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.

A new twist on Spring Break at Las Animas

Trade those tequila body-shots for a more serene scene at the Las Animas Wilderness Retreat. This is the only boat-in lodge on the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico, and it is getting ready to redefine “spring break.” Keg-standing coeds are in short supply, but regular wildlife is not. Hiking and snorkeling are among the activities that will bring you back to nature in a relaxing environment.

If you’re interested in nature, you’ll find three orders of marine birds – arctic, temperate and tropical in the Las Animas area, as well as more than 50 species, including Blue Footed Boobies, Brown Pelicans, Royal Terns, Frigate Birds, Cormorants, Turkey Vultures and Osprey. While the animals are plenty, people are not. The remote, eco-friendly resort accommodates no more than 16 guests in eight beachside yurts. Each has a solar shower, covered patio and hammock.

Find an alternative to a hotel room

You can find a warm bed … and four normal walls … in just about any hotel room. So, if you’re looking to defy convention every step of the way, opt for a yurt, treehouse or prison, instead.

Unusual Hotels of the World (the name explains everything) says that you can crash in an igloo anywhere from Finland to Quebec, but be sure to bring a coat. Or, you can climb into bed after climbing into a treehouse. Out ‘n’ About Treesort in Cave Junction, OR and Winvian (near Litchfield, CT) are on the list.

Closed spaces are accommodated by any number of cave hotels. You can spelunk to the lounge in Turkey and Spain, or you can just go to Parthenon, AR, where the Beckham Creek Cave Haven can be found.

[Via Toronto Sun via Associated Press]

[Photo by Bill Janis]

Forgot your tent? Rent a yurt

Want to find the biggest collection of yurts outside of Mongolia? Head to Oregon’s state parks. Since the early 1990s, the state park system has installed 190 yurts in its campgrounds. 170 of those are in coastal areas where the weather can get nasty, especially during the winter. The sturdy, circular, canvas-covered structures provide a more comfortable experience than the average tent. Rental costs run about $30 per night.

Yurts remain an extremely popular option long after the novelty should have worn off. More than 15 years in state parks and still in high demand. In fact, the main problem with the Mongolian tents: they are usually booked months in advance, meaning that a spur-of-the-moment yurt excursion is out of the question. Oregon has been building cabins at some coastal state parks in an effort to draw more campers who don’t want to pack a tent. However, the wooden structures cannot compete with the canvas ones in terms of popularity.

[Via Seattle Times]

Modern Yurts: The Nomad

The traditional yurt — first used in the nomadic cultures of Central Asia — is being modernized and marketed towards the rich glampers of today. Leading this trend is the Nomad (above) yurt by Ecoshack. For a cool $6,800 USD you get a kit containing everything you need to construct the most advanced yurt currently available — complete with a “beautifully sealed and sanded platform floor surface.” An extra $1,500 will get you a WeatherMax cover to keep the rain out.

Cool, but expensive. If you’re looking to build your own yurt, there are plenty of resources online to make a cheaper version of the Nomad. Start with Dan Kuehn’s Mongolian Cloud Houses: How to Make a Yurt and Live Comfortably. [via]