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You no longer have to choose between off-piste adventure and luxury. Colorado’s San Juan Mountains offer a powdery array of backcountry experiences

Jen Murphy  – January 13, 2020 | Updated January 31, 2020

On a brisk winter day, the first toe dip into the steamy 106° waters of Ouray Hot Springs can feel like stepping into purgatory. The body experiences an icy jolt, followed by searing heat then a tingling sensation that numbs the limbs. Mere minutes of acclimatization can feel like an eternity, but eventually your muscles reach a heavenly state of relaxation. 

The Ute Indian Tribe that settled southwest Colorado’s Uncompahgre Valley called these hot springs miracle waters and for centuries used them for healing ceremonies. In the 1870s, miners and prospectors relied on the mineral-rich springs to alleviate the aches of hard physical labor. These days, the restorative pools are the perfect antidote for skiers who come to play in the region’s famous San Juan Mountains. 

Purgatory Resort Snowcat
Purgatory Resort Snowcat, photo by Thomas J. Story

This rugged range in the Rockies is paradise for ski purists. The area’s mountain towns, like Ouray, Silverton, and Durango, have maintained a Wild West frontier spirit. Its low-frills ski resorts still have soul. And options abound for evading the crowds and getting deep into the backcountry. At Purgatory Resort, snowcats—tank-treaded snow groomers with seats in the back—can access 35,000 acres of skiable terrain, while experts-only Silverton Resort offers helidrops atop remote, snowcapped peaks. And a crop of new mountain huts is enticing skiers to skip the resorts altogether and earn their turns ski touring. 

Helidrop at Silverton Resort
Helidrop at Silverton Resort, photo by Thomas J. Story

Imported from Europe, ski touring involves climbing up a mountain slope (also known as skinning) on skis fitted with special bindings. Adhesive skins cover the bottom of the skis to provide grip on the snow. At the top, skiers take off the skins, lock their boots into the bindings, and shuss back downhill. The desire to reach remote sections of a mountain, discover deep, un-tracked powder, and get a killer workout are some of the many reasons the winter activity is fast catching on in the States. 

Colorado has no shortage of backcountry base camps. But the majority, like the state’s popular 10th Mountain Division Huts, are DIY affairs requiring skiers to lug their food, drinks, and sleeping gear an average of 6 miles, up 1,500 feet from a trailhead. The new huts in the San Juans provide a backcountry-luxe alternative. Inspired by the fully catered mountain huts of Europe and Canada, these cabins offer comforts including comfy beds, home-cooked meals, radiant floor heating, composting toilets, and hot showers. 

Bob Kingsley
Bob Kingsley, photo by Thomas J. Story

Bob Kingsley kicked off the trend in 2010 with his pioneering Opus Hut, a timber-and-stone cabin set high atop Ophir pass between Telluride and Silverton. Situated at treeline, with low-angle glades below and wide-open slopes, Opus has some of the best alpine terrain in the San Juans straight out its back door. Equipped with proper safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe) and backcountry know-how, skiers could spend a week exploring and never retrace a run. And after a quad-burning day shredding waist-deep powder, there’s no need to stress about building a fire or preparing dinner. Kingsley’s got the fire stoked, made-from-scratch chicken potpies in the oven, and his hand-built sauna warmed up and awaiting weary skiers. 

The Great Room at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge
The great room at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, photo by Thomas J. Story

Following the success of Opus, which books out months in advance most winter weekends, two additional full-service huts debuted in December 2018. Thelma Hut and Red Mountain Alpine Lodge are both located on Red Mountain Pass, an area between Ouray and Silverton that receives more than 300 inches of snow per year. Unlike Opus, which requires a heart rate–spiking 3.5-mile skin to reach, these newcomers can be accessed by a mellow 10- to 15-minute bootpack from Highway 550. Or, you can book an haute-route trip with a local guiding company, such as Ouray-based Peak Mountain Guides, and ski hut-to-hut like the Europeans. 

Red Mountain Pass
Skiing at Red Mountain Pass, photo by Thomas J. Story

Kingsley also manages Thelma Hut, a modern, eight-person cabin with steel-accented, blue-hued pine interiors. Modeled after Opus, it’s off the grid and has an on-site host who indulges guests with homemade buckwheat pancakes at breakfast and spicy curries for dinner. A few miles away sits Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, an Instagram-worthy, Douglas fir A-frame that’s raised the bar for hut stays. Yes, Red Mountain Lodge has all the amenities such as Wi-Fi, craft beer on tap, flush toilets, and boot heaters—all rare backcountry perks. The real game-changer, however, is that founders Nate Disser and Mark Luppenlatz also own Ouray-based San Juan Mountain Guides. Given the expansiveness of the terrain and its avalanche danger, having a knowledgeable guide is advised for both backcountry newbies and experienced skiers, and the lodge keeps a team at the ready to lead guests on adventures. Set at 11,000 feet at the base of a peak called Red Mountain #3, there are hundreds of acres of prime tree skiing right out the front door, and if snow stability is good, you have your choice of 13,000-foot peaks to descend, as long as you are willing to set the skin track to the top. 

