Winter Camping: Sweet Solitude at Spruce Hole
As part of her New Year's resolution to camp every month this year, Katie Arnold took her family to Spruce Hole, a 20-foot diameter canvas-walled yurt in the San Juan's Rio Grande National Forest
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We’re 50 yards up the snowy trail from our truck, skiing into Spruce Hole Yurt, when my first mantra comes to me: This was a really stupid idea. I’m towing a 30-pound Burley bike trailer crammed with 25 pounds of gear. Up ahead, Steve’s breaking trail through a foot of fresh powder, hauling a Chariot trailer loaded with 65 pounds of little girl. We still have two and a half miles and 500 vertical feet to go. This was a really stupid idea.
Raising RippersKatie Arnold and guests write regularly on family adventure and bringing up active children.
As part of our New Year’s resolution to camp every month this year and detach from the digital world, at least for a few days, I’d found Spruce Hole by chance online. A 20-foot diameter canvas-walled yurt in the Rio Grande National Forest in southern Colorado, it sits in solitude at 10,600 feet at the base of Pinrealosa Mountain, with fine access to low-angle ski touring and thousands of acres of wilderness. Proximity to the road was its selling point: two and a half miles up a gently graded, unplowed forest road with minimal elevation gain. Easy, I thought.
Actually, that was my first mantra. Two and a half miles, I’d say to myself when I thought about the yurt and our upcoming trip. Only two and a half miles! I said it aloud to friends and to Steve when the ski kits arrived and I was trying to psyche him up to spend the next two hours in the carport assembling the trailers that would carry our daughters, ages two and four, to the yurt. Only two and a half miles! My mantra was imbued with breezy confidence, and I see now, the first seeds of doubt. When I said it to the bike mechanic at REI who helped us put skis on our bike trailers a week before the trip, he narrowed his eyes and cocked his head in a disconcerting way and replied, “Two miles? Are you going to be able to get out and try pulling these trailers before then?”
Now that we’re finally out here, yoked to the trailers and all our gear that we should have culled ruthlessly before stuffing it in, two and a half miles seems like an eternity. We might as well be skiing to the moon. This was a really stupid idea. I can hear the girls fussing and jockeying for space in the Chariot. Steve raises his voice but the wind carries it away. I’m skiing more slowly than I ever thought possible. Not skiing, really, but trudging.
Within the first half an hour, we stop twice so the girls can tumble out into the snow, mittenless in the 20-degree day, to pee and beg for snacks; the banana chips I’d used to placate them lie scattered and soggy on the floor of the Chariot. Both times I ask Steve, “How far do you think we’ve gone?” like a restless kid on a car trip, and both times he answers, “About a mile.” This does not include the many times I grind to a slow, defeated halt to catch my breath and send it into the shooting, scraping pain in my hips, rubbed almost raw by the waist belt. This was a really stupid idea.
In my delirium, I begin to take a haphazard inventory of the contents of the Burley. Sleeping bags for the girls, sheets for us. Headlamps, lots of layers. A six-pack of beer, in cans. Bottle of Trader Joe’s merlot. We’re used to river trips, where the current does all the heavy lifting, but now I understand the point of Ramen noodles. Light as air, one pouch is a much more sensible solution to lunch than the 15 pounds of food I must surely be dragging behind me, including cold cuts, a dozen wraps, a container of pesto, and an enormous Tupperware of leftover Thai noodles. This was a really stupid idea. We should have brought Ramen.
But the day is brilliantly sunny, the new snow albino-white, and the sky a deep lapis. On either side of the trail, we can see the ghostly, swooping outlines of last week’s ski turns. Soon, but not soon enough, we pass through a green gate with a sign saying “Road Closed,” that signals our final half mile approach to the yurt. This is Pippa’s cue to climb out of the trailer, retrieve her Madshus Snowpup skis from the back of my trailer, and make the final push to the yurt on her own. We left the truck at one. Now it’s nearly three. Right on schedule.
“The yurt!” Pippa exclaims as she rounds a slight bend, following Steve’s tracks. There it is, a few hundred feet off the trail, up a small, steep rise, which, to my raw hipbones and blistering heels, seems both perverse and entirely objectionable. Somehow the Burley feels heavier now than when we’d started, or maybe it is just my broken body. No question, the “easy” two-mile ski in was harder than a 50K ultramarathon. Still, when I shuffle up the last pitch, Spruce Hole is a welcome sight: The domed, round yurt sits atop a wooden deck with steep stairs down to the ground. Below, an open-air wood-chopping “basement;” next door, a narrow wooden outhouse; out back, a half-collapsed snow cave and a steep hill for sledding. Pippa kicks off her skis and asks, “Is there a restaurant here?”
