Culinary Vacations Not ‘Cookie-Cutter’ With Destination Discoveries

cooking classAs we’ve continued to report at Gadling, a new generation of culinary tours is on the rise. Food-loving travelers want more than generic cooking classes that teach how to make pad thai in Thailand or risotto in Tuscany. And a few companies – such as Destination Hotels & Resorts, North America’s fourth largest hotel management company – are complying by offering tours and classes that focus more on culture, locality and experiential elements.

With the launch of Destination Discoveries, hotel guests can tour the on-site apiary at Kirkland, Washington’s, The Woodmark, before taking a honey-themed cooking class with Chef Dylan Giordan. On Maui, personalized farm tours enable participants to harvest ingredients for a private class in their accommodation, as well as visit producers and sample handcrafted foods from the island.

The adventures aren’t just limited to food. There are also art, literature and active themes that reflect a sense of place; fly-fishing lessons in Lake Tahoe; nordic pursuits in Vail; art classes in Santa Fe; or a cultural and historic tour of Walden Pond via the Bedford Glen property in Boston. Here’s to more hotel groups doing away with homogenous travel.

[Photo credit: Destination Hotels & Resorts]

The 10th Mountain Division Huts: Colorado’s Historic Legacy To Outdoor Lovers

Since moving back to Colorado last August, I’ve actively tried to gain more experience in backcountry pursuits. I’ve been a downhill skier all my life, but prohibitive costs and weekend warrior traffic are a drag. At this point in my life, I also find more enjoyment in the contemplative, peaceful nature of snowshoeing and nordic skiing.

My ultimate goal for the backcountry has always been to explore Colorado’s extensive and historic 10th Mountain Division Huts. It’s a long-standing source of shame that I’ve lived in this state off-and-on for 17 years, and have never stayed in a hut (pictured: McNamara Hut).

The non-profit hut system was established in the early ’80s by 10th Mountain Division veteran Fritz Benedict and a handful of other Aspen locals. Its origins date back to pre-World War II, however, when the U.S. War Department began training mountain troops for combat. Camp Hale, located near Colorado’s Eagle River Valley, was selected as the army training grounds for over 11,000 men, in December, 1942.

In January, 1945, the 10th Mountain Division found themselves in Italy, where, according to the website, “they played a crucial role in several battles.” During this time, many of the Division had developed a shared love of the mountains and Colorado. Post-war, a number of 10th Mountain vets settled here; some were instrumental in the founding of ski towns such as Vail and Aspen.

The hut system is in part a memorial to the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division, and some of the early huts were built with donations from the family and friends of fallen vets. Today, the huts rely upon donations (click here to contribute) for construction, maintenance, and operation, which help to keep overnight fees low. The average bed runs about $30/night; it’s also possible to book the entire hut for a flat fee. It’s best to make reservations months in advance since the huts fill up, but if you become a member (fees range from $25/year to $1,000/lifetime), you’ll be able to participate in the 10th Division reservations lottery, and book early.

The 10th Mountain manages and takes reservations for all 29 of their off-the-grid huts. They’re connected by 350 miles of suggested routes, and range from cabins located fairly close to trailheads, to serious backcountry locales. Some of the huts are owned and operated by the Braun and Friends hut systems, near Aspen, as well as Summit Huts Association, near Breckenridge; information on all can be found on the 10th Mountain website, huts.org.nordic skiingMy interest in the huts goes back to childhood; my dad is a WWII vet, and prior to enlisting, his dream was to be part of the 10th Mountain so that he could ski and work with horses (along with mules, the animals were used to transport gear and explosives over the Alps). Instead, he joined the infantry, and moved to Colorado to attend veterinary school at Colorado A & M (now CSU) on the G.I. bill.

Today, at 86, Dad is one of the world’s foremost experts on equine medicine and behavior, and until a couple of years ago, he was still skiing. My love of Colorado must be in my DNA, because my parents met at A & M, and I grew up skiing in Colorado (Dad, along with a few colleagues, also founded the Sierra Veterinary Medical Association, or SVMA, over 50 years ago; like him, it’s still going strong). So. My need to do a hut trip has perhaps been biological imperative.

