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.

Ten great things to do in Yellowstone during the winter

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkAs many travelers know, Yellowstone National Park is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the entire world. It deftly blends beautiful landscapes, fascinating geothermal activity, and an amazing abundance of wildlife to give a unique experience that has to be seen to be believed. During the summer months, the park is warm, lush, and green but overrun with tourists. Last year the park set a number of attendance records, which can, at times, bring traffic jams and crowded accommodations to Yellowstone. But in winter, the park is a whole different place, and for those adventurous enough to visit, it delivers a whole new level of adventure and fun. Here are ten great things to do in Yellowstone in the winter.

Enjoy the Wide Open Spaces
Yellowstone averages about 3 million visitors per year, but most of them arrive during the summer months. In fact, the winter only sees about 100,000 visitors in total, which means it is far easier to find a place to stay and you won’t have to battle long lines while taking in the sights. The place is so quiet that you might set out on a trail and not see anyone else all day long, which is likely to only happen during the quiet days of winter.

Go Snowshoeing in the Geyser Basin
in terms of winter sports, snowshoeing is one of the easiest to pick up. If you can walk, you can probably snowshoe. Strap a pair of snowshoes to your feet and head out for a hike through Yellowstone’s famous Upper Geyser Basin, where you’ll not only be treated to eruptions by Old Faithful, but a number of other fantastic geothermal anomalies. This region of the park has the highest concentration of geysers and hotsprings, and even during the winter they spew steam and water from the ground. Besides Old Faithful, you’ll also find the Castle, Daisy, Grand, and Riverside Geysers, all of which have fairly predictable intervals to their eruptions. Snowshoes help you to navigate through the deep winter powder and allow you to get up close and personal to these amazing hot spots.Witness a Winter Eruption of Old Faithful
You don’t have to go snowshoeing to enjoy Old Faithful in the winter. It is an easy walk from the new visitor center that opened late last year. The building is an excellent place to stay warm, and learn about the geysers, while you wait for the next eruption, which occurs every 91 minutes, give or take ten. During the summer, it is not uncommon to have huge crowds gathered around the boardwalk to witness the old girl go off, but in the winter, the crowds are sparse at best. For a truly isolated Old Faithful experience, wander out after dark. I did this on a recent trip, and there were just eight of us on hand to watch.

Spend the Night at the Snow Lodge
Yellowstone’s Snow Lodge, located near Old Faithful, is one of just two hotels that are open for the winter months. What makes the Snow Lodge unique however is that it can only be reached aboard a snow mobile or a snowcoach, which is a touring van converted to tank treads that enable it to travel through deep snow. Completed in 1999, the Snow Lodge is a modern, comfortable inn that pays homage to the old school “park-itecture” that is prevalent around Yellowstone, while creating its own identity at the same time. The Snow Lodge is a perfect base of operations for visitors who want to spend a few days in the park enjoying the snowy playground to its fullest.

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkGo Wildlife Spotting in Lamar Valley
Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley is often called North America’s Serengeti thanks to the large numbers of wildlife that inhabit the region. While many of those creatures are on display during the summer, it is far easier to spot them in the winter, thanks to the copious amounts of snow on the ground. Additionally, many of the creatures that inhabit the mountainous regions of the park move to lower altitudes during the winter in search of food. That means you’re more likely to see elk and big horn sheep in the colder months along with the usual large numbers of bison. Additionally, sharp-eyed travelers may also catch a glimpse of fox, coyotes, and even wolves on the prowl in Lamar Valley. Don’t expect bears however, as most are spending the winter months in a peaceful slumber.

Visit Lower Yellowstone Falls by Snow Mobile
The Lower Yellowstone Falls are truly one of the most beautiful and iconic landmarks in the entire park. During the winter months, the Falls succumb to the cold weather, freezing solid for weeks on end. But even in their frozen state, the Falls are breathtaking to see and worth a visit. One of the best ways to do just that is aboard a snow mobile, which can be rented at both the Snow Lodge and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. Travel on snow mobiles in Yellowstone is highly regulated and a guide is required at all times, but it also allows you to visit places that are not normally accessible in the winter months. Once hired, the guide will take you through the snowy backcountry, which will reveal a number of spectacular sights along the way to the Falls, which are of course the ultimate prize.

