Great Escapes

log cabin with a bed and hot tub

Backcountry lodging offers a respite from everyday life

By Jen Julia

In the remote forests of northern Maine, where moose stand dripping in lily-padded bogs, rough logging roads carve muddy paths through vast acres of balsam and birch, and pristine lakes pop up like lucky pennies, my husband spent the finest days of his childhood at a place called Moxie Pond. There was no electricity in the small cottage (or “camp” as such places are referred to in Maine), no running water, no telephone. But none of these things were necessary at Moxie, where you could leap into the lake, careful to avoid the maze of ankle-scraping rocks that hid beneath the surface and swim to a tiny island, green with moss, that begged you to explore. There was no need for television when you had a cribbage board and a friend to laugh with. There in the quiet, simple forest, you learned how little you actually needed to be happy. At Moxie Pond, you could just be.

In our increasingly over-stimulated world, where everyone seems attached to social media or their screens, finding the Moxie Ponds or their equivalents can be harder than ever. Here in the San Juan Mountains, however, we’ve gotten lucky. Nature wraps her arms around us here and awards us with a gamut of opportunities to unplug and to reconnect with the outdoors and with our loved ones. Places like the Alta Lakes Observatory, Dunton Hot Springs, and the High Camp Hut are some of the unique places within the region that stir our senses and rejuvenate our minds, bodies, and spirits.

High Camp

At the top of Lizard Head Pass near Telluride, the road to High Camp Hut winds through high alpine meadows in a serpentine path around stands of towering spruce and fir. “You can just shut your phone off,” my host Cindy Farny says with a grin. “There’s no cell phone service here, but I promise you’ll get a much better connection.” She’s not wrong. As the trees close in around us on the next section of our hike, we quicken our pace through the lush stillness of the forest. I feel my senses awaken, my mood lift, and my thoughts fasten themselves securely to the here and now. Here in the wilderness, with little to distract you, it’s so much easier to be fully present. We round a bend and there it is, High Camp. A two-level rustic lodge with a smattering of smaller outbuildings around it, High Camp sits squarely among a range of immense peaks. The Wilsons, Lizard Head, Sheep Mountain, and San Miguel Peak surround it like a proud assembly of protective guardians; I have to stop and stare, awash in awe.

These 320 acres of private land, cradled within two million acres of the San Juan National Forest, were acquired by Cindy’s parents Dave and Sherry Farny in 1990. The family purchased the property and built High Camp as a special place to bring patrons of their nearby Skyline Guest Ranch for horseback rides and Friday night dinners. When her parents sold Skyline in 2004, Cindy bought the High Camp property, determined to preserve it as a unique wilderness retreat for people to enjoy. “Time spent in nature is a luxury you can’t replicate,” Cindy says. “It’s transformative.” In giving her guests the gift of a fully immersive wilderness experience, every aspect of a visitor’s time there is carefully considered, from the 2.5-mile hike into the property that she encourages guests to make on foot, to the classic sauna, to the wood-fired cedar outdoor hot tub that invites you to stay and soak. The place is open to guests in both summer and winter, with all seasons providing their share of unique mountain adventures, including backcountry and Nordic skiing, hiking, plunging into chilly mountain ponds, and basking on giant slabs of sun-warmed rock.

When we swing back the sturdy front door and step inside High Camp, I know immediately why so many people treasure this place. Some buildings have personalities, strong ones that leave an impression. There are others that contain a spirit that greets you like a handshake. And there are those very rare and special buildings, ones that have souls. Without a doubt, this is a home with a soul. The main floor of High Camp is one long and inviting open space, encompassing the living room, dining area, and kitchen, with a portly wood stove at its center. Thick log beams crisscross overhead, and the walls are peppered with mountain paintings and family mementos, such as a framed 1960s era poster advertising the Farny family’s mountaineering school. A staircase leads to a warren of simple yet cozy bedrooms named for mountains, and a ladder climbs to a snug loft adorned with wildflower prints. Low-slung shelves serve up a collection of board games and playing cards, and a guitar leans against a wall. There is no electricity at High Camp, but solar-powered lights cast their glow at night time. “This is a place to come and be with your family, your friends, to just laugh and be together,” says Cindy. “People try to improve on simplicity but you just can’t.”

