Winter is a long stretch for all the warm weather backpackers out there. A snowy trek is tempting, but also scary. Packs are heavy and stakes are higher.
There's another option for those trying to test the winter waters, but not quite ready to hunker down in a snowy tent or igloo. The Sierra Club maintains four huts, sprinkled throughout the northwest Tahoe Basin wilderness, that are available for reservation year-round.
The cabins aren't necessarily fancy, but they do offer sleeping accommodations for about 15 people and free up some tent space in the old pack. Along those lines, the huts also offer warmth with a wood-burning stove, firewood and a feeling of security.
Backpackers must bring everything else. This means food, a water-purification system, sleeping bags, pads, light, avalanche shovels and any other backpacking essentials that usually make the list. Be prepared to shovel out entrances in heavy snowfall and do pack the camp stove because the cabin stoves aren't always efficient for cooking.
It is feasible to backpack from hut to hut, but most people choose to stay at one hut for multiple nights, Sierra Club outings marketing manager John Halal said.
"I think the best option would be to rent a hut for a few days and kind of have that be your home base," Halal said.
Soak in a quiet weekend in snowy solitude or get after some backcountry skiing or snowboarding. There are good riding areas around the huts ranging from beginner-friendly meadows to expert bowls and ridgelines.
No matter what the day may hold, make sure backcountry and avalanche safety come first. In good weather, the huts are all accessible within a day's hike from the nearest road. They range in distance from 3 to 6 miles from parking, but beware that some of the cabins require more mountaineering skills than others and may not be accessible in bad weather.
Weekdays are easier to come by provided it's not a holiday week, but reservations should still be made a week ahead of time at a minimum, according to Andy Sexton, who take reservations for the huts. Sexton said the lodge staff can't provide directions to huts for liability reasons so it is up to group leaders to get everyone there safely. Dogs are allowed, but realize that the hut is a shared space and there might be other dogs staying the night, Sexton said.
Peter Grubb Hut
The Peter Grubb Hut is our first stop. It is the most accessible hut of the four, sitting 3 miles north of the Donner Summit stretch of highway. The hut has a main room with a wood-burning stove, tables and a kitchen area. An upstairs sleeping loft accommodates 15.
The hike to Peter Grubb is an 800-foot elevation gain spread over the first two miles and then 250 feet of downhill to the hut. Pay attention along the way because it's sometimes hard to catch the orange triangles posted on trees that mark the way every 100 to 200 yards. Nearby Round Valley is a good practice spot for beginning skiers and snowboarders. The Sierra Club also suggests Paradise Valley, Basin Peak, Castle Peak and Sand Ridge Lake as good day excursions depending on weather and conditions.
This is a tricky one in the winter. Mountaineering skills are a must and the route is treacherous in bad weather, according to the Sierra Club. Six miles south of Donner Pass Road, Benson Hut is perched at 8,300 feet on a steep hill right off the Lincoln-Judah saddle that runs to the north face of Anderson Peak.
It's a steep climb of 1,200 feet from Lake Mary up to Mount Lincoln to start the Benson trek. The trail then follows an exposed ridgeline for three miles with potential cornices on either side or wind-exposed ice. Avalanches are absolutely a possibility around the hut and along most of the hike in. Believe it or not, this is actually the easy way into Benson.
It's worth the hike though. The hut has fold out bunk beds downstairs and is the only hut that sleeps about 12 instead of 15. Along with Bradley Hut, Benson Hut also gives easy access to some of the better and steeper terrain. There is an outhouse about 100 feet west of cabin.
Connecting the 4 miles between Bradley Hut and Benson Hut is the most common option for backpackers who choose to hike hut-to-hut. Bradley is the newest of the huts since it was moved from Five Lakes Basin in Granite Chief Wilderness to Pole Creek in the late 90's.
The hut is stationed 2 miles north of Squaw Valley and it sits in the upper drainage of Pole Creek. It is equipped with the usual Sierra Club wood-burning stove, tables and kitchen area. The upstairs loft sleeps 12-15 and the two-story outhouse is 40 feet north of the cabin.
The trail to Bradley gradually follows fire road 8 up for about 1,500 feet spread over 5 miles. "Skiing is possible on the slopes and in the bowls north and west of the hut. Beware of avalanche danger, especially on Silver Peak (south). Good snow can also be found in Deep Creek, the next drainage north," according to the Sierra Club hut descriptions.
Farthest south sits Ludlow hut, nestled six miles in on the West Shore. The hut blends well in the winter and is one of the more difficult to find. The upstairs sleeping loft offers enough wooden floor space to sleep 15. The outhouse is 100 feet southeast of the cabin. It's a 6-mile trek with 1,000 feet of elevation gain along McKinney Creek to Miller Lake get to Ludlow Hut. There is an alternate return option along General Creek, but the passage is more difficult, according to the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club suggests day trips to Sourdough Hill and Lost Corner. More beginner-friendly ski areas are the Richardson Lake shore and in Miller Meadow.
For more information on the huts and their history, visit sierraclub.org/outings/lodges/huts/. Parking information is provided on each hut's page.
The Sierra Club encourages those who use the huts in the winter to join a summer or fall work party to help replenish firewood stocks and keep up hut maintenance. As always in the backcountry, leave the huts clean and minimize impact. The Sierra Club will always accept contributions to help defray maintenance costs.
Reservation rates cost $15 per night per person and the Clair Tappaan Lodge starts accepting reservation after Nov. 5. Reservations can be made by contacting 530-426-3632 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Space can be reserved for multiple nights, but weekends usually fill up by the end of November.