A Guide to Five of the Best Backcountry Ski Huts in the Sierra Nevada
By Seth Lightcap
Whether you’re a seasoned winter explorer or a four-season greenhorn, there are few feelings as joyous as skiing to the door of a snowbound backcountry hut. Just as the natural world is at its most inhospitable, wind and snow swirling in the air, here you are at the threshold of a magical landscape with little more than a sleeping bag, playing cards, and flask in hand. At night, you lounge under the coziness of a roof, warmed by a wood stove and shared with good friends. By day, you shred lonely backcountry peaks until exhaustion. Can it get any better?
Though the Sierra Nevada doesn’t have a hut in every valley like the European Alps, the handful of those that are out there have their own unique magic. If skiing backcountry all day and playing euchre by candle light sounds like a good time to you, here’s a mini-guide to five huts from Donner Summit to Sequoia National Park that fit the bill.
Peter Grubb Hut
The Lowdown: The Peter Grubb Hut has been a winter oasis for avid backcountry skiers since it was built by the Sierra Club in the late 1930s. Known for its easy access and close proximity to amazing ski terrain, the Grubb Hut on Donner Summit is well loved and very well used all winter long.
The Coordinates: The Peter Grubb Hut lies in an alpine bowl three miles north of Interstate 80 on Donner Summit. To access the hut, park at the Boreal Sno-Park, cross under I-80, and tour up the road to the north until you crest the west ridge of Castle Peak at Castle Pass. Contour up Castle Peak’s west ridge for about 1/3 of a mile then drop off the ridge to the north and you’ll find the hut in the center of the valley.
The Nitty Gritty: The Grubb hut sleeps 15 people on the upstairs wood floor and is equipped with a wood-burning stove. Food, bedding and supplies must be carried in. To stay in the hut costs $15 a night. Reservations can be made by contacting the Clair Tappaan Lodge at email@example.com or 800-679-6775.
Getting the Goods: The north facing back bowls of Castle Peak above the Grubb Hut hold some of the best expert ski terrain in the north Tahoe region. Several steep lines drop right off Castle Peak’s summit ridge. If you’re keen on tree skiing look no further than the moderate slopes of Basin Peak to the north of the hut.
Know Before You Go: The Grubb Hut can feel a little crammed at max capacity. If you’re a light sleeper and you think it might be a full house, bring some earplugs to guarantee yourself peace and quiet.
The Lowdown: The Benson Hut is the hidden jewel of the Sierra Club’s Tahoe hut system. Perched on the Sierra Crest between Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley ski resorts, the out-of-the-way hut requires a little more gusto to get to but the surrounding ski terrain is as spectacular as the view from the hut’s outhouse.
The Coordinates: The Benson Hut is located five miles south of Donner Summit on the Sierra Crest. Park in a designated overnight parking lot at Sugar Bowl and steeply gain the ridge of Mt. Judah. Tour along the crest from Judah over Mt. Lincoln and out another three miles to the base of Anderson Peak. The hut is tucked into some ridge top trees at the foot of the north face of Anderson. You can jump start your approach by catching a one-time ride up Sugar Bowl’s Mt. Lincoln or Judah chairlifts.
The Nitty Gritty: Though there are a few downstairs bunk beds, the upstairs wood floor is the best bivy spot at the Benson with enough room to sleep 12. Expect to find a wood stove, wood, and maybe some toilet paper a previous hut-goer left in the outhouse but don’t count on much else. The Sierra Club requests $15 a night to stay in the hut. Reservations can be made by contacting the Clair Tappaan Lodge at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800-679-6775.
Getting the Goods: The bowl that drops off the crest to the east of the hut holds serious heads-up ski terrain. If you like you’re lines steep and rocky with closeout chutes on all sides don’t miss it. Gaining the summit of Anderson Peak is also epic, allowing for a steep bowl descent into gorgeous north-facing tree glades.
Know Before You Go: The ridgeline heading to the Benson Hut can be extremely dangerous in avalanche-prone conditions. Stay away from cornices and always scout your lines before dropping in. If it’s forecast to be stormy bring some earplugs as the hut will howl all night with a steady gale.
The Lowdown: The Bradley Hut is the newest of all the Sierra Club’s Tahoe huts. Constructed in its current location in 1998, the A-frame hut is well-equipped with huge tables, an efficient wood stove, and fewer mice than the other huts. Easy access makes this hut a locals mid-week favorite – leave early in the morning and the all downhill route out gets you to work, no worries!