Over the past two years, Cindy has expanded her High Camp offerings to include a series of summertime retreats with specific themes. At “Wildflowers and Watercolors,” participants learn about what it takes for these hardy flowers to bloom at high altitude and have the chance to capture their splendor in paint, with all supplies provided. Another retreat, “Journey into Awe,” explores outdoor resiliency and the importance of spending time in nature as the backbone of a more centered and meaningful life. Cindy is a fervent believer in the restorative powers of time spent in wild places. “When we go into a place like High Camp, we shed layers,” she explains. “All the distractions we have in a day fall away and we’re allowed peace and quiet. Peace and quiet are words that go together,” Cindy elaborates. “You can’t have one without the other.”

Before we leave, Cindy invites us to stand outdoors and take in the quiet together. There is not even a breeze, and we savor the rare experience of hearing absolutely no sound, save our own breath, pulling in the sharp and pristine mountain air.

The Observatory

It’s easy enough to fall in love with a person; that happens all the time. But to fall in love with a place…well, that’s something. It was that kind of a hardcore crush, the kind that develops into a serious love affair, that began for Matthew “Mattie” Bowling the first time he visited the Alta Lakes Observatory. When he arrived on the Telluride scene in 1994, Mattie began visiting the Observatory and was drawn to the beauty and wildness of the place. “He’d volunteer his time clearing brush and splitting wood,” Bowling’s wife Ana says with a smile. “He’d do anything just to spend more time up there.”

Hand built by longtime locals Jim and Salli Russell in 1975, the Observatory began hosting guests from its inception and serving as a base camp for a range of backcountry adventures, from skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing in the winter to hiking, mountain biking, and fishing in the summer. The place was named for its proximity to the glittering, star-filled sky, a place to observe the heavens. Constructed from stout logs that radiate warmth and welcome, the Observatory sits beside one of the shimmering Alta Lakes, basking in the alpenglow of nearby Palmyra and Silver Peaks. And although it’s located just thirteen miles from the hustle and bustle of Telluride, that distance feels much greater. “When you sink into the peacefulness of the Observatory you feel like you are a million miles away,” Ana says, “Yet the real world is right around the corner.”

When the property came up for sale in 2011, Mattie saw his chance to make his longtime courtship official. He and his two brothers had been looking for an opportunity to work together on something with meaning. The Bowling brothers hail from Kentucky, where they grew up on a horse farm, unafraid of hard work. To them, the Observatory was a chance to preserve a piece of local history while finding lasting ways to improve it. “They’ve made a lot of upgrades, while maintaining the authentic character of the place,” says Ana. It has a new, contemporary kitchen and modern bathrooms, as well as its historic elements: ornate stained-glass windows, sunken hot tub, and a gorgeous rustic stone fireplace.

Escaping from Denver for some much needed time in the wild, Addie and Scott Lawrence were skiing in Black Iron bowl when they looked down from the ridgeline and spotted the trio of Alta Lakes sparkling in the valley below like a scattering of spilled jewels. They also noticed smoke spiraling from a chimney beside the lakes. “We both looked at each other and said, ‘One day we will go there!’” Addie recalls. It was the Observatory the couple had spied, and a few years later, the two were married there. “Everything about the Observatory is pure magic,” Addie says. “The energy of the place and surrounding land is electric. You feel as if you’ve stepped into another part of the world that is just your own. Time moves slowly and you can just be in the moment and in the land.” Selecting such a remote, off-the-grid location as their wedding site proved to be the ideal choice for the Lawrences. “There is nothing more beautiful than a natural cathedral and the backdrop of the Sawtooth Ridgeline at the Observatory is something you have to experience for yourself. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. It was transformative and we felt honored to be able to start our lives together in such a beautiful place.”

