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The trail is straightforward, sure, but it seems harder than advertised. It’s supposed to be a 4-mile cruiser along a snow-covered dirt road, which actually boasts a net elevation loss, but I’m here to tell you that’s a sham. At least, it feels like a sham when you’re pulling a sled overloaded with “necessities.” It’s funny how hut trips offer the promise of lighter loads, but rarely the reality.
It’s mid-morning on a February day, and my wife and I trudge along with our 5-month-old daughter at what has to be the slowest pace ever recorded, with the goal of eventually landing in the ghost town of Gothic, outside Crested Butte. Gothic isn’t necessarily unique; Colorado’s long mining history makes it rife with such abandoned outposts. But unlike the others, research gave it second life, and skiing didn’t factor. After the original town emptied out in the late 1890s, the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory established an outpost beneath 12,625-foot Gothic Mountain. Researchers there have spent a century gathering data on the terrain, weather, and ecosystems, and some 150 field biologists still live in Gothic during the summer. But like the miners before them, they empty out in winter—leaving the area’s average 420 inches of annual snowfall and what many people claim to be the lightest powder in the country virtually up for grabs.
It gets better: Since Gothic functions as a real, albeit small, town in summer, it has facilities. The one we’re aiming for—the Maroon Hut—has electricity. It sleeps 12, has in-floor heating, two full-size refrigerators, and acres of counter space. I admit my heart swooned when I learned about the kitchen setup, so I loaded my sled full of goodies and beverages for après. I even snuck in fixings for full, diner-style breakfasts every morning.
By the time we arrive at Maroon Hut, lightly lilting flakes are slowly refilling our tracks. The prospect of an early happy hour proves too strong a siren call for some of our 10-person party, but the rest of us waste no time gearing up for turns on Gothic Mountain’s eastern slopes. We head out in single-digit temps and tour to the north end of town, where we cut a skin track up through the evergreens. Near timberline, we rip skins and pick our way down through the neatly spaced trees until we hit an open face filled with untouched, week-old powder. We take turns romping through the low-angle goods, incredulous that a stash this good just outside Crested Butte hasn’t been picked over yet. We unanimously decide to run one more lap.
Back in Maroon Hut, we spread out on the first floor. I start the oven for dinner while others lounge on the sofas, mix drinks, and play cards. My wife catches me up on the kid-friendly tour she and another mom took around town. They skinned among the 19th-century structures and up the valley on a mellow track that revealed more alpine views the higher they went. It was the perfect alternative to our day picking lines on Gothic—something you could do on skis or snowshoes—and, like us, they saw no one else.
The rest of the weekend brings more of the same: turns through virgin powder, easy tours exploring ruins, and utter solitude. Despite the large number of winter recreationists in the area, most don’t know about Gothic’s bounty—or choose not to come because snowmobiles aren’t allowed and there are shorter tours closer to town.
On our final morning, a small crew rises before breakfast to sneak in one last run. We glide up the first day’s skin track, and within 45 minutes we’re at the top of a chute that points straight back to the hut. The early-morning sunshine sparkles off the previous night’s fresh layer of snow, and as we’re transitioning, I ask one of my friends what he thinks of our stay in Gothic. After a pause, he says, “This may be the best backcountry skiing of my life.”
I smile and ask if we should tell our friends back home about it. “Of course,” he says. “It’s only fair.”
DO IT The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory offers up the Maroon Hut for winter use. It sleeps 12 for $265/night; reserve in advance at rmbl.org. Season Mid-November to mid-April