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Mathias Eichler argues for an alternative to the "shopping mall experience" in America's national parks: real wilderness hiking and adventuring assisted by huts and other rustic overnight accommodations.

arrow From the Spring 2016 issue of American Trails Magazine

arrow See more on backcountry hut systems at www.hut2hut.info

 

 

Imagining a new hut system for America’s National Parks


arrow Reprinted with permission of the author; see his article on The Outdoor Society website

 

Let me take you on a journey. Imagine your next vacation. It is at one of our great national parks of the western United States. You know that feeling, you’ve been here before. The entrances often feel like a gateway to a magical place: A place so different from your everyday life, rejuvenating and refreshing— it’s you’re vacation destination, and it’s not Disneyland.

photo of cabin with outdoor tables

 

 

The roads in the park are long and windy. You drive through old growth forests, along majestic streams and travel until you reach the main lodge.

Now, in real life, the lodge or visitor center might be your final destination. But this time, in our imaginary journey I am taking you on, it’s just a pit stop where you leave the car behind. What you’re after is a backcountry hut several miles off the beaten path far in the wilderness.

After a brief rest at the main visitor center your trip really begins. You and your family grab their backpacks and head off to their final destination.

You’re now going to say, that this is already possible, what’s the big deal. But wait up. In the current state you need to bring full survival gear, bear canisters for food, sleeping bags and rain gear. Gas stove, dehydrated trail food, water for drinking and a purification device for the water you need you can’t carry.

That’s a lot of gear which needs to be purchased and mastered. You might enjoy "roughing it," but even the minimalists I meet are secret gear lovers and spend lots and lots of cash on constantly updating their latest stuff. It’s prohibitive for many families. It’s a status divide that doesn’t need to be there.

The current experience includes remote campsites, with little infrastructure, but here in our vision a fully managed backcountry lodge awaits you. A hut, not luxurious, but catered and managed, with beds, electricity and water. Hardly possible to pull of with today’s infrastructure, but tag along. This backcountry hut will be your base camp for a few days and destination for today.

The well-marked trail makes the adventure enjoyable for your family. Your backpacks are light, because you only need to focus on the essentials you’d need for a day hike, plus a change of underwear and a toothbrush. Upon arrival the host greets you and checks you in. If you’d been traveling solo you could opt for a bunk beds in one of the coed rooms. That’s would be an even cheaper accommodation. But you arrive with your family so you take one of the a small rooms with four beds. Your room is not luxurious, there’s no flat screen TV, no fake gas fireplace. Basic mattresses, a small pillow— it’s clean, simple, but welcoming.

photo of wood frame with bed

simple sleeping area

 

 

There are bathroom facilities and showers down the hall and dinner will be served at the main gathering space on the ground floor. The food is simple, hearty, made with local ingredients, highlighting the region’s specialties. It’s cooked by people on-site, not pre-frozen fast food. The fellow travelers you meet are all here for the same reason: vacation from the daily grind, looking for an adventure.

The communal space after dinner turns into a causal space for gathering, sharing trip reports and a beer or two, but everyone turns in early, tomorrow the adventure begins. The only sleeping bag you needed to bring is a light hut sleeping bag. Two sheets sown together, to help the cleaning crew keep efforts at a minimum.

Let’s hold here for a moment and breathe. Consider this: you might’ve just taken a shower, you definitely had a good meal, and you sleep in a real bed, in the backcountry. Let me tell you, this is as close to perfect as it gets.

The next morning when you wake up the family, you’re not the first one up. The hut is buzzing already and people are up to catch the sunrise on the nearby peaks. Hiking boots are put on, backpacks repacked. Breakfast is simple and you can buy all the ingredients you need to make sandwiches for the day and refill your water bottles. Some folks are heading out to the trails that connect this hut, your base camp to other hut just like that. Other folks stay for a few more days and scale the surrounding peaks.

 

A big dream?

photo of sign pointing to many trails

Way marker outside Enzianhütte shows time it takes to reach
destinations, rather than mileage (photo by Mathias Eichler)

Yes, this is a dream, and logistically, politically, historically it more of a nightmare than an dream. But, I live now in the land of endless possibilities and NASA just sent us the first amazing pictures of Pluto. Why shouldn’t I dream big? Is it truly impossible?

Certainly not. This scenario I described is an average mountain vacation in the Alps, and I experienced many of them throughout the last few decades. I grew up in southern part of Germany the foothills of the Alps. Many of my Summer vacations were spend roaming the valleys and hills, playing in the streams as a kid and scaling peaks as a teenager. It’s a different world over there, but it also showed me that it’s possible.

I’ve watched and greatly enjoyed Ken Burns’ epic PBS special on the national parks, but I would never consider myself an expert in the history of national parks and other Federal and State regulated recreational areas.

The way I see it, there are there are currently two main experiences for visitors to national parks. The classic, traditional approach, the way national parks have been enjoyed by Americans for many decades: You take your car, drive through to the gate and stop at every scenic view point on the way to the main visitor center and lodge. There you park the car, grab you camera, take a few shots of the surrounding area. Perhaps you hike a simple trail, eat an overpriced hot dog served by a National hospitality chain, and you buy a T-shirt.

