Overnighting at Forest Service cabins provides the feeling of being out in the backcountry while retaining many of the comforts of home. Plus, with a lighter backpack—no need to carry a stove, sleeping pad, or other camping necessities—it’s easy to cover more miles or to bring in gourmet food and libations to fill those long winter nights.
All Forest Service cabins have wood stoves and wood, and many have propane lanterns; some have electricity, but none have water in the winter. These local cabins were not set up to ski from one to another, but with a little ingenuity it can be done.
The Mystic Lake Cabin
The obvious choice for a cabin-to-cabin tour is linking the Mystic Lake Cabin with the Trail Creek Cabin. From the junction of Trail Creek Road and Newman Creek Road, ski in 3.1 miles to the Trail Creek Cabin. With a short ski en route to the cabin, there should be plenty of time for touring nearby meadows or carving turns on the slopes.
The next day, get out the GPS or a map and compass and find your way to Mystic Lake. The route starts on a logging road but soon switches to a trail past the Old Cougar Reservoir and Bear Lakes (6-8 miles depending on the route). Because snowmobilers use this area, there may be tracks all over the place—make sure you know where you’re going.
The Mystic Lake Cabin is nestled in the trees along the shore of—you guessed it—Mystic Lake. Tour around the lake or explore the south fork of Bozeman Creek. From the cabin it’s a shorter (5.3 miles) but steeper ski out New World Gulch Trail—with the possibility of sneaking in some turns on Mt. Ellis—or a mellow tour (10 miles) on the logging road following Bozeman Creek.
The Fox Creek Cabin
For a loop trip with an overnight stay, try the Fox Creek Cabin. With a capacity of only two people, this tiny cabin makes for a romantic getaway. From the History Rock trailhead, ski up and over the ridge into the South Cottonwood Creek Drainage. Bring your firewood, as the Forest Service doesn’t supply any.
The following day, ski out seven miles following the gently meandering South Cottonwood Creek or stay two nights and skin up and schuss down Wheeler Mountain on the nontraveling day.
For folks who want to carve more than tour, the Garnett Mountain Lookout is a good option. It’s a ten-mile ski in via Rat Lake with an elevation gain of 1,300 feet. The lookout sits on top of Garnett Mountain and affords views into the Gallatin Range and across the Gallatin River into the Madison Range.
Skiing off Garnett Mountain can be a little sketchy avalanche-wise, but with the right conditions and know-how, it can be a fun adventure. At the top and bottom there are low-angle meadows that are joined together by some openish tree skiing.
The Battle Ridge Cabin
For a more low-key or family trip, try one of the cabins reached by a short ski or snowshoe. The Battle Ridge Cabin in the Bridger Mountains is a quick quarter-mile ski in. It’s an easy ski to tour the North or Middle Forks of Brackett Creek. Or skin up toward the Bridger Ridge and have a half-hour head start on folks driving in from Bozeman.
West Boulder Cabin
West Boulder Cabin at the north end of the Absarokas also takes just a short ski to reach. The area around the cabin is breathtaking, and skiing into the West Boulder Meadows or up to Lost Lakes will provide even more unbelievable scenery.
The Gallatin National Forest rents 22 cabins and one fire lookout, most built in the 1920s and 1930s by Forest Service Rangers. Photos and descriptions of cabins can be viewed at fs.fed.us/r1/gallatin/. Cabins must be reserved up to 180 days in advance(reserveusa.com; 877-444-6777),but are also available on a last-minute walk-in basis up to three nights in advance at the district office managing the particular cabin.
If a Forest Service cabin isn’t posh enough for you, check out these huts and yurts.
You can rent the Nemesis Mountain Hut from Hellroaring Ski Adventures. The Hut is actually two huts—a six-person bunk tent and a kitchen tent that sleeps two. Located in the Centennial Mountains, 25 miles from West Yellowstone, this hut provides awesome access to great backcountry skiing. A guide is required for newcomers ($150); after that you can take a self-guided trip for $30 per night per person or rent out the whole thing for $240 per night. Take the snowmobile shuttle ($25) in and bring all the comforts of home. skihellroaring.com or 570-4025.
Although not strictly a backcountry experience, Elkhorn Hot Springs in the Pioneer Mountains has several rustic cabins and lodge rooms for skiers who like to soak. Maverick Ski Area is a mere three miles down the road and 20 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails start right outside the door. There’s also a restaurant serving dinner on the weekends and a complimentary hot breakfast buffet. elkhornhotsprings.com.
If you don’t mind a little work with your vacation, the Gordon Reese cabin at Chief Joseph Pass will fit the bill. It’s a half-mile walk to the “ski mansion” whose first floor serves as a warming hut while the upper-floor loft area is set up for sleeping. Those interested in being hosts can reserve the cabin at no charge. Hosts shovel snow, tend fires, and make sure there is plenty of hot water for skiers using the groomed trails. fs.fed.us/r1/b-d/recreation-rental-cabins/index-gordon-reese.
The two yurts in Idaho's Harriman State Park are just south of West Yellowstone. Both have bunk beds, wood stoves, furniture, and propane appliances. There is a lot of nearby cross-country skiing and the yurts are near Henry's Fork of the Snake River. Rates are $35 per person per night for up to six people. There is a small reservation fee as well. Visit idahoparks.org/lodging/yurts.aspx or call 866-634-3246.