Silverton Mountain
Courtesy Silverton Mountain
Silverton Mountain
Start your backcountry trip at Silverton Mountain, where you can access untouched terrain and some of the steepest runs in Colorado. (Photo: Courtesy Silverton Mountain)

This New Backcountry Ski-Hut System Is Epic

Europe has always had something America doesn’t: an Alpine ski route ­connecting a network of full-service, premium lodges. That’s about to change, as San Juan Mountain Guides in Ouray, Colorado, launches the ultimate hut-to-hut tour in a stunning setting. We sent Devon O’Neil to check it out.

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Perched on skis at the top of Bullion King Basin, I admired a wide barrel of spring corn glistening below me. I’d been waiting for this moment. It was my reward for suffering through a five-hour traverse between two backcountry cabins in southwest Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. We started that morning at the OPUS Hut near Ophir Pass, just west of Silverton, which we’d skinned up to the previous afternoon. Now we prepared to descend to Highway 550 on Red Mountain Pass, the second day of a new five-day, 27-mile adventure between three luxurious huts in the range.

As I pushed off the ridge and embraced the lightness of gliding down perfectly softened corn, my worries dissolved. No longer was I feeling the burn of a newly formed ankle blister or the hunger pangs brought on by my failure to pack enough snacks. I tucked into my turns with little effort, arcing down one of America’s most spectacular backcountry skiing playgrounds, knowing that a hot meal and a shower awaited that night.

Multiday ski tours between full-­service cabins, which allow guests to travel light and fast and sample big-mountain turns along the way, have existed in Europe, Canada, and other great ranges around the world for years—most notably, the Haute Route between Chamonix, in France, and Zermatt, in Switzerland. But in the U.S., hut-to-hut skiing has mainly been a DIY endeavor. You had to bring your own food, prepare your own meals, and be strong enough to skin long stretches under the weight of a 40-to-50-pound pack. As outdoor enthusiasts in greater numbers ­discover the magic of backcountry skiing, and demand grows for well-stocked refuges, that’s starting to change, especially in the San Juans.

Red Mountain Pass
Red Mountain Pass (Liam Doran)
Peaks in the San Juans
Peaks in the San Juans (Liam Doran)

Fourteen of Colorado’s 56 peaks above 14,000 feet are located in the San Juans, with a seemingly infinite menu of their jagged, lower-elevation cousins to choose from. The range, much of it protected wilderness, encompasses thousands of square miles and has been a proving ground for adventurers for decades. This is especially true for skiers, but because of the San Juans’ complexity and scale—sharp and convoluted, with enormous relief and avalanche-prone angles—the mountains are challenging to navigate safely before spring. Once the snowpack stabilizes, many of the more inaccessible zones become connectable via high-alpine traverses across a series of planar slopes. Even better, they’re in close proximity to 11,018-foot Red Mountain Pass, a ski-touring epicenter that divides the Uncompahgre and San Juan ­National Forests.

Last April, I joined a test trip of sorts for a new guided expedition being offered by San Juan Mountain Guides (SJMG), one of a handful of outfitters taking advantage of the amenities between Silverton and Ouray. The tour starts with one night at OPUS Hut (short for Ophir Pass Ultimate Ski), proceeds nine miles to Red Mountain Alpine Lodge for two nights, then climbs over a rarely traveled hump of the San Juans for six miles to reach the newest attraction in the lot, Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge, for a final night.

“You just can’t do this kind of trip any other place in the U.S., not with such premium skiing and service,” says SJMG’s Nate Disser, who is certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations. He moved to Ouray—the ice-climbing capital of America—in 2012, after starting his Colorado guiding career in Durango. “I can distinctly remember, as a young man driving into this range, just being like, Holy shit. This is it. Whatever I’m going to do in the mountains, I’m going to do it here,” he says.

Disser, 43, bought SJMG nine years ago, when it had a half dozen guides working year-round. Most of their winter gigs at the time were in ice climbing. Since then, following the boom in backcountry skiing, the winter guiding percentage has shifted to a ratio of 60/40 snow to ice, Disser says.

