The Longest Mile: A Snowshoe & Cabin Adventure in Breckenridge, CO

I don’t own a cabin, but I love the mountain and cabin lifestyle, especially if snowshoes are required to get there. A unique way that my family gets to enjoy the experience is to spend a few days at a Colorado hut near Breckenridge.

Summit County Huts are essentially rustic cabins in the backcountry that are not accessible by road in the winter. That means the only way to get there is to hike, snowshoe or cross-country ski from Breckenridge. Of course,  while bringing along all of your food and supplies.

Our Snowshoe & Cabin Adventure in Breckenridge

During spring break a few years ago, we went to Francie’s Cabin, one of the Summit County Huts. What an adventure it was! We’d previously snowshoed to a hut in the 10th Mountain Division Hut System, dragging our sled about three miles (4.8 km) on a flat trail into the wilderness. So, how bad could a little more distance and vertical be?

This trip included my wife Kathy, daughters Nicole (18) and Megan (14), along with my wife’s cousin Susie and fiancé Matt. We live in the Denver metro area and had a delay getting to Breckenridge on Interstate 70 because of avalanche control traffic. Little did I realize, that this would portend things to come on our cabin adventure.

Breckenridge hut- start of trip

The start of the trip with our heavy sled…

Getting To The Cabin From Breckenridge

There are two ways to get to Francie’s cabin, which is located on the outskirts of Breckenridge at an elevation of 11,264 feet (3,433 m). You can choose either a four-mile (6.4 km) trail starting from the Breckenridge Resort ski lift or a one-mile (1.6 km) trail starting from the end of a remote dirt road. Cousin Susie was worried that we’d have a hard time doing the four-mile trail, but Matt and I were confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. We’d snowshoed that distance, and father, many times before.

Preparing For Our Adventure

When we started our trek to the cabin from Breckenridge, it was a picture-perfect day, with bluebird skies. It was about 25° F (-3.8 C) outside when we got to the base of Peak 9 at Breckenridge Resort and unloaded all of our stuff. And I mean all of our stuff—all 75 pounds (34 kg) to be placed on a sled for a two-night adventure.

Each person had to carry their own clothing and sleeping bag, while I was in charge of dragging the sled with everything else.  Matt had his own 75-pound (34 kg) sled to pull, about 15 pounds (7 kg) of it in trail mix! It wasn’t hard to conclude that we’d both over packed. All the skiers were staring at us with all our stuff and snowshoes, while they were enjoying a perfect ski day. I ignored them. What do they know about adventure?

Our First Attempt From Breckenridge Resort

The day before, the area received about 3 feet (91 cm) of snow. No one had broken trail yet, so we were snowshoeing through fresh powder. The ladies were ahead of us trying to pack down the powder, while Matt and I each dragged our sled. After going at it for about two hours, I checked my GPS and saw that we’d gone only about a mile (1.6 km). Everyone was getting worried that it would take too long to get there in this deep powder, especially since we had about 1,700 feet (518 m) of vertical to climb. With deep reluctance, we chose to play it safe and head back to the ski resort.

Our Second Attempt From The Road

We checked local hotels in Breckenridge to see if we could stay the night and maybe try again in the morning, but of course, it was spring break so nothing was available. We decided to go see the shorter trail to the cabin that Susie originally wanted to try. This shorter trail (as noted above) was one mile (1.6 km) and only 1,000 feet (305 m) vertical. However, this trail was at the end of a narrow mountain road, and on the outskirts of town.

When we got there, the road simply ended with a large pile of snow at the end, signifying the end of the plowed section. It was now about 3 p.m., and we were deciding whether we should go for it again when a cross-country skier came down from the trail. He said the trail was packed and it would be “easy” to get up to Francie’s cabin. That’s all we needed for inspiration.

blizzard- Breckenridge Colorado

Day 2 – The Blizzard

Getting Closer To The Cabin…

After snowshoeing straight up for about a half-hour, I was getting really tired and asked my wife to help me pull the sled. The trail was not exactly “packed down” as the skier had indicated. Nicole and Megan helped Matt pull his sled, while Susie acted as our lookout. Doing the math, I determined that one mile and 1,000 feet vertical is about a 20 percent grade. What were we thinking? This trail goes straight up, and then up some more, and then even higher!

We were all getting really tired and had to take a 30-second break every other minute. I was starting to worry that maybe we’d made a mistake to try again so late in the day, especially already feeling tired. Was I going to have to remember all those survival tips I’d read in various magazines? How long could a mile take?

