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Q&A with a Cool Coloradan: The Man Behind Colorado's Highest Hut System

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Jerry Gray moved with his wife and four boys to Lake City in 1976. After building tepees for a living, he made the switch to yurts for their year-round capabilities. In the early 1990s, he built this first Hinsdale Haute Route yurt and has been running the company ever since. 

What is the Hinsdale Haute Route?

The Hinsdale Haute Route, located outside Lake City, is the highest altitude hut system in Colorado. It currently offers two yurts on a year-round basis — the Jon Wilson Memorial Yurt and the Colorado Trail Friends Yurt. 

The Jon Wilson Yurt is a short 1 1/4 miles from state Highway 149 south of Lake City. It provides an excellent destination for novice backcountry skiers, snowshoers and summer campers. Visitors enjoy stunning views of Lake San CristobalLake Fork Valley, Sunshine Peak and more. 

In the summer, the Colorado Trail Friends yurt is frequently used by Continental Divide and Colorado Trail thru-hikers. In the winter, it tends to be used by experienced skiers and snowshoers, since the ascent can be steep.

What inspired you to create the Hinsdale Haute Route?

I moved to Lake City with my wife and boys in 1976. We were looking for a fresh start and discovered this beautiful, remote town. Surrounded by national forests and fourteeners, it seemed an ideal place to raise four rambunctious boys. 

We began building and selling tepees and would live in them in the forest every summer. But tepees aren’t great for winter living, especially in Lake City. So, when the weather turned cold, we’d pack up and move back into town.

Tired of moving back and forth, I sought a more permanent option, and that’s when I discovered yurts. We started building those instead. And though we planned to sell them, we never did.

In the early 1980s, while backcountry skiing on Slumgullion Pass, I had a thought: The 10th Mountain Division was starting to commercialize their hut system, why couldn’t I do it, too? I had the yurts, and I had this incredible, remote landscape. Thus, the idea of the Hinsdale Haute Route was born. 

What was your process for getting the business up and running? 

First, we got in touch with the 10th Mountain Division, which sent some folks our way to show us what we needed to do to get started. We then submitted a proposal to the Forest Service in 1990 for backcountry system use. The Forest Service didn't really know what to make of us, so they gave us the go-ahead to start a pilot project in 1991. That's when we built a prototype yurt where the Colorado Trail Yurt is now. The Forest Service liked the yurt enough to permit us to move forward. 

At that time, our special-use permit required we remove the yurt at the end of each winter before the snow melted. So, our yurts were made to be portable, with lighter and less durable materials. However, over time, we gained permission to keep the yurts up year-round and were able to replace these materials with something stronger.

What can visitors expect when visiting your yurts? 

The yurts are located just outside Lake City, one of the most remote towns in the U.S. Nestled between the Uncompahgre and Rio Grande national forests and surrounded by fourteeners— Uncompahgre, Wetterhorn, Redcloud, Sunshine and Handies, the views from Lake City and beyond are remarkable. 

Our yurts are carpeted and insulated. Each has a wood stove with firewood, fire starter and matches. There are also four-burner propane stoves with ovens and small charcoal grills. 

Additional items include propane lanterns, solar LED lights, candles, tables, chairs, bunk beds and cots with pads for up to eight folks, and everything else you would need to cook a full meal. Mostly, we make it super comfortable. Our guests tend to carry in sleeping bags and food. They don’t need much more than that. 

What’s the best part of your job? 

I get to share Lake City with visitors from all over. This is a remarkable and beautiful place, and when you speak with people who are experiencing it for the first time it’s always a great reminder of how lucky I am.

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