It was a picnic table that started it. Nothing special, just a wooden rectangle with benches where cross-country skiers would sit and nosh, taking in the wide-open views of the Sawatch range across the way. But it got Ty and Roxanne Hall, owners of the Tennessee Pass Nordic Center, thinking about "expanding" the picnic table. And they came up with a gourmand's yurt.
Located between Camp Hale and Leadville at the base of Ski Cooper, Tennessee Pass is a secluded network of cross-country and snowshoe trails cut into a daddy-pine forest. Loops meet up with other loops, making the breezy 25 kilometers of trails feel like full-on backcountry, albeit with an easy escape. Rated green, blue and black just like downhill runs, folks can choose their own adventure. And anyone who eats, ever, should include a stop at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse on the itinerary.
"It's scratch cooking," said John Fulton, head chef at the yurt.
Fulton, along with Jason Nepp, runs the yurt's kitchen, which serves dinner seven nights a week and lunch on weekends. Lunch is a la carte and has two seatings. The four-course dinner has only one seating. Both have cult followings.
Though the Halls have a snowmobile that can run people out to the yurt, people are encouraged to get there on their own steam. Snowshoes and cross-country skis are the most popular choices, though lucky children have been known to be dragged in their sleds by parents with moxy (and energy) to spare. The most direct route from the base lodge to the yurt - Cooper Loop - is about a mile. There's a 300-foot elevation gain. As often as not, though, folks opt to cruise around on some of the other trails, such as Larry's Loop, The Woods or Griz, before sitting down to a cookhouse feast. Remember that law about food eaten while camping always tastes better? It seems to apply under these circumstances, too.
'Feel really far away'
Fresh out of college, Ty and Roxanne knew they wanted to live in Leadville - Roxanne was born and raised there - but to do so they had to create their own destiny. Or, at the very least, figure out a way to support themselves. First came the Nordic center; then came the yurt. Heated by an old pot-bellied stove that came from Camp Hale, the cozy space is filled with antique tables and mismatched chairs. No matter how easy (or difficult) the approach is, it's with a sigh of relief that diners sit down and get ready to tuck into items like a feta-stuffed bison burger or pesto and almond-topped pasta (lunch) or rack of lamb, elk tenderloin or Sockeye salmon (dinner). Coupled with grown-up drinks, friendly conversation and a view that's made for sunset, it's a treat.
"Lunch has really exploded with popularity," Roxanne said. "People can't get enough of the view. But dinner is still the number-one experience."
They've had many a marriage proposal happen during dinner, as well as birthday blow-outs and other events.
"People come up once or twice a year for special occasions," Ty said.
"Part of it is our location - the view is exceptional," Roxanne added. "But it's also the yurt. It wouldn't be the same if it were a cabin. It's so quaint, plus we feel really far away."