A Quick Guide to Tennessee Pass

A high mountain pass where World War II mountain troopers learned to ski is your gateway to wilderness hikes, and backcountry huts, yurts and a rustic dining hall.

By Kirsten Dobroth July 2, 2020 Published in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

The Tennessee Pass Sleep Yurts

Six miles south of Camp Hale, the road climbs and switchbacks steeply to the summit of Tennessee Pass. On the left, you can pull off and park at a roadside monument erected to honor the many 10th Mountain Division veterans who went on to start their own ski resorts upon returning home; they learned how to carve turns on the mountain you see rising in the distance, Ski Cooper, an independent resort that’s been in operation since 1941.

Where to Eat (and Sleep)

A night at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse & Sleep Yurts is a must-do experience for anyone driving this stretch of road. After leaving your gear at the Nordic center of the closed-for-the-season ski area (the staff will transport it to your yurt via ATV), you’ll take a short downhill hike to an A-framed rustic dining hall for a multicourse feast featuring trout, pheasant, and wild elk ($95 excluding drinks, reservation required). Then you get to walk it all off with an uphill hike to your room for the night, where the music you’ll hear through the canvas is the wind whispering through the pines ($200 Mon–Wed, $250 Thu–Sun, reservations required). If you’re just passing through on your way to Leadville on a Sunday morning, book a table for brunch, which, in addition to breakfast bison burgers, includes bottomless mimosas and Bloody Marys ($35, reservations required; 259 County Road 19, Leadville, 719-486-8114, tennesseepass.com).

A teepee for rent at the Continental Divide huts

Where to Sleep

If you’d like more exercise after your dinner at the top of Tennessee Pass, reserve bunks at Vance’s Cabin: The trail winds uphill from Ski Cooper’s parking lot for 3.1 miles (and nearly 800 vertical feet) and passes under the shadow of 11,725-foot Taylor Hill. Another option: Just across the highway, and a 0.8-mile, no-elevation-gain hike up the Continental Divide Trail, the privately owned Continental Divide Hut is one of the few family-friendly options within the state’s primitive hut system—it comes equipped with two portable cribs, a high chair, a potty seat, and a nearby teepee, plus a kids’ fort, along with more standard sleeping bunks (970-925-5775, huts.org).

Where to Play

From the parking lot of Ski Cooper, the Cooper Loop (11.2 miles round-trip) transits the ski area and tops out at an overlook with vistas of Mount of the Holy Cross, Mount Massive, and Mount Elbert, the second-highest peak in the Lower 48. Just across the street, the Continental Divide Trail (which, in its entirety over 3,100 miles, runs from Denver to Durango as it passes through eight mountain ranges and six National Forests and wilderness areas on its way to the state’s southwest corner) winds downhill all the way to Camp Hale (6.5 miles each way; fs.usda.gov).

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