In the final days of 2012, I visited Crested Butte with the express purpose of learning how to do alpine touring (AT). It’s a discipline of nordic skiing that involves wider skis with convertible bindings, which enable you to ski on a “fixed” or “free” heel. The boots can also be switched into “walk” or “ski” mode. In traditional cross-country skiing, unlike downhill skiing, only the toe is fixed to the binding, and the skis are narrower.

You can tour uphill with the aid of “skins,” which are self-adhesive, reusable fitted liners that adhere to the bottom of your skis. The outer surface has a fibrous covering, which provides traction so that your skis don’t slip. When you’re ready to ski downhill, you peel off the skins, and away you go.

Note that ideally, you should never attempt any backcountry pursuit alone, or at least not without having your avalanche certification. Plenty of people do it, and every season sees totally preventable deaths (see end of story for tips, and where to get certified).

To give AT a try, I hooked up with Crested Butte Mountain Guides (photos above and below, owner Jayson Simon-Jones) for a half-day trip ($125), led by part-time guide Amy Stevens. Amy is adorable, but also admirably tough (ask her to tell you about her fall from an 80-foot cliff some time). She schooled me on AT basics, and we embarked on a four-mile round-trip tour of the backcountry of the Snodgrass Trail, just past the ski area of Mt. Crested Butte.
alpine touring
It was a glorious, two-hour skin up to the Lookout, which provided us with a view of the tiny town of Crested Butte and surrounding peaks. By contrast, the trip down took a matter of minutes, since we were effectively downhill skiing. I was hooked, and immediately began plotting how I could do a hut trip, given my lack of experience.

Fast-forward to early March. I’d enlisted Scott Messina, longtime field operator for the 10th Mountain and an employee of Aspen Alpine Guides, to take me and a fellow hut-virgin, E, on an AT trip to the McNamara Hut, outside of Aspen. One of the first of two original huts, McNamara was built in 1982 as a memorial to Margy McNamara, whose husband, the late Robert McNamara, served as Secretary of Defense from 1961 to 1968. It sleeps 16 on its two floors (which include bunk and single beds, and one private double).
10th Mountain hut
After meeting at the 10th Mountain office in Aspen, Scott drove us a few miles up Red Mountain Road to the Upper Hunter Creek trailhead, in the White River National Forest. The hut itself is just under five miles away, in the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness, at 10,306 feet. A recent dump meant there was loads of snow, making this a particularly scenic trip.

We could only stay one night because the beds were booked, but it was enough to provide us with a taste. E and I both share bad backs, so our primary concern was how we’d fare packing in our sleeping bags and other gear, as well as food. The huts are solar-powered, with gas cooking equipment and compost toilets in the outhouses. You source water by melting snow in huge stockpots atop the wood-burning stoves (at right, Jackal hut, similar in appearance to McNamara)

The trip in, mostly uphill, is considered intermediate. E and I quickly overheated and shed layers every 10 minutes, but we were entranced by the beauty of our surroundings. We skinned through snow-covered meadows, into aspen groves, and up through forest thick with spruce, Douglas fir, and Lodgepole pine. There were bear claw marks on trees and ermine prints in the snow. This time of year, much of the wildlife is hibernating or lying low, but the McNamara is actually one of the few huts closed in summer because it’s in the midst elk calving grounds (it’s open Thanksgiving through April 30). As we climbed, Scott told us about the moose he’d seen the previous weekend in the nearby Maroon Bells.
aspen
We arrived at the hut– a most welcome site if ever there was one– approximately four hours after setting out. The first to arrive, we shoveled snow, lit the stove, and hauled in buckets of snow for water. The hut itself was more than just functional: it was a cozy wooden cabin that reflected the conviviality that defines the hut trip experience. There were rows of built-in beds; communal dining tables; a book shelf and board games, and an open kitchen. The outhouse was outside on a small back deck, and a side room was stacked full of cords of wood.

While we changed into warm, dry clothes and got settled, our hutmates began to straggle in. It had started to snow, and the sun was setting. We ended up with a friendly group of six snowshoers and skiers, and by night’s end, we were sharing our food and drink. I put together a cheese plate; handcrafted elk sausage was passed around; wine was poured, and beers were cracked. As the snow outside intensified, we sat around talking the outdoor life. Two of the group, a young couple, had spent the previous night sleeping in snow cave they’d dug (by choice). “It only took a few hours,” the female half of the couple said. Talk about a match made in heaven.