There’s nothing wrong with this experience for most Americans. If you arrive wearing flip flops and a tank top you expect a shopping mall atmosphere, and that’s okay, I suppose.

In stark contrast to this shopping mall experience is the other primary outdoor activity in national parks: real wilderness hiking/camping. Just within a few miles from most visitor centers and trail parking lots you can leave the crowds behind and enter a world most people don’t ever get to see. Wild animals, barely maintained trails in potentially hazardous conditions, in short: real wilderness.

It’s fantastic that these places still exist in our overdeveloped world. It doesn’t have to be comfortable and convenient everywhere.

photo of large cabin in mountains

DAV (Deutsche Alpenverein) hut is one of the largest in their hut system with 300 beds.
This hut, first established in 1885, sits right outside Hohes Licht, one of the highest
mountains of the German Alps. (photo by Mathias Eichler)

 

 

Here is my main point

The interest and love for the outdoors are seeing an incredible growth and need new ways for the outdoors to be enjoyed and experienced. Everything I’ve been reading in the last couple of year points toward this, from hipster Instagram accounts, to outdoor retailers posting records sales, to national parks announcing record visitor numbers. The outdoors are booming and we need to take advantage of it.

The wilderness purists would love to see the outdoors to be left alone, and there’s certainly an argument to be made for that. The descendants of John Muir will always have an important voice at the table, to remind us that we need to keep any impact to our wild lands at a minimum.

Yet, the roads area already built, the cars are already driving through the parks, requiring road maintenance, parking lots, and traffic control. Those visitors are rightful users of their lands as well. They support their public lands by paying the entrance fee and after having had a memorable experience will vote for park budget increases, so one hopes.

photo of mountain scene with large cabin

 

But can we invite the regular folks to embrace their parks as something else than a nature zoo, or a game reserve? I currently find the learning curve, the jump from visitor center amenity to wilderness experience, too steep for most people. Most people visit the big national parks once in their life. You go, snap a picture, and think that’s the only thing there is to do.

Yes, there’s education through inspiration. The idea goes that one visits the parks, gets excited, goes to REI and buys the right gear. He takes a few classes and overcomes that hurdle of feeling lost out there in the wilderness and step by step discovers the wilderness, and learns to embrace it.

But without a guide, a personal friend you can trust to “show you the way” this can be a steep hill to climb, and not many do. This, perhaps is exactly the intention for many wilderness lovers. I think that attitude is totally wrong.

But where do we go from here? How do we go from dreaming to actually doing?

 

Here are a few ideas of what things the parks need:

1. Better way finding signs
We start off with a simple one. Many trails I am hiking just a few miles from the road have barely any signs posted. This can get so easily overlooked by people comfortable on the trails. But if you ever tried to find a trail head or had to make a decision which way to turn somewhere in the middle of nowhere with your family you’d learn to appreciate good signage telling you milage, distance to destination, name of trails, etc.

2. Via Ferratas
A Via Ferrata is a “protected climbing route found in the Alps and certain other locations. The essence of a modern via ferrata is a steel cable which runs along the route and is periodically (every 10-30 feet) fixed to the rock.” I’d love to see new routes and trails be established with fixed ropes for people looking for a new hiking experience without getting fulling into mountaineering.

3. Backcountry lodges you can hike to
Huts with full, but simple amenities. Places out in the wilderness you can make your base camp, as a destination for a night or an access point for further exploration. This will expand the reach of hiking trails. It connects the obvious accessible visitor center to the wilderness beyond. It will allow for incredible experiences beyond the reach of the car.

4. Gondolas
To connect and provision the backcountry huts you will probably need a few lifts or gondolas, not of people transportation, but for provisions, food, etc. I’m a huge fan of gondolas and would love to see those introduced in our wilderness areas.

 

In closing

Look, I know this dream seems crazy, probably even offensive to some of you. But since you kept reading until now I want to assure you: if I could take you to the Alps and let you experience the incredible network of huts all over Austria, Germany, Switzerland, and South Tyrol I am convinced you’d understand what I am talking about. You too would get a longing for similar infrastructure over here in the national parks of the West.

 

Mathias Eichler writes for The Outdoor Society, an online outdoor magazine which he designed and developed. He grew up in Germany and now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family, where he loves exploring the trails, peaks, and lodges. Making the outdoors accessible to a new generation of hikers and families from near and far is his passion.

 

More on backcountry hut systems

Interested in knowing more about the world of huts and other shelter systems for long distance hiking, biking, and skiing? Sam Demas runs www.hut2hut.info to explore how they operate around the world. You’ll find articles, economic studies, and infor- mation on operations, regulatory environments, and user demo- graphics. His goal is to build a community and a national conversation around the future of various kinds of hut systems in America. Just as one example, Travel Oregon is planning a hut-to-hut single track biking system across Oregon. Initial planning involves coordination with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and International Mountain Bicycling Association, as well as organizations and businesses.

photo of rustic cabin with people eating outdoors

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