The Coordinates: Catch the road to the Bradley Hut by parking on Highway 89 about two miles north of Squaw Valley at the Forest Road 8 trailhead. Tour up the gradually climbing road for 1500 feet over five miles to reach the hut. Aside from an obvious shortcut, the route never leaves the road as it climbs to the hut at the head of the Pole Creek drainage. The Bradley Hut sits just below and east of the Sierra Crest four miles south of the Benson Hut.
The Nitty Gritty: The cozy quarters of the Bradley Hut sleep 15 upstairs on the wood floor. Downstairs you’ll find a roasting wood stove for melting snow and several big tables for cooking, eating, and card playing. The Sierra Club asks $15 a night to stay in the Bradley Hut. Reservations can be made by contacting the Clair Tappaan Lodge at email@example.com or 800-679-6775.
Getting the Goods: Within five minutes ski west of the hut you’ll reach the base of several east facing bowls that dump right off the crest. Short and sweet, these open slopes are perfect for lapping up pow or late-morning corn. If you want a little steeper objective, gain the crest behind the hut and head north looking for a wild line or two that drop east through cliff bands and into Deep Creek, the next drainage north of the hut.
Know Before You Go: Unless you book out the joint with 14 buddies, get ready for company any and every night of the week during the winter. But other than a packed house of snoring telemarkers, there is really nothing to knock about the Bradley Hut.
Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut
The Lowdown: In the summer the Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut is the place where your hopes of scoring a Yosemite campsite live and die – it’s the campground reservation office right next to the general store. But in the winter, the one-room summer ranger hangout becomes a base camp for exploring a wild side of Yosemite that few ever experience.
The Coordinates: The easiest route to the Tuolumne Ski Hut goes up Highway 120 just out of Lee Vining off Highway 395. Park at the highway closure and ski up the road for 16 miles going over 10,000-foot Tioga pass then down to the hut in the meadows at 8600 feet. If breaking trail is necessary, many parties will need two days just to hit the hut door.
The Nitty Gritty: Five bunk beds adorn the Tuolumne Hut making room for ten cozy campers. A wood stove, table, electric lights and an electric tea pot round out the décor. The hut is first-come first-serve so even though there may have been no cars at the trailhead always bring a tent. Skiers arriving via other routes may have the placed packed.
Getting the Goods: Immediately south of Tuolumne Meadows lie several sweeping granite escarpments chalk full of steep chutes and big funneling bowls. Unicorn Peak has an especially nice north facing shot that dumps straight back to the hut. Venturing behind Unicorn into the Cockscomb Bowl will deliver more adrenaline pumping couloirs. Just be very, very careful of avalanche potential as the snow pack sits on steep granite slabs.
Know Before You Go: As long as you use the rodent-proof canister to store food and don’t get caught in a sketchy avalanche situation on the way to, from, or around the hut, it’s hard to go wrong at the Tuolumne Hut.
The Pear Lake Hut
The Lowdown: Tucked into the heart of the Southern Sierra within Sequoia National Park, the Pear Lake Hut is a touring skiers delight as the surrounding high alpine terrain offers lifetimes of amazing peaks, passes, and plateaus for exploring. Extremely popular, and rightfully so, the Pear Lake is a true “destination” hut.
The Coordinates: The route to the hut starts at the Pear Lake trailhead near the Wolverton Ski Area in Sequoia National Park. Follow the summer trail for six miles as it steadily climbs through dense timber before punching up and over “The Hump” and back down to the multiple lake basins to the west. The hut lies about a half mile below Pear Lake at an elevation of 9,200 feet.
The Nitty Gritty: The hut sleeps ten people but don’t dare expect a bed unless you have a reservation. The Sequoia National History Association holds a lottery for reservations the first week of November each year. Once full on a given day, the waiting lists start to queue up as cancellations do occur frequently. And as usual, the finer things in life don’t come cheap – weekends cost $38 a night, weekdays $30.
Getting the Goods: Less than a mile south of the hut lay the most immediate objective: a glorious north facing cirque rimmed by Alta Peak and Winter Alta that holds snow late into the summer. If you’re looking for a longer tour, head west into the Tablelands, a high plateau littered with intermediate slopes and passes. Hook north from the Tablelands and you’ll join the famous Sierra High Route.
Know Before You Go: The Pear Lake Hut comes complete with amazing backcountry access, warm bunks, a full-time hut-meister, and a few common sense rules and regulations. Unless you want to sleep in the snow when you arrive, get a reservation and read up on the hut specifics at www.sequoiahistory.org.