“What do you know about yurts … the kind you ski to?”
The editor of this magazine leaned away from his laptop and looked quizzically at me. Whatever was behind his question, my answer was “yes.”
For many people in the Springs and beyond, skiing or snowshoeing out to a waiting cabin or hut somewhere in the Rockies is the perfect way to capture the adventurous spirit of outdoor life in Colorado. Visions spring to mind of boundless, untracked powder, après-ski toasts on the deck and warm, snuggly nights by the fire. This is the stuff dreams are made of—or at least outdoor catalogs.
Would the vision stand up to the hype? Could schlepping a sizable fraction of my body weight out into the cold, snowy woods be as fun as I hoped? And sleeping in … a yurt? Sure, the big, tentlike domes have worked in Mongolia since the dawn of recorded history, but what about in the freezing mountains of Colorado? There was only one way to find out. It was time to go skiing.
I immediately texted a few adventurous friends. Before I could lay my phone down, Jimmy called. “I’m in!” he blurted as an introduction. He didn’t need convincing and promised his girlfriend wouldn’t either. I had my first two recruits.
Backcountry yurts come in many flavors, from luxury operations featuring fluffy bedding and a catered dinner to considerably more rustic affairs. Regardless, most yurts are built of canvas and wood and feature all the comforts of home—if your home was built without running water and electricity.
We chose the woodsy charm of the Never Summer Nordic yurt and hut system near Walden, Colorado. The Never Summer system lies in the not-so-inventively named State Forest State Park, an area Google tersely describes as an “enormous park featuring moose and yurts.”
Yurt trips are often thought to be reserved for the fittest and most-outfitted winter sports enthusiast. We were about to prove that wrong. None of us had done a yurt trip before. You do need someone with some backcountry experience on a yurt trip, and thankfully we were all good skiers—so I thought.
I knew Jimmy had fallen head over heels—many times, literally—for telemarking. His girlfriend, Alicia, turned out to be a less avid winter athlete. As we rented her backcountry skis from Mountain Chalet, she leaned over and casually confessed, “I am not what you would call … a skier. Jimmy told you that, right?” I smiled and made a mental note to push Jimmy into a snowdrift.
State Forest State Park is about a four-hour drive from Colorado Springs, but everything takes longer on winter adventures. When we reached the trailhead at 5 p.m., our headlamps were the only pinpricks of light in the immense, black forest. As we put climbing skins on our skis, the moon slid out from behind thin clouds, and the winter night came to life.
We turned off our headlamps, mesmerized by a snowy landscape clearly visible in the moonlight. Not another man-made light could be seen. It was bewitchingly silent and beautiful. Unfortunately, it was so bewitching I forgot how to read maps, and we spent an hour shuffling around on the wrong trail. It was a good lesson: Night falls quickly in the winter, and the warmth and comfort of a yurt is only good if you can find said yurt in the first place.
We were carrying a metric ton of food, having been seduced by yurt life’s most promising attribute. Compared to snow-camping, yurts have an ace up their rotund sleeves. You can cook and eat hot food in a warm kitchen instead of hopping around in the snow, hugging a foil bag of astronaut-style stroganoff while your toes go numb.
“I’m in between backpacking and extravagant,” Jimmy had said that morning describing our provisions. “I have bacon, but I didn’t bring the wine glasses.” The water bottle pockets of my pack were full of Belgian ale and a peanut butter jar. A box of wine lay in my pack despite our lack of stemware.
I never had to push Jimmy into a snowdrift. He did that to himself. The weight of our backpacks made ski touring a comically hazardous experience. Several times Jimmy and I toppled under the weight of our bulging packs. Skis and profanity shot uselessly into the darkness as we flopped into the soft snow beside the trail.
Lying there like a flipped-over turtle, I wondered if we had packed a whole hog rather than a side of bacon. I struggled and grunted hopelessly until Jimmy, laughing, hoisted me out of the snow.