For dinner, I prepared a pasta dish for E and Scott (as a food writer, I had to prove to myself that it’s possible to eat well on a hut trip, even when one has a crapped-out back) While we cleaned up, the other groups moved in to prepare their dinners. Later, two young women prepared S’mores to order for the rest of us using the wood-burning stove (my eternal devotion to these ladies).
aspen
That generosity is characteristic of the hut trip mentality. Sure, people visit for romantic getaways (if sharing a cabin with up to 14 other people can be considered as such) or for a solo escape. You certainly don’t have to mingle or be an extrovert, but you’ll likely be depriving yourself of some great conversation and experiences if you don’t. It’s so rare these days to connect to other people in an environment that prohibits the beeping, blinking, ringing, honking distractions of daily life. A hut stay, for lack of any other description, is pure.

The next morning, we powered down breakfasts of instant oatmeal mixed with almond butter (my pre-hardcore workout fave), and looked in wonder from the front porch at the thick frosting of powder that coated the trees. Scott suggested we skin up the north face of Bald Knob, nearly 1,000 feet up from where we stood, so that we could have a downhill sesh before heading back to the trailhead. Despite E’s and my initial doubts about skinning a steep ascent, Scott was, as always, patient and encouraging, and distracted us with information about flora, fauna, and avi safety (he teaches certification classes). Before we knew it, we’d reached the summit.

It was thoroughly rewarding. We could look down upon the entire valley, and over the Elk Mountains. There was also a front moving in, so we stripped off our skins, converted our bindings and boots, and thigh-burned our way through unmarked powder back down to the hut.

By the time we made it back to our truck at the trailhead, it was a white-out, but that’s honestly the time I most enjoy running and cross-country pursuits (as opposed to downhill, in which I’m an utter wuss about weather). It’s like I’m in my own country, a place where the only sound is the whoosh of my feet moving through drifts of snow, and my own breath. For just a brief moment, the world is muffled and still, but my connection to it is far more tangible than that of my daily life spent behind a computer. It feels like a good day to be alive.
backcountry
How to safely experience the backcountry

  • Avalanches occur due to the convergence of a series of conditions. Never treat a backcountry outing casually, especially when these conditions are ripe.
  • If you’re not experienced at backcountry pursuits, get a guide or go with friends who have certification.
  • Always check conditions and let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back before heading out.
  • Have the proper avi gear with you, with will include a shovel, beacon, and probe.
  • Depending upon where you live, get a backcountry rescue card. The 10th Mountain offers CORSAR (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue) for $3.00/year, or $12.00/five years. To quote their site, “Money generated from the sale of these cards goes to the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund, which then provides reimbursement for expenses incurred during search and rescue missions.” It can not only mean the difference between life and death; it can save you and taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars in the event of a mishap. It’s the cost of a PBR; no excuses!

[Photo credits: McNamara and Jackal huts, 10th Mountain Division; skiers, Jayson Simon-Jones; aspen backcountry, Flickr user KR1212; Bald Knob, Laurel Miller; white-out, Flickr user Cangul]

Adventure Guide 2013: Crested Butte


Crested Butte
features incredible backcountry and extreme opportunities in a remote and captivating package. It’s also got more lift-accessed extreme terrain than anywhere else in the nation. You may need to purchase a ski-pass, but it’s all avalanche-controlled (what’s known as sidecountry, rather than backcountry). Few are the powder hounds who miss the constant threat of imminent burial under several tons of snow.

If you’re experienced at off-piste skiing, take the lift up, and hightail it into the sidecountry. If you’re experienced at backcountry, the Crested Butte region has no shortage of terrain; for an overnight, try booking one of the two huts in the neighboring historic mining town of Gothic through the Crested Butte Nordic Center. And if you want to get hardcore, hire the very excellent Crested Butte Mountain Guides to take you off the grid (they offer two-day backcountry clinics, avalanche classes, ice-climbing clinics, and mountaineering, as well as personalized and private half- and full-day trips).

