In late January, we embarked on a three-day snowshoe expedition in the San Juans of Colorado, traversing from hut to hut in what would become one of our favorite adventures to date. In three days we covered nearly 20 miles and over 4000 feet of elevation change in the Sneffels range. Sounds easy, but we certainly earned those miles. We started our adventure immediately following one of the season’s biggest snow storms so, needless to say, our trek through more than 6 feet of fresh snow with no other tracks made our progress somewhat slow and laborious. Add to that the sub-zero temps, and we had ourselves an adventure.
A number of stream crossings, one potential avalanche zone, and a few precarious crevasses added to the danger factor without being out of reach for our skill and general danger-aversiveness.
Each day we were rewarded by having a hut all to ourselves and enjoying decadently delicious food by a warm fire.
San Juan Hut Systems owns several of these such huts throughout the section of the San Juans just outside of Ridgway, Colorado and, at just $30 per person per night, they’re a bargain outdoor getaway. We opted for the Ridgway and Burn cabins on this venture because it was a nice intermediate way to create a two-night/two-hut getaway. Plus, given our lack of true avalanche education, we didn’t want to pursue some of our other more advanced choices. The Blue Lakes Hut was tempting because we could cross-country ski there and pack our snowshoes, but it is quite popular among families and we liked the idea of having the huts to ourselves. The San Juan Hut System truly has an option for every ability level. All of the huts can comfortably sleep up to 8 people in cozy bunks encircling each one’s wood stove.
By summer, the hut system is used for mountain bike excursions, and by winter, skiers and snowshoers call them home. Each is surprisingly well stocked, complete with cast iron cookware, dishes, cutlery, cleaning supplies, big pots to melt snow for water, TP, camp chairs, etc. Each has a composting toilet outhouse and is stocked with firewood.
The good folks at San Juan Hut Systems graciously gave us advice on which routes to tackle to build our adventure. Trails abound above the huts, so backcountry skiers can base from their hut(s) of choice and ski surrounding them.
The crew gave us maps, packing lists, and detailed descriptions of each of the routes (though, admittedly, these left a lot to be desired. Fortunately, the GPS coordinates they gave us proved more helpful. We carried our Goal Zero battery packs with us to keep our phone GPS alive in spite of the cold temps and were able to stay on course without issue. With the high snow levels, it was tough to see the trail or trail markings in a number of places, so this was invaluable in making sure we found our destinations. As is the case any time you’re in the wilderness, common sense and preparedness is the rule of the day. It’s a good idea to have redundant map/gps systems in place, and be prepared with emergency gear before setting out on any winter overnighter.
Trailhead (8753 ft.) to Ridgway Hut (10,250 ft.): 8 miles
Ridgway Hut to Burn Hut (9,918 ft.): 5 miles
Burn Hut to Trailhead: 5.5 miles
The night before, we packed up our gear in the midst of a great snowstorm. The ample snow didn’t deter the hearty and resilient people in Ridgway, Colorado — Even on a stormy Wednesday, Ridgway’s surprisingly vivacious little downtown was alight with people flooding places like Colorado Boy Brewery and Taco Del Gnar. For a small town, it has a big outdoor vibe and the city’s motto, “Think Outside” is no joke.
The next morning, we drove out to the trailhead, quite thankful for the 6×6 capability of the truck.
The trailhead was safe and well-trafficked with a beautiful view of the Sneffels range. We left our truck parked with the heater set to 45 degrees. As a result, in spite of the sub-zero temps, the truck’s engine came to life with ease upon our return.
When we arrived at the hut, we shoveled ourselves out and immediately started the wood stove and brought in bucketfuls of snow to melt for water. We treated ourselves to a big meal of macaroni and cheese with smoked salmon. With full bellies, the little hut quickly became a veritable hyggekrog complete with books, cocoa & marshmallows, and warm fire coziness.
The second day between the Ridgway Hut and the Burn Hut was a much easier and shorter hike. Plus, getting to go back over our original tracks made the journey feel like a breeze.
The outside appearance of the Burn Hut was much different than Ridgway, but the amenities were mostly the same. If you’re considering a trip, it’s worth noting that we liked the living arrangement at the Burn Hut better because the stove is closer to the center of the room and facing the bunk beds. Conversely, the Ridgway Hut’s stove faces the door and is quite close to it, so it is more difficult to sit around the fire. Also worth noting: Burn Hut is not as well insulated as Ridgway, so count on it taking a lot longer to feel the warmth of the wood stove there. (At -4 degrees outside, it was quite noticeable. But, once the chill was out of the air, the space was comfortable all night long). A consummate Boy Scout, Martin was diligent about tending the fire throughout the night and made sure Bethany never once complained of being cold in spite of the falling mercury outside.
On our final day, there was a point where Bethany stepped out of her snowshoe and immediately fell up to her waist in the snow. Snowshoes are quite a simple, yet amazing contraption!
On our return trip on Friday, we came upon several groups who were all heading out for their weekend adventures. If you’re into more solitude, we’d recommend a weeknight trip. The new groups trampled down the rest of the fresh snow, so it was an incredibly easy several miles back to base camp.
Quite literally, #homeiswhereyouparkit.
From there, it was on to Crested Butte to take in some of their record-setting snowfall. Bethany learned to skate ski there and we both got some fat tire biking in on some of the country’s best nordic trails.