Summit Huts in Colorado’s High Country
By Brian E. Clark
When the backcountry hut known as Francie’s Cabin opened 28 years ago in the Crystal Lakes Basin three miles south of Breckenridge, Colorado, its backers weren’t sure how many people would use it.
Now, 75,000 overnights later, the 20-person hut named in honor of Frances Lockwood Bailey is getting a much-needed makeover and will reopen later this year. Bailey, a former Breckenridge resident and outdoor enthusiast, was killed in 1989 when a United Airlines jet on its way from Denver to Philadelphia crashed in western Iowa.
Francie’s is part of the five-cabin Summit Huts Association (summithuts.org), which “provides a backcountry refuge for self-propelled mountain recreational users and a unique venue in spectacular natural settings for community, charitable and educational programs,” according to the group’s mission statement.
People who use the Summit huts are required to bring in all their own food and gear. Then haul out their trash and extra food when their stay is finished.
“Hiking or skiing into a backcountry hut was pretty much a novelty 30-plus years ago and there initially was concern that Francie’s wouldn’t get used that much,” said Brandon Bailey, one of Francie’s sons.
“Fast forward nearly three decades and it’s clearly exceeded everyone’s expectations. It is the most-visited hut in the state,” said Bailey, who serves on the Summit Hut Association (SHA) advisory board.
“Due to that heavy use, some of the original design elements have worn out because they weren’t made for the amount of traffic the hut has seen over the years.
“Then add to that the harsh environment at 11,400 feet just below tree line, people coming in and out, and the amount of snowmelt and water that gets spilled on the floors.”
Bailey, a 39-year-old resident of Boulder, Colorado, said the cabin is popular with both first-timers and families because it is only 1.5 miles from a trailhead. It is open from July through September for the summer season and from November through May for skiers and snowshoers.
Because she was the mother of three young boys, he said his mom would have appreciated the cabin’s short distance from the road.
“I’ve been to a lot of other different huts around that state that would be nearly impossible to bring along children,” he said. “Francie’s has a nice little hike or ski-in and is a great way to introduce children to the backcountry and self-sufficiency.
“I call it a gateway hut,” he said. “You can get there in a relatively short time and enjoy the warm, dry and happy ethos that we try to cultivate.
“Some people become dedicated hut trippers and try to go to as many huts as they can after Francie’s. That is a wonderful legacy to have in the mountains.”
Though the route into Francie’s is short, he said the hut is suitable for novices or grizzled mountain veterans.
“There really is something at Francie’s for everyone and that’s why the appeal has lasted for so long. Anybody can enjoy it and come away with wonderful memories. A lot of folks return over and over.”
Bailey said he visits the hut at least once a year with his spouse, two young daughters and family friends who also have young children. The terrain around the cabin is suited for all levels of skiers and hikers.
“It’s special to share the hut with others,” he said.
“I’ve met a number of people that’ve been to Francie’s – but didn’t know my relation to the cabin – who told me they had a great time there. I’m sure my mom would appreciate that.”
Bailey said his mother, who died at age 36, grew up in Lake Placid, New York, home to the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics. She was also the daughter of a Tenth Mountain Division soldier who trained near Breckenridge in World War II.
“Mom came from a family of skiers and she loved the sport,” he said. She moved to Breckenridge in the late 70s, following an older brother.
“Crystal Basin was one of her favorite spots back then and she hiked and probably snowshoed up there,” he said. “It’s also one of my favorite parts of the Ten Mile Range.
“She was also a dedicated mother and wife, as well as an entrepreneur. She’d started a small kids clothing company. In fact, my brothers and I were models for it.”
Bailey said he and a brother were injured in the airplane crash that claimed his mother and killed more than 100 other passengers and crew. Both boys recovered fully. A third brother was not on the flight.
“I had a lot of burns and other injuries, including a broken left femur and right tibia and fibula bones,” he recalled. “I was the last person released from the hospital.
“The rehabilitation took a long time and I had to learn to walk all over again because I had quite a bit of muscular atrophy,” added Bailey, who went on to play competitive hockey and college-level lacrosse.
Bailey said his mother would have loved the cabin that bears her name.
“A lot of the amenities that went into it were considerations of what my mom would have appreciated, including the indoor composting toilets,” he said with a chuckle.
“Back in 1994, those were pretty unheard of. Most backcountry huts have an outhouse where you have to put your boots back on and go outside to do your business. Composting toilets are inside, don’t smell and are actually a pleasant experience. She would have liked those creature comforts.”
When Summit hut system officials began thinking about upgrading Francie’s cabin, they had plenty of information about how people used the building.
“We wanted to improve the guest experience, the flow and the durability,” he said. “Improving the floors was an obvious place to start.”
Workers installed tough hardwood hickory flooring in the hutmaster’s quarters and on the second floor of the cabin last year. Hickory will replace pine flooring on the main level this summer.
Another major improvement will be redesigning the kitchen layout and putting in more efficient burners to reduce propane usage.
“The hut takes 20 people and there are often multiple groups,” he said. “So it’s being redesigned with more space so they’ll be able to prepare meals at the same time without being on top of each other.”
In addition, tile countertops (one extra was being removed) are being being replaced with stainless steel, which he said is more sanitary, durable and easier to clean.
Bailey said his two-year-old daughter, Blair, has been to the cabin several times and calls it “Francie’s House.”
“She’s just starting to comprehend the idea of grandma Francie,” mused Bailey, who said his other daughter, Brook, is less than a year old.
“It works out nicely that Blair’s birthday is in March when we do our personal trip up there. We’ve celebrated both of her birthday’s at the cabin, which is a cool way to involve my mother.”
Bailey said the budget for the renovation of the cabin is $200,000 and that more than $100,000 has been raised to date. If all goes well, he said much of the work should be completed by late fall.
In addition to Francie’s, other cabins in the SHA system include:
Janet’s Cabin, which is located in the Guller Creek Drainage next to Copper Mountain Ski Resort.
This hut was completed in 1991 and dedicated to Janet Boyd Tyler, who died in 1998. A Vail resident and avid skier, her lifetime ski pass is now buried in the foundation of Janet’s Cabin.
Ken’s Cabin is a cozy hut next to the Boreas Pass Section House. It sleeps just two or three, but has its own kitchen, dining and sleeping area. Originally built in the 1860’s when Boreas Pass Road was only a wagon trail. Originally called the Wagon Cabin, it is one of the oldest buildings in the Breckenridge area.
It is named for Dr. Ken Graff, who died in 1995 at age 33 in an avalanche near Breckenridge, to commemorate his love of the mountains and of skiing.
The Section House was built in 1882 to house the railroad men and their families who maintained the section of the railway that traveled over Boreas Pass.
The Denver, South Park and Pacific narrow gauge railroad ran from Denver to Leadville in the height of the mining era. The route was abandoned in the early 1930’s and the Section House fell into disrepair.
Nearing collapse, the US Forest Service and the Colorado Historic Society teamed up to resurrect the Section House in 1993. By 1996, the building was completely restored with a new roof, windows, and interior finish.
SHA and the US Forest Service began working together in 1996 to operate the Section House as a winter ski hut. The association’s special use permit was granted in 1997 and the Section House officially opened in December of that year.
The 14-person Sisters Cabin is the fifth overnight backcountry hut in the Summit huts. It opened in 2018 and currently operates as a winter-only hut from November through April.
Funded by the The Sturm Family Foundation, Sisters Cabin celebrates the close bonds amongst Sue Sturm, an avid backcountry hut user, and her close-knit group of female friends who enjoyed backcountry skiing adventures together.
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.