Outside of digging your own snow cave or tenting it in a sub-zero sleeping bag, there are few ways to comfortably overnight in the winter backcountry. The Methow Valley’s Rendezvous Huts, dotting the hills above the village of Mazama, offer snow-sports enthusiasts a cozy alternative: five warm, wooden safe havens.
With huts located about five miles apart on 23 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails that connect Cub Creek to Mazama, visitors can pick a hut and stay several nights, or ski from hut to hut to compare the views, board games and trail advantages of each location in Washington’s North Cascades.
“People always ask me which is my favorite, but I can’t really pick one — they each have different benefits — areas for sledding or unique ski terrain…Grizzly Hut is at the base of Grizzly Mountain — so you can snowshoe up there,” says Ben Nelson, who purchased the hut business in 2013 with his wife, Virginia.
Their son, Oliver, almost 2, is accustomed to having his car seat strapped to a snowmobile to zoom along trails. Most hut renters pay an additional fee for the convenience of a snowmobile/sled freight haul, allowing them to ski unencumbered while their gear is whisked up the mountain ahead of them.
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Nelson is thankful that the huts escaped last summer’s devastating forest fires in the region, and is ready for the snow to fall.
Each hut has an outfitted kitchen, propane oven, stove and lights. The bathroom is an outhouse, but this inconvenience is eclipsed by the hut’s glowing woodstove and the snow-globe-like panoramas seen through windows.
“Our time in the huts is so magical — there are no electronics and we chop our own wood and melt snow for water,” says Leslie Enzian, of Vashon Island, who will make the trek in January for the fourth consecutive year with a group of friends who play cards together long into the night. “I leave there with tons of inspiration from ideas people have shared, and rejuvenated by the fresh winter air. It’s a really enchanting and extremely fun time.”
Many visitors get hooked on the huts and make an annual sojourn, which can make it tricky to find a free winter weekend open. Nelson says November is a good time to call because that’s often when cancellations occur; reservations can be made a year in advance.
For Brandon Fainstad, of Seattle, finding the Rendezvous Huts was his way of making himself at home in a new state. After moving from Colorado, where he skied hut to hut in the Rockies’ 10th Mountain Division, one of the first things he did was look for ski huts in the Northwest. This will be the fourth season at the Rendezvous Huts for a group of friends Fainstad and his wife met during medical residency. “Going up to the huts in isolation in the snow is such a bonding experience,” he said. “We’ve had nights of tubing, tunnel-building, backcountry skiing, headlamp art — we come up with anything to do out there.”
Simplicity and solitude
The first two huts were built in 1980 by owners of the Diamond T Ranch, where powder-hungry guests enjoyed easy backcountry access. Though the huts have multiplied and changed hands over the years (now located by permit on U.S. Forest Service property), doorstep access to quiet, roadless miles of groomed cross-country trails has remained the same. Renters should be aware that, in keeping with the European ski-hut tradition of a refuge for weary mountaineers, the Rendezvous Huts are open to day-trippers who may stop in for lunch and warm themselves by the woodstove.
The Nelsons have stayed true to the huts’ unwritten mission of simplicity and solitude. The biggest change they’ve implemented is year-round access; mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders may rent huts in spring and fall.
Apparently not all renters are keen on quiet — Nelson says the most unusual things he’s hauled up to a hut are a cardboard Elvis and a keg of beer. “I timed it so they beat me up there so they could help unload it,” he laughed.
And though it can be an arduous ski for beginners, even novices find their way to the Rendezvous Huts. “If we made it, just about anyone can,” said Betty Wagoner, a lifelong Methow Valley resident, who began Nordic skiing in her 70s and visits the huts each year with a group of women friends, including one who is blind. She and her friends also ride horseback to their favorite hut for a weekend each June.
“They say we’re the second slowest group — it takes us all day to ski there — but it’s so beautiful, we love the view from Gardner Hut, the camaraderie, and we have lots of giggles.”
Kathryn True is a Vashon Island-based freelance writer who regularly visits the Methow Valley.