Backcountry Cabins and Huts
When climbing into a tent with three of your smelliest buddies is the last thing on your to-do listby Chris Solomon
As much fun as roughing it in the backcountry is, swapping a snug cabin for that bug-swarmed campground can be a welcome change of pace. Hundreds of retired fire lookouts, ranger huts and other hideaways pepper the nation's public lands. Many don't require a backpacking trek, or can even be reached by car. Most have cinematic views, a few amenities like a woodstove, and hiking, fishing, kayaking, or biking right out the front door. Best of all, they can usually be rented for a song. Try these favorites and you may never look at your tent the same way again.
Fall Mountain Lookout, OR
Location is Everything: When its eyelid-like shutters are propped opened for the summer, this drive-to aerie atop 6,000-foot Fall Mountain in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, 15 miles south of John Day and 170 miles east of Bend, stares unblinkingly into the south flanks of the Strawberry Mountains – a compact, heavily forested, and rocky-capped range of 8,000-foot peaks dominated by its 9,038-foot namesake.
The Digs: Swaying on its 25-foot stilts, the wooden fire lookout, built in 1933, a wild (if insulated) perch for witnessing Eastern Washington’s skull-clutching summer thunderstorms. The single, 14x14-foot room, reachable by a long stairway, has a futon bed that sleeps two – plus rare electricity that powers a small fridge, stove, heater and lights (the sole benefit of sharing a peak with a microwave tower). Bring your own water. Cabin rental is $25 per night per party.
Where to Play: Options other than vivid stargazing and storm-watching are thin atop Fall Mountain but a half-hour’s drive delivers you to the renowned smallmouth bass fishery on the John Day, a Wild and Scenic River, or hiking the 100-odd miles of trails in the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness. From the Strawberry Basin trailhead, an easy, 2.8-mile hike leads to handsome alpine lakes of the 69,300-acre wilderness.
Info: (541) 575-2110, www.fs.fed.us/r6/malheur/rec/fall_mountain_lookout.htm
Bring a sleeping bag when staying in a primitive cabin...you never know what else has been sleeping on that mattress.
Dale Clemens Memorial Cabin, AK
Location is Everything: At the end of a 4.5-mile hike or mountain-bike ride from the Lost Lake trailhead outside Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, the hemlocks yield to wildflower meadows and reveal this gem of Alaska’s 280-cabin system. From its 1,800-foot elevation the cabin peers down to Resurrection Bay and Seward; across the bay the ragged, glaciated peaks of Chugach National Forest spit out their teeth. Keep a spic-and-span camp here: grizzlies, moose and wolves are your neighbors.
The Digs: The 14x18-foot plank cabin – which stands atop eight-foot stilts to keep it usable during snowy Alaskan winters – was completed 1992 and outfitted with a propane stove, four plywood bunks, a small loft and a front deck that fronts a “Heidi” scene of alpine lupine and paintbrush in mid-summer. Come August nearby salmonberry bushes ripen then, to enliven drab oatmeal. Cabin rental is $45 per night per party.
Where to Play: Leave a second car at the Primrose Trailhead, by Kenai Lake, and make this cabin the first night’s stop on the Lost Lake Traverse – a 15-mile, one-way backpack among marmots and glacial tarns that many consider the most stunning trek on the peninsula. Day-trippers from the cabin can wave a fly rod for Lost Lake’s rainbow trout, or clamber up to the summit of neighboring 5,710-foot Mt. Ascension to poach the mountain goats’ views of the Gulf of Alaska.
Info: (907) 224-3374, www.fs.fed.us/r10/chugach/cabin_web_page/seward_cabins/dale_clemens.html
Reservations: (877) 444-6777 or www.reserveusa.com
Seward, Alaska: kayak touring Heaven.
Doublehead Cabin, NH
Location is Everything: A vigorous but short (1.8-mile) hike up the so-called Ski Trail through hardwoods and spruce-fir forest leads to the cabin atop 3,053-foot North Doublehead Mountain in White Mountain National Forest near North Conway, with a nearby overlook for extended gawking at lake-speckled Maine.
The Digs: The log cabin, built in 1934 by the CCC in traditional New England style and renovated in 1993, is Spartan, with little more than eight wooden bunks in four rooms, a common area with benches and a wood stove and a doorway framing the breathtaking view of the Northeast’s highest peak, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington. Bring your own water and kindling. Cabin rental is $20 per night per party.
Where to Play: From atop North Doublehead, hike down to the col between the summits via the Old Trail and then huff up the New Trail to the top of neighboring 2,939-foot South Doublehead and more great views of the Presidential Range – a 4.5-mile round trip.
Info: (603) 447-5448, www.fs.fed.us/r9/white/other_things/cabins/cabins.html
Cayo Costa Island, FL
Location is Everything: Fantasy Island has nothing on seven-mile-long Cayo Costa State Island Preserve, a barrier island of mangrove swamps and deserted beaches five miles off Florida’s west coast, just above Naples. Access is by private boat or daily ferry. No electricity. No telephones. No dwarves in white suits.
The Digs: Twelve primitive cabins and one yurt peek out at the Gulf of Mexico from behind the dunes. They’re appointed only with six bunks, pluse picnic tables inside and outside. Drinking water, restrooms and cold showers are provided. Cabin rental is $23 per night per party.
Where to Play: Hike with feral pigs along the island’s mellow, 6-mile trail network, rent a sea kayak at the island for a day in the surf, beachcomb before a flaming sunset, or arrange beforehand with a guide to take you fishing in nearby Boca Grande Pass, "tarpon capital of the world."
Info: Cabin rental is $30 per night per party. The ferry costs $26.50 per person, round-trip.
Info: (941) 964-0375, www.floridastateparks.org/cayocosta.
Reservations: (800) 326-3521, www.reserveamerica.com
Cayo Costa State Park, Florida. Stoves and cookware are handy to bring along when staying in remote huts, cabins, and yurts.
Crescent Moon Cabin, Sedona, AZ
Location is Everything: The juniper-stubbled redrock country around Sedona has been the backdrop for untold Hollywood westerns and still a leading devourer of Kodak among Southwest tourists and New Age pilgrims. The drive-to Crescent Moon Ranch, one of the area’s first white homesteads and now owned by Coconino National Forest, is located less than 10 miles southwest of town, with sycamore-lined Oak Creek winds past the property and the vermilion capstone of Cathedral Rock leans overhead.
The Digs: Only a cabin to a Rockefeller, this 1950s-era, sandstone-and-stucco ranchouse (rumored to have been designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright) has three bedrooms, three bathrooms, two kitchens, electricity, microwave, an outdoor grill, running water – and an enclosed porch, so the odd mosquito won’t interrupt your gin-and-tonic while you watch the falling sun paint Cathedral Rock’s butte. The cabin, acquired in 1990, sleeps 10 people; you’ll need them to make the $200 per night rate a bargain.
Where to Play: Fish for trout in the riffles of Oak Creek, cool off with a plunge into the picturesque swimming hole at the national forest’s Red Rock Crossing, then wander with your Nikon along the seven-mile roundtrip Templeton Trail around the north end of Cathedral Rock. Re-charge your aura before dinner at one of Sedona’s woo-woo “power vortices.”
Info: (928) 443-8281, www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino/recreation/other-rec/recreation_room_with_a_view/index.shtml
Reservations: (877) 444-6777 or www.reserveusa.com.
Cathedral Rock outside Sedona, Arizona.