Need more reasons? Crested Butte is one of the few surviving authentic ski towns left in the West. If funky former mining shacks-turned-pizzerias, snow tire-outfitted cruiser bikes and lopsided saloons (all in a three-block radius) are your thing, CB is sure to steal your heart.
Looking for something less extreme? Explore the 55-kilometer trail system put in by the Nordic Center. It has varied terrain and accommodates both cross-country skiers and snowshoers. You’ll need to purchase a pass from the center (an adult one-day pass, $15).

Competitive types will also love CB’s wacked-out winter festivals such as the Alley Loop, a 21k costumed Nordic race through the town’s back-alleys and trails, and the Grand Traverse, which takes competitors over the Elk Mountains from CB to Aspen (also a great option for backcountry enthusiasts).

In your recovery time, there are seasonal moonlight Yurt Dinners (ski or snowshoe in), as well as horseback riding, dogsledding and Snowcat driving lessons (seriously!).

Hotels

Crested Butte refers to the small, historic former mining town; Mt. Crested Butte, where the resort is located, is three miles away. There are amenities in both places; where you stay depends upon your needs. If you want ski-in access, luxury accommodations, or don’t care about nightlife, stay on the mountain. If you’re on a budget, looking to tear it up both on the slopes and in the bar, or want a more “local” experience, opt for town lodging. There’s a free Town Shuttle (look for the groovy, multi-colored, hand-painted blue and white buses) that runs until around midnight. After that, you’ll need to call Alpine Express shuttle service. Whatever you choose accommodation-wise, CB has lodging for every price point and taste.

Crested Butte International Hostel: Clean and quiet, but lacking in personality as hostels go, this is nevertheless a safe, inexpensive place for solo travelers, couples and families to stay. It’s right in town, and offers plenty of free parking. From $39.
visitcrestedbutte.com 615 Teocalli Avenue

Nordic Inn: This remodeled chalet-style property just reopened on December 15, under new ownership. The longest-operating lodge in Gunnison County, the 50-year-old Inn is just 500 yards from the slopes, and has a mellow, welcoming atmosphere, thanks to the friendly staff and roaring fire in the lobby. Half of the 28 rooms have been renovated, and come with plush down pillows and comforters, high-thread count sheets, boot dryers and rustic, Colorado beetle-killed pine ceilings. The remaining rooms, also slated for refurbishment, are an ode to ’80s grooviness, but are comfortable, bright and spacious. There’s also free shuttle service, continental breakfast, and Wi-Fi; pet-friendly and handicapped-accessible rooms also available. From $169. nordicinncb.com 14 Treasury Road

The Ruby of Crested Butte: Located in town, this six-room “luxury bed-and-breakfast” is one of two small accommodations in Crested Butte proper. If homey rooms with both vintage and modern touches and lots of sunlight are to your liking, you’ll love this sweet little inn. Legendary hot, organic breakfasts, free afternoon wine, pet-friendly rooms, and great packages add to its list of attributes. From $129.
therubyofcrestedbutte.com 624 Gothic Avenue

Pioneer Guest Cabins: If you’ve got AWD (ideally) and like your lodging off the beaten path, stay in one of eight adorable, fully-decked-out cabins 8 miles south of town. Located in the Gunnison National Forest along Cement Creek, the only neighbors you’re likely to see are fox, deer or elk. Cabins have either two or three beds. From $119.
pioneerguestcabins.com 2094 Cement Creek Road

Eat and Drink

The word is starting to get out that CB trumps even Aspen for the quality and diversity of its restaurants. From fine dining to sandwiches, there’s a lot to choose from. As unoriginal as some of the below listings may be, they’re here for a reason. You can’t argue with success – especially when people are willing to wait up to an hour for a pizza; it really is that good.

