America’s Coolest Budget Travel Secret: Alpine Huts

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You’ve been there, you’ve done that and now you are looking for an out-of-the-ordinary adventure. How about a hiking or cross-country ski vacation with lodging in alpine huts in spectacular settings. These lodgings, popular in mountainous European countries like Switzerland, Germany, Austria, France and Italy, also exist in the United States, although they’re not well-known.

Up a step from camping

Alpine huts are lodges and cabins in the mountains and back country that are more upscale than camping yet usually more rustic than hotels. Some offer not much more than a roof over your head. Others, though, come with hot meals, kids programs and lectures by naturalists.

Hut vacations cost more than tent camping, but most are cheaper than a hotel and are a whole lot more exotic. Huts in the United States often are placed within a day’s hike of each other so that vacationers can string together a series of reservations that keep them moving day by day from hut to hut. Alternatively, you can book several nights in one hut or lodge, using it as a base camp for day hikes or skiing. Either way, it adds up to a healthy, low-cost vacation amid spectacular surroundings.

What to expect

If you love hiking or alpine skiing but don’t want to schlep a tent and cooking gear, hut hiking is for you. The lighter backpack and pleasant overnight surroundings also make alpine huts a great way to introduce children to outdoor adventures. Here’s what to expect:

Vigorous exercise: A few huts are accessible by car so by all means check out hut stays even if you aren’t an avid hiker. Generally, though, you’ll reach your hut by hiking, skiing or biking a trail. You’ll leave your car at a trailhead and carry your belongings, including sleeping bags, in your backpack. Some huts are located in the high mountain country, involving a strenuous or long hike. Others require a relatively short, easy hike. Just be sure to find out how you’ll reach your accommodations before you make the reservation.

Lower costs: Some huts are open all year, and prices vary depending on the hut and the time of year. Others are open only seasonally. A few examples:

  • A Saturday night high-season stay at an Appalachian Mountain Club huts in Maine and New Hampshire runs $158 per person plus tax for a bunk bed, dinner and breakfast. Club membership ($50 individual, $75 family and $25 under 30) drops the rate to around $130 plus tax.
  • To stay at the remote 16-person OPUS hut in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, individuals pay $40 for a night in a dormitory and $40 more each for prepared meals. The hut has hot running water and a wood-fired sauna. Bring your dog for $40 a night. Rates for individual rooms are higher, and the entire hut rents for $640 a night.
  • In Sun Valley, Idaho, Sun Valley Trekking rents its yurts and huts to groups. Prices work out to about $35 per person per night with a required minimum size for groups.

Sharing: You’ll probably share your hut with other skiers or hikers. Do expect to share. Don’t expect much privacy. Budget Travel likens the communal atmosphere to a hostel, but without the late-night partying. Shared kitchens, bathrooms and bunk rooms are the rule.

Alpine huts across the United States

Here is a sampling of alpine huts across the United States:

  • Colorado: The not-for-profit group 10th Mountain (named for the 10th Mountain Division of the U.S. Army, which trained for World War II at Camp Hale in Colorado) manages 34 back-country huts linked by 350 miles of biking, hiking and skiing routes and trails in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. This website provides information on OPUS Hut. Another Colorado company, San Juan Huts, maintains a network of high-country huts for skiing, mountain biking, snow-shoeing, climbing and hiking.
  • Georgia: Amicalola Falls State Park’s Len Foote Hike Inn is reached by a five-mile trek through the Chattahoochee National Forest.
  • Idaho: Sun Valley Trekking in Central Idaho operates six huts, varying in capacity from 14 to 20 people. Book a guided tour or hike or ski independently.
  • Maine: The nonprofit Maine Huts and Trails has four backcountry huts and 50 miles of trails and is building more.
  • Montana: Among Glacier National Park’s many accommodations are two mountain chalets for overnight use, Granite Park Chalet and Sperry Chalet.
  • New Hampshire and Maine: The Appalachian Mountain Club, a conservation and outdoor adventure club founded in 1876, maintains eight mountain huts on the Appalachian Trail in the White Mountain National Forest. Use of the huts — spaced a day’s hike apart — is open to the public. Communal meals are served by staff. Discounts and special rates are available to members
  • Washington: The Mount Tahoma Trails Association in Mount Rainier National Park calls itself “North America’s largest no-fee hut-to-hut trail system.” The nonprofit group operates three ski huts and a yurt, all of which are maintained by volunteers. A $15 processing fee is charged per person per night. Bring your food, emergency equipment and sleeping bags. Reservations are required.

In addition, the American Alpine Club’s extensive list of huts and base camps includes many at lower altitudes that would appeal to nonclimbers. Discounted rates are available with a club membership ($85 a year general, $60 for seniors, $50 for juniors ages 28 and younger).

What affordable U.S. adventures do you recommend? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

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