Worlds away from the five-star restaurants, cush hotels, and general glitz of the modern mountain town experience, a night in a backcountry hut or yurt brings an element of adventure and connection with nature that’s often overlooked in the lift-powered, daytripping ski scene of today.
Utah’s backcountry travelers are privy to a fairly extensive network of mountain shelters—from the Bear Rivers in the north to the La Sals in the south, nearly all of the beehive’s ranges are home to a yurt or hut system of some kind. A good mix of public-access and outfitter-owned shelters give both the seasoned veteran and backcountry newbie a way to visit these remote and beautiful locales. So the next time the ski itch needs a scratching, leave the fur boutiques and overpriced bistros behind –there’s a yurt out there calling your name.
Big Water Yurt—Millcreek Canyon (6,900ft)
Tucked away at the top of Millcreek Canyon, just a quick drive from downtown Salt Lake City, the Big Water Yurt sleeps up to 8 people and provides quick access to some of the best backcountry ski touring in the Wasatch Front.
The Wasatch Front is well renowned for its easy-access backcountry terrain, and the Big Water Yurt is in a prime location for endless touring options. According to Tyson Bradley, senior guide for Utah Mountain Adventures, several approach options exist, allowing you to turn the trip into the yurt into a ski tour of its own. Drop off the backside of the 9990’ lift at the Canyons Resort and ski the glades above Lake Desolation before dropping into Millcreek, or start at the Spruces campground in Big Cottonwood Canyon and ski the wide-open steeps of Reynolds Peak (9,422ft) before heading down. After arriving, a short skin up Big Water Gulch brings you to several good north-facing aspects in Wilson Fork and Soldier Fork, as well as Gobbler’s Knob (10,246ft), Mount Raymond (10,241ft), and Alexander Basin, which form the divide between Millcreek and Big Cottonwood canyons and offer everything from steep bowls to pow-choked aspen groves.
The Big Water Yurt season runs from December 1-April 30, and reservations are taken by phone starting November 1 and in person starting November 2. Most of the season sells out within the first hour, so be prepared.
LOCATION: End of Millcreek Canyon Road, 4.5 miles up from winter gate, Uinta National Forest
MAPS: Trails Illustrated #709 – Wasatch Front North
Wasatch Touring Map #1, Ginnilee Sprague
COST: $50/night, $200 key deposit. Contact Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation (801-483-5473
GUIDES: Utah Mountain Adventures runs two-day, one-night ski tours to the yurt throughout the season
$500/person includes food, guiding, and gear transportation. (801-550-3986, www.utahmountainadventures.com)
Mirror Lake Highway—Castle Peak Yurt (9,800ft)
With a long, gradual uphill approach and fickle snow conditions, the Castle Peak Yurt off of the Mirror Lake Highway isn’t the premier destination for the backcountry skier. The yurt is aimed more at those looking to enjoy the tour in and get a full yurt experience, says Scott House of White Pine Touring. But with a solid snowpack and a good weather window, you’ll be privy to ski touring on nearby Castle Peak (10,234ft) and The Duke (10,605ft) a separate wood-fired sauna hut to ease you’re aching quads at the end of the day, and epic views of the Uintas to the east and Timpanogos and the Wasatch to the west.
The northwest face of Castle Peak and the northwest slide path of the Duke (Duke’s Drop) offer good open skiing, says Bradley, but like many peaks in the Uintas, they’re prone to unstable snow pack and wind effect, so be sure to make a thorough avalanche assessment before dropping in.
White Pine Touring in Park City manages the yurt, and can also provide guided trips and snowmobile gear shuttling if needed.
LOCATION: 6 miles up Upper Setting Road (Forest Road 034) along the Mirror Lake Highway.
COST/GUIDES: $99-120/night, Contact White Pine Touring at 435-649-8710
MAPS: USGS Quadrangle: Castle Peak
North Slope—Lilly Lake Yurt System
Located on the north slope of the Uinta Mountains south of Evanston, Wyoming, this five yurt system is managed by a unique agreement between the Wasatch National Forest, the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Outdoor Alliance (BRORA), and the Evanston Recreation Center.
All five yurts can be accessed from the same trailhead and four of the five are connected by groomed cross-country ski trails, making this system a good option for multi-day tours, says Marilee Jackson of the Evanston Recreation Center. All of the yurts except Boundary Creek are equipped with a propane stove, and kitchen utensils, and all yurts feature a woodstove and firewood.
East Fork Yurt (8,500ft), Bear Claw Yurt (8,700ft), and Lily Lake Yurt (8,300ft) lie in the lower elevations and offer groomed trails, between them, making them a good choice for XC skiers, snowshoers, and families looking for an introductory backcountry trip. A multi-day tour between several of the yurts is common, but according to Jackson, AT and tele skiers looking for a true backcountry experience and ample touring options should head to the Ridge Yurt and the Boundary Creek Yurt, the latter of which is located outside the main trail system and without stocked amenities.