Unlike resort skiing, the goal is not to race top to bottom. Ski touring is about slowing down, turning inwards, and tuning into nature. There’s almost a meditative quality to the slow slog up a mountain. You find a rhythm to your breath, a calm in the silence. You start to notice the details so often rushed past—lynx tracks in the snow or the remnants of an old mining cabin. Your legs and lungs may burn from the uphill climb, but the reward of laying a fresh line in untouched powder as you’re cheered on by friends is worth the effort. 

Snowcat-Enabled Skiing
Thomas J. Story

By late afternoon, guests return to the lodge. Despite bodily exhaustion, navigating the mountains under your own steam will leave you feeling a high—a sense of accomplishment you simply can’t get from any double-black-diamond resort run. Hot showers, cozy slippers, and a bubbling pot of fondue ward off any lingering chill and nooks stocked with books, puzzles, and old-school board games distract guests from their phones. 

The most dangerous part of the day may very well be when the dinner bell rings. Multi-course, chef-prepared dinners feature chimichurri flank steak and roasted squash with cashew-chile mole paired with spectacular wines from Barolo, Rioja, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, followed by still-warm-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. Another day in the backcountry will require a bit of restraint. 

San Juan Mountains Travel Guide

Purgatory Resort, Durango 

Purgatory is a family-favorite thanks to its affordable prices and 1,605 acres of terrain ranging from cruise-y groomers to steep tree runs. Purgatory Snowcat Adventures offers access to an additional 35,000 acres. Ski-in/ski-out Purgatory Lodge anchors the base village and has a ski valet, heated swimming pool and jacuzzi, and a buzzy restaurant, Purgy’s Slopeside. 

The Nugget Mountain Bar
Thomas J. Story

The Nugget Mountain Bar, Durango 

Housed in a historic D-log cabin a half-mile from Purgatory’s entrance, the year-old Nugget has become the area’s après-ski hub. Pork belly sliders and truffle fries from Backcountry Gourmet food truck soak up craft beer flights and shot skis, and a complimentary shuttle ensures you get home safe. 

Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, Ridgway 

With three private rooms and a spacious loft, this stylish A-frame can sleep up to 20 people. Après-ski fondue, local beer on tap, and a serious French wine list elevate this backcountry experience. Nestled among pines just 900 feet off of Highway 550, it’s one of Colorado’s most accessible huts. Rooms include breakfast, après snacks, and dinner; guided skiing from $199.

Red Mountain Alpine Lodge
   

The Sauna at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge
The sauna at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, photo by Brandon Huttenlocher

Opus Hut, Ophir 

Owner Bob Kingsley spent five years building this solar-powered, timber-and-stone hut atop Ophir Pass. Accessible by a 3.5-mile skin or snowshoe from Highway 550, 5 miles north of Silverton, Opus provides mellow powder skiing out the back door and easy access to Paradise Basin. Winter weekends book out months in advance. 

Thelma Hut, Red Mountain Pass 

Opus Hut’s year-old, off-the-grid sister lodge is accessible by a 15-minute hike in or skin-up from Highway 550 just south of Red Mountain Pass. Amenities including a flush toilet, shower, radiant floor heating, and a dry sauna feel like luxuries in the backcountry. 

Silverton Mountain 

It’s a stretch to call Silverton a resort. There’s no base village. Restrooms are port-a-potties. And March and April are the only months you can ski unguided. Perhaps that’s why the average annual snowfall—more than 400 inches—exceeds the daily visitors. This is advanced and expert-only riding; no groomers. Another draw for powderhounds: Silverton is the only heli-operator in the continental U.S. that offers single drops. 

The Wyman Hotel
Thomas J. Story

The Wyman Hotel, Silverton 

This landmark building on Main Street was reimagined last February as a 16-room boutique hotel. Fewer than 6 miles from Silverton Mountain, the Wyman provides a midcentury-modern alternative to the area’s ubiquitous ski lodges and Wild West–inspired stays.

The Wyman Hotel
   

Coffee Bear, Silverton 

This homey cafe has heated toilets and fresh-from-the-oven cookies. Locals head here to fuel up on breakfast burritos and almond milk lattes before a day on the slopes. 

Ouray Hot Springs 

The mineral-rich waters of Box Canyon have been feeding this pool since it opened in 1927. A multimillion-dollar renovation in 2017 modernized the National Historic Register–listed facilities, adding a lap pool, two water slides, and an adult-only soaking area. 

Ouray Hot Springs
   

 

Ouray Brewery 

Follow up your hot-springs soak with a pint of Ouray Brewery’s Box Canyon Brown or San Juan IPA paired with homemade chili or a brewery burger. If weather permits, request a seat on the rooftop patio and enjoy the alpine views. 

KJ Wood Distillers, Ouray 

Colorado barley, blue corn, and glacial water are the secret to KJ Wood’s super-smooth whiskey. The tasting room also pours their vodka, gin, and creative cocktails and regularly hosts live music.