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In Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, hut-to-hut hiking gets high marks

Henry and Silas, the author’s sons, cross the first of two suspended bridges that are part of the Gold Mountain Via Ferrata in Ouray, Colo. (Photos by Rachel Walker for The Washington Post)

On the final day of a five-day, hut-to-hut backpacking trip from Telluride, Colo., to Ouray, my family and I crested a ridge after a very steep climb, and the landscape unfurled into a high Alpine meadow aglow with red, yellow and purple wildflowers. The five of us — my husband, two sons and dog — loosened our packs to let the light breeze cool the sweat from our backs and, for the umpteenth time, marveled at the view. We were nearly done with the Sneffels Traverse, a roughly 35-mile hike (the mileage varies if you add on side hikes, which we did), and the accomplishment of walking up and down mountain passes, through lush, overgrown forests and aspen groves, and jumping naked into a snowmelt-fed lake had forged a deep attachment to this stunning landscape. Looking around as I caught my breath, my heart ached at the thought of walking out of these mountains and back into reality.

I wasn’t the only smitten one; after a snack and requisite photos, Silas, my 10-year-old, took my hand and confided, “I don’t want to go back to humanity.”

I couldn’t blame him. From the time we had met our shuttle driver in Ouray (where we would complete the trek and where we had left our car) and had been driven to the trailhead near Telluride, we had been completely free and connected only to one another, our needs distilled into the most basic of things: shelter, food, companionship.

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The shelter had been deluxe, as far as backpacking goes: a series of four rugged, backcountry huts. Owned and operated by San Juan Hut Systems, the cabins had bunk beds and sleeping bags (we brought sleeping bag liners for hygiene), solar power and propane stoves. They also had pots and pans, dishes, cutlery and mugs. Staying in the huts meant we didn’t need to bring a tent, stove, bedding or cookware, which drastically lightened our packs. This made the trek significantly easier, which was important, because I wanted the kids to love backpacking as much as I do.

Not that I had to worry. From the beginning, the kids were thrilled at the prospect of covering so much ground and spending five days in the backcountry. They brought knives to whittle with and a few games, but mostly they were excited about collecting and filtering water, throwing rocks in a stream and playing word games while hiking. We averaged roughly eight miles a day.

Since the trip, friends have asked how we “made” the kids hike. In fact, they like to hike, and we’ve done it since they were young. Hiking for days and checking out of civilization — no devices, no WiFi — while staying in huts appealed to their robust natures. Good gear also helped. This summer, we all got new hiking boots and backpacks that are lightweight and that fit well.

My husband, Jeff, found a way to save some bucks (and to indulge his inner nature nerd): dehydrating at home all of the food we’d eat on the trail. With an inexpensive dehydrator, he turned Bolognese sauce, chili, fruit compote and more into lightweight, dried foods that only required heat and water to be made edible. His meals were delicious. However, there are plenty of ways to eat well in the outdoors without becoming your own dried food maker. A few examples include pasta, prepackaged dehydrated meals from outdoor retailers, and nuts and dried fruit. All told, we brought roughly two pounds of food per person, per day. We also paid San Juan Hut Systems for two “food drops,” which were delivered to our second and fourth huts.

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As a result, on the Sneffels Traverse, our loads were light, and the trek was relatively easy, though not nearly as effortless as the nine days we spent in the area before hitting the trail. We began our two-week stay in the San Juans with three days at the Thelma Hut, a luxury backcountry hut off Red Mountain Pass between Ouray and Silverton. Off the grid but with running water and flushing toilets, it sleeps eight and comes with a hut keeper. She made delicious meals in the gourmet kitchen and spent two rainy afternoons gathering wild mushrooms (fret not, she knew which ones were poisonous) to enhance our meals. We shared the hut with good friends we hadn’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic, and trust me when I say that there’s no easier way to reconnect than high up in the Colorado mountains with hikes through the tundra and delectable meals made by someone else.

My family and I then decamped to Telluride, perhaps the most beautiful mountain town in Colorado. Tucked into a box canyon and with massive mountains circling the village, Telluride was one of Colorado’s wealthiest mining towns during the gold and silver booms that began in the late 1800s. Today, it’s a destination for outdoor recreationists and home to long-timers or one-percenters who can afford the town’s multimillion-dollar homes.

But the affluence in Telluride somehow hasn’t wiped out its eccentric funkiness. We stayed at the Lumière in Mountain Village (the base of the ski resort that’s connected to town by a free gondola), and during one ride into town, a woman earnestly insisted that the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 had knocked Earth off its axis by one degree, which shifted her internal energy in ways that astounded her energy healer. Not having an energy healer of my own, who was I to judge? I love meeting people who make me see the world in different ways, and many of the people we encountered in Telluride did.

For instance, our zip-lining guide inspired us with tales of her peripatetic life as an outdoor guide and educator who travels with clients around the world. During a half-day tour up to Imogene Pass (13,114 feet), our guide/driver brought to life the storied mining history of the area. He stopped at the ruins of the Tomboy mine site, where the charred remains of the explosives storage building loomed over the decrepit foundations of the homes of the hardy fortune seekers who carved out a life above the tree line where the air was thin and the work extremely dangerous.

During our backpacking trip, I imagined the life of the area’s earliest inhabitants, nomadic Native Americans who summered here and lived off the abundant elk and other game, gathered mushrooms and berries and soaked in the myriad hot springs that punctuate the lush valleys. Linking us was an attachment to this arresting landscape.