Well into the evening we burst through the door of a yurt as cold and dark as the surrounding forest. After a flurry of activity we were warming our fingers by a roaring fire, and the promising smell of dinner wafted from the propane cooktop. Beers chilled in a snowdrift on the deck, and at the fringes of the firelight our sleeping bags lay invitingly on our bunks.
The next morning dawned grey and foreboding over an uninterrupted view of pristine forest. In the yurt, it could not have been a cheerier start to the day. Coffee brewed, bacon sizzled, and we began to warm to the strange charm of the yurt.
Yurts are an odd sort of building, falling architecturally between a tent and a right-angled Western cabin. There is an informal, temporary feeling that harkens back to the yurt’s nomadic origins. A mountain cabin may seduce you with a good book by fire, but this yurt urged us to go play!
Play we did. Alicia grabbed her skis and went skinning around the forest with no particular agenda. Jimmy and I built an ill-advised ski jump. Josh, the late-arriving fourth member of our party, planted his car in a snow bank at the trailhead, and we skied down the 1 mile to dig it out. After each miniadventure, we piled back into the yurt, pulled off jackets and boots and threw another log on the fire. The long, dark evenings were spent talking and reading by headlamp. Everything echoed the joyous, aimless magic of a childhood snow day.
On our final morning, I left early in the predawn darkness amid the unexpected wonder of fresh falling snow. Yesterday’s tracks were barely visible. The zip-zip-zip of my climbing skins was hushed by powder, and my headlamp beam was lost in the swirling snow. I would be lucky to get home in time for a meeting back in town.
I never made the meeting. Before driving 30 winding miles, I stopped twice to help other motorists who had slid into yawning ditches. Normally a stuck vehicle will ruin your day, but the charm of the yurt lingered. As I busily helped shovel out the beached trucks, I realized what this magic was. The essential charm of the yurt lies in its playful simplicity. Winter stops being a challenge or an inconvenience. Missed meetings, stranded vehicles, long lift lines, whatever—it all ceases to seem bothersome. In the simple shelter of a yurt, winter can become an inviting playground once again.
Want to Get Down and Yurty?
Here’s some basic know-how, plus insider tips to get you started.
Be Aware Out There: Avalanche danger is not a factor getting to and from many yurts in Colorado. But if you plan on earning your turns on any backcountry slopes, avalanche gear—such as a shovel, beacon probe and the knowledge of how to use them—is absolutely essential. Learn more at avalanche.state.co.us.
Dress for Success: Skinning or snowshoeing to your yurt will keep you warm, but you’ll cool down quickly and experience a wide range of temperatures, so pack preparedly.
Don’t Forget the …
• Down booties or fuzzy socks to slide into while hanging out inside your yurt.
• Extra batteries and small camp lights. Some yurts have propane lights or lanterns, but you may want more illumination—and the power to go the distance.
Follow Our Footsteps
Find Never Summer Nordic at neversummernordic.com.
Looking For A Closer, Comfier Cabin?
If your idea of a winter getaway doesn’t involve a long drive or a self-propelled backcountry trek, there are still plenty of ways to enjoy the Rockies throughout the year. In fact, snowy seclusion awaits just a short drive up Ute Pass.
Colorado Mountain Cabins
You can rent of 29 privately-owned cabins and homes for a year-round mountain retreat less than an hour from Colorado Springs. Scattered between Woodland Park and Cripple Creek, these cozy, full-featured mountain retreats offer stunning views and access to the natural wonders of the Pikes Peak region. Comfortable living rooms, inviting decks, fireplaces, hot tubs—these are the makings of a relaxing weekend. Just don’t expect many text messages, as some cabins are out of cell service. Those messages can wait till Monday anyway.
Mueller State Park Cabins
The three cabins tucked into Mueller State Park can feel a world away from the hustle and bustle of life east of the Peak. A two-night minimum stay means you have a chance to settle in and explore the 5,000-acre park. The Ponderosa and Spruce cabins are wheelchair accessible. Fido has to stay home, though, as pets are not allowed at any of the state park cabins.