Heading to the pickup point
Heading to the pickup point (Liam Doran)
Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge
Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge (Liam Doran)

The San Juans’ mining history has always been a boon to hut-tripping skiers. In the 1880s, Highway 550, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Highway (reportedly, it cost a million bucks per mile to build), connected a number of thriving silver mines and settlements between Silverton and Ouray. As that industry dried up and the once buzzing hubs became ghost towns, the communities that supported them struggled to fill the economic void. Hundreds of prospecting claims along Red Mountain Pass sat vacant, their value waning by the year. Starting in the mid-1970s, however, intrepid adventurers began to see opportunity in those vacant claims. The St. Paul Lodge, on the east side of the pass, was built by a British mountaineer named Chris George and opened in 1978 to cater to backcountry travelers. A live-in hutkeeper (usually George) prepared meals. In the past decade, at least four other huts have opened along the highway, which runs north-south for about 25 miles through some of the most scenic and precipitous roadside terrain in the United States.

Our first stop, OPUS, built by a hardy backcountry skier named Bob Kingsley, opened in 2010 and sleeps 20 guests. It has world-class (albeit often avalanche-raked) ski slopes in every direction, solar-powered radiant heat, and a sign reminding visitors to turn off their cell phones, lest anyone forget why they came. We accessed it via a 3.5-mile trek up Ophir Pass Road.

The next morning, our group of two guides and eight skiers set out on skins under a bluebird sky with packs as small as 32 liters—about half the volume of my normal hut-trip haul. Soon we’d affixed crampons and booted up a col to the top of Paradise Basin, a towering amphitheater. We then descended north to Columbine Lake—the second of five basins we would travel through en route to Red Mountain Pass. We skied across long shelves ringed by giant cliffs, all the while gaping at the rugged ridgelines above us. In my notebook, so as not to forget, I jotted, “Enormity of landscape!”

The San Juan backcountry
The San Juan backcountry (Liam Doran)
Pagos Springs, Colorado
Pagos Springs, Colorado (Chip Kalback/Cavan)

Our descent of Bullion King ejected us onto Highway 550, not far from Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, a luxury chalet at 11,000 feet that opened in 2018. The timber-frame cabin sleeps 22 and is equipped with Wi-Fi and three bathrooms. But the surroundings are why we spent two nights here. There is no better place from which to launch an attempt of Red Mountain Number 3, one of the most popular summits in the south San Juans, with spectacular skiing off every side. We spent the next day hunting corn atop a stable spring snowpack until our legs felt mushy.

After rising on day four, sore and sunbaked, we embarked on our last big tour, heading up Senator Beck Basin toward cliff-ringed ­Savage Basin, which stares down into Telluride. A dozen fourteeners filled the skyline, and Utah’s La Sal Mountains were faintly visible to the west. The wind howled as we removed our skins on an exposed ­saddle at 13,300 feet. Disser then led us in the direction of Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge, tucked away in the forest somewhere far below and out of sight.

Owner Eric Johnson greeted us upon arrival. A rock climber and former chef de cuisine at Flagstaff House Restaurant in Boulder, Johnson spent three years turning a decrepit 1980s cabin into a modern oasis before opening it for business in 2020. The 2,100-square-foot lodge, raised on a pair of mining claims just seven miles southwest of Ouray, sleeps 17; it runs on solar power and spring water that bubbles out of the mountain. A creek gurgles past the deck, not far from the wood-fired hot tub.

Some of our group headed out for an evening ski, flanked by the toothy summit of 13,036-foot United States Mountain and the Sneffels Range in the distance. Later, after a feast of lasagna, conversation turned to what the trip should be called—a debate that had been ongoing. Suggestions included the San Juan Haute Route, the San Juan Basin Bounce, and the Interconnect, but we eventually settled on the Million Dollar Traverse. “I just like the ring of it,” Disser said.

This all-inclusive, four-night trip costs $1,999. Solid fitness and skiing ability are required.