Mattie speaks about the appeal of the Observatory. “Everybody loves the Observatory for a different reason,” he says. “Countless memories have been made there, whether it was falling in love, enjoying a party with friends, getting married, or simply enjoying the beautiful silence. It holds a special place in the hearts and minds of so many.”

Dunton Hot Springs

All it took was one step though the doorway and into the warm, yellowed light of the cabin and I could hear it, the whisper-sound of time standing still. While this may seem like a poetic embellishment, at Dunton Hot Springs, where a literal ghost town has been resurrected into a living, breathing resort, time and its trappings do seem to fade into blurry irrelevance. In this particular cabin, the one called “Well House,” there’s a round metal cold-plunge tub in the corner of the room and in its center, steam rises from a long stone bath where bubbling water is pumped in from the natural hot spring nearby. The furnishings may be new and luxurious, but this room bears evidence of an earlier, scrappier time. The rough log boards that line the walls, hand hewn more than a century ago, give a nod to the resilient miners who built this place. For those seeking respite from the modern grind, Dunton Hot Springs provides a truly unique escape, one steeped in fascinating history.

An outpost built at the height of the gold and silver boom in 1885, Dunton served as a stomping ground for trappers, prostitutes, and particularly miners, who were drawn to the location for its abundant natural hot springs, a strong indicator of mineral wealth in the ground. The town thrived, boasting a healthy population of 500 at its peak, until the arrival of the train and the miners’ need for transport signaled the hamlet’s demise. By 1918, Dunton was all but abandoned. The ensuing years saw Dunton reemerge as a cattle ranch and then a dude ranch, where visitors could soak in the hot springs for a nickel. Hippies and artists made the place their haven in the 1970s and ’80s, but by the early 1990s, the town was closed and Dunton was deserted once more. When Christoph Henkel discovered the place in 1994, he was enchanted with the history and beauty of Dunton and its stunning surroundings. He purchased the property and spent the next seven years working hard to restore it. “Christoph didn’t plan to make it a resort at first,” explains Christina Rossi, the marketing director for Dunton Hot Springs. “He just knew that Dunton was really special and should be preserved.”

Christoph’s diligence and attention to detail paid off. Today, visitors to Dunton eat, sleep, relax, and celebrate in some of the town’s original structures, including the saloon and dance hall, the bathhouse, and the Dunton store. The store, which has been converted to a guest house, is adorned with old bottles and metal pans, relics of the town’s storied past. Soft light filters through the windows of the bathhouse, where mineral rich hot springs have provided soaking and rejuvenation since the town’s inception. And at the Dunton Saloon, one can belly up to the bar and see where the one and only Butch Cassidy carved his name soon after he robbed the bank in nearby Telluride. “The history here makes it almost unbelievable (and very special) that it still exists not only for you to see, but for you to visit and stay,” Christina says.

It’s easy to lose yourself in the history of Dunton, as well as to fully immerse yourself in the natural world that surrounds it. As a year-round resort, Dunton offers a wealth of activities, with summer options that include hiking, mountain biking, wildlife viewing (lucky visitors might spot a bear, lynx, or mountain lion), horseback riding, and special picnics prepared by Dunton’s renowned chef. And of course, there’s always the option to do absolutely nothing. Many visitors of Dunton have shared how their stay helped them to completely unwind and recharge, often commenting on the peaceful setting and lack of interruption. “It’s one of the few places I haven’t felt guilty about doing nothing,” a guest recently remarked. “Guests frequently mention that their time at Dunton helped alleviate stress and tensions,” Christina says. “The combination of activities, tranquility, and attentive service creates an environment conducive to relaxation and mental clarity. Many guests mention that they sleep better while staying with us, which we take as a huge compliment.” Before leaving Dunton, I enjoyed a hike on one of the property’s many trails. A waterfall that had previously surged with the spring snowmelt had now slowed to a lazier trickle, and its relaxed pace matched my own. As I meandered through meadows of tall grass and smatterings of wild flowers, the tranquility of Dunton settled my senses while the indelible history of the place invited my imagination to roam. In terms of escape, it was the best of both worlds.

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