Ostrander Ski Hut rewards tough workout with historic charm

Finding great cross-country skiing, a rustic and comfortable cabin, fellowship around a warm fire, and free ice skating is hard to find all in one place in California. Yet, Ostrander Hut in the Yosemite backcountry, which recently reopened to the public after a two-year pandemic closure, is one of those rare finds.

Built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1941, Ostrander Hut is one of California’s few shelters open to backcountry skiers on public land. Park planners had envisioned a string of cabins along the Sierra Nevada mountains, enabling skiers to travel from shelter to shelter for the length of the range, but Ostrander was among the only ones actually constructed.

Reaching Ostrander alone is an ample challenge for many skiers, though. In fact, more than a few groups have spent unplanned nights outdoors after underestimating the trip’s difficulty.

There are several routes to reach Ostrander, but the easiest of them combines four miles of groomed snow on Glacier Point Road with five miles of black diamond-level skiing on the Horizon Ridge Trail. The difficulty of Horizon Ridge or any approach to Ostrander varies widely based on snow conditions. Visiting the hut in four consecutive years, I found the conditions remarkably different each time.

Skiers celebrate reaching the shelter of Ostrander Ski Hut.image:Matt Johanson

Bare earth and trees were the story of the first trip, and my companions and I rarely saw enough snow to make a snowball as we hiked the 10-mile “ski trip” to the hut.

Patchy and icy snow covered the route in the second year, making for challenging skiing. But the light snow and cold conditions made possible a rare highlight: ice skating on a frozen and perfectly smooth Ostrander Lake (the hut’s host graciously lent us skates). The mountain basin’s magnificence and serenity contrasted humorously with our clumsy skating.

Ski huts like Ostrander allow visitors to enjoy winter sunsets close to a warm shelter. image:Matt Johanson

Fresh powder greeted us in the third year, as our three-man group enjoyed perfect conditions. Such heavy snow precluded skating on the lake, but made for terrific downhill conditions on the slope above, which we enjoyed all day.

Good conditions and a well-broken trail attracted a friend and me in year four, before a storm dumped two feet of snow on the high country and obliterated all the tracks. In order to get out, we had to break a new trail, forcing our way through miles of deep powder. This exhausting chore took much of the day and reminded me that only those prepared for hardships should venture far into the backcountry.

Skiers who climb Horse Ridge above Ostrander Lake earn a rare backcountry view and a rewarding descent. image: Matt Johanson

At the cabin itself, visitors frequently engage in informal cooking competitions, trying to outdo each other with extravagant meals miles from the nearest real kitchen. One year I thought our steak and potatoes looked pretty good, until I saw the competition roll out cracked crab, homemade clam chowder, fresh French bread and red wine. Artistic menus boasting of meals served in years past adorn the cabin walls.

Monopoly, Jenga, poker, and other games help pass the long winter nights. Hut visitors, who share a love of skiing and the outdoors, enjoy a warm camaraderie. At the least, the skiers have one experience in common: they all completed the difficult journey from civilization to Ostrander Hut.

Matt Johanson peruses Ostrander’s visitor log book. image: courtesy of Matt Johanson

Triple-decker bunk beds in a common sleeping room, a small shared kitchen, and primitive toilets may not appeal to some. But to those who enjoy a good workout on skis, the peace and beauty of the mountains, and the simple comforts of a beautiful wood and granite refuge, Ostrander Hut is worth visiting year after year.

An Ostrander skier approaches the summit of Buena Vista Peak. image: Matt Johanson

If You Go

Booking: The Yosemite Conservancy manages the hut, charging $50 per person per night. Weekends book up quickly, but weeknights often have better availability. This year’s season ends on April 1. Visit yosemite.org/ostrander for details and reservations.

Buena Vista Peak offers a rewarding view. image: Matt Johanson

Getting there: Reaching the hut is a challenging day-long ski trip for most people. Back country skis with metal edges and skins (canvas strips which stick to ski bottoms, providing traction to climb hills) are essential. Beginners should not attempt it without experienced companions and emergency overnight gear (sleeping bag, thermal bedroll, winter tent, stove and a pot for melting snow). Hit the trail by 9 a.m., and remember the sun sinks early in winter.

Editor’s Note: This route can be treacherous. The Yosemite Conservancy reminds visitors, “All routes to the Hut are arduous and should only be attempted by experienced skiers. Winter weather conditions may severely limit your ability to make it to the Hut in one day. You must be prepared to make camp and sleep on the way in or out if necessary. Your arrival to, and journey from the hut will not be tracked. Wilderness travel requires self-reliance, and you should not be expecting a rescue. Everyone must be prepared for an unplanned night alone in the winter wilderness.”

Matt Johanson enjoys exploring and writing about the outdoors. Climbing Mount Shasta, hiking the John Muir Trail, and skiing through Yosemite’s high country rank among his favorite outings. Matt’s books include California Summits, Sierra Summits, Yosemite Adventures, and Yosemite Epics. He’s taught and advised an award-winning high school journalism program for more than 20 years.

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