No, but inside the yurt is spacious and nicely laid out, with a whole wall devoted to a galley kitchen with built-in cabinets and counters stocked with pots, pans, dishes, practically its own spice shop, and a large container of leftover foodstuffs, including marshmallows, which we’d forgotten in Santa Fe. Along the back wall, two bunk beds with queen mattresses on the bottom and twins on top, a blanket chest piled with old magazines and board games. On the third wall, a woodstove, with piles of cut wood, and above which hangs the yurt’s coup de grace: a double-decker clothesline with dozens of pegs for drying damp socks and mittens, of which we now have many. And in the middle, a triangular-ish table is built into the yurt’s center posts, which extend up 10 feet to an old-fashioned swivel chair propped below a large dome skylight, our own private crow’s nest for watching the weather and scouting ski turns or a sled track down the Pinrealosa Mountain.
The thermometer on the deck reads 28, the thermometer inside, 30. The yurt has already fallen into the shadow of the Pinrealosa Ridge, Maisy’s sucking on wet, cold fingers, and it seems urgent to get a fire going. We quickly make ourselves at home, hauling gear up the steps, melting a pot of snow on the stove for hot chocolate, and before long the temperature has crept up to a balmy 45 and we are playing Apples to Apples in our down jackets and wool hats and slippers. Ski clothes droop from the clothesline, the woodstove purrs and clacks, and Thai noodles simmer on the stove. It’s an easy homecoming.
Later, after the girls are snoring, head-to toe, in a bottom bunk, Steve and I take our customary places beside the fire to read and write by headlamp. The full moon blazes in through the door like a beacon, drowning out the stars and turning the whole forest white. I’ve found a creased, pocket-size copy of Walden with some missing pages and open by chance to the famous lines: “I came to the woods to live deliberately … to front only the essential facts of life. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” It has been more than 20 years since I first read Thoreau’s oft-quoted words in college Am. Lit. class, wide-eyed and impressionable, but now in the little yurt in the woods, I can plainly see how they left their mark on me. For the next two days, Spruce Hole will be the perfect place to try.
All night, we sleep deeply, buried beneath down comforters and quilts, Steve getting up every so often to load the stove with logs. Inside, it never drops below 50; outside, before the sun hits the yurt, it’s negative two. It’s clear for now, but yesterday the forecast was calling for snow, so after an eggs-and-beans breakfast we set out on a morning ski tour. Towing Maisy in the Chariot, Steve breaks trail past the yurt, with Pippa gliding steadily along on her XC skis. The road winds through the forest, now and then affording views east to the actual Spruce Hole, a sprawling oval meadow, probably one square mile, ringed by spruce trees. Blanketed in snow, it looks like it might have once been a lake, or at least a boggy place too wet for trees to grow. We slog up the ridge a ways, both Pippa and Maisy in the trailer now, and me pushing awkwardly from behind. There are telemark turns out here for sure, but today, with kids in tow, we are just happy to be blazing through these peaceful woods under a lighter load.
Later, after lunch when Steve and the girls are napping, I skin straight up the ridge behind the yurt, a sizeable effort that yields exactly five turns. No matter. I’m feeling the tug of Spruce Hole, so I put my skins on again and ski out along the morning’s trail to the edge of the Hole, then cut east out in the open, along a mostly-buried fence line. It’s squalling now, the wind kicking up little powder cyclones down the middle of the meadow. I have the intention of circumnavigating it completely, but the sky is pelting down snow, and I cut instead across the center, breaking trail the whole way through the wild, grey day. A few days ago, a friend of mine died after a short illness. She has been heavy on my mind for the past month, but out here in Spruce Hole, I sense a lightening. It seems exactly the kind of place Margaret’s spirit might want to be: vast and white and beautiful, a kind of heaven on Earth. I stop to write her name in the snow with my ski pole, and feel her answer me back in a sudden gust of wind.
I’m not a religious person, but there’s something holy about Spruce Hole. Maybe it’s the effort required to reach it or the tattered pocket Thoreau or the rare simplicity of sitting around a wood table playing Yahtzee with your four-year-old, but this pocket of wilderness is clearly sacred space. Others feel it, too: Entries in the guest books, dating back a few years, celebrate little flashes of the miraculous: night skiing under a full moon, building snow caves, laying down a fast sledding track on the hill behind the yurt, playing Twister in front of the wood stove. All of us at Spruce Hole, we are sucking out the marrow.
That night after dinner, we bundle the girls up and go out for a night ski, Maisy in the trailer beneath a quilt and Pippa on her skis behind Steve. It’s seven degrees. I want to go back to Spruce Hole, so we follow my tracks, which have mostly filled in with snow, and emerge from the forest just as the full moon is rising. There are animal prints all over the place—fox, coyote, snowshoe hare—but just as it was this afternoon, Spruce Hole is empty and still. We stay there on the edge for a few moments, counting planets and calling for owls, not wanting to go back but knowing we should before the girls get too cold.
It’s our last night at Spruce Hole. In the morning we’ll pack up our gear, take a few last sledding runs, clean the yurt, and ski out. The trailers will be lighter, if only a little, and Pippa will ski more than halfway on her own, before climbing on the back of the Burley to mush her way home. Maisy will sleep in the Chariot, and our tracks will carry us downhill, in half the time, back to our truck at La Manga Pass. For now, though, the girls are sleeping, the fire is humming, the socks are drying, and we are happy in the heart of Spruce Hole.