Izzy’s: If you’ve got time on your hands – because there’s always a line, and never enough seats at this micro-breakfast/brunch spot – this is the local’s favorite. When you see the golden latkes spilling over the edges of their plates, and tricked up breakfast bagels, egg dishes and sandwiches passing by, you’ll understand why.
facebook.com/pages/Izzys/149179161784362 218 Maroon Avenue

Lil’s Sushi Bar and Grill: Super-fresh (never frozen; fish is Fed-Ex’d in six days a week), seriously amazing sushi, and shrimp tempura that will leave you licking the plate (it’s all in the sauce, baby). There’s also plenty of goodness from the robata grill, but do yourself a favor: sit at the bar, and ask chef/owner Matthew Smith for whatever’s looking good that day. Happy hour yields some insane deals, including nigiri starting at $2.50 and rolls at $3.00, plus $3 well drinks, and $6 specialty cocktails and wine. Family-friendly, casual fine dining, with a diehard local following.
lilssushibarandgrill.com 321 Elk Avenue

The Secret Stash: Girl backpacks around world, and learns about food from her restaurant-owning Sicilian relatives. Girl meets boy who works in pizzeria, and moves to Crested Butte. Girl and boy open pizzeria in old, crazy-funky-boho ski house with crooked doorways and slanted ceilings, and upstairs seating floor cushions. A line forms out the door, and nearly 13 years later, nothing’s changed. This pizza will change your life. Hurry, because The Stash is moving to a new location this summer, so they can add another pizza oven and eliminate the wait. Personally, we’re sad to see it go. Never has patience felt like such a virtue.
stashpizza.com 21 Elk Avenue

Dogwood Cocktail Cabin: If a liquid dinner with some light snackage is your plan of action, this literal cabin on a side street is a goldmine in disguise. Wash down small bites such as tostadas, soft pretzels, or the more substantial blue cheese fondue with something from the extensive cocktail menu. Be patient, because mixing these babies takes time, but the rewards are sweet (or hot, bubbly, beery, or martini, as the case may be). Sip a Rosebud (vodka, rose water, cranberry, and sparkling wine) or the Juan Connery (Scotch, Pimm’s, chipotle bitters), in a candlelit atmosphere that’s rustic, yet seductive. Love.
thedogwoodcocktailcabin.com 309 Third Street

Getting Around

Crested Butte is approximately four-hour drive southwest of Denver, depending upon weather. While it’s more spread out and isolated than most ski areas, you can still get by without a car. If you fly into Gunnison-Crested Butte Airport, you can take the Alpine Express shuttle up-valley, and there’s a free Town Shuttle that runs every 15 minutes. To get around points south of town, there’s the free, Gunnison Valley RTA bus.

Adventure Tip

The sheer volume of backcountry in this remote region means you should take avalanche safety extra seriously (then again, when should you not?). Avoid heading out on your own, always let someone know where you’re going, and equip yourself with a beacon, probe and shovel. Avalanches are common here, so be sure you check in with ski patrol before embarking on any backcountry pursuits. Don’t try to be superhuman. Just be safe.

[Photo credit: WarzauWynn]

Adventure Guide 2013: Aspen

If you’ve ever yearned to visit Aspen, this is the time. Aspen is hot right now, fresh off the X Games, because it’s just opened its first sidecountry terrain (see below). The revamped Limelight Hotel is also making headlines for having the coolest après ski spot in town. If you crave adventure and think Aspen is out of your budget, time to reconsider: the hardcore outdoor opps are boundless, regardless of season.

Aspen’s got some of the best downhill skiing, lift-accessed extreme terrain, and parks-and-pipes in the country, even if lift prices are stiff. The key is to cash in on the incredible hotel/ski packages on offer at places like the Limelight or The Little Nell, or bunk at some of the surprising budget options in the area.

New this year is sidecountry terrain at Snowmass. The Burnt Mountain Expansion has added on 230 acres, bringing total skiable acreage to 3,362 – making it the second largest ski area in the state. The Roaring Fork Valley, which includes all four mountains of Aspen/Snowmass (Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass – the latter has a whopping 21 lifts), has some of Colorado’s best scenery, as well as a free, 60-mile Nordic trail system. You can also cross-country ski 18 miles down-valley, from Aspen to Basalt on the Rio Grande Trail (take the bus back if you’re tired).

