Appetite for Adventure on Tennessee Pass

A Rustic Yurt Serves Elevated Food in the San Isabel Forest

Adventure — and fantastic food — await if you’re willing to work for it. Tucked in the woods at 10,800 feet, Tennessee Pass Cookhouse is an off-the-grid backcountry yurt — accessed by foot, fat bike or cross-country skis — serving home cooked food for lunch and dinner while surrounded by stunning mountain views.

The Tennessee Pass Nordic Center shares a parking lot with Ski Cooper, one of the oldest ski resorts in the state, outside of Leadville. The old school ski area and Nordic basecamp provide a laid-back and authentic atmosphere free from crowds or high-rise buildings. It’s far from flashy, filled instead with friendly staff and cozy lodges.

The Nordic Center, a simple log building with a snow-covered A-frame roof, greets guests before they head out to explore the trail system, over 15 miles of set track and wide skate lanes that extend in every direction. Explore the full trail system, or head straight for the food with an easy groomed trail that leads directly to the Cookhouse. A one-mile walk on a Forest Service road gently climbs 300 feet. The wide trail is lined with dense trees that provide shelter from the fierce winter wind and solitude from the outside world. It’s a quiet walk through the woods, other than the chatter of groups as they go by.

Eventually, the thick trees clear into an open alpine field as you approach the Cookhouse, a solar-powered yurt with impressive views of 14,000-foot snow-covered peaks in the Sawatch Mountain Range. Picnic tables line the south-facing deck in front of the circular yurt, providing a great spot to savor the views and sip on a warm welcome drink until the table is ready.

The yurt, which seats about 40 people, is heated by a vintage potbelly stove from nearby Camp Hale, the training grounds for the famed 10th Mountain Division. Simple wooden tables and chairs fill the space. Everything inside the 30-foot yurt — including food, water, propane and spring water — was hauled in. A meal tastes better if you’ve worked for it, but at Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, the food is a standout on its own.

Digging into decadent duck confit tacos topped with bright radish, crisp arugula and pickled vegetables, it’s not the meal one expects at an off-the-grid backcountry yurt. Lunch is not a fancy affair, but every item on the limited menu is carefully curated and perfectly prepared. A big, juicy bison cheeseburger is piled high with bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion, accompanied with a side of garlic potatoes and a garden salad. A steaming bowl of hearty homemade soup served with a seasonal salad and toasty bread hits the spot on a cold winter day. For dessert, don’t miss the oversized Roxanne’s cookies, which are stuffed with oats and chocolate and delivered warm to your table with fresh whipped cream.


Reservations are required. During the winter season, there are two lunch seatings on Saturdays and Sundays, at noon and 1:30 p.m. Dinner is served daily. Planto arrive at the Nordic Center 30-60 minutes before your reservation time.

Lunch at the Cookhouse is casual, tables filled with large groups and families as the air is brimming with boisterous chatter. But when the sun sets, the atmosphere changes.

Nighttime is a more elaborate, and romantic, affair. Diners walk to the yurt by the glow of headlamps (or moonlight on clear night) to find a cozy candlelight yurt and decadent dinner waiting. The multi-course meal includes a set starter, salad, appetizer and dessert. A wild game menu is fitting for a backcountry restaurant — choice of entrée includes a tender grilled elk rack paired with potatoes au gratin, a perfectly cooked bison tenderloin topped with herb compound butter or a delicate Peruvian spiced Mahi Mahi garnished with a coconut lemongrass sauce.

All the ingredients are handled with care and sourced from local purveyors — from organic vegetables grown on local farms to wild game meat raised at a multi-generational ranch in Wyoming. An extensive beverage list offers wine, beer and cocktails. The Cookhouse may feel rustic and remote, but their handmade food and friendly, attentive service rivals any fine dining experience.

No matter when you visit Tennessee Pass Cookhouse, it’s sure to fill your stomach and your adventurous soul.