The Arrival

Finally, after more than two hours of snowshoeing, we could see the cabin. However, there was a short steep section just before reaching it. Kathy and I literally had to crawl up the trail, digging our snowshoe spikes into the snow to make sure we wouldn’t be dragged back down the trail from our heavy sled. I had visions of another ACL injury. It took another 10 minutes to get up and over that final steep section. I’d never been so exhausted in my life. We arrived about 20 minutes before dusk.

The log cabin was awesome! There were two stories that could sleep up to 20 people, a stove and a gas range. Fresh snow was our only water source. The outhouse was even inside! That’s what I call mountain luxury. We found our rooms and were almost too tired to eat dinner. But, we had made it safe and sound, and that’s what counted. The six of us had an experience that we’d never forget.

Fun During The Blizzard

The next day we woke up to a blizzard. The wind was howling and the snow was coming down. We decided to spend the day inside the cabin. We relaxed, talked, played games, drank hot chocolate, and just enjoyed the beauty of the mountains.

A few people who were already there were on their way home. I was guessing that whoever reserved their rooms for this evening would simply quit. There’s no way they could make the difficult trek as we had done during perfect weather.

An Unexpected Arrival

But that afternoon, two families came up the hill with about seven children under the age of 10. The adults were dragging sleds as if they were weightless. It turns out that these age 20-something parents were part of the Colorado Alpine Rescue Team. They later told us that they decided to go to Francie’s cabin because it was “the easiest one to get to.” I declined to tell them that we tried going to the cabin twice, and the trek was the most physically demanding experience of my life. This truly was “the longest mile.”

When it came to dinner time, we found out that I’d forgotten to bring some of our food. (Not on purpose to save weight, mind you). It was lucky there was some extra trail mix. I think we brought enough food for a week, so there was no chance of starvation.

Breckenridge hut railing with multiple feet of snowEverybody we met at the cabin, although strangers, all were friendly and came from different backgrounds and places. We had interesting conversations and we were all bonding with our cabin and snowshoeing experience. It was also great to spend time with my daughters without interruptions from cell phones, text messages, e-mails or other modern distractions. They weren’t going to be kids much longer. Opportunities like this, while they were still kids, would be limited. I treasured it.

The Takeaway From Our Breckenridge Cabin & Snowshoeing Experience

The next day it only took us 40 minutes to get down the hill. With the reverse perspective, we were amazed that we made it up the steep trail. My daughter Megan wrote encouraging notes in the snow on the side of the trail for whoever was heading up the trail. I added this physical accomplishment to our “Bucket List.”

We decided to go back to Breckenridge in the summer and hike up the same trail to the cabin to see what it would look like. It was a great comparison to see the area without snow. I think back to that trip and fondly remember the family time, going to the brink of our physical capabilities and still “conquering the mountain,” and just the simple wild beauty of the Colorado wilderness.

Tips For A Snowshoe & Cabin Experience

When snowshoeing to any backcountry cabin or hut, in Breckenridge or otherwise, keep in mind:

  • Deep snow and breaking trail will expend more energy than snowshoeing a groomed trail. Make sure to give yourself ample time to make the trek. A good rule of thumb is to double the time it would take to hike if the trail was groomed.
  • Trade-off who leads in the group. The leader will typically break the trail and expend the most energy. By switching off, it allows each group member to rest and regain their energy.
  • It gets dark earlier in the winter. It’s best to start early in the day so you can ensure you reach your destination by nightfall.
  • Elevation matters! A shorter trail with greater vertical elevation gain may take just as long as a longer, less steep trail. Take the elevation gain into account when choosing a trail and estimating the time it will take to reach your destination.
  • When choosing your snowshoes for the trek, make note of the amount of gear you will be carrying. The weight recommendations for snowshoe size are based on your weight and the weight of your gear. If carrying a larger load, a larger snowshoe size will be needed. A larger size will have more surface area, which will help you “float” better in powdery, deep snow.
  • Brushing up on survival skills is always helpful, just in case you need to use them in an emergency situation.

About the author

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John DiGirolamo

After moving to Colorado in 2006, John fell in love with the Colorado mountain lifestyle, including snowshoeing, skiing, hiking, biking and SUP. John currently resides in Broomfield.

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1 Comment

  • My wife and I snowshoed Breckenridge last year so we can relate! The beauty and physical challenges are unique. I applaud your adventure and your story! Gary Fruland, Newark, Illonois.