KETCHUM — On a late September Sunday morning, I awoke to a thin layer of frost on my Big Agnes tent at Caribou campground in Sun Valley. With no reason to rush, I took in the crisp air and brewed a French-pressed coffee at camp. Enjoying the silence, I watched the sun creep up above the hills and spill light over the creek into the belly of my campsite, thin rays illuminating the melting dew.
I ambled into town for Sunday brunch and plotted my hike up the iconic Pioneer Cabin Loop, slating it for the hottest part of the day — forecasted to be around 60 degrees and sunny — ideal for the high alpine on an autumn afternoon.
The trailhead is a few miles in on nice gravel roads, and the parking lot was half-full when I arrived, early risers barreling down the Long Gulch Trail, having already completed the loop. This was appealing to me, and I had high hopes I might be alone on the Sun Valley classic. I had come to see the first snow in the hills up close.
I suited up with all the necessary accoutrements for a solo hiker in bear country: bear spray, a whistle, my snacks in secured Ziplocs and stowed inside my pack, a knife and a headlamp, layers, water, a water filter, extra socks, one warm layer and a windbreaker.
It was high noon and it had warmed up to about 58 degrees. It was balmy and brilliant. I felt energized and opted to leave my trekking poles in the car. This was a moderate loop for me after recently completing several mountain endurance runs. In my mind, I was going for a mountain stroll.
The first 2,500 feet of elevation involved a steady climb over 3.6 miles up a switchbacked, forested ridge trail that becomes a high alpine meadow surrounded by peaks that haunt the horizon line. I must have hiked with my head down for most of the ascent because I had reached 9,000 feet in just over an hour. My eyes skimmed the surface of peaks and valleys, shadowed and lit against the valley floor and the air quickly became thinner, fresher and crisper as the temperature again dropped, a surprise against bared skin.
The meadow was vast and boundless. I crossed paths with a group of women, one of them 81, who were hiking the out-and-back — an 8.5 mile round trip. I was committed to the loop past the cabin and down Long Gulch, which tacks on an extra three miles.
The colors were endless — purple and burnt orange hues of distant hills stood out against snowcapped peaks. The greens of the valley became deeper and the glowing mountaintops looked like they were tearing a hole in the sky against the bright blue. Time stopped for me on that high meadow and all the trees and rocks came into focus — rugged, clean lines against a stark alpine ecosystem.
Again I put my head down and pushed up the scree field marked with cairns before cresting the ridge to the historic cabin. In July and August, the meadow is filled with wildflowers, but by September, it is mostly scoured. The wind whipped up in the elevated expanse, and the hairs on my bared arms stood tall.
When I finally looked up again, I was nearing the ridge and two riders with Stetson hats were trotting toward me, side by side, on majestic mares, with the cabin in the forefront. The backdrop: a panoramic of the Pioneers, blanketed in winter’s first layer of fresh snow. I stopped in my tracks, completely stunned by the immeasurable beauty. The riders tipped their hats to me, and the famous phrase painted in large, white letters on the cabin’s roof glinted in the mid-afternoon light: “The higher you get, the higher you get,” it read.
Expecting a rustic, old mining cabin, I was amazed to find a completely operational, well-kept ski-touring hut situated at the top of a steep drop-off above the North Fork of Hyndman Basin. Modeled after European alpine huts, the Sun Valley Co. built the first-come, first-serve primitive structure in 1937 to accommodate the Alpine Touring branch of the Ski School and make skiing in the Pioneer Mountain Range a more accessible feat.
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I put my day pack down on a log and hastily unlatched the wooden door. Inside was a gorgeously kept ski hut, complete with axes, shovels, and neatly hung mattresses along the back wall. A guitar leaned up against the entryway and two open journals lay ready on the main picnic table aside an immaculate wood stove. I had hit the jackpot.
Admiring the initials carved into the walls, and the collection of inspiring quotes painted on the wood, I took a moment to add my own inscription on an empty page of the welcome book and take in the sights and scents from within the spacious, two-room structure, which sleeps at least 10, by my count. I closed my eyes and wished it was winter and that I was strapping skins onto my splitboard to explore the endless hills surrounding the basin.
I knew I shouldn’t dawdle too long as the cloud cover thickened and the afternoon wore on. I had not opted for an alpine start. But I could make up the time by running the descent. I started along the ridgeline, connecting to the Long Gulch Trail, #123 for the north loop I had my eyes on — this side of the circuit is the “lesser-known” access from the Corral Creek drainage, according to the locals.
The back of the mountain was sublime and reminded me of vistas I’ve seen trekking in the Himalayas — huge peaks looming above me, shadowless and connected, obscuring the sky. Jaw-dropping views of Hyndman Peak, Old Hyndman Peak, Cobb and other Pioneer peaks in the chain mesmerized me, and I picked out the route I had recently run up to the top of the Hyndman Peak saddle just a few weeks ago.
But I had to focus to remember my footing — I didn’t want to break my stride. There was still frost up high and even a couple inches of snow on the ground in places. I picked up a handful of the fresh, frozen slush and rubbed it between my hands, picking up speed as the peaks faded behind me and I began my six-mile descent through firs, then aspens, then birch to the valley floor, where I wound through thickets of willows for the last mile and a half, elusively endless after a few hours on the trail.
I sprinted to the bottom of the loop once I spotted the parking lot, eager to tear off my wet shoes, soaked from a couple of creek crossings on the way down and a misstep into a mud puddle.
Peeling off my thin socks, a grin swept over my face as I reunited with the women I had run into up high. I had logged 11.4 miles, 2,800 vertical feet on the ascent, and made pretty fantastic time.
I wasn’t even a minute late for happy hour at the Sawtooth Club back in town, where a crisp Prosecco rounded out my mountain loop. I blended right in with the locals, sidled up to the mahogany counter, with a ring of dirt around my ankles.