The cold never stops invading, kept at bay only by the constantly burning wood stove. The World War II-era metal bunks creak at every muscle twitch. Smoke from the stove reddens the eyes. Someone, it seems, is always snoring.
And at 11,800 feet in the San Juan Mountains, locked in winter’s frozen embrace outside our canvas haven, we’re having a blast.
This is the yurt experience. For most people, an overnight ski or snowshoe trip in Colorado means staying in a cabin such as the 10th Mountain Division huts, which range in luxury from basic bunkhouses to extravagant lodges with saunas and running water. But peppered around the high country are lesser-known yurt systems.
Modern-day yurts haven’t changed much. They come stocked with firewood, though campers usually have to split their own.
Essentially large tents on wooden platforms, they’re more rustic and remote than huts. But they’re also cheaper and more available than huts, which typically book solid for the winter months before the snow begins to fall.
Yurts have been used for thousands of years — lightweight and easily moved, ideal for the nomads of central Asia.
Modern-day yurts haven’t changed much. There is one room, with a wood-burning stove for heating and usually a gas-burning stove for cooking. They come stocked with firewood, though campers usually have to split their own. Get a fire going early because you’ll want a constant supply of snow melting on the stove, which can then be filtered or boiled for drinking water.
Most yurts sleep between four and eight, and unlike most of the 10th Mountain Division huts, you rent an entire yurt so you won’t be bunking with strangers. That’s a good thing, because privacy is at a minimum and everyone sleeps close together.
Days are filled with skiing or snowshoeing the spectacular backcountry, or for those tired by the trek in, just lounging on the deck enjoying the mountain views. At night, play cards, look at the stars, enjoy some better-than-average camp food or adult beverages and keep the fire going. If you wake up with your water bottle frozen shut, someone dropped the ball.
Most yurts can be booked throughout the year and many are accessible in summer with four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles. But for solitude, bring skis or snowshoes and visit one in winter. Most can be booked on weekends a few weeks in advance and are rarely taken on weekdays. They have most of what you’ll need, including bunks, utensils, cookware and a lantern, so you can travel light.
Here are some of the best. The solitude and scenery won’t disappoint.
Hinsdale Haute Route
This yurt system, our destination on a mid-January weekend, is the highest in Colorado, in the San Juans south of Lake City. The Rambouillet Yurt, which by next winter will be in a new location high on a ridge with views of several “fourteeners” (a mountain that meets or exceeds an elevation of 14,000 feet above mean sea level), is a good beginner trip, 4.5 miles on groomed trails from Slumgullion Pass.
For more adventure, stay one night there and another at the Colorado Trail Friends Yurt and finish the loop by returning to a shuttle car left 2,500 feet below, near Lake San Cristobal. It’s one of the few yurt or cabin systems that allow dogs in winter, and there is little avalanche danger amid the rolling terrain.
The yurts sleep eight and rent for $110 per night. www.hinsdalehauteroute.org.
Leadville Backcountry Yurts
Just above timberline in rugged terrain near Leadville, these two yurts are a few hundred feet apart on a windswept ridge with grand views of the Mosquito Range. A short climb up a ridge reveals an even grander sight: the entire Sawatch Range spread out before you across the Arkansas River Valley.
The route is long, five miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain, and the yurts can be tough to spot at night, so get an early start. It can be confusing, so make sure to get good directions and bring a topographical map and compass.
The yurts sleep four each. Winter rates are $105 for weekdays, $115 weeknights. www.leadvillebackcountry.com.
Wolf Creek Backcountry
The namesake ski area gets the most snow in Colorado, and powder lovers won’t be disappointed at the Pass Creek Yurt operated by Wolf Creek Backcountry. It’s a modest three miles from the ski area on groomed cross-country ski trails and graded forest roads, except for the final half-mile, with 300 feet of elevation gain.
The yurt sleeps six. Winter rates are $159 for weekdays, $229 weekends December through March, and $139 in November and April. www.wolfcreekbackcountry.com.
Never Summer Nordic
Why do they call this area Never Summer? Visit and you’ll find out. This collection of nine yurts and a cabin in the sprawling State Forest State Park of northern Colorado is perfect for a multi-day yurt-to-yurt on well-marked routes.
The yurts vary in size from five to nine beds and rent for $85-$100 on weeknights, $105-$120 on weekends. Due to the proximity to Boulder and Fort Collins, they tend to fill up on winter weekends, so book early. http://neversummernordic.com.
Hidden Treasure Yurts
You’ll earn your relaxation at these two yurts in Eagle County, with a route of 6.2 miles and 2,140 feet of elevation gain. But hardy skiers will find a wonderland of backcountry lines on the slopes of 12,162-foot New York Mountain.
The yurts accommodate eight and are $200-$250 per night. www.backcountry-colorado-yurt.com.
Phoenix Ridge Yurts
Luxury meets the backcountry at this yurt in the mountains above Creede in southwest Colorado. The yurt sleeps up to five and comes with solar electricity to charge your devices and even a shower, a true rarity in the wilderness.
The yurt sits atop a 1,000-foot cliff, with views of the snow-capped La Garita Mountains. There are plans for a second yurt to be built this year. It’s a four-mile ski or snowshoe to the yurt. Dogs are allowed.
It rents for $150 per night, with a two-night minimum. www.phoenixridgeyurts.com.
Old Baldy Yurt
The private Ute Lodge resort near Meeker operates the Old Baldy Yurt, a two-mile ski or snowshoe from the lodge, with 800 feet of elevation gain. It sits at the base of Old Baldy Mountain and at the edge of White River National Forest. Enjoy a quarter-mile side trip to see some of the largest aspens in the world.
It sleeps six and rents for $100 per night. www.utelodge.com.