Brennan Lagasse
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A major win for conservation and public access to Sierra backcountry magic

By Brennan Lagasse

There’s something special about the mountain hut experience. The feeling of never leaving the mountains after a long day in the backcountry is something all snow lovers should experience at some point. Luckily for Sierra backcountry users, there’s a new hut system to experience north of Tahoe that encapsulates this spirit and then some. The hut system allows access to multiple aspects of five-star ski terrain harboring a host of epic ski runs that seldom see tracks. On a recent visit, my crew and I were awe-struck with the ski potential, the shelter system, and the story behind how it all came to be.

The impressive Frog Lake cliff as seen from Frog Lake (Truckee Donner Land Trust)

The impressive Frog Lake cliff as seen from Frog Lake (Truckee Donner Land Trust)

The Frog Lake Backcountry Huts are a new addition to the alpine shelter tradition of the Sierra Nevada. Nestled in a rugged mountain nook at 7,600’, the huts are accessible by foot or bike in the summer, and snowshoes, splitboards, and skis in the winter. Depending on where one starts in the Donner Summit vicinity, the huts are usually just a few miles away.

While there are a couple of ways to access the huts, after reserving your spot in advance, most people will likely start their tour from the Castle Peak Snowpark. This approach is roughly 3.5 miles from trailhead to hut, climbing 1,500 vertical feet, and then descending 1,100 vertical feet to the huts. Castle Peak can be a busy snowpark in the middle of winter, especially on the weekend, because this also happens to be one of the most popular recreational entry points to the northern Sierra Nevada backcountry. Another option to get to the Frog Lake Huts is to hire a shuttle from Tahoe Sierra Transportation. “They’ll drop you off at the Donner Summit rest area to save you some mileage,” says Ali Agee of the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance.

Jenna Kane, Noah Howell, and Molly Armanino scope the south facing terrain of Carpenter Ridge (Brennan Lagasse)

Jenna Kane, Noah Howell, and Molly Armanino scope the south facing terrain of Carpenter Ridge (Brennan Lagasse)

The Frog Lake Huts have an interesting backstory. The 3,000 acres of land they access was previously closed to the public for almost 100 years. The area was held by a private family that thankfully kept the surrounding vicinities around Frog Lake unaltered and pristine. The Truckee Donner Land Trust saw the potential to increase recreational access for the public, and ensure the land was retained as healthy open space, so they sought to purchase the acreage several years back. In 2022, along with their partners the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy, the land transferred ownership — a major win for conservationists and all backcountry users. The deal protects wildlife habitat, migration corridors, and furthers watershed protection efforts in the area,  all while becoming home to what has already become a must-visit locale for Sierra winter enthusiasts.

Professional skier and Flylow team manager, Noah Howell visited the Frog Lake Huts last winter and had this to say, “Frog Lake is about as good as it gets in terms of hut location and operations. The approach is just challenging enough for you to appreciate arrival, and you’ll be surrounded by fun terrain in every direction once you get there.”

Morning light from the corner of the Eschenbach Backcountry House reveals some of the easily accessible terrain right out the front door (Brennan Lagasse);

Morning light from the corner of the Eschenbach Backcountry House reveals some of the easily accessible terrain right out the front door (Brennan Lagasse)

After a first visit to the huts last winter, the thing that struck me the most was that they didn’t feel like any hut I had previously experienced in North America. The huts have a Scandinavian feel and aesthetic. They’re modern, heat up quickly, and are the definition of simple comfort. Each of the three main huts accommodates a different combination of guests for a total of 20 open spots. If you have the ability to rent the whole place out, this location might be one of the coolest places to host a backcountry gathering in the Northern Sierra.

Simple, sleek, quality mountain comfort characterizes your shelter experience at the Frog Lake Huts (Tahoe Donner Land Trust).

Simple, sleek, quality mountain comfort characterizes your shelter experience at the Frog Lake Huts (Tahoe Donner Land Trust).

The final touch, the Eschenbach Backcountry House serves as the communal space. Cooking and sharing space with other hut goers takes the experience to the next level. Truthfully, the Eschenbach cannot be called a hut. It’s a lodge; an incredibly beautiful building; a mountain structure that doubles down on the feeling of being somewhere special when staying at Frog Lake.

It’s quite remarkable that this land and these huts were set aside for recreation and environmental sustainability. Understanding the major win for environment and community with development of the Frog Lake Huts is one thing, but the pure snow experience itself is a whole other thing.

If you crave the soul nourishing silence of winter in the Sierra consider reserving a trip to Frog Lake Huts. Good luck trying to leave once you make it there, that might be the hardest part of the whole trip.

In order to explore the winter backcountry you must have avalanche education, avalanche safety gear, and know how to use and apply both. If you have any questions about your ability to access the huts, it is highly recommended to use a local guiding service. To learn more and book at the Frog Lake Huts, go to truckeedonnerlandtrust.org

The Frog Lake hut system is located on the traditional lands and territories of the Washoe tribe. For more information on Indigenous land acknowledgements, go to nativegov.org/news/a-guide-to-indigenous-land-acknowledgment and native-land.ca

Read more about the Backcountry Tours here.

Main image: Jenna Kane and Molly Armanino get walled in a nearby north-facing tube (Brennan Lagasse)