A Family History of San Juan Hut Systems

The Thirty-Year Journey of San Juan Huts’ Legacy through Colorado’s Snowscapes.
By Emily Scott

Joe and Kelly Ryan take a moment for a photo at one of their backcountry huts on San Juan National Forest. Unceded Ute, Pueblos, and Diné Bikéyah lands. Photo courtesy San Juan Huts Systems @sanjuanhuts

This write-up was originally featured in our Spring 2024 Trail Break issue.

Deep in Colorado, a mesmerizing tale unfurls: a saga of family legacy, resilience, and the inception of San Juan Hut Systems, a hut-to-hut system that weaves through southwest Colorado’s wild snowscapes.

In 1983, inspired by Canadian skiing adventures, San Juan Hut Systems founder Joe Ryan aspired to transplant the hut-to-hut experience to American soil. A comprehensive year-round hut system was needed in the US and Joe was looking for a better ‘family job’ than guiding (his current occupation) for his daughter, Kelly.

After the loss of his friend and future hut system business partner to an avalanche, Joe’s dream lay dormant but not forgotten. In 1987, Joe, now with four-year-old Kelly by his side, breathed life back into the idea, establishing the first piece of San Juan Hut Systems on the north slope of the Sneffels Range. This marked the birth of a unique network of huts, creating a first-of-its-kind human-powered travel system between Telluride and Ouray.

After years of guiding humans through the huts on their own power, Joe decided to sell the business in 2010. Kelly, guiding on Mt. Rainier at the time, initially paid little attention to the idea. A mere three days later, she decided to move home and take over the family business. “I spent my twenties trying to find somewhere better to live and work, but there is nowhere better,” she reflected.

Joe and Kelly Ryan adventure through their hut system on San Juan National Forest. Unceded Ute, Pueblos, and Diné Binéyah lands. Photo courtesy San Juan Huts Systems @sanjuanhuts

Under Kelly’s guidance, San Juan Hut Systems supports wild journeys to inspire and empower all kinds of adventurers to experience unique Colorado snowscapes. Kelly says, “My dad tends to avoid schedules and routines, which keeps life fun but can be challenging in a business. I have added a lot of boring checklists and routines that helped us grow and provide a better product, but the mission is still the same: to help people get out in this amazing terrain to have their own adventures while leaving a minimal footprint.”

These huts echo the spirit of their founder, offering a slice of safety and comfort in the vast expanse of the wild. They serve as a gateway for people to have unique and powerful experiences in the backcountry because, as Kelly explains, when traveling to the huts “you are alone out there,” and there are “not many other experiences like that in the modern world.”

Now, with a young daughter of her own, Kelly envisions passing the torch to her daughter as the heir to the legacy of the San Juan Hut Systems.

Write your San Juan story with the Ryans, where every hut is a chapter and the surrounding wild snowscapes are pages waiting to be filled with adventure.

Joe and Kelly Ryan adventure through their hut system on San Juan National Forest. Unceded Ute, Pueblos, and Diné Binéyah lands. Photo courtesy San Juan Huts Systems @sanjuanhuts