Winter Warriors: Adventures Awaits Along This Hut-To-Hut Trail System

Imagine standing at 4,700-feet overlooking a hilly, snow-dusted treeline with a view of Mount Rainier and getting some of the best powder you’ve ever seen.

But the thing is, you don’t have to daydream about it – because you can go there to ski or snowshoe. Tucked away in our Tahoma State Forest awaits three huts and a yurt dotting a trail system. And it’s only a two hour drive from the Greater Seattle Area.

Here’s the hut-to-hut breakdown.

HIGH HUT

  • Elevation: 4,760 feet
  • Gain: 2,400 feet
  • Miles to hut: 4
  • Sleeping capacity: 8 people
  • Find a trail map here
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High hut. Image: DNR

SNOW BOWL

  • Elevation: 4, 250 feet
  • Gain: 2,000 feet
  • Miles to hut: 4
  • Sleeping capacity: 14 people
  • Find a trail map here
Image from iOS (4)
Bruni’s Snow Bowl. Image: MTTA

COPPER CREEK

  • Elevation: 4,200 feet
  • Gain: 2,400 feet
  • Miles: 4
  • Sleeping capacity: 14 people
  • Only accessible in winter in respect
    to conservation efforts
  • Find a trail map here
Image from iOS (3)
Copper Creek Hut. Image: MTTA

THE YURT

Image from iOS (2)
The Yurt. Image: MTTA

So you want to go? Here’s what to know

HUT AMENITIES: Each hut provides a stovetop, pots to melt snow for water, bunk beds, kitchen essentials, a fireplace, and an outside bathroom.

WHAT TO BRING: Bring the Ten Essentials! Don’t forget your Discover Pass and sno-park permit. Find a trail map here.

ETIQUETTE: Snowshoers should stay to the side to preserve the groomed trails
for skiers. You may be sharing the huts with other groups, so be respectful and practice Leave No Trace principles.

RESERVATIONS: The huts are free to use from 7 a.m. – p.m.. An annual gala is held every November, which includes a lottery for first-round reservations. Beginning in late-November, the website opens all remaining spots for reservation. The huts are always full on weekends, but weekdays often have openings, and you can check back regularly for weekend cancellations. For more information, visit skimtta.org.

DIRECTIONS TO TRAILHEAD: The location of the 1 Road Sno-Park moves depending on the snow level. If there is a lot of snow and the gate to the upper area is locked, then use the lower Sno-park at 2,360 feet elevation. If there is less snow and the gate to the upper area is open, then head farther up the road to the Upper 1 Road Sno-Park at 3,000-feet elevation.

The location of the 1 Road Sno-Park moves depending on the snow level. If there is a lot of snow and the gate to the upper area is locked, then use the lower Sno-park at 2,360 feet elevation. If there is less snow and the gate to the upper area is open, then head farther up the road to the Upper 1 Road Sno-Park at 3,000-feet elevation.

How long have the huts been there? Who are the people behind this trail? What makes the huts different than others in the northwest? 

Looking for a conversation starter with your group on the trail? Read about how this all came together. You may discover that you love the story of how this trail system came together as much as you love the trail system itself. Story first published in Mountaineer Magazine

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The view of Elbe and Tahoma State Forests as seen from what is now the High Hut.

Building a hut system

On a winter day in 1989, Bob Brown’s mind was wandering as he explored Mount Rainier’s Paradise area during a backcountry ski. A Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) forest manager, Bob had recently read about hut-to-hut skiing trail systems. European-inspired, hut-based backcountry skiing took off in America nearly a century before his trip that day, and while hut systems were available in Eastern Washington, none had been built on the western side of the Cascades. Not yet that is.

“I thought, gee, [a hut system] would be sort of neat [in Western Washington]. And then I thought, gee, all the roads – on both the DNR land and private timber company land, and even some forest service land – are all snow covered in the winter. So there’s ready-made trail. And you have landings, which are cleared areas, where you can build huts on and they would have views.”