Go Ice Skating!
Visitors to Yellowstone in the winter can take part in some traditional seasonal activities as well. For instance, both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have skating rinks on the premises, which means you can hit the ice without having to wander far from the toasty confines of your lodge. Simply drop by the front desk at either location to pick up your skates. You’ll be pulling triple axles before you know it.

Winter in Yellowstone National ParkLearn to Cross Country Ski
Cross country skiing is one of the best winter activities that a traveler can ever experience, especially when visiting a setting as breathtaking as Yellowstone. There is something extremely sublime about gliding along through a fine, powdery snow with the Rocky Mountains looming high over head. It also happens to be a fantastic workout, but one that can require a little instruction and experience first. Fortunately, you can take a lesson at both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hotel, and then jump on a groomed trail not far from either location. After a little practice, you’ll be zipping along effortlessly in no time.

Soak in a Hot Spring
After spending a full day of playing in the snow, why not warm up with a dip in a natural hot spring? Yellowstone’s Boiling River, located not far from Mammoth, is one of the few places in the park where you can actually do just that, and while it can be quite crowded at other times of the year, during the winter it is easy to relax in the warm waters. The river is warm enough to keep you comfortable even in the the coldest conditions, just be sure to keep warm, dry clothes on hand for when you climb out. Brrrr!

Enjoy a Warm Drink by a Warm Fire
What’s the best way to cap an active day in the park? Easy! Pull up a comfortable chair and relax by the fire with a good book and a warm drink. Both the Snow Lodge and Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel have wonderful fire places inside the building, and whether you prefer a hot chocolate or a hot buttered rum, you’ll find sitting by the fire to be a perfect ending to a perfect day in Yellowstone.

If you do visit the park in winter, be sure to pack your cold weather gear and your adventurous spirit. You’ll need both.

A weekend of Mammoth proportions

I glance at my watch; it’s roughly 11am and I’m halfway into the flight from San Jose to Mammoth Lakes, California. The turboprops on Horizon Air’s Bombardier Q400 churn less than 27,000 ft above the immense snow-covered Sierras. The view is remarkable, and the gradual transition from green rolling hills to sharp white ridges is memorable.

Over the drone of the propellers, a husky voice belonging to our bleached blonde flight attendant moves down the aisle with a strange choice of words: “Can I get you to drink?”. A quick survey in the cabin reveals a mixture of young, savvy professionals with shirts and bags that show the markings of Google, Sun, and Adobe. Further down, there’s a smattering of couples with small children and a father-son pair. 11am does seem a little early for drinks, but the mood is festive and a few passengers oblige to the attendant’s propositions in an attempt to usher in the weekend on the right note.

The flight is quick and easy, and just two hours after touching down at Mammoth Lake’s quaint airport, I’m in full snow gear and comfortably admiring the fresh powder from Mammoth Mountain’s Panorama Gondola. Board in hand, I unload at the top of the 11,053ft peak; a height that qualifies Mammoth as the highest ski resort in the state of California and lends itself to an average of 400″ inches of annual snowfall.

The views from the top of the peak are nothing less than picture perfect. The mountain is nestled 3 hours south of Yosemite National Park, 2 hours north of the highest mountain in the 48 states, and is officially part of the Ansel Adams Wilderness area; named in the famous photographer’s honor due to his involvement in inspiring the federal protection and preservation of the land.

By the time night falls on my first day, I’m whisked to the quaint lakeside Tamarack Lodge for dinner with the rest of the journalists that have been assembled by the mountain for the weekend. The dining room glows with soft light; there are a limited number of tables, no more than 12, which adds to the restaurant’s charm and cozy atmosphere. The wine is only trumped by the tender bluefin tuna and delicious blueberry pie, and the meal ends with a farewell from the enthusiastic French Chef. He’s a man that obviously loves his work and takes pride in catering to such an intimate set of diners.

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The next day proves to be even more eventful than the first. The morning is spent hopping around the mountain, looking for the best untouched patches of last week’s snowfall. For lunch, a private snowcat tour has been arranged to take us to a vista that overlooks Mammoth’s postcard-friendly peaks known as the Minarets. It’s stormy and gusts of snow threaten to spoil our lunch, but a few brave souls embrace the cold and eat a spread of marinated chicken and salad at the scenic area’s picnic tables. Through the breaks in the low clouds, we catch glimpses of the peaks and imagine what the scene would be like in all its glory on a clear day.