Ridge Yurt (9,350ft)
Situated in a natural bowl just below an exposed ridgeline, this yurt has expansive views and access to open slopes to the east that drop over 1,000 vertical feet to the Bear River. Powder-choked glade skiing abounds in the terrain below the yurt as well.
Boundary Creek Yurt (9,550ft)
The wide open flanks above this remote yurt rise to nearly 11,000 feet and make for excellent powder skiing in safe avalanche conditions.
LOCATION: Lily Lake/Wolverine Trailhead, 30 miles south of Evanston, WY
COST: $30 (weekdays)-$60 (weekends & holidays). A membership with the Bear River Outdoor Recreation Alliance is required ($15). Reservations are accepted starting at the end of October, contact the Evanston Recreation Center at 307-789-1770 (Evanstonoutdoors.com)
MAPS: Trails Illustrated #711 – High Uintas Wilderness
USGS Quadrangles: Christmas Meadows, Deadman Mountain
Bear River Range
The Bear River Range of Northern Utah is home to four yurts (three in Logan Canyon and one in Green Canyon) that are managed by the Utah State University Outdoor Rec Center and offer access to miles of good backcountry ski terrain. If you’re used to the backcountry crowds of the Wasatch, this area is ghost town by comparison. Most terrain encompasses below-treeline glades with the occasional open bowl.
Each yurt sleeps between six and 12 people, and all are equipped with a woodstove, full kitchen, and either gas or solar-powered lighting. Good route-finding skills are essential as the trails aren’t marked and the yurts can be difficult to spot in deep snow. Many groups hire a guide on their first visit.
Blind Hollow Yurt (8,200ft)
Steep, well-spaced tree skiing is the name of the game here, with solid west and east exposures near the yurt. Elmer Peak and the Bear River divide to the west of the yurt also holds some steep, above-treeline bowl runs in five different drainages.
Bunchgrass Yurt (8,414ft)
Multiple moderate runs exist along the approach trail in Bunchgrass Canyon for those looking to warm up before arriving at the yurt. The wide-open southeast bowl of White Pine Knob rises to the northeast, and features shots of varying difficulty in safe avalanche conditions. The north and east faces of nearby Chicken Hill are the spots for wind-protected pow skiing.
Green Canyon Yurt (6,121ft)
Skin up from the yurt to peak 8,571, which gives you access to a long ridgeline with multiple ski options off the east side. Protected pow stashes and steep trees abound, but the plum of the area according to Bradley is the south face of Wood Camp Cirque, which drops steeply from the summit for over 2,000 feet. Mt. Jardine to the north also features steep lines on its southeast face.
Steam Mill Yurt (8,100ft)
Low-angle, south-facing meadows surround the yurt and make for quick-hit laps, and Steam Mill Peak boasts quality lines in aspens, wide evergreen glades and open meadows dropping off the northeast summit ridge, says Bradley. Along the way to Doubletop Mountain and its unnamed neighbor, steep skiing abounds along the Logan River plateau.
LOCATION: Green and Logan canyons, east of Logan
COST: $100-200/night on weekends, $65-165/night on weekdays
Reservations are taken through Utah State University Outdoor Rec Center starting Sept. 1 for the Bunchgrass and Steam Mill yurts, and Dec. 1 for the Green Canyon and Blind Hollow Yurts.
Contact the ORC at 435-797-3264
GUIDES: Powder Ridge Ski Touring 435-752-7853
MAPS: The ORC has approach and terrain maps for each yurt (www.usu.edu/orc/yurt)
Backcountry skiing probably isn’t the first thing most people associate with the vast red-rock country surrounding Moab, but just a short trip to the east, the La Sal mountains rise to over 12,000 feet and often stay blanketed in snow until the late spring. The road to Geyser Pass is plowed regularly to 9,600 feet, making for easy access to late spring tours and winter shuttle skiing.
Steep chutes and epic tree runs on the flanks of major peaks like Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, Mt. Peale, and South Mountains are easily attained from one of two yurts owned and managed by Tag-A-Long Expeditions in Moab. Both huts sleep up to 10 people and are outfitted with propane stoves and heaters, as well as padded bunks.
Tomasaki Hut (10,136ft)
Mt. Tomasaki is the obvious choice for skiers staying in the area, as is the dome-like Haystack Mountain to the east. Steep cliff bands and open terrain drop off the north and northeast sides of Tomasaki’s summit down to the Deep Creek and Tomasaki basins, but the prize lines according to Bradley are the three couloirs off the southeast face, which drop at 35 to 40 degrees for 2,000 feet back down to the hut. Haystack boasts a wide-open, north-facing bowl with 1,000 feet of vertical.
Beaver Lake Hut (9,276ft)
If you’re looking to tag a summit before making eights or elevens, Mt. Peale’s (12,721ft) east and southeast faces have your name written all over them. According to Bradley, these lines can occasionally be skied 3,300 vertical feet from the summit back down to the hut. About an hour skin from the hut, the South Mountain Glades offer epic tree skiing on the northeast face of peak 11,124. A bit further, South Mountain’s northeast face is home to some of the La Sal’s deepest snow and a moderately steep 1,3000-foot run.
LOCATION: Tomasaki Hut – 4 miles from Geyser Pass Trailhead, Beaver Lake Hut – 7 miles from La Sal Pass Trailhead
COST: $35/person per night, $80-$120 for snow cat ride and gear transport
GUIDES: Tag-A-Long Expeditions (800-453-3292, www.Tagalong.com)
MAPS: USGS Quadrangles: Mt. Tukuhnikivatz, Mt. Peale
Rising to over 12,000 feet, central Utah’s Tushar Range is an often overlooked gem of backcountry ski touring, and often features skiable terrain into the early summer months. Tushar Mountain Tours operates two backcountry yurts in the range, located outside of Beaver. Each yurt sleeps between 6 and 8 people and is fully equipped with a woodstove, propane stove, and cooking utensils. A guide is required on your first visit to the yurts.
Located 8.5 miles apart, the two yurts can be combined into an extended tour, but are often visited separately due to the ample amount of ski terrain around both yurts. Known for their often windswept open runs above treeline, the Tushars are also home to varied terrain suited to any kind of skier. “It’s a volcanic range, so a lot of the high peaks are kind of user-friendly and accessible,” says Alec Hornstein, owner of Tushar Mountain Tours. “There are routes for every kind of skier, so you can easily go up there with groups of mixed ability.”
Snorkeling Elk Yurt (10,400ft)
Situated on the western flank of Delano Peak (the highest peak in the Tushars), the Snorkeling Elk Yurt gives easy access to endless amounts of above-treeline skiing on big rolling ramps and gullies, Hornstein says. Those looking for some added spice can head for 3,000ft-vertical runs in the deep canyons to the east of Delano and Bullion Canyon to the north, where a steep cirque known as ‘The Pocket’ holds snow year round. Gentler glade skiing lies right outside the yurt in old-growth spruce forest, making it a solid choice for storm days or powdery tree runs. “It’s a spectacular spot, you can see all the way out to [Nevada’s] Great Basin National Park,” Hornstein says.
Puffer Lake Yurt (10,400ft)
City Creek Peak looms above the Puffer Lake Yurt and offers tight tree skiing on its northeast face as well as 1,100 feet of wide-open glade skiing on its moderately-sloped west face and open bowl runs to the east. With a shorter approach and a lower-elevation peak, the Puffer Lake area is more suited to powder and tree skiing than the area around Delano Peak, Hornstein says. For an extended tour, nearby Mount Holly and Lake Peak are also home to both steep and moderate-angled shots on its west and southeast faces.
LOCATION: Puffer Lake – 2.5 miles from Puffer Lake trailhead, 23 miles east of Beaver; Snorkeling Elk – 4.5 miles from Big John Flat Road, 20 miles east of Beaver.
COST/GUIDES: $125-140/night plus $45-85 guide fee, contact Tushar Mountain Tours (435-438-6191, tour@SkiTushar.com) Meals & gear hauling is also available.
MAPS: USGS Quadrangles: Delano Peak, Shelly Baldy Peak
Willing to drive a little further? Here are a few backcountry hut gems from within the region.
Sun Valley Trekking – Idaho
SVT maintains six huts and yurts in the Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho, four near Ketchum and two near Stanley. The close proximities and excellent backcountry ski terrain make this system ideal for hut-to-hut tours, and each shelter sleeps up to 14 people. The best part? Each hut or yurt comes complete with a wood-fired sauna or hot tub.
SVT offers everything from gear transportation to fully guided trips with meals included.
Contact Sun Valley Trekking (208-788-1966)
Rendezvous Hut Tours – Idaho/Wyoming
The only hut system in the Tetons is operated by Rendezvous, which runs fully guided, multi-day tours out of Driggs, Idaho into the heart of the range. Enjoy a mellow overnight or test your mettle on the Teton High Traverse while enjoying epic views, gourmet meals, and deep pow turns.
Rendezvous offers several set itineraries as well as custom trips throughout the winter.
Contact Rendezvous Backcountry Tours (877.754.4887)
Sled – Hauling steaks and a case of beer on your back doesn’t sound like much fun, which is where a gear sled comes in. No need to go all out for the expensive mountaineering jobs, the cheap plastic kind will do just find. Rig up a harness system to your backpack and load on the amenities.
Avalanche Safety Gear – Wintertime in the backcountry inevitably means crossing avalanche terrain, so make sure each member of your party is outfitted with a beacon, shovel, and a probe.
Down Booties – Peel your dogs out of those ski boot shells and slide into something a little more comfortable for your overnight stay.
Blister Kit – Long days of skinning and skiing in buckled-down boots can equal dermatological disaster for some. Bring along some moleskin, gauze, and duct tape—if you don’t use it, it’s a safe bet someone in your party will.
High West Distillery Rendezvous Rye – Utah’s only local spirit will soon have a permanent home in historic downtown Park City, but you can pick up a bottle of this award-winning hooch right now at any Utah state liquor store. Remember, it’s like a sweater you wear on the inside. (www.highwestdistillery.com)