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In It For the Hut Vibes

One reason we haul heavy packs into backcountry cabins in the winter? Hut vibes, obviously. The new Frog Lake Huts, on Donner Pass, have that aplenty.

When you’re talking about luxury in a backcountry hut, it’s all about the little things: hut slippers, fresh coffee, running water, a crackling fire at the end of the day. All of the small details that make a big difference when you’ve been out ski touring for hours. Coming back to a warm hut in the middle of the woods that feels like home? That’s what we’re talking about. Hut vibes. Or whatever you want to call it.

“You get to be here and feel the vibe. Let it stick with you, and carry with you to the other things you do,” says Brennan Lagasse, a Flylow athlete, guide, and educator. He’s the reason we once made a shirt that said, In it for the vibes. “That’s one of the many indirect gifts you get from spending a little time on the mountain.”

Last winter, skiers Lagasse, Jenna Kane, Noah Howell, and Molly Armanino ventured into the new Frog Lake Huts, which opened in December 2021 near Castle Peak, in the backcountry outside of Truckee, California. The film Howell about their trip will be featured in this year’s Backcountry Film Festival. These plush huts, which are owned and operated by the Truckee Donner Land Trust, opened on land that had been privately owned and closed to the public for nearly 100 years.

The Smith family, from the San Francisco Bay Area, had owned the land surrounding Frog Lake for generations, and in the 1930s, they built a stone cabin by the lake as the family’s summer retreat. “My grandfather Felix T Smith, Sr., was an avid outdoorsman and fly fisherman. He apparently spent one winter looking at maps of the Sierra for a privately-owned lake that had a mountain on the west side, to get the shadow on the lake for better afternoon fishing,” says Nate Smith, part of the Smith family. “The story I heard was that he had picked out three lakes, and when he went exploring the next summer, Frog Lake was the first one he visited, and he never even looked at the other two. It was exactly what he was looking for.”

Five generations of the Smith family enjoyed the property and learned about the benefits of conservation. “There has never been a powered motor on the lake, and the property has never been logged. Being able to watch the slow natural changes of the forest and the meadows over my 75 years has been a particular joy for me,” adds Nate. “The family considered a private sale, but ultimately, we universally were interested in the conservation, not the development, of the property. We felt like our light footprint on the property would be continued by the Land Trust.”

In 2020, the Smiths made the decision to sell their property to the Land Trust, ensuring it would be protected and conserved but also opened to public recreation. The Land Trust installed three beautiful architect-designed huts, which sleep 20 people total in a variety of bunkrooms, and revamped the old summer cabin to become a communal kitchen and living area.

This isn’t your average no-frills hut: The place has a friendly caretaker who brews coffee each morning, there are flush toilets in each cabin, and the kitchen was designed by a local chef. If you time it right, there’s free beer in the fridge. “You show up, unload all your gear, and you really feel into the place, it becomes your temporary home for a little bit,” says Jenna Kane, a ski guide with Shasta Mountain Guides and a Flylow athlete. “You can create this little community vibe with everyone you’re with.”

We love the hut vibes, obviously, but really, you’ll hike out here for the skiing: The terrain out the door is varied and vast, ranging from low-angle tree skiing to steep chutes. “At Frog Lake, you have terrain at the opposite ends of either spectrum. You have complex ski terrain to check out if that’s what you’re into,” Lagasse says.

You can go on your own or if you prefer a guide, Alpenglow Expeditions and Blackbird Mountain Guides offer guided ski touring trips into Frog Lake Huts. “Huts are a cool way to get you deeper into the backcountry and they allow you to go for big, long days,” adds Kane.

The other thing you’ll come out here for? An escape from the daily grind. “One of the best parts about hiking into a hut in the woods, in the mountains, is you really do get to escape from the outside world,” says Kane. “Put your phone in airplane mode, and just be present. That’s one of the rare times we get to do that.”


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