If adventure is your thing, however, you’re going to want to head into the backcountry. Get your adrenaline pumping by mountaineering, ice-climbing (beginners can try this sport out at a waterfall just 10 minutes from downtown Aspen), or skiing/riding in the Maroon Bells Wilderness. For an overnight trip, cross-country ski to one of the historic 10th Mountain Division Huts (some are even accessible via chairlift, although they’re still in what’s considered backcountry).

If you’re in need of a not-too-tame recovery day, try taking a Snowcat Dinner Ride, or take a horse-drawn sleigh out to Pine Creek Cookhouse.

Hotels

Limelight Hotel: Formerly known as Limelight Lodge, Aspen’s sweetest, sleekest remodel, completed in 2010, this boutique property is just yards from the slopes. Sunny, spacious rooms are tasteful and subdued to better let the mountain take center stage.
The lobby, however, is the newest hot spot in town. Guests can avail themselves of the all-inclusive breakfast (think smoked salmon, waffles, and housemade granola), but après-ski locals, guests, and tourists alike descend for Aspen’s longest happy hour (3-7 p.m.), which includes free cookies and other snacks, $10 pizzas, drink specials and live music. Pet-friendly, wheelchair accessible, and kitchenette rooms available. From $285.
limelighthotel.com 335 S. Monarch Street

St. Moritz Lodge: Even if you’re not on a budget (but, let’s face it, all those toys cost a fortune, and you’re not planning to spend much time in your room, now are you?), this classic ski chalet is a cheerful slice of ’70s kitsch. With clean, bright rooms ranging from dorms to private rooms with or without shared bath or kitchenettes, the St. Moritz is the best deal in the Valley, and beloved for its friendly, homey atmosphere and plentiful free Continental breakfasts. And while you’ll definitely find the expected international backpackers and their ilk, the majority of the clientele is more aging ski bum and bohemian ski bunny. This is Aspen, after all. From $44.
stmoritzlodge.com 334 W. Hyman Avenue

Aspenalt Lodge, Basalt: If you have a car or don’t mind taking the shuttle, one of the Roaring Fork Valley’s best-kept secrets is this no-frills hotel located right on the Frying Pan River (there’s an outdoor hot tub, too). Basalt is a sweet little town, and one of the Valley’s most desirable (and tourist-free) places to live, thanks to the multitude of outdoorsy activities out the back door. The lodge is 20 minutes down-valley from Aspen; the RFTA transit stop is one block away and costs four dollars, one-way. From $99.
aspenalt.com 157 Basalt Center Circle, Basalt

Eat and Drink

Louis’ Swiss Bakery: Aspenites all know and love this old-school-style bakery, tucked within the ABC (Aspen Business Center) across from the airport. Swiss immigrant/skilled baker/rancher Felix Tornare turns out buttery pastry and the best meat pies (made with his grass-finished beef) on this side of the UK. The breakfast burritos are also the bomb, and provide all the fuel you need for a day on the slopes.
No website, closed Sundays; 400 Aspen Airport Business Center

The Meatball Shack: Since opening last June, this casual eatery and bar has been drawing crowds because it’s a hell of a bargain. Two heaping plates of delicious pasta (with meatballs, of course) and drinks will set you back just $50, and in Aspen, that’s not too shabby for a meal at a place with cloth napkins. Service is warm, the drinks are strong, and daily specials run the gamut from ribeye steak to sandwiches.
themeatballshack.com 312 S. Mill Street

Ajax Tavern: Located on the upper deck of The Little Nell Hotel, and steps from the Gondola, this is the spot to scope celebs if you care about that kind of thing. More important, it’s got a killer view, and the best après ski deal in town: a juicy burger served with Ajax’s famously addictive fries and a beer for just $15.
ajaxtavernaspen.com 685 E. Durant Avenue

Chefs Club: Aspen’s packed with great restaurants, but if you want to go big, this innovative, 8-month-old restaurant in the St. Regis Hotel is the place to do it. The menu changes seasonally, and is designed by a rotating cast of former Food & Wine Best New Chefs (Aspen is home to the famous FOOD & WINE Classic, held every June). Whether you order a la carte or spring for the tasting menu, be prepared to dine very well. If nothing else, have a drink; top mixologist Jim Meehan of New York’s PDT designs the seasonal cocktail menu, and you won’t be disappointed.
chefsclubaspen.com 315 E. Dean Street

Like most Colorado ski towns, you don’t need a car in Aspen. Most accommodations are walking distance to the slopes, or provide free shuttle service; the town transportation center at the base of the mountain makes getting out of Aspen-proper easy. RFTA transit runs the length of the entire Roaring Fork Valley, from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70; Colorado Mountain Express also provides round-trip transportation from DIA.

