On this cobalt-blue, early-April day, our group of 10 skiers is marveling at the alpine skyline of the San Juan mountains. From our vantage point 13,000 feet above sea level on the crest of Imogene Pass, we can see more 14,000-foot peaks than anywhere in the lower 48. Red Mountain Alpine Lodge and Red Mountain Pass, today’s starting point (and the last place we saw another human), seem impossibly far away.
And now, we have a 2,000-foot descent into Richmond Basin en route to Colorado’s newest catered hut, Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge. As a stand-alone day, it’s a magnificent Colorado ski tour, but today it’s just one day of five comprising our Million Dollar Traverse.
“These are the mountains people envision when they think of the Rockies,” says our guide, Nate Dissar. That may be so, but the way we’re experiencing them on this trip is more in line with how we might expect to experience skiing in the Alps.
American backcountry skiers are accustomed to self-service, rustic shelters. For overnights, we’re used to packing in our food, booze, and sleeping bags, and melting snow for water. We even bundle up at night to use the outhouse. But a new Euro-style hut route in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride links three catered alpine lodges through scenery rivaling the Alps in Colorado’s least populated and largest range.
The new Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge near Ouray, which opened to the public last winter, joins neighboring OPUS Hut and RMAL to form a network of serviced backcountry ski huts—the first of its kind in the United States. These privately-owned lodges provide soft beds with comforters, gourmet meals prepared and cleaned up by a hut keeper, and a well-stocked bar. All boast running water, and one even offers a hot shower. The amenities eliminate the need to carry a heavy pack, enabling an attainable multi-day trip for even beginner backcountry skiers.
The route starts, crosses, and finishes within the stretch of U.S. 550 between Ouray and Silverton known as the Million Dollar Highway—dubbed that due to disputed legends that either the road cost a million dollars a mile to build or that it might contain a million dollars in gold ore in its dirt. I’ve taken to calling this hut-to-hut trip America’s Haute Route because it has the potential to become our country’s most iconic human-powered ski trip.
It begins in picturesque Ouray, coined “Switzerland of America,” the base for San Juan Mountain Guides. Plus it’s the only trip in the U.S. where you can stay in fully catered lodges and carry only a daypack.
Dissar, an IFMGA guide, is leading this inaugural trip, along with fellow guide Jesse Ballew, a former marine who trains special forces teams in the mountains. Ski season is winding down as we meet at Ophir Pass Road in early April, but things are just getting underway in the backcountry. There we gather with other group members, including Sven Brunso, a Durango-area freeskier who’s appeared in countless ski films and images; Sara, who had recently left a high-powered job on Wall Street to consult from her new base near Telluride; Steve, a Swiss expat who runs a consulting business in Maryland; Scott, a gastroenterologist in Cheyenne; and Jesse, a yacht designer and engineer in Charleston.
Since we would all be sleeping and skiing above 11,000 feet for the next five nights and six days, Dissar uses the 3.5-mile, 1,700-vertical-foot skin from Highway 550 to the OPUS Hut as a try-out of sorts. The flatlanders passed with flying colors. In fact, everyone had enough energy for an afternoon tour after ditching our stuff at the hut, which was crafted from stone and barn wood and perched above thousands of acres of incredibly varied terrain, from bowls and couloirs to low-angle glades.
The next morning, after an evening filled with sunset toasts, a nourishing meal (and homemade chocolate fudge), fireside conversation, and restful sleep, we load up our packs and attach ski crampons to our skis so we can skin on the frozen spring crust. We approach a 45-degree, 1,000-foot face. We need to bootpack up to the 13,000-foot col before we can ski to Columbine Lake. We’ll alternate skiing and skinning through Upper Porphyry and Mineral Basins to the shoulder of 13,321-foot Trico Peak.
A half-mile north of the Red Mountain Pass summit, the lodge sits 300 yards from the road, but, hidden in spruce trees, you don’t see it until you’re right on top of it. Dissar and business partners Mark and Andrea Luppenlatz started the project in 2014 after acquiring 300 acres of mining claims and constructed the custom timber frame structure with Douglas Fir timbers.
Two nights at RMAL means a layover day for skiing. With two guides, our group of eight skiers could divide and conquer different objectives, which is exactly what we did after summiting Red 3, the prominent peak behind RMAL.
“It’s really cool to have one full day without traveling,” says Brunso. “You can recover and acclimatize or get after it. The best variety of terrain is around Red Mountain Pass, so even if you’re at RMAL and avy danger is high, there are old growth trees where you can ski.”
Choose the Right Tool For the Job: The 7 Best Backcountry Skis of 2022
After skiing down the east face of Red 3 as a group, we all climb back up, and a few of us spend the day following the sun around three different aspects, finding everything from recycled powder to prime corn. Afterwards, we bask in the sun on RMAL’s deck before taking hot showers and sitting down to a candlelit dinner.
On Day 5, it’s time for our final traverse to Hayden. A few years ago, Eric Johnson, a devoted climber and skier, was offered the chance to purchase a mining claim with an old cabin. Building and running a catered backcountry lodge is much harder than the high-end chef career he quit in Boulder to pursue this dream, but any Hayden guest can tell Johnson’s got the required grit and resourcefulness (and cooking chops). From his perch in the lodge’s full kitchen, Johnson simultaneously chops fresh ingredients while chatting with guests and whipping up hearty skier fare such as T-bone steaks with baked potatoes and fresh pasta with house-baked bread.
The next day, we ski out Camp Bird Road and strip our skins among the crumbling structures of the most famous mine in the San Juans and the second-richest in Colorado, the Camp Bird Mine. After a mile-long ski boot walk down the dirt road, Luppenlatz picks us up in a Light Medium Tactical Vehicle, a beast of a 4×4 with a 2.5 ton payload. On the ride back to Ouray, I ask Brunso for his thoughts on the tour.
“Moving through the mountains one step at a time, you really appreciate your environment,” says Brunso. “Usually, I’m skiing with an objective, and it’s time sensitive. This long traverse showed me things I had never seen before. I realized, after spending 30 years in the San Juans, I haven’t put a dent in the terrain.”
Around 2,000 skiers tackle the Haute Route from Chamonix to Zermatt each season, and some huts accommodate close to 200 people. Ten of us completed the Million Dollar Traverse last winter. This winter might see 65 skiers on the route. And RMAL, the biggest of the three huts, sleeps 22. The Haute Route requires a two-week commitment, flights, and transfers. The Million Dollar Traverse can be done in four days, and starts and finishes a half-a-day’s drive from Denver.
Resourceful miners developed these unique towns in a remote range 200 years ago. “Like-minded people gravitate to the same areas,” says Dissar. “People who have the personality types that take on challenging ventures end up in the San Juans. It’s one of the few ranges in the Lower 48 that still feels vast and unexplored. It can feel like the Wild West is still out here. It gives you a sense of being out there … of freedom and adventure.”
I realize there’s no point in comparing the Million Dollar Traverse to anything abroad. This Haute Route is distinctly American.
Details: Million Dollar Traverse
San Juan Mountain Guides will host its first season of the Million Dollar Traverse in March and April 2022 (see website for dates). The Million Dollar Traverse starts and finishes in Ouray and includes four nights of lodging (one night at OPUS Hut, two nights at Red Mountain Alpine Lodge, one night at Mount Hayden Backcountry Lodge), chef-prepared breakfasts and dinner, and five days of guiding from IFMGA/AMGA guides for $2,000 per person. Ski crampons, boot crampons, harnesses, and ice axes are available for rent from San Juan Mountain Guides.
Plan to begin and end your trip in Ouray. Here are some suggestions on where to stay, eat, play in the region.
Where to Stay
Most Character: Hotel Imogene
Newly opened in 2020, Hotel Imogene offers six rooms (some with clawfoot tubs, historic stamped tin ceilings, and restored hardwood floors) in a historic building that was once a saloon and brothel. The lobby doubles as a whiskey bar and the rooftop bar is Ouray’s newest hot spot.
Best Value: Twin Peaks Motel
The only hotel with natural mineral hot springs open 9am-9pm, Twin Peaks Motel offers basic rooms with free WiFi, a restaurant, and a year-round outdoor pool all a short walk to Box Canyon Falls and downtown Ouray.
Historic Vibe: Beaumont Hotel
A consistent favorite, the Beaumont Hotel was Ouray’s finest as soon as it was built in 1886 and was known as one of the grandest hotels in Colorado. Today, it’s an adults-only, 12-room boutique hotel with modern amenities and a spa.
Where to Eat
Your place for serious coffee with baristas who are trained in the art of shot-pulling and milk-steaming (they also serve a fine breakfast burrito), Mojo’s also supports local artisans with its mugs, art, and more.
Brickhouse 737 is the most popular dinner spot in town for good reason: a prime location on Main Street, great food, and fun atmosphere. The menu, which incorporates local ingredients, includes favorites like fried Brussels sprouts with Portuguese sausage, miso vinaigrette, and maple-candied macadamia nuts.
An old-school, subterranean red-sauce favorite, Bon Ton will surprise you with its upscale Italian, romantic ambiance, and robust menu of steaks, seafood, pasta, cocktails, a full wine list, and even a martini bar.
A new addition to Ouray’s dining scene atop the hotel that bears its name, Imogene offers a rooftop dining experience with a city vibe. Its menu brings sophisticated cuisine to Ouray with a creative cocktail menu to match.
What To Do in the Region
Ouray’s frozen falls, located in a gorge a short walk from downtown, lure the best ice climbers in the world (the famous Ouray Ice Festival attracts thousands each January), but with more than 200 routes, they also provide the perfect learning grounds for the growing sport.
Ouray Hot Springs
The Ute Tribe, who settled the Uncompahgre Valley, called the area’s sulfur-free hot springs “Miracle Waters” for their healing properties, and Ouray’s residents and visitors have been soaking in its warm, mineral-rich waters ever since. The city-owned Ouray Hot Springs Pool includes multiple pools, including lap lanes, waterslides, and adult-only areas.
A ski area that likes to boast that its average snowfall of over 400 inches exceeds its daily skier count, Silverton Mountain is a no-frills option that allows skiers to access 1,819 acres of backcountry-like terrain on their own (via chairlift and ridge hikes). Silverton also sells single-drop heli-skiing Thursday through Sunday for less than $200 per person.
Telluride Ski Resort
Basking in 300 days of sunshine per year, Telluride Ski Resort is best known for its expert, hike-to runs. That includes the narrow Gold Hill Chutes, the 1,000-vertical-foot descents in Black Iron Bowl, and the precipitous steeps from the top of Palmyra Peak, from which you can enjoy spectacular views. Also notable: the ski area’s fine dining, including Alpino Vino and Bon Vivant.