Dining on high at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse
Ryan Summerlin March 23, 2012
A dining experience at the Tennessee Pass Cookhouse is one of those quintessential Colorado experiences, a must-do for visitors and locals alike. Of course, extra-ordinary dining experiences in the High Country aren’t a new thing, but they never get old, either. Fine dining is something everyone enjoys, so why not enjoy it with breathtaking views of Colorado mountain ranges over your shoulder? Enter the Tennessee Mountain Nordic Center, Cookhouse, and Sleep Yurts. In business for the last 18 years, you could say they pretty much have this high-altitude dining experience dialed. For those who love cross-country skiing, this is truly one of the greatest dining experiences on the planet.The great thing about the Cookhouse is you can also hike, snowshoe or get a snowmobile ride up the 1.3 miles to the dining yurt, situated on National Forest land overlooking the majestic Sawatch Range. The trail gains about 300 feet in elevation, and even beginners can ski it. The ski back down could challenge the skills of the first-timer, however, depending on snow conditions.It creates a remote and intimate feeling that can really only be had through human powered (or for some, snowmobile-powered) transport. And don’t worry, ski rental, trail fee and even a headlamp are included in the price of the meal. In the summer, guests trade ski boots for hiking boots, and the Cookhouse switches out snowmobiles for old-school Land Cruisers, to help get supplies and guests up to the yurt in time for dinner.This is a completely off-grid dining experience, with propane and spring water brought in while solar powered batteries run lights, satellite radio for dining ambience, and a two-way radio for communicating with the Nordic center. Heat is provided by a pot-bellied stove left over from the 10th Mountain Division, a perfect artifact given the Cookhouse’s location at the base of Ski Cooper, former training ground of America’s skiing troops of World War II. Wine-bottle Tiki torches greet guests as they approach the wide deck and picnic tables of the yurt, and pre-dinner imbibements are available (wine and beer is also available with dinner for an extra charge).
Authentically Colorado menu items are delectably prepared by chef Casey Puntdnney, who has been serving up these meals for more than seven years. In the winter, one seating per night takes place at 6 p.m. sharp, so be at the Nordic Center no later than 5:30 to gear up and hit the trail. The dining yurt is a robust 704 square feet and seats up to about 40 people. If the views and setting are spectacular, the food itself is to die for. Guests must call ahead to reserve the entre portion of the four-course meal. Choose from grilled elk tenderloin in a port reduction, Colorado rack of lamb with Grand Marnier sauce, cedar-planked wild Alaskan sockeye salmon, among other chicken and vegetarian dishes. The signature mashed potatoes are a clever, creamy blend of red and sweet potatoes. To energize for the ski or hike out, enjoy a perfect cup of coffee from local Leadville roaster City on the Hill (formerly Proving Ground). The kicker for this dreamy dining experience is the ability to spend the night. This year, the Nordic Center and Cookhouse introduced the Sleep Yurts, two 150-square-foot traditional yurts fully outfitted with all the creature comforts one could want, in the fashion of a hut trip without having to huff in your own gear in, leaving your hands free to enjoy the 25 kilometers of world-class groomed Nordic trails. Down booties, down comforters, queen mattresses on handcrafted log beds, solar powered lighting, fresh spring water, and complimentary coffee, cider and hot chocolate are all there waiting; as well as a fully stocked wood pile and pre-lit wood burning stove, a single-burner propane stove and necessary cook- and dishware. If reservations at the Cookhouse are full, take advantage of the deliciously indulgent catered menu. This is the only backcountry yurt in the state where one can get Italian buffalo meatloaf and cheese fondue delivered by snowmobile to the front door. And don’t forget to add the wine and a breakfast basket, so you yourself can pack ultra-light. Owners Dave Bott and Ty Hall have created the perfect Colorado overnight experience to accompany an equally spectacular dining experience with a long history of satisfying local guests year after year, and sending out-of-town guests home with an unforgettable gastronomical memory.