Adventure Tip

Best get up before the sun if you want to be the first to carve tracks in the backcountry; you’re going to have competition in this neck of the woods. Remember, safety first: never head out without telling someone where you’re headed (ideally, take a buddy with you), and carry an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel.


[Photo credit: Flickr user a4gpa]

Off The Beaten Winter Path In Colorado: Backcountry Dining At The Tennessee Pass Cookhouse

“We’re going to ski in to this place where you get lunch served in a yurt.”

My Colorado friends know what it takes to get me excited about life; combine an outdoor pursuit with eating and I am almost always game. I didn’t even need to know the details of where we were going. The fact that I was going to a restaurant in a backcountry setting was good enough.

Near Leadville, Colorado, which at an elevation of 10,152 feet is the highest incorporated city in the United States, the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center is the kind of place for outdoor enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and away from more common places like Aspen and Vail. From here you can snowshoe and Nordic ski on over 25 kilometers of set track trails (hike them in the summer of course) and if you want an experience with a little more speed, spend the day on the downhill slopes of Ski Cooper.

We arrived at the Nordic Center mid-morning, kicking things off with a thermos of coffee as we rented skis and boots.

“The trail is a little bare in spots, but you’ll be fine,” instructed one of the owners.

Apparently she assumed our nordic skiing skills were a little more fine tuned than we knew they were; nordic skiing on flat, green routes is one thing, slogging uphill on icy trails is quite another, even for those used to skiing downhill. But the sun was out, the sky was blue, and we had nowhere to be except for at a yurt at 1:30 for our lunch reservations.

In the winter, the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, which really is a full-scale restaurant in a yurt, is open for lunch and dinner, reservations required. As they put it, it’s “fine dining… backcountry style.” Is there anything better for the outdoor enthusiast?

The cookhouse is well equipped with a long list of wines and a few local beers. In the evenings, they serve up a four-course dinner for $80, and if you want to extend your backcountry experience, you can stay in one of the nearby sleeping yurts. Lunch is a little more low key, with entrees ranging from $10-17.

We skied the mile-long trail to the yurt, cresting over a hill and ending up with an overlook of the valley and the mountains behind. There are certainly worse places to eat lunch in the world.

“Who wants a beer?”

That seemed to be the appropriate choice, and with the help of a few extra layers that we had packed in, we took a seat on the yurt porch, outfitted with hefty picnic tables and torches made out of upcycled wine bottles. There are worse places to eat lunch.

A Cutthroat Porter (brewed by local Fort Collins Odell Brewing Company) was the perfect pairing for a cold day. And what goes best with a porter? A buffalo burger stuffed with feta cheese of course. I pulled out a dark chocolate bar for dessert (for outdoor adventures, it’s important to always have one on hand). After an hour of sitting outside, we warmed up by the stove inside the yurt, mentally prepping ourselves for what we knew would be an icy downhill for our return.

After looking at the map, we opted for Willa’s Way, which would take us on a loop trail, as opposed to skiing back on the trail we came in on. The main access trail to the cookhouse is frequented by staff driving back and forth on snowmobiles, meaning harder packed snow, and in the recent cold spell, very icy. We made a concerted effort to avoid Griz, marked in black as the most difficult course. Even those of us that like a challenge have our limits.

Willa’s Way meant a winding path downhill – challenging even for my expert downhill skier friends who are used to wider, more stable skis. But there is entertainment in challenge, and a few spills were merely cause for laughter. It’s hard not to feel good when you’re in the woods on a clear day. But that Willa … she’s a wily one.

Back at the Nordic Center, more coffee and one of Roxanne’s Cookies – a local favorite of the Tennessee Pass crew – for good measure. Lesson of the day: say yes to backcountry eating experiences, bring an extra layer, avoid Griz and always get the porter.