The San Juans are wild and remote mountains that form a thunderous collection of crags, spires, jagged ridges and verdant meadows. They often inspire comparisons to the Alps, but these mountains are entirely Western: rugged, challenging and high. (Rarely did we hike below 9,000 feet above sea level, and we reached our highest elevation, 10,980 feet, during a side hike.) To thrive in such a dramatic landscape was exhilarating. To experience it over the course of two weeks and in a range of locales made this perhaps my favorite family vacation ever.

On that last day of our traverse, we picked our way down a steep and winding trail above a raging creek. (Most would call it a river, but according to the map, it’s a creek.) After about four miles, we padded into Ouray and walked directly to our hotel. After showers and a hearty meal, we went to bed with one more adventure awaiting before the long drive home.

The next day, we followed a guide from Basecamp Ouray up a multi-pitched route of the new Gold Mountain Via Ferrata. Long popular in Europe, via ferratas are springing up around the country as an entry-level way for people who aren’t rock climbers to experience the thrill of scaling a rock wall. The course featured two suspended bridges — one a thick cable, the other only four inches wide and about 250 feet long — as well as multiple pitches with metal handholds and footholds drilled into the rock. We wore climbing harnesses and helmets and were clipped into secure cables for safety.

When I first booked the excursion, I worried we would be too tired after our backpacking trip to enjoy the experience. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to my own worries. As we ascended to yet another sublime vantage point, the thrill and exposure of the via ferrata honed my focus and stripped away all extraneous thoughts. Though not as difficult as rock climbing, the activity still required some athleticism and comfort with heights. In return, it offered yet again a sense of clarity and appreciation for these mountains.

In fact, the entire trip felt like an offering from the universe. (Maybe that woman in the gondola got to me more than I realized.) Perhaps that’s why the word “grateful” appears in my journal almost every day of our trip. I was grateful for the time to explore nature and for my willing family. Grateful for the huts that made backpacking easy. Grateful for the natural beauty and for the many activities that helped immerse us in that beauty. Most of all, I left grateful for the sense of accomplishment that comes from meeting physical challenges in the outdoors.

And given that they’re already clamoring to go back next summer to climb some of those big mountains that we hiked past, it’s fair to say that my family feels similarly. This makes our “return to humanity,” as Silas called it, easier to accept. There’s a time and place for everything, so we’ll get our fill of civilization now, even as we look to more San Juan wilderness adventures in the future.

Walker is a writer based in Boulder, Colo. Find her on Twitter: @racheljowalker.

If You Go

Where to stay

Thelma Hut

Red Mountain Pass in Colorado

507-383-2600

thelmahut.com

This backcountry hut, designed in a modern, rustic style, sleeps eight and allows dogs for $50 per night. Includes limited running water (no showers) and cell service. Hut rental $690 per night. Meals are mandatory for guests; $288 per night for first four people. Additional guest meals $72 per person, per night.

San Juan Hut Systems/Sneffels Traverse

618 N. Cora St., Ridgway

970-626-3033

sanjuanhuts.com

This company owns and operates backcountry huts in Colorado and Utah year-round. The Sneffels Traverse includes stays at four huts: the North Pole, Blue Lakes, Ridgway and Burn huts. It costs $230 per person and includes a shuttle to the trailhead and the “Hiker’s Bible,” an invaluable trip-planning document. Kids 12 and under stay free.

Lumière with Inspirato

118 Lost Creek Lane, Telluride

970-369-0400

lumierewithinspirato.com

A full-service residence hotel located steps from the gondola at Mountain Village, the municipality located above the town of Telluride. Rates from around $600 per night.

Where to eat

Petite Maison

219 W. Pacific Ave., Telluride

970-728-7020

petitemaisontelluride.com

Contemporary French cuisine fine dining with extensive wine list and trendy cocktails. Entrees start at $38.

Maggie’s Kitchen

703 Main St., Ouray

970-325-0259

ourayco.org/maggies-kitchen

A burger joint where writing on the walls is encouraged and the line for the ordering counter is probably out the door. Burgers, which come with fries, from $9.50.

What to do

Telluride Outside’s Imogene Pass tour

121 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride

800-831-6230

tellurideoutside.com

The half-day tour climbs Tomboy Road from Telluride to the 13,114-foot summit known as Imogene Pass. The rough road travels through the Tomboy mine site, now a relic but once one of the area’s most famous mines. Adults, $110; kids 12 and under, $100.

Telluride Canopy Adventure

565 Mountain Village Blvd., Telluride

800-778-8581

tellurideskiresort.com/canopyadventure

Featuring five zip lines, two aerial bridges and two rappels, this zip-line tour goes from the top of the Village Express Chairlift and descends to the ski resort base. Prices start at $175 per person, with a minimum of three people and maximum of six. Minimum weight requirement of 80 pounds.

Basecamp Ouray’s Gold Mountain Via Ferrata

630 Main St., Ouray

970-318-8104

basecampouray.com

Ouray’s newest via ferrata rises about 1,400 feet up rock walls and past mining structures via metal footholds and handholds and two suspension bridges. Participants wear climbing harnesses and helmets and use a redundant safety system of clipping to fixed cables. Prices vary depending on group size; the summer rate for five people is $198 per person.

Information

visitouray.com

telluride.com

coloradoskyway.com


PLEASE NOTE

Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.

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