Bob called a meeting between DNR, Washington State Parks, and the Forest Service about opening a new hut-to-hut skiing trail in the Tahoma State Forests. They sent out 1,500
questionnaires to measure public interest. Only two people didn’t like the idea.

The group established Mount Tahoma Trail Association (MTTA) in 1989 as a nonprofit and started fundraising. The state gave $160,000 — money pitched by a state senator who later said the funds were the best he’s ever allocated because of how well they were used. Other contributions came from grassroots fundraising efforts and in-kind work- hours by volunteers.

By fall, MTTA was working on building the High Hut. Its completion in 1990 was followed by Snow Bowl Hut, Copper Creek Hut, and The Yurt in 1991.

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The view of Mount Rainier from the High Hut.

For three decades, volunteers donated more than 4,000 hours every year to operate and maintain the huts and trails, doing everything from work parties to weekend ski patrols. This allows MTTA to be a 100% volunteer-run organization, which means every penny donated or raised goes directly back into operating the facilities.

“If you come up with a good idea, then there’s a chance it might turn into something. But the [credit goes to] all the talented people who get excited about this thing and pour their heart and soul into it and make it work,” Bob said.

‘Ready-made’ trails in our working forests

When you ski or snowshoe from the lower sno-park near Ashford, it’s not long before a sign welcomes you into in the heart of a working forest. As part of Washington’s three million acres of federally-granted state trust lands, Tahoma State Forests are managed by the Washington DNR and are legally obligated to provide an array of benefits to Washington residents. Priority is placed on perpetually generating revenue to support public institutions, like funding construction of schools, namely through timber harvests.

Timber harvesting techniques have come a long way over the last century, which had previously left this land nearly barren. DNR and partnering conservation groups have worked together to revitalize the area, returning it to a resilient, productive working forest to sustain healthy and diverse habitats.

“When Snow Bowl Hut was built, there was a big open clear cut in front of it, and people would ski in that clear cut…and you can’t ski in the clear cut anymore,” Bob said. “And the reason you can’t ski in that clear cut is because there’s too many trees.”

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A snowshower looks out into the forest on the trail.

When the season turns to winter, logging truck roads go dormant in the snow. Utilizing these existing roads for recreation preserves nearby conservation areas while also offering a backcountry experience. The trail system also evolves and changes with timber production and forest growth. That’s why the trails fluctuate between 50 and 75 miles of terrain from season to season.

“I’m proud that my agency and our partners are able to manage the public’s lands in ways that protect our natural resources, provide millions of dollars for public services, and give us some of the most beautiful areas to explore,” said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, a skier who manages DNR. “The Tahoma State Forests are a great example of what our working forests can do for us, from timber harvests to recreational opportunities.”

Accessible and affordable

More than 100,000 people have stayed overnight at the huts since their inception in the 1990s, not counting the thousands of day users who’ve skied through the forest. But many still consider this trail system to be among Western Washington’s best kept secrets. Most people find out about it through word of mouth and the MTTA Communications Director was no exception. Like many of the organization’s 90 volunteers, Heath Jones was inspired by his first trip up to the huts to give back. He volunteered on ski patrol for several years, and now focuses on creating awareness and accessibility for both summer and winter users.

“Making it accessible is important, and making it fun for all ages, whether playing board games or having bachelor or bachelorette parties or things like that … getting more people to understand what the huts are capable of… I think is a huge,” Heath said.

For MTTA, accessibility means providing ongoing improvements to enhance experiences for all skill levels, and that includes adding to the trail system. As the forests and trails evolve, so do the huts. For example: once powered by screw-on propane bottles, the huts now run on solar.

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The High Hut with Mount Rainier peeking around it.

These upgrades, intersecting with convenience and safety, are met with respect by the users who practice Leave No Trace principles.

“People come up and take a sense of pride in it,” Jones said. “They keep it pretty clean,
refill water, sweep up, and leave it for the next people, which is important because they’re all public use. From what I’ve seen people are pretty respectful of the property and the ability to go up and enjoy the view.”

Bob and Heath both agree that what really sets these huts apart from others in the United States is they are relatively affordable for everyone.