The opportunities in Colorado's backcountry forest are endless when it comes to snow. And with Colorado's hut-to-hut system, you can enjoy skiing and snowshoeing backpacking trips without sleeping in a snow cave.
"Staying in the huts, there is so much to offer all around you," said Holly Stuettgen, a senior accounting major. "You can snowboard at night – going down in powder with the sun setting next to you is incredible."
Snowmobiling, snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, mountain biking and backpacking are among the many other activities the hut-to-hut system supports during the winter and summer.
"The biggest draw for hut-to-hut skiing is getting away from the crowds and our busy lives. The views are breathtaking," said Greg Graves, current owner of Never Nordic Summer Backcountry Hut System.
The most prominent hut-to-hut system in Colorado's forest is the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, a non-profit organization created in 1980 after a group of skiers returned from the Haute Route in France and Switzerland and were inspired by the European tradition of hut-to-hut skiing.
"In our minds, we offer a first-rate backcountry experience. The conditions of the huts continually exceed people's expectations," said Ben Dodge, director for 10th Mountain Division Hut System.
The 10th Mountain Division Hut System consists of 29 huts between Aspen, Leadville and Vail, and links more than 300 miles of Forest Service trails with an average distance of six to eight miles between huts.
Depending on the skier's ability, it can take from two to 12 hours to journey to a hut.
Each hut sleeps about 16 people and includes wood-burning stoves for heating and cooking, propane burners, light, kitchen supplies, mattresses and pillows.
Skiers only need to bring a sleeping bag, food, toiletries and emergency gear.
"We make reservations by the per-bed basis," Dodge said. "This has been well-received because if you go with three other friends, you leave with 12 more."
Some people ski to several huts and others stay one or more nights at the same hut. Huts are accessible from their own trailhead.
Tenth Mountain also takes reservations for the Alfred A. Braun Hut System near Aspen and the Friends' Hut near Crested Butte. Travel to these huts requires advanced backcountry skills.
Dodge advises that every group should include a leader with avalanche awareness, medical emergency, rescue, evacuation, route finding, a map and compass reading skills.
The Never Summer Nordic Hut System, located 70 miles from Fort Collins, high in the Colorado State Forest State Park of Cameron Pass, originated in 1986 with CSU Outdoor Adventure Program director Rodney Lae and three huts.
"This broke the ground for us," Graves said. "We now have seven huts and two cabins and winter weekends are usually booked by the middle of September."
Never Summer Nordic has a unique system where entire huts are rented at a group rate.
The most popular is the Ruby Jewell Yurt that has unlimited access to high alpine bowls and ridges for skilled skiers and the new yurt at Clarke Peak.
"We have something for everyone," Graves said. "The beginner snowshoer and skier can access yurts that are a quarter mile from the road and the experienced skier can travel to our cabins by Lake Agnes for extreme steeps and avalanche chutes."
In southern Colorado, skiers can access the San Juan Hut System, which consists of five backcountry ski huts connecting Telluride, Ridgeway and Ouray.
CSU's Outdoor Adventure Program offers a Spring Break opportunity for students to experience the sensations of hut-to-hut skiing on a guided trip.
The three-day trip begins March 12 and the group will stay in the Nokhu Huts in Cameron Pass. The first hut is 2 miles in. The days will be spent exploring the rugged and steep backcountry opportunities around the hut with instructors trained in avalanche awareness and first aid.
Although weekend availability is currently limited, April is still a good month for a hut-to-hut skiing trip.
"By then people start thinking of the desert and start loading up their mountain bike, even though it is still one of the best times for snow in the backcountry," Dodge said.
Stuettgen feels that no matter what time of year, the hard work of hiking is worth the views.
"When you are walking up the mountain in snowshoes and you have to stop because of altitude, there is something totally worth it when you are going down the hill."
Sarah Rawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org