Adventure December 21, 2020

Sun Valley’s Backcountry Yurt and Hut System

An Austrian tradition settles in the mountains of Idaho

After rapidly transforming from a sleepy, post-boom and bust mining town of just over 100 year-round residents into a luxury winter ski resort within one year in 1936, Sun Valley Resort brought over Austrian and German mountain guides to ski instruct in 1938. They were immediately intoxicated with the seemingly endless mountain ranges surrounding the resort and began exploring, skiing, and guiding in the backcountry. By the time 1939 rolled around, the mountain guides headed up by Florian Hammerle had constructed Pioneer Cabin as a basecamp for ski touring and mountaineering, located east of Ketchum at an elevation of 9400 feet. Pioneer Cabin was North America’s first backcountry hut that was built specifically for the purpose of ski touring, modeled after the huts that could be found throughout the European traditional hut-to-hut ski and hiking tour routes.

Boulder Yurt in the Smoky Mountains near Sun Valley, Idaho

Today, the Sun Valley area boasts a backcountry hut and yurt system throughout the surrounding Boulder, Sawtooth, Smoky, and Pioneer mountains that are coveted for winter and summer basecamps for outdoor adventures. While huts are more similar to small cabins, yurts are circular, portable dwellings, distinguished by their lattice of flexible poles and fabric covering. Mongolia holds the claim to the birthplace of the yurt, which is the prominent abode throughout Central Asia, and in recent decades, yurts have grown in popularity in the backcountry. The huts and yurts around Sun Valley were developed by outfitters over the years to offer a more comfortable opportunity to spend days out in the mountains in winter and summer, basing out of one location, rather than moving accommodations nightly as in the the hut-to-hut tour model that is common in Europe today.

Joe St.Onge, co-owner of Sun Valley Mountain Huts (formerly Sun Valley Trekking) with his wife Francie, described, “We’ve got one of the most unique backcountry hut systems both from a historical ski aspect and from a structure perspective.” He continued, “All of the six huts we operate are different and spread across three mountain ranges. From the structures, to the skiing and mountain biking, to the ecology, each hut was built on site, with consideration of how to best fit it into that site. At the same time, there’s also lots of common characteristics and accoutrements for levels of comfort. The huts have everything you need and nothing that you don’t.”

A combination of huts and yurts, Bench, Fishhook, Tornak, Boulder, Coyote, and Pioneer are cozy dwellings with wood heating stoves, beds, kitchens, and even some saunas and wood-heated hot tubs. In addition to Sun Valley Mountain Huts, Sawtooth Mountain Guides operates the Williams Peak Hut, and Galena Lodge has four yurts available for rent in winter and summer, which are Senate View Yurt, Star’s Perch Yurt, Miner’s Yurt, and Honeymoon Yurt.

How we got from Pioneer Cabin to the extensive hut system of today largely took place in the 1970s. Once World War II hit, Sun Valley Resort shut its doors, most of the German and Austrian ski guides returned to Europe to fight in the 10th Mountain Division, and Pioneer Cabin largely fell into a state of disrepair despite locals continuing to explore Ketchum’s surrounding mountain ranges.

But in the early 1970s, local outfitter Joe Leonard began building primitive wall-tents in the Sawtooth and White Cloud mountains where he would host trips. One of Leonard’s early guests had recently returned from a National Geographic assignment in Mongolia and recommended that he use yurts to host and accommodate guests. Leonard was convinced and built the first known yurt that was specifically built as a destination ski hut. In 1982, Leonard passed along his operation to Bob Jonas, who named the company Sun Valley Trekking and moved the yurts and huts higher into the mountains. Joe and Francie St.Onge took over Sun Valley Trekking in 2000, and continue to run the huts today.

The Williams Peak Yurts were constructed by Sawtooth Mountain Guide founder Kirk Bachman in 1986, and are located at 8,000 feet on the northern expanse of the Sawtooth Range near Stanley. While Sawtooth Mountain Guides’ yurts and Sun Valley Mountain Hut’s huts and yurts are backcountry ski, bike, and hike jumping off points that you pack into, Galena Lodge’s yurts are accessible by Nordic ski trails and, while they also boast mountain views, are less remote.

Joe described what it took to keep these backcountry paradises up and running. All are located in remote backcountry settings, and there is a huge amount of work required to build them in the first place. Take Bench Hut, which was built from beetle kill trees all within 100 feet of the site. Then, there’s maintaining the huts and yurts throughout the year, cutting and transporting supplies and wood for fuel for the entire winter, and ensuring general upkeep. Joe noted that, “Francie and I consider ourselves stewards. While we’re the owners, it’s not about ownership, it’s about stewardship, and it’s a huge responsibility and honor.”

All told, nearly a dozen yurts and huts are sprinkled throughout the mountains surrounding the Wood River Valley, providing unique opportunities to get into the mountains to experience that indescribable sensation of getting a group of friends together to just be out in the high alpine wilderness—experiencing the joy of “everything you need, and nothing you don’t.”

How to Get Out There…

The best place to start if you’re interested in a hut or yurt trip is exploring Sun Valley Mountain Huts, Sawtooth Mountain Guides, and Galena Lodges websites, which give full information about location, amenities, availability, what to think about, and how to prepare, particular to each location. In general, make sure you are adept in backcountry safety and navigation if you are going skiing or snowboarding. The yurts operated by Galena are less remote and can be great “starter” yurt experiences. If it’s your first time to any hut, an orientation is required that will deck you out with quick beta on the hut or yurt and nearby adventure terrain. St. Onge notes that there are the options for full guided trips, which are recommended for first time users. Both Sun Valley Guides and Sawtooth Mountain Guides offer fully guided hut trips.

This article appears in the Winter 2020 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.