In the afternoon, we’re led on a guided snowmobile tour that weaves through cleanly carved trails to an open snowfield where the group is encouraged to let the throttle rip, bouncing through crisscrossed tracks in six foot deep snow. After drinks and snacks at the Yodler, a local favorite for aprés ski, I force myself to shake off the burn in my legs and bundle up for the evening’s full moon snowshoe hike.

As tired as I was, I really wasn’t expecting too much out of the hike, but it turned out to be the pinnacle of the entire trip. An older couple that run the cross-country skiing center were our guides for the night; Uli (from Switzerland) and Robin were extremely charming and knowledgeable about the Sierra region and had facts at the ready around every corner.

I was taken aback by the stillness of Mammoth’s forests at night; the intensity of the brightest full moon of the year; the view overlooking Mammoth Lakes and the village far below. All of it came together to be a completely relaxing but genuinely memorable outing.

I thought I could get away with ending the day there, but was mistaken by the fact that we still had a round of nightlife hotspots to see. One of the great things about the nightlife in Mammoth is that most of the popular gathering spots are all in walking distance from one another and from the Village; the residential / commercial development that the Mountain has established in the last few years as the pseudo-hub for mountain activity and social activity.

By the end of the weekend, I exhausted and impressed that Mammoth could offer so much activity in to one weekend. The town has still managed to retain the feel and personality of a small mountain community, while readily establishing itself as a major destination for outdoor action. If you haven’t given Mammoth a second thought due to its location, then check out Horizon Air’s flights out of Los Angeles and San Jose.

You may come away sore, but you won’t leave disappointed.

Stephen Greenwood ventured out to Mammoth Lakes on a trip sponsored by the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. No editorial content was guaranteed and Stephen was free to openly report on his experiences (pending his survival of the outdoor winter activities that demand motor skills he generally lacks).

Alternatives to skiing: spa, anyone?

In the interests of disclosure and transparency, I don’t ski. I did a little bit of snowboarding 15 years ago, but it didn’t amount to much. So, when I write about the ski deals that come across my desk, it’s not lost on me that some people don’t hit the slopes. The latest package from The Lodge at Vail, a RockResort, has something for those of us who don’t stumble down the mountain. The “Spa, Savor & Snowshoe” deal is for everyone else. Guests can work up some hunger while snowshoeing, get those taxed muscles rubbed down at the spa and tie off the day with a three-course dinner at the Wildflower restaurant.

At $423 a night, the savings is around 25 percent, but you need to book a three-night stay. You’ll get a $300 spa credit, half-day guided snowshoe tour and daily breakfast for two (along with the dinner at Wildflower).

It looks like you don’t need to be a skier to enjoy winter in Colorado!

Visit Yellowstone Offseason

Yellowstone National Park is one of the most popular destinations in the U.S., welcoming nearly 3 million visitors per year. Most of those come during the summer months, when the weather is consistently beautiful, and the travel season is in full swing. But this article suggests that we should go now, to beat the crowds, and enjoy springtime in the Northern Rockies, where no matter what time of the year it is, Old Faithful erupts, whether anyone is watching or not.

The Park covers more than 2.2 million acres, spreading out across Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. It was first established back in 1872, and is home to hundreds of species of birds and animals, including sixty distinct species of mammals, such as elk, moose, bison, wolves, and bear. Yellowstone also contains diverse terrain, with rivers, lakes, canyons, and mountains dominating the landcsape.

Of course, all of these natural wonders are also what attracts the large summer crowds, which makes visiting the park in the offseason such a popular idea for outdoor enthusiasts. For instance, even though it is spring, and temperatures are on the rise, there is still plenty of snow in the high country, allowing for some late season skiing or snow shoeing. At lower altitudes, the trails are now open, granting access to much of the park, and since the crowds haven’t arrived yet, there is plenty of solitude as well.

The article offers some excellent links to websites that cover Yellowstone from top to bottom and have plenty of great tips on how to maximize your visit, including the best places to stay, both inside and out of the park. Beat the rush in Yellowstone. Go before Memorial Day weekend, to have the park mostly to yourself.