It’s not every meal that begins with a cross-country ski. Jen Murphy snowshoes the rolling hills of Crested Butte, Colorado, where a cozy yurt with a five-course dinner awaits
A dapper-looking man in a bow tie and a stylish woman with fur earmuffs crowning her long blond braid and a string of pearls dangling from her neck have just skate-skied past me at an alarming pace. “Date night, Colorado style,” says my guide. The couple have a coveted reservation for dinner at Magic Meadows Yurt, a backcountry dining experience that has long been a hit with Crested Butte locals and is now drawing out-of-towners looking to experience great food and drink in the middle of the snowy wilderness. Crested Butte, an 1880s mining town and designated National Register Historic District, has always had a strong sense of community, where fun trumps fancy and even something as mundane as dinner turns into an adventure.
In 2007, the team at Crested Butte Nordic built a giant yurt in the backcountry of Slate River Valley. Nordic skiers and snowshoers could stop in to warm up from the winter chill, and a few informal dinners were hosted for friends willing to don headlamps and snowshoe or cross-country ski the mile-long trail to and from dinner. Word spread of dinner parties, and in 2010 Crested Butte Nordic refined the logistics of the dinners, posting dates and menus on its website and attracting crowds of up to 40 guests.
Cross-country skis and snowshoes are the preferred mode of winter transportation for locals, but then not-so-snow-savvy foodies from cities like L.A. and New York started booking reservations at Magic Meadows Yurt. “We realized the dinners were becoming a tourist attraction,” says Drew Holbrook, director of marketing and development for Crested Butte Nordic. “People were coming to town just to experience a yurt dinner, and many of these people had never been on cross-country skis or snowshoes before.”
My friends and I fall into this group. We all snowboard or downhill ski, so we could surely survive a mile-long trek through the woods along gently rolling hills, especially if we’d be rewarded with a five-course feast, live music and a wood-burning fire. To accommodate newbies like us, Crested Butte Nordic recently changed the dinners to an all-inclusive experience. For $125, not only do you get dinner and drinks, but also equipment rentals and a guide to lead you to and from the yurt. Our group of six friends meets at the Crested Butte Nordic Center, where we are sized for equipment. I’d imagined wearing old-school, tennis racket-shaped wooden snowshoes like I’d seen in old L.L.Bean catalogs, but instead I am given a pair of plastic Atlas snowshoes, which slip right over my boots.
Outside, flurries sprinkle to the ground. We’re bundled up to the point where our arms can barely come down to our sides, while other guests are dressed down in North Face shells and Patagonia puffies — and some simply wear sweaters and jeans. The man next to me reveals a small flask in his pocket and winks. “Once we start moving on the trail you’ll be plenty warm,” he says in earnest.
The Gronk Trailhead, marked by a large concrete structure left over from historical mining operations, is just a five-minute drive from the Nordic Center. My five friends and I — three on cross-country skis, two on snowshoes — pile out of the car, strap on our gear and follow our guide along the trail. The sun is just starting to set over Paradise Divide, and the sky takes on a golden glow. I feel like I’m learning to walk for the first time but once I find my rhythm, picking my feet up high through the snow, I gain confidence and finally begin to admire the backcountry beauty — babbling creeks, snow-covered beaver dams and the way the snowflakes glisten in the twilight. Other diners breeze by us like Olympic pros, but we take our time and double over laughing when a cross-country ski race between our friends Henry and Michael ends with both of them face-planting in the snow.
After 40 minutes on the trail, we spot the yurt glowing like a winter wonderland mirage in the middle of the woods. I barely have my mittens off when a server hands me a minty welcome mojito made with local Montanya rum. It’s just around 6 p.m., and a crowd of about 35 fills the room snacking on salmon mousse toast points and other appetizers. People have stripped off their layers to reveal button-down shirts and mohair sweaters. My friends and I look like we’ve just come out of a hot yoga class — rosy-cheeked from our exertion on the trail.
I spy the stylish couple in the bow tie and pearls clinking glasses of wine at a corner table for two. We join four other out-of-town friends at a large communal table by the fire. Earlier in the day Josephine Kellett, the chef and owner of Creative Catering in Crested Butte, took all the makings for our feast up to the yurt by snowmobile. Despite being a one-woman show, she sends out dish after dish like clockwork from the yurt’s tiny kitchen, outfitted with nothing more than a small oven and propane stove. Her cauliflower and carrot soup is garnished with lemon zest and paprika, and my friends have no shame picking up the bowl with both hands to ensure they finish every last sip. I’ve ordered the duck breast and wheat berry pilaf. A dried-cherry sauce delivers a tart punch that complements the subtle gaminess of the duck. My friend Beth and I swap halfway through our meals so I can taste the herb-encrusted salmon that’s been finished with a zingy lemon aioli.
We’re out of cell range, which means the tables are full of conversation rather than iPhone zombies posting food pics on Instagram. Local musician Bill Dowell jams on his acoustic guitar, and by the time a silky, brandy-spiked tiramisu is brought to the table for the finale people are singing and dancing.
The warmth from the fire, the pints of Elevation craft brews and the rich meal have left me in a lovely food daze, but my friends remind me we’ve still got to make it home. I struggle to zip my ski pants as I bundle back up and strap on my headlamp. The cold air reinvigorates me as we start our slow adventure home. The trail is lined with torches to ensure we don’t lose our way but it’s easy to follow the echoes of laughter leading back to town. Beth and I pause to stare up at the clear sky, flecked with stars, and wonder how we’ll ever go back to restaurants that require high heels and Uber now that we’ve experienced the thrill of dining by snowshoe.
Do try this at home: If you prefer slippers over snowshoes, stay home and try your hand at Chef Josephine Kellett’s full Magic Meadows menu. Click here for the recipes.