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When leaders of a Truckee land trust closed the deal on 3,000 acres of mountainous terrain near Donner Summit last year, they wondered what they'd do with a cluster of old cabins nestled in an idyllic setting beside a gorgeous alpine lake.
At first, they thought about razing the structures in an effort to return the land to wilderness. But then they wondered: Why not transform them into unique backcountry accommodations for skiers and hikers?
A year later, the newly built Frog Lake huts will welcome guests Dec. 21. They offer a means of comfortably staying overnight in an area that had been privately owned and off-limits to the public for nearly 100 years.
"This is a unique experience in the entire Sierra and even the West Coast," said Perry Norris, the former executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust who left his post in the fall after 25 years. "I don't think there's anything like this in Washington, Oregon or California — this European-style hut with nice amenities."
The proposition of ski huts is simple: They provide remote home bases for skiers to explore nearby mountains. They're typically simple, rustic affairs with basic amenities — sometimes just wood stoves and sleeping bunks.
Such huts are widespread across ranges outside the United States like the Alps, where multiday hut-to-hut tours are integral to skiing culture. Even Colorado, the nation's ski capital, has more than 100 backcountry huts geared toward hard-core snow lovers. But prior to the Frog Lake huts, there were fewer than 10 ski huts in the Sierra, some of which offer little more than a roof, a floor and a wood burner.
"These are definitely a step above the sleeping accommodations you'll find at other huts in the area," said Chris Rochefort, director of huts, camping, facilities and external events for the Truckee Donner Land Trust.
Frog Lake sits at 7,600 feet in elevation just north of Interstate 80 at Donner Pass, between Carpenter Valley and Castle Peak, one of the snowiest and most popular backcountry skiing areas in the Truckee-Tahoe region. Rising from its western edge is a 1,000-foot east-facing granite cliff that catches the early morning sun and serves as a steep objective for advanced backcountry skiers.
This is ungroomed, wild avalanche territory, and skiers and snowboarders who venture in are advised to take the necessary precautions. The nearest access point to Frog Lake in winter is a trailhead about 3.5 miles away.
"If you wanted to get out to this area, it'd be a big day trip for most people," said Greyson Howard, the land trust's communications director. "Or you'd be forced to do the full winter camping experience, and how many people are equipped or interested in that?"
The three 500-square-foot huts rest on the lake's western shore, opposite the cliff. They are separated into rooms for two, four and eight people — capable of sleeping a total of 20 people at a time — and are outfitted with mattresses, electricity and heaters. They run $225 to $450 per night.
Nearby is a 1,400-square-foot, two-story stone house that serves as the common area. Built from local granite in the 1930s, the house has a massive fireplace and lounge, a map room for planning trips and a commercial-grade kitchen.
"It's a place to come together at the end of the day and swap ski stories," Howard said.
There will be caretakers on hand to help people plan trips, keep pathways clear, and sell beer and pizza.
Within hours of opening winter bookings, occupancy hit 80% for the season. Most winter dates are booked, and there's a waiting list.
Operating ski huts is a new venture for the land trust, and summer bookings haven't yet opened. But Rochefort said he wouldn't be surprised if the huts see even more interest during the warmer months.
"Personally, I'm in love with the property," Rochefort said. "It's drop-dead gorgeous. It's what I think of when I think about the Sierra Nevada."
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