When winter arrives and snow blankets the Sierra Nevada, the backcountry becomes the domain of the hardy few, trekking under heavy packs, eating dehydrated food and sleeping in snow-staked tents. But a different experience awaits visitors to public ski huts: comfortable cabins, soft beds and warm fires.
In the Lake Tahoe area, a string of such huts beckons skiers along a spectacular section of the Sierra Nevada range. The Sierra Club maintains four backcountry ski cabins over a 30-mile line, providing shelter and comfort for both short and long outings. At just $20 per night, the price is hard to beat.
The huts are hot spots in many respects, if their log books are any indication.
“I came with my boyfriend, and I’m leaving with my fiancé,” wrote a visitor named Darcy at Benson Hut, six miles south of Sugar Bowl Ski Area beneath Anderson Peak. “What a wonderful place for a marriage proposal.”
Her fiancé Jeff was jubilant. “It worked! She said yes!” he exalted.
Three miles northwest of the Interstate 80 Castle Peak exit is Peter Grubb Hut. The easiest of the four to reach, the Grubb hut makes a good warm-up trip in preparation for longer outings. Most skiers will cover the mild route (well-traveled and visible except after recent storms) in about two hours.
Like the other cabins, Grubb has mattresses, a wood stove, usually an ample supply of firewood, a collection of pots and utensils (bring your own to be safe) and a nearby outhouse. Bring your own sleeping bags, stoves, and shovels in case the door is blocked.
Paradise Valley, Basin Peak and Sand Ridge Lake are all moderate day trips from Grubb. For a tougher outing and the best Sierra view in the area, try 9,103-foot Castle Peak to the northeast.
More challenging and less visited are the other three huts, each south of Interstate 80. Skiers can visit them individually, but to link them in a hut-to-hut trek puts them to their best use.
Starting at Sugar Bowl, Benson Hut lies six tough miles to the south. To cut half that distance and avoid a 1,500-foot climb, buy a one-use lift ticket and ride with your pack to the top of Mt. Lincoln. From Lincoln, follow the ridge southeast three miles toward Anderson Peak. Stay west of the high points and beware the cornices on the ridge’s east side.
Benson skiers have documented a variety of adventures and sentiments in the hut’s log books.
“We only have two and a half liters of wine left,” a skier recorded. “People are starting to get antsy. Blood was spilled by a close-range snowball fight… WMD were banned when shovels were taken out of play.”
“Can someone stock this place with beer?” demanded another.
“We ate the cook today,” confessed a visitor. “At this rate, we will never reach the summit. My Sherpa has taken an unnatural liking toward me…”
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” wrote one.
From Benson, hut-to-hut skiers can proceed about five miles southeast to Bradley Hut. This will require some route finding, especially when recent snow wipes out old tracks; Tinker Knob is a handy reference point. Bradley Hut is beside Pole Creek, about two miles north of Squaw Valley, or five miles from the junction of Highway 89 and Forest Road 8, where many visitors park.
Skiers can travel the 13 miles from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley in as little as a day. But using one or both huts, bagging a few peaks and skiing the bowls can make for a rewarding trip of three days or more.
Further south is the Ludlow Hut beside Lake Richardson in the Desolation Wilderness. This six-mile trek covers terrain that's fairly mild in good conditions. Parking can be hard or impossible to find in the residential area beside the wilderness boundary, so consider starting from Sugar Pine Point State Park a few miles to the south.
Be careful not to let the ski huts’ comfort and security erode your caution. Bad weather can make the shelters extremely difficult to reach, and avalanches have killed skiers in the Donner area. Avalanche danger is greatest during heavy snow and for 48 hours afterwards. Stay away from all steep slopes during these times unless you’re trained in recognizing avalanche hazards and the use of avalanche beacons. Exercise precautions, especially discretion.
But for those who are prepared, there's no better way to experience the majesty of the mountains near Lake Tahoe, and there's no better time to go than winter.If you goReservations:
Contact the hut coordinator at the Sierra Club’s Clair Tappaan Lodge in Norden (phone 530-426-3632 , or email firstname.lastname@example.org). The club charges $20 per guest, per night. The huts book up quickly, especially on weekends, so plan ahead.Equipment:
Winter visitors to the huts need either backcountry cross country skis (not track skis!) or snowshoes. A set of backcountry skis, boots and poles starts at about $400. Snowshoes start at $150. Try rentals before buying.Directions:
Peter Grubb Hut: Take the Castle Peak Exit off Interstate 80 and park in the SNO-PARK area near Boreal Inn. You need a parking permit, available at the inn for $5 per day or $25 per season. Follow the snow-covered forest road north of the freeway. Within a quarter mile, a snowmobile track splits off to the west, and skiers and snowshoers continue northwest, on the route marked by tree-mounted orange triangles. The three-mile route gains 800 feet to a saddle between Castle and Andesite peaks. Descend into Round Valley. Topo map: Norden 7-1/2’ quad.Benson Hut:
Park at Clair Tappaan Lodge or Sugar Bowl. Ascend (watch out for downhill skiers!) or take the ski lift to top Mt. Lincoln. Then proceed south towards Anderson Peak. The six-mile route gains about 1,500 feet to the hut at 8,350 feet. Topo map: Norden 7-1/2’ quad.Bradley Hut:
Park on the wide shoulder where Forest Road 8 meets Highway 89. Follow FR 8 for five miles, gradually gaining about 1,500 feet to the hut at 7,550 feet. Topo map: Granite Chief and Tahoe City 7-1/2’ quads.Ludlow Hut:
Park at Sugar Pine Point State Park or, when possible, at the end of Rubicon Avenue in Tahoma. Ski six miles up McKinney Creek to Richardson Lake, gaining about 1,000 feet to the cabin at 7,400 feet. Topo map: Homewood 7-1/2’ quad.Weather:
Check the National Weather Service forecast atwww.nws.noaa.gov
. Call (800) 427-7623 for a Caltrans road report.For more information:
Visit the Sierra Club’s Web site atsierraclub.org/outings/lodges/huts