-operated refrigerated chest for summer use. The covered breeze-way to access firewood and toilet is very convenient.
Built by Lee Rimel, these two cabins seem to hit a sweet spot, and gave me the sense of seeing one strand of the future of hut development in USA. They are artfully designed, very close to the trail-head, not far from Denver, offer great comfort, and are very family and kid friendly. The snowmen and snow caves left by recent parties, along with the sleds and nearby kids fort and the tipi The atmosphere and signage clearly convey and ethos of caring, for the cabins and for those who will come after us. This is well expressed in the quote from Mount Analogue, a posthumously published novel by Rene Daumal that concerns and expedition to climb a mountain that unites heaven and earth.
Day 4: Tenth Mountain Division Memorial Hut, 11,415 feet
Navigation notes: Skied from Continental Divide Cabin to Tenth Mountain Division Memorial Hut: 5.5 miles, 4 hours. Elevation gain 1,150’, elevation loss 290’. Well marked with blue diamonds and Colorado Trail signs, the trail follows the Colorado Trail. There is a tricky section between the intersection with the Crane Park Trail and Lily Lake that requires extra attention to trail markers, map and compass. There are many intersecting trails and roads in the area so care is needed to stay on the blue diamond trail to the hut. Skins very helpful for last 1.5 mile ascent to hut. On the return trip to Tennessee Pass Trailhead took Wurtz Ditch Road to the intersection with Crane Park Trail. It seemed easier than making way through the dogwood thicket N. of Lily Lake. 2.75 hours return trip to Trailhead after a nice 3 “ dump of powder overnight.
Hut notes: It is a pleasure to arrive at this high hut, perched near Continental Divide in a spectacular setting below Homestake Peak. People frequently stay for several days and have access to a variety of ski terrain, can climb Homestead Peak for great views, and visit nearby Slide Lake. This large, well appointed hut sleeps 16 and is very well appointed, with a large kitchen and dining area, comfortable sitting areas, a library (put together with help from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies), games, and lots of log books. The kitchen has a “Household Charm” cookstove (which I had no need to use), and the living area has a mighty “Defiance” wood stove that heats the living area quickly. This two-story log hut is very well built and designed. It is typical of the huts owned and operated by the Tenth Mountain Division itself.
This hut is a memorial to the namesake of the hut system: the U.S. Army’s Tenth Mountain Division ski troops that trained just north of Tennessee Pass at nearby Camp Hale during much of World War II. These mountain/ski troops were the first unit in US military history that were trained for mountain warfare. They played an important role in several European battles during the war.
During their training and service the men of the Tenth Mountain Division developed great cameraderie, and many came to love Colorado and to see is potential for recreational skiing. After seeing first-hand the advanced recreational skiing infrastructure in Europe, many returned to Colorado (and elsewhere in U.S.) and became leaders in the post-war ski industry. They brought a vision of large alpine ski areas and hut-to-hut systems to America. Many provided leadership in founding and managing ski resorts; others became ski instructors, coaches and racers; some wrote about skiing and founded ski publications; and others became ski school directors. Among this wave of enthusiasts for skiing was Fritz Benedict, a landscape architect in the Aspen area who inspired, along with others, the founding of the Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association and for whom the Benedict Hut is named. This memorial hut is graced with a number if interpretive plaques and posters, and is a great place to get a feel for the roots of this unique winter hut-to-hut system.
Stayed another night in the highly functional Leadville Hostel before meeting Laurel at Copper Mountain the next morning for final hut trip.
Day 5: Janet’s Cabin, 11,630 feet
Navigation notes: See Ohlrich book and Summit Huts web site for details on parking, shuttle to trailhead, and securing ski pass. Started skiing from Westernmost ski lift (Kokomo) of the Copper Mountain Ski Resort, up along the edge of the ski slope. This is the location of the Union Creek Trailhead. One can take the lift up to gain about 800 feet of elevation. Total ski in is 4.6 miles, much of it along the Colorado Trail, marked with blue diamonds. Following the west side of second ski slope (above Kokomo lift), one turns right (West) on a marked trail leading off the slope and into the woods. A pleasant ski through the woods leads to a bridge crossing Guller Cree, which drainage one follows most of the way to the hut. After crossing the creek again to ski along the left side of the drainage, there is a final, really steep and strenuous 30 minute ascent to the hut. Elevation gain of 1,390’ and loss of 410’. The ascent took us 3.5 hours to the hut (we were running late and really moving) and 2.5 hours back down to Copper Mountain ski area.
Hut notes: It is hard work to get there, but the hut is rewarding. In design, Janet’s Cabin is something of a twin to Francie’s Cabin. Janet’s sleeps 14 and has a great mud room at the back entrance with cubbies to store boots and other gear. Off the mud room are two indoor composting toilets. The kitchen is well supplied and has ample stations for cooking and cleaning up. The hut has a cozy feel and is kept warm with a centrally located wood stove. As with most of the huts, the building retains much of the heat overnight and it is not necessary to keep the fire going all night. The beautiful sauna building is close by, down a steep set of steps, but with a helpful rope handrail to aid in steadying wobbly legs. Some skiers do a traverse to reach Janet’s from other huts such as Jackal and Shrine Mountain Inn. There is great skiing (beware avalanche danger) near Janet’s near Searle Pass, on Elk Mountain, and on Sugarloaf Mountain.
Named for Janet White Tyler (1926 – 1988), this comfortable cabin is a memorial to a passionate skier and a woman of uncommon graciousness, exuberance, and joie de vivre. As she was dying of cancer she approved the idea and location of a hut in her honor and we are lucky to benefit from the hut inspired by her spirit of hospitality and kindness.
Day 6: The Unique Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts and Cookhouse!
Navigation notes: The Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is located across the parking lot from the Ski Cooper alpine ski center. It is just up the road from Tennessee Pass Trailhead to the Continental Divide Cabin and the Tenth Mountain Division memorial hut. From there it is an easy 25 minute ski in from Nordic Center to Cookhouse, and then another 10 minutes to the ski yurts. The staff at the Nordic Center will lead you through the drill of parking, gear shuttle, reservations, etc.
Yurt notes: As the climax if our hut trip, we treated ourselves to dinner at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and an overnight stay at their Sleep Yurts. A common hut logbook lament that folks are not ready to return to “civilization”. The backcountry Cookhouse and Ski Yurts are a truly unique kind of half-way house in making the transition from the rustic simplicity of hut life back into the full set of conveniences and complexities of our ordinary lives. Highly recommended!
For more detail, see my “Featured Yurt” post on Tennessee Pass Cookhouse and Sleep Yurts.
We treated this pricey indulgence (yes it’s glamping) as a fun culmination of our hut trip and a fond farewell (for now) to the mountains. The four ski yurts are elegant 20’ diameter yurts, each sleeping up to six people in a heavy timber queen-size bunk bed and a separate queen size bed. The very comfortable beds all have cozy flannel sheets and luxurious down comforters. There is a small kitchen set-up with cold running water in the sink. The outhouse is close by. Altogether 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.
The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse was born out of the observation of the owners that the picnic table they located along the trail at a spectacular view-point overlooking the Sawatch Mountains was a very popular lunch spot for skiers and hikers. So why not build a backcountry restaurant on that spot? The rest is history. The menu has a “bounty of the woods” theme and the elegantly appointed 30’ diameter yurt offers fine dining in a rustic setting. The service is friendly and efficient and the wine and beer selections are great. Lunch is served Saturday and Sunday during winter. This is a popular dining spot for family groups, couples and friend groups.
Reservations are required and the place is very popular with folks from Denver as well as those in the Aspen, Leadville and Vail area.
Caveat: Backcountry ski trips are not to be taken lightly
If you are an experienced backcountry skier in the mountains, you can skip this section.
If not, you should know that ski touring is a physically demanding and logistically serious undertaking. It takes a higher level of skill than hiking and backpacking. While there are short, easy routes to a few huts, most are 6-7 miles into the backcountry. Winter hut trips require:
- well honed safety, navigation (use of both map & compass and GPS), and skiing skills;
- proper ski and outdoor equipment/gear;
- an understanding of how to avoid altitude sickness;
- a high level of fitness;
- logistics of getting to and from trail-heads can be complicated; having a car or hiring a shuttle is essential; traverses require two cars and/or shuttles, or some hitch-hiking;
- wayfinding experience in mountainous terrain (some of the trails are not intensively marked); and
- gear and knowhow necessary to spend the night outdoors in case of emergency.
To determine your readiness for such a trip, buy a copy of Warren Olrich’s 10th Mountain Hut Guide, 2nd ed., Peoples Press, 2011. It has great introductory section covering the essentials of trip planning, equipment selection, winter navigation, hut procedures, and safety and emergencies. And the bulk of the book comprises clear and detailed information on the routes from the trail-head to the huts, between the huts, and getting to the trail-heads. It also indicates level of difficulty for each route. Perusing this essential guide is the best way to determine your fitness for such a trip and to plan a series of safe hut visits.
- Buy a copy of Warren Olrich’s 10th Mountain Hut Guide and use it to identify possible itineraries;
- Visit the Tenth Mountain Division website for:
- Detailed trip planning information, including videos;
- Hut amenities;
- Information on hut availability and booking (online or by phone);
- Equipment lists;
- Transportation options/shuttles;
- Information on guides and outfitters;
- Call Tenth Mountain Division reservations number to discuss your plans and ask for advice and recommendations.
- Purchase relevant paper maps from Tenth Mountain Division; and
- Download to a GPS app (e.g. Gaia, Hiking Project, National Geographic) the relevant maps. Downloadable versions are available on the 10MD site.