You could characterize San Juan Hut System as a kind of privately operated version of the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail located in western Colorado’s San Juan Mountains where twenty-five percent of the state’s peaks over 14,000-feet are to be found. Joe Ryan, now 63, came up with the idea and started building the original huts in 1987. After sojourns adventuring in Alaska, California, Washington, Colorado and abroad, Joe’s daughter, Kelly, now 32, joined her father to manage and continue to grow the hut and trail system. Kelly talked to BG about San Juan Huts and the unique place it occupies in outdoor recreation in Colorado and the rest of the U.S.
Can you tell me in a hundred words or less what the San Juan Hut System is?
It’s a network of sixteen small huts that sleep up to eight people in bunk beds. The huts are connected by trails for biking, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing. Each hut is stocked with food and firewood for a wood stove. Some eight-hundred adventurous souls from all over the world used the huts and trails last year.
Are the huts on public or private land?
A combination. We have permits through several state and federal agencies and a few huts are on large private ranches.
Who built the huts?
My dad hauled in the materials and built the huts himself, starting in nineteen-eighty-seven. People who know him say he’s a particularly resourceful, stubborn and tenacious individual. Next year will be our thirtieth year in business.
What about the trails?
The trails were all existing trails that we were able to link together. Two types of trails run parallel: a standard route, primarily a jeep trail or dirt road, and then a single track for more ambitious riders. The trails crisscross so you can alternate between the two.
Besides being the location of twenty-five percent of the Colorado mountains over fourteen thousand feet, what is it about the location of the huts that makes it special?
What makes this unusual is that you change ecosystems so dramatically in a relatively short distance and time period. You’re starting out in really high alpine terrain. The highest huts are at an elevation of eleven thousand feet. Then you drop down through sagebrush and high mountain desert, then into desert, slickrock and canyon lands. It’s a hugely appealing landscape – vast and empty. The southwest is unique not just in the U.S., but worldwide. There aren’t many places in the world where you can mountain bike, self-supported, through remote terrain for a week.
Who’s your typical customer?
Most are in their late forties or early fifties. They’re avid adventurers, not just bikers or skiers. They’re people who’ve traveled in Africa, done river trips, climbed Everest. They’re physically fit. Geographically most of them come from British Columbia and the west coast. The second biggest group would be east coast, then it breaks down across the rest of the country. We get people from Europe and New Zealand. Quite a few Australians.
The thing I looked for on your website but didn’t find was a map of the huts and the routes.
That’s on purpose. We don’t want people just dropping in without a reservation. When you book we give you a GPS file that you can download onto Google Earth or your GPS device, plus we mail you paper maps.
Are there other similar hut systems in the U.S.?
Maine Huts and Trails in northwestern Maine; Tenth Mountain Division Hut Association in Aspen, Colorado, and Cascade Huts near Oregon’s Mount Hood. Tenth Mountain Division huts tend to be larger than ours. Their huts can accommodate twenty or thirty people, whereas ours are for smaller groups. The original owners of Cascade huts came out and rode our routes and modeled their huts after ours.
Give readers an overview of your routes
We have two bike routes. One starts in Telluride and the other starts in Durango. Both go to Moab, Utah, and take six nights and seven days. There’s a shorter version of each of those that takes four nights and five days. Skiing and hiking use the same huts but different ones from the biking huts. It just changes from hiking to skiing depending on how much snow is on the ground.
How about seasons?
Biking is from around June first to October first. It depends on the weather in any particular year and whether you want to ride single track, which tend to stay muddier longer, or standard. There’s no set dates for the transition from hiking to skiing and snowshoeing. Skiing is usually from December through the end of April.
What’s the Biker’s Bible?
The Biker’s Bible is a twenty-two page, constantly evolving PDF compiled by Joe based on his almost thirty years in the business. It’s a tool for San Juan Hut customers that provides details on how to reserve a departure date, what you need to bring, what is provided in the huts and plenty of other details about biking with San Juan Huts. It makes for interesting reading even if you’re not booking a tour. Read, for example, the sections on “Weather” and “Lightning.”
When you’re stocking the huts with food and supplies, what have you found to be the favorite food of this group of discriminating, physically fit, international adventurers?
Peanut M and Ms.
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