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I did my fair share of camping as a kid, back when camp cuisine included a spread of freeze-dried food, freshly caught trout (if we were lucky), and, of course, s’mores for dessert. So as I sat savoring my lunch of a pork pate bahn mi sandwich paired with some local wine on a recent summer day, I couldn’t help but feel giddy at my dining prospects — and not just because I was at 9,700 feet of elevation in Colorado’s White River National Forest.
If this is camping, I’ll take more of this and less of the kid stuff. My elevated camping experience came courtesy of 10th Mountain Division Hut Association in Colorado, a brilliant pairing of public lands and nonprofit private enterprise that gives visitors the chance to stay in one of 34 huts situated within the rugged Colorado Rockies, located about an hour’s drive from Aspen.
But don’t take the word “hut” too literally. Case in point: The one hut I stayed in, called Harry Gates Hut, is a two-story structure that sleeps 16 adults in a sturdy, frontier-style cabin. Our accommodations offered a cozy retreat, as well as amenities such as a wood-burning fireplace and an antique-style stove. My small group also opted for upgrades that included a private chef, a yoga instructor who led classes on our hut’s spacious deck, and, for the ultimate post-hike nirvana, a massage therapist.
For clients who want to get an authentic outdoor experience with nary an RV or a thudding boombox in sight, the 10th Mountain Division Huts — originally built in the ’80s in honor of the World War II-era army division that trained near there — are pure bliss. Provided that, of course, clients are fine with limited electricity, no running water and a well-maintained outhouse (this is supposed to be camping, after all).
The huts are closed in May, June, October and November for maintenance, but for the remainder of the year, depending on the season, the hut system provides unmatched access to a variety of activities, such as backcountry cross-country and alpine skiing, mountain biking, hiking and birdwatching.
Hiring a local guide service for this type of trip makes a mountain of difference. We went with Aspen Alpine Guides. Almost any activity a client will dream up can be made possible by these backcountry experts, whether it’s a snowshoe trek through an aspen grove or single-track mountain biking. Our experience also included a hike to thundering Lime Creekwaterfall in White River National Forest and the next day, a trek to the source of the waterfall, where we were constantly challenged on which way to point our cameras: at the meadows afire with larkspur, bluebells and fairy slippers, or the snowcapped “fourteeners” (14,000-foot-plus peaks) framed by the ponderosa pines that towered above us?
Ultimately, it was all a blissful blur of meadows, pines, waterfalls, muddy boots, bear tracks, blueberry pancakes and Colorado wine and spirits. And, oh yes, a bahn mi sandwich